There has been much standing around and scratching of heads in the ski resorts of the Alps and Dolomites this winter, a lot of heads upturned to azure blue skies, too much wondering where the snow has gone.
As their year begins, however falteringly, our time as cyclists in the high mountains is ending. And each year, as each day passes and the light fades from the sky a minute or two earlier, the same thoughts and questions enter the mind. How long can I keep riding up here? When, and where, do you stop?
Though the mountains are still bare now, the first snows came early in the southern Alps. Last time I was there it was after the autumn’s first big storms. Down on the coast they had caused terrible flooding, but only 90km (55 miles) away the precipitation fell as snow and closed the highest roads for the first time this season.
It is an in-between time when human life more or less deserts the mountains. The villages are quiet, the ski lifts still hang motionless above green meadows, and the cyclists and hikers are for the most part gone from the cols and trails. Even the shepherds have taken their flocks down to lowland pastures, to be greeted in the valleys by traditional festivals celebrating their safe return for another year. It was October, the shoulder of the year, and I rode past the ‘Col Fermée’ signs, past the last open refuge, though the dead leaves and fallen rocks and up to where the snow was impinging on the highest paved route in Europe, the 2,802m (9,190ft) Cime de la Bonette.
Somewhere near the top the road entered freezing cloud, and thin trails of slick run-off-turned-ice began tracing a path across the road. A police car emerged out of the nothingness and passed me, the occupants barely curious about my presence, before disappearing again into the silence.
Near the col, the pebbledash frost deepened into small ruts and the road announced itself as impassable. All the way I had been promising myself not to tarry at the top, wherever I got to, but the fogged-in scene was too magical to leave immediately, and by the time I had taken pictures and was ready to descend the subzero chill had set in.
Those 12 or so miles back downhill through the gloom, only interrupted by two Alpine Ibex crashing across the road in front of me and down the scree slopes below, were the coldest moments I have ever spent on my bike. I descended at a snails pace, racked by shivers and brakes half on, since my hands were too cold either to curl or uncurl and I did not want to freewheel and lose control on the slippery switchbacks. Cold such that it took two cups of hot chocolate at the refuge before the painful process of life returning to fingers and toes began.
So that’s where and when it stopped, this year at least; and now we are all stuck in the lowlands.
If summer is a time to ride fast, and autumn a time to ride long, winter is a time to ride deep, exploring all the minute variations in terrains and routes that you can while sticking close enough to home to have a hot shower at rescue’s reach.
But who isn’t tempted to keep pushing? “Mountain climbing isn’t all that important to me any more,” said Reinhold Messner, the famed alpinist and first man to scale Everest without oxygen. “Not the climbing part. What counts is just to keep on going and going and going.”