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Gravelbike as a Self-Experiment: A Punk at the Passo Dello Stelvio

  • Florian von Stuckrad
  • October 26, 2020

How a mountain biker falls for the gravel trend and experiences the limits at the second highest pass in the Alps.

"You can't be serious!" "Are you gonna be square? "Are you gonna shave your legs? «

As a passionate mountain biker, you probably have to listen to these questions from your biker friends when you decide to get a feel for the latest trend: gravel biking.

If I am honest, I have always been fascinated by gravel bikes because of the almost infinite spectrum of possible uses and range. Obviously the expansion of my two-wheel passion could not lead directly to the road bike, but only via this perhaps most versatile way of cycling.

As an addition to my enduro fleet, the "punk" from Alutech seemed the perfect choice, because: A punk wants to be different and rebel against the authorities. He tends to escalate. A rebellion or better "Gravellion" against the status quo.

At least that sounded cheeky and exciting to my ears and had nothing in common with any notions that this kind of bike must be more boring than an Enduro MTB. It sounded more like the perfect second bike for trail and gravity bikers.

Gravelbike: All information about the all-rounder for sporty cyclists

48 hairpin bends have to be cycled through on the way up.

The Punk in the First Practical Test

Despite the obvious differences to mountain bikes, such as a much narrower handlebar with an unusual grip position, a more sporty seating position and the lack of suspension, a previously unknown drive immediately dominated all other impressions. You almost fly past other cyclists. Although, away from tarmac roads and forest paths, on root-infiltrated trails, a gumshield would be helpful. I will probably still prefer the mountanbike for this in the future and will continue to show sympathy to the gravel bikers on the Isartrails.

In the course of the first weeks I get more and more hooked and the fun of longer tours beyond 100 kilometres grows. I am now definitely infected by the gravel fever, but without giving up my beloved MTB-Enduro tours. Exactly what I had hoped for is coming true: No "either-or", but a range extension of my beloved sport.

Bikepacking with the Gravelbike - this is how it works

Escalation at the Passo dello Stelvio

The Passo dello Stelvio is the second highest pass in the Alps that can be ridden on a road bike. Every roadie who thinks highly of himself should have conquered it once in his life. The road winds its way up 48 hairpin bends in the shadow of the Ortler for almost 2000 meters.

When two friends - both of them die-hard road bikers - asked me if I was interested in this adventure, despite my still young career as a gravel rider, I was immediately thrilled, because I had already completed some unforgettable, albeit slightly reckless, daring adventures with these guys. These tours always had one thing in common: they remained in my memory for a long time.

With far too little sleep and insufficient breakfast, we tackled the pass in Prad, about 3.5 hours drive from Munich. Bottles filled with electrolytes, a bunch of bars in the jersey pockets and with a lot of respect for the upcoming challenge we pedaled carefully for the first kilometers with a bearable gradient towards the first bend (Tornata 48).

I had a bad feeling, because the way to the first bend took longer than the descriptions and reports told me. Warmed up and overjoyed that I could ride the lightest gear by readjusting the tension (you have to relearn to understand a gravel transmission), we rode through the forest towards the tree line. It became steeper and steeper. Besides the hordes of motorcycles and sports cars racing past us, some e-bikers overtook us, who could be sure of our envy. What would we have given for a little electrical support.

What a view: The Passo dello Stelvio (or Silfser Joch) in the Italian Ortler Alps.

Fight against Cramps

At hairpin bend 34, the forest thinned out and revealed the view of the gigantic rock massif that piled up in front of us. At the very top you could see the station of the pass, which could be reached via a serpentine ramp. At this point, the fun was over, as we realized that this pass will draw on every reserve, no matter how small it is.

Besides exhaustion, small cramps in the back thigh muscles began to affect our progress. The torture began and two unscheduled stops became necessary due to cramps. Those who know this type of cramps will know that you cannot escape them. On the contrary: They come in ever faster intervals and apart from a constant intake of drinks and gels, there is hardly anything you can do about them. And then it's not just some muscles that are aching. The entire body signaled a willingness to give up. With my last ounce of strength and under the encouragement of Rob and Xandi, I mobilized the very last reserves until I eventually reached the pass.

Sense of Elation at the Destination

Completely exhausted and overjoyed we dragged ourselves to a free bank on the perhaps highest fairground of the Alps and rewarded ourselves with a beer and some souvenirs. A Stelvio road bike cap and a badge shall testify our performance. But the best and by far more lasting reward is the brilliant view and the incomparable feeling of having reached the top.

Even the punk stands contentedly beside us and basks in the amazed looks of numerous Italian road cyclists, who were attracted like bees by the striking colour.

It increases the anticipation of what lies ahead: The descent.

The rapid descent is the perfect reward after the hard way to the top.  

Thanks, punk!

With up to 70 kph we race down the pass road, mostly in a controlled manner, and have small chases with motorized troublemakers. Start on the outside, pull into the middle and let the turn take you to the outside again in a controlled manner. This sequence happened so controlled and intuitive after 48 repetitions. I also got to enjoy my gravelbike advantages here, because although the profiled, thicker tires have a little more rolling resistance compared to the road bike, they can be steered much more controlled and safer over the partly ripped, uneven road surface.

In the adrenaline rush and with a stiff neck we reached our parking lot overjoyed. We gave each other a high five, patted each other on the back and got out of our soaking wet, salt-soaked clothes. On the four-hour return trip we absorbed all the impressions of the South Tyrolean Alps and, dreaming away, reviewed the best moments of the tour. These are the moments when the sport gives me more than the exertions to get there. A feeling of elation!

Thanks, Punk! Thanks, gravelbike for this tour experience! Definitely not the last one and also not the turning away from my beloved mountain biking - but an enriching, new variant in living out my passion. I am a Graveltybiker now!