The 19th stage of this year’s Giro D’Italia is a time trial from Bassano del Grappa to Monte Grappa (elevation 1,775 m / 5,823 ft). I climbed Monte Grappa in 2011 as part of my stay at the Italian Cycling Center. It remains to this day the greatest thing I’ve ever done on a bike, and maybe one of the greatest physical things I’ve ever accomplished. Second only to that time in my teens when I beat the previously undefeated Frankie Masi in a game of Wiffle Ball in my neighborhood.
I rode Monte Grappa alone on the second to last day I was in Italy after asking George Pohl, who runs the Italian Cycling Center, if I should do it. “No one checks your passport when you leave the country to make sure you did ,” he said. “But yeah, you should.”
And so I did it, on my Bianchi Eros, on the classic route that starts at Romano D’Ezzelino. And it was hard and lonely and dispiriting, until it wasn’t anymore. I kept going until there was no turning back and I started to think I might be able to do it. I kept pedaling until the mountain became one big metaphor for everything I had been through and would still go through. That’s when it became beautiful. When I noticed the landscape, and the curves of the road and hillside animals grazing in the distance. And when I started to bike into the clouds, I knew I was getting somewhere.
I had to stop a few times to get my breath, and while I hated that I had to rest, I knew beating myself up over it wasn’t going to help me get up the mountain any faster. I was recently separated from my first wife. I had started smoking again. My life was falling apart. But I was determined to keep myself together. I took a minute. I looked around. I got back on the bike and started pedaling. At one point, I stopped along the way to take some video of paragliders setting sail off the mountain, which I’ve posted below. I’m not even sure I was a third of the way up at this point, so it gives a good sense of height of the mountain. Looking back at the video now, I’m struck by the stillness of the scene. The reverence with which the gliders prepared themselves and then launched, giving themselves up to the whims of the wind. It was mesmerizing.
Closer to the summit, I also snapped a pic en route of the Sacrario Militare del Monte Grappa, monument and burial site for soldiers killed on both sides of World War I. Designed by architect Giovanni Greppi and sculptor Giannino Castiglioni in 1932, it holds the remains of 22,910 Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers.
I never got a picture of myself at the summit. I was exhausted, exhilarated and contemplative, all at the same time, and didn’t feel like asking anyone up there visiting the memorial to take it. Instead, I had a caffe doppio and a pastry at the cafe and considered what I had done.
And then it was back down. I put on the extra layers and the wind jacket I had brought, and hands on hoods, made my way. While the trip up took several hours, the trip down took about 45 minutes, plenty of time for lunch at Locanda Montegrappa dalla Silvia in Borso Del Grappa, where I shared my experience with the other cyclists, some of whom had climbed the mountain in years past.
“Never stop when climbing,” I was told when I revealed that I needed to rest a few times. And they are right. But considering what I felt I was climbing against, in addition to the grades of the mountain, I don’t really feel like I stopped. Just took a moment. And then kept pedaling.