Emma Pooley sheds light on her journey from World Champion and Olympian to dirtbag bikepacker on a Signal Ti.
Some climbs are beyond iconic in cycling – they’re more like minor deities.
The Stelvio is one such celestial ascent: punishing, photogenic, regularly starring in the Giro, and invariably referred to in tones of reverence. Many cyclists believe the Stelvio pilgrimage to be a key pillar of the sport, pedalling their devoted way up its switchbacks to leave offerings of sweat and tears as sacrifice on its rough tarmac.
As with most divinities, difference of opinion is considered blasphemous. But I confess to being a dissenter – perhaps the only one? I think the Stelvio is a rubbish ride: loud with cars and motorbikes, stinking of fumes, the top a circus of tawdry trinket shops and overpriced bars. There are hundreds of more enjoyable climbs in the region. Admittedly, my feelings about it are biased by painful memories from the Giro many years ago: it was the queen stage in 2010. By struggling to the finish line in second place (my forte) I sealed my failure to win the Giro (a feat I would accomplish several more times in my professional cycling career). In road racing you lose on more days than you win, but some days you really know you’ve lost.
Disappointment is hard to forget. So when cyclists start singing hymns to the Stelvio I just smile politely and change the subject, while inwardly rolling my eyes. I try to avoid ranting about how overrated it is and how the traffic is awful, and the coffee up there is overpriced and terrible... because maybe, I thought, if I leave the Stelvio alone it will stay out of my way too.
Until last August, when I found myself on a rocky path towards reconciliation.
It was unplanned, like many of my exploratory bike rides are these days. I had just a 5-day window in the whole summer for a bikepacking trip (my favourite way to go cycling these days) and I wanted to go properly off-road, away from cars and roads. Without much time to plan or knowledge of the singletrail outside my local area, I turned to Komoot and found a route by the reliably excellent Sara and Andreas of @projectpedalfurther. Their “Marmotsland Tour” winds from the Engadin over to Livigno and back, taking in valleys and trails that I’ve wanted to explore for years. It seemed the perfect route to take my Sonder Signal for its first multiday trip – kind of a honeymoon for me and my new bike.
Like most honeymoons (or so I’ve heard) it wasn’t all a bed of roses. I added a day at the start to get from Davos to Engadin and my planning was too vague, so I ended up slogging over the Albulapass (fantastic on a road bike, I highly recommend it… but depressingly slow on a fully-laden MTB) and then walking down the too-technical-andtoo-steep-for-me singletrail on the other side. But it was OK: I could laugh at my incompetence and the unexpected challenges. On day two I managed to rig up a support system for the saddle bag (so that it didn’t try to kiss the back wheel every time I rode over even the tiniest bump: short legs + 29" wheels + big knobbly tyres = not much clearance) and that made the rough sections way more fun: mountain bikes really ARE more forgiving on technical terrain than a gravel bike, and even a scaredy-cat roadie like me can feel it!
Still couldn’t use the dropper seat post but since the only options were to grow 10cm or stop complaining, I resigned myself to that minor inconvenience.
The second day’s route was fabulous: a long climb to Pass da Costainas through the God Tamangur forest with its bears and silver mining history, then beautiful Val Mora up to the Italian border and a fantastic section of singletrail swooping down to the Lago di San Giacomo hidden away in Val Fraéle. Usually it takes me about 3 days on a bikepacking trip to relax into the no-hurry, enjoy-the-journey slow-cruise mode which I find so peaceful. But this time I was in the zone by day two – maybe it helps to be away from roads and totally immersed in wild scenery. I also transformed rapidly and joyfully into full dirtbag mode: as scruffy as if I’d been on the road for months, fluctuating between gorged (when random tasty meals were available) then famished and thirsty, braking for sudden snack stops, sitting on the floor to eat, grimy and stinky, and absolutely revelling in it. It’s relaxing to let go of the tedious constraints of modern life, like timekeeping and cleanliness. The only thing I had to do was find accommodation of some kind before night fell – I hadn’t packed bivouac or camping gear, because that space in my saddle bag had been sacrificed to running kit and a book. My holiday, my priorities.
After the thrilling descent to Lago di San Giacomo di Fraéle, I turned off the Marmotsland route towards the Lago di Cancano. These twin reservoirs are tucked away above Bormio in a jewel of a valley, encircled by a dirt road that leads to the eastern dam wall, the ruined Fraéle towers guarding over Bormio below, and a little rifugio. I knocked on the door at dusk, and it was a win! They had a room and a generous portion of dinner available (for guests with Covid certificate, at least). The place brought back memories for me – also memories from the Giro, but happier ones. It was here that 10 years before, I had finally managed to win a stage, at the top of the switchback Torri di Fraéle climb. I still suspect Marianne Vos gifted me the stage because she was just a bit bored of all the winning – but nonetheless, a good day.
Happy memories, delicious dinner, and a hot shower (OK, sometimes even the keenest dirtbag can accept a brief intrusion by modern life and modern plumbing): the perfect end to a fun day’s biking.