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October 6, 2011 5:39 PM

Day Four of Biking the Alps: Three Passes to Surmount

Posted by Chris Johnson

Day Four got off to an inauspicious start. As has become the norm, I awoke to aching muscles and stiff joints. This was overshadowed, however, by a hacking cough and high temperature. Perhaps it was the progressive effects of our sustained exertion, or the fact that I slept particularly badly last night, but whatever the cause, it was an unwelcome and slightly worrying development.

I was also suffering from the fairly impressive sunburn I had managed to acquire over the past three days. The sun is deceptively strong up in the mountains—the cool air makes it easy to forget that you're in its glare for most of the day—and as a result I'm now sporting a number of unsightly tan lines, including a particularly attractive and well-defined 'T-shirt negative' around my upper arms and neck.

I had consoled myself that ineffective tanning is almost obligatory for any self-respecting Englishman that finds himself in foreign climes. But my noble efforts were put to shame the previous night at dinner, when a female patron walked in with a face so red it was visibly throbbing. I'd given it a good crack. She had absolutely nailed it. (Readers of yesterday's blog will no doubt be delighted to hear that not only did I get the pizza I so craved, but that it was also as substantial as I had hoped.)

All in all, I started the day feeling pretty ropey indeed. Thankfully, it turns out that there's no better way to take your mind off any present discomfort than by giving yourself some more severe pain to focus on. And given that today included no fewer than three Alp crossings, that didn't prove to be a problem.

We left the Italian ski resort of Livigno at 7:30 a.m. It was bitterly cold, our breath forming white clouds and the chill biting into our bones. We soon warmed up, thanks to a tough but satisfying climb to the Alpisella pass, at 2,285 meters (7,500 feet) above sea level.

What should have then been a straightforward descent to Rifugio (1,950 meters, or 6,400 feet) proved to be anything but.

It all started with Mario showing that he is human after all, crashing hard on the loose rocky surface and badly grazing his forearm. Alex, the neighbor who originally invited me on this trip, then suffered some technical gremlins—surprisingly, our first mechanical breakdowns of the trip so far. A puncture to his rear tire was easily fixed with a new inner tube, but when he was checking the pressure of his front tire, the valve (the part that allows you to connect a pump to inflate the inner tube) suddenly exploded. The inch-long piece of steel shot out of its housing with a shockingly loud bang and disappeared into the undergrowth, leaving him with a second flat tire in as many minutes. We couldn't help but laugh. Replacing it would have meant using our last spare tube, leaving us vulnerable to any further flats. Miraculously, we managed to find the offending item and fix it back in place.

With Alex's bike fixed and Mario's wound cleaned, we rode past the imposing Alp Mora before crossing the border back into Switzerland. From here, it was a short climb up to the village of Fuldera (1,630 meters or 5,300 feet), where we filled up on a local dish of pasta wrapped in chard leaves and baked in a cream sauce with ham and cheese.

It was truly delicious (almost justifying the restaurant's extortionate prices), but probably not the best idea before some more serious physical exercise.

I immediately started to regret eating such a rich lunch on the climb to Lu, which involved treking through a steep forest trail and climbing over, around, and even under a number of giant fallen trees. It was slow, arduous progress, only slightly offset by the extremely satisfying sound of dried pine cones crunching under our tires.

We reached Lu, our planned destination for the day, at just before 4 p.m. I don't know who it was, but some sadist then suggested that—seeing as how we'd finished slightly early—how about pushing on to the next town. This wasn't a case of cycling a bit further down the road, however: S-Charl was the other side of the Costainas pass. Getting there would involve another 600 meters (2,000 feet) of ascent—roughly an hour's hard graft—followed by a 40-minute descent.

A vote was taken, during which I was asked whether I felt fresh and whether I thought we should keep going. I answered yes to both questions, where in fact a more truthful response would have been "Not even close" and "You must be joking." In the end, I was glad we decided to go for it.

We all found hidden energy reserves and polished off the pass in double-quick time. As we then rested at the summit before starting our descent, a local farmer spotted us in the distance and started singing for us. No idea why—perhaps he gets a bit lonely stuck in a remote corner of the mountains. Then, just when we thought the situation couldn't get any stranger, he ran off to get his bugle. His rousing horn fanfares (of varying quality) got us suitably pumped up for some more gravity-oriented action, and we were soon cruising into Lu to find a hotel for the night.

Except we couldn't: There were only two hotels in the whole village, and both were full. One offered us the use of their basement room—a small, slightly dank hole that would barely sleep two, let alone four—but we opted for a more radical solution. The vast holiday town of Scuol was only 15 kilometers (9 miles) away, almost all of which would be downhill on smooth, well-paved roads. It was already getting dark, which is a clear sign that it was time to get off the mountain, so we lifted off the brakes and went flat-out. We made it in less than 30 minutes, topping out at over 40 miles per hour.

We then rode around for another 20 minutes before finding somewhere to stay. A full 12 hours had passed since we left Livigno.

I'm still coming to terms with the fact that we voluntarily extended today's ride not once but twice, and the fact that tomorrow starts with a nonstop 1,300 meter (4,200 foot) climb.

Still, it's the last day, so it can't be that bad, can it? Check back tomorrow to find out.


I've undertaken this journey to raise money for Self Help Africa, which works to help rural Africa achieve economic independence through sustainable solutions to the causes of famine and poverty.

Those readers who would like to sponsor me on this gruelling test—whether as law firms or individual partners and attorneys—can do so via my page at JustGiving. For those of you that haven't used JustGiving before, it's really simple, fast, and secure. The money is passed directly to the charity, and the site will automatically claim Gift Aid for donations made by eligible U.K. taxpayers.

U.K. residents can even donate by phone: just text KWEI77 (that's an 'i', not a '1'), followed by the amount you would like to donate, to 70070. 'KWEI77 £20', for example. This SMS service is free to both you and the charity.

I've set an ambitious target of £5,000 (just under $8,000), so please dig deep and donate now. It's a great cause and your money really will make a difference.


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