Stuttgart- Stelvio: In one go !
What happens if we never turn around to head home, but just continue riding? If our legs keep on going – instead of resting on the couch, we keep rolling towards the horizon? Could we ride non-stop from VOTEC headquarters to one of the most iconic peaks in cycling history? Instead of endlessly thinking about it, we decided to just do it. In early September, a colourful group of us set off from Stuttgart and headed towards the Alps. The destination was the Stelvio, which just three weeks ago had turned the Giro upside down. Tackling this climb probably ranks highly on the to-do list of all bike racing fans.
17:00 h Movingtime
Flüela-, Oven-, Umbrailpass
The plan was simple: start in Stuttgart and head towards the Stelvio via the Flüela and Ofen passes. The first 250 km of the route looks strangely flat, but this was only compared to the monsters later on – even the climb up the Swabian Alb seems a mere ripple in the elevation profile. Up to Lake Constance the route was more or less flat, but from there it was up and down without a single flat section. To ride in as much daylight as possible, we wanted to start at midnight, ride through the whole day and then hopefully stand on the Stelvio at sunset. That was ambitious, but not completely insane; just under 390 km with 7250 metres of altitude difference is possible in 20 hours.
We had a pretty mixed group for the trip, Marion and Maren as well as Raphael and Lukas (two people you’ve already met here in the blog). Lukas completed the ‘Gravel-Everesting’, and Raphael was at the ‘Two Volcano Sprint’ with his VRC. On paper, Lukas was the fittest thanks to his pro bike racing experience, and he wasn’t too keen on the idea at first! “I came up with this stupid idea in spring to Everest on gravel, and I managed to do it, then quickly swore to myself I would never do another ‘ultra’ challenge. Afterwards, I had numb fingers for two weeks, felt totally hungover because of dehydration, and just kept on falling asleep – just total destruction! Despite my racing bike experience, I’ve never ridden alpine passes like this, so I thought that Stuttgart – Stelvio could be a cool experience. Never riding real mountains before and then three in a day!”
“In terms of km, Stuttgart – Stelvio was easy peasy for me, the week before I had ridden a 510 km tour.”Marion
Maren pretty well sums up how the rest of the mini peloton approached the tour: “You have to be a little nuts for something like this. But from the kilometres point of view, I wasn’t worried. For example, I rode my first 400 last weekend with a buddy. I don’t even stress about whether I can do this kind of distance any more.” Marion went a bit further: “In terms of km, Stuttgart – Stelvio was easy peasy for me, the week before I had ridden a 510 km tour”. This could sound like boasting, but Marion also won the Orbit 360 Gravel Race Series series this year, so it’s more just a statement of fact. Co-organiser Raphael had already completed an impressive amount of long-distance tours and was sure that he could handle this distance too. Marion, Maren and Raphael have packed in a lot of serious saddle time despite relatively short cycling ‘careers’ and were quite relaxed going into the challenge. This was in stark contrast to Lukas’ growing unease that only got worse during dinner: “I always thought that I ride a lot, but when I heard the others’ stories, I was panicking. I’m completely inexperienced in this ultra range, and the rest of the group does this all the time!”
The riders didn’t know each other very well before they started, and there was a bit of tension in the air. Marion would usually approach this kind of tour with familiar faces – known quantities, so she wouldn’t have to worry about average speeds or how many breaks people would need. For the rest too, riding in a new group raised a few questions, but these were all quickly answered. As Maren summarises: “When you ride with people you don’t know, you have to find your groove at the beginning, but it worked pretty well. On the ascents, we all rode at our own pace, but on the flats, we stayed together. Lukas was the standout leader in terms of fitness; he was the first to reach the top of every mountain and then always had to wait until we made it up. I would happily ride with this group anytime.”
However, sports scientist Lukas was surprised by the pacing strategy of the group at the beginning: “In the first three hours, the others attacked every single hill and passed me on every ascent. Then I’d look at my power meter, and I was always at my FTP – it only takes an hour at this level, and after that, I’m done”. After being passed by the group at the bottom of the climbs, Lukas would trust his power meter and slowly reel the group back in before passing them on his way to the top.
The turning point
While their legs were still fresh, the group moved at a good pace. The sunrise was a massive help too, especially for Maren: “On the Swabian Alb, it was slowly getting light, and at the far end of the horizon I saw an alpine panorama – and knew we were going well. That was a cool feeling.” After that, unfortunately, they hit a bit of a ‘rocky patch’. Alex had been driving the support car but was keen to ride some of the way, so he got on his bike and joined the group. This upped the pace a little too much, and Lukas definitely suffered trying to keep up. Luckily for the group, Alex got back in the car and the pace returned to normal!
“When the flat part was over, we were already knackered. The first hill started after 250 km, it was 30 degrees in the shade, and there was still 5500 m of climbing ahead of us.”Raphael
For Raphael, his lowest point came on the first ascent: “When the flat part was over, we were already knackered. The first hill started after 250 km, it was 30 degrees in the shade, and there was still 5500 m of climbing ahead of us”. Riding the next section fresh would be hard enough, let alone after 10 hours in the saddle. With legs already well shot, the task was starting to look impossible. So far the group had been able to roll along at a good speed, but for the rest of the tour, they had to really push hard.
For Lukas, however, this is where the fun began. He’d planned his nutrition meticulously and had already had twelve gels by the time he reached Lake Constance. From there on, he suddenly felt excellent: “I was sorry that I started talking too much, and probably annoying everyone because I was suddenly so enthusiastic about the ride! I was feeling far too good considering I had already ridden almost 300km.”
“I was sorry that I started talking too much, and probably annoying everyone because I was suddenly so enthusiastic about the ride! I was feeling far too good considering I had already ridden almost 300km.”Lukas
As it turned out, the original plan of arriving on the Stelvio at sunset just wasn’t doable. Breaks become longer and more frequent the larger a group is, and so we started the final ascent as dusk was rapidly approaching. For Raphael, he didn’t even know which mountain was the Stelvio: “I have no idea about cycling history. I only knew pictures of the Stelvio from Instagram, and it was a great feeling to ride there. Lukas then told me a story about how a few years ago a pro had to go to the toilet here and the peloton didn’t wait for him, and it was mega funny.” While self-proclaimed ultra-cyclist Lukas had fun and entertained Raphael, Marion’s enjoyment disappeared with the sun: “In the end it was much harder than I’d imagined, especially because of the altitude difference and the 14 km climb at the end. You grind up there at 5 km/h and know that it’ll go on like this for another two hours before you reach the finish line”. Maren also started questioning the decisions that led her here:
“For God’s sake, why are you doing this shit? Why don’t you just do yoga like your other friends do?!”Maren
We now know we can go for even the craziest ideas – provided we have the right support. This isn’t to say you need a support car specifically though; the group actually agreed that the constant option of getting into the broom wagon created additional psychological pressure. This really matters over long distances like this as they are, arguably, more mental than physical efforts. It is, in fact, the mind that benefits the most, says Maren: “Long distances have something meditative about them. You ride through a forest, then a field, maybe a village and then a forest again… I take in the surroundings almost subconsciously and can really relax into the ride. I come home from a tour like this, and my body is totally broken, but my head is relaxed”. Evidently, her body wasn’t as broken as she made out though, because three days later she was already away on another bikepacking vacation… and we’re already planning our next Ultra-Tour!
Join us in this special adventure and be part of the live premiere on our YouTube channel. Mark yourself Sunday, 08 November 2020 at 20:00. Marion, Maren, Lukas, Raphael and our support crew will be joining to answer your questions and give you more insights during the live chat during the premiere.