When you're pushing a way up a climb, going 12kp/h or whatever you're managing, panting and aching, it's humbling to think about how quickly your typical professional cyclist can manage the same thing. Of course, it's their job, and (and I mean this in admiration) they're basically mutant superheroes as well.

We had a reminder of that at the top of the Stelvio when, as a group of us were standing there patting ourselves on the back for getting to the top, a group of riders in Quick Step gear came up over the top so fast they knocked us all back on our heels.

We all went silent for a moment, and I know what I was thinking: wow, no matter how long I do this, no matter how many mountains I climb, no matter how much weight I drop, no matter how many intervals I do, I'll never even approach that. And they weren't even pros, as far as I know. Really amazing.

Controlled Falling

It's not just ascending that's challenging, though; descending is quite difficult as well. You need to control your speed, pick just the right line through the turn, brake at the right time, keep your weight on the right pedal, with your body lined up right with the bike... and everything, as you whip around the corner, is precariously balanced on a 1" strip of rubber against often broken pavement.

And the people who are good at this—I mean really good—are incredibly, unbelievably, going-70-mp/h-down-a-scary-grade-and-whipping-around-corners fast. And they're doing this on a road that's shared between cars, bicycles, motorcycles, walkers, buses... but even on a closed road, it's hard to believe that they're doing what they're doing.

I'm not a terrible descender, and I find it fun, but again: totally different league. And so, we picked our way down the 48-plus hairpin turns, brakes squealing, hitting pretty high speeds and hoping that nothing would go wrong so early in the trip.

Thrilling, nerve-wracking and successful, I'm pleased to say, and we met for lunch in a town at the bottom.

The total: about three hours of sweating up. About 20 minutes of heart-in-your-throat wooshing down.

A ride to our next hotel, the Hotel Hanswirt (a really fantastic hotel in Rablá), eat-work-sleep-eat and we're off again.

Passo Paladi & Passo Mendola—51 miles, 5402 feet of climbing

The third day was beautiful, sunny and hot from the get-go. Feeling kind of happy that the Stelvio was done, I went out faster than I should have and Paladi, an 11 mile HC climb averaging about 7.4%, decided to teach me a slow, painful, sweaty lesson.

Every climb has a personality. The Stelvio was hard but varied, with a lot of switchbacks and beautiful scenery. Our legs were fresh. We were ready to test ourselves. But for me, at least, Paladi was a slog. There were very few turns. The sun beat down, making the high humidity even more oppressive, and any shade was few and far between. Getting up to the top was a confidence-sapping, nearly two hour Mom-are-we-there-yet struggle.

But it got done.

Passo Mendola, despite being Cat 2, was comparatively easy and dispatched pretty quickly: a relief. Lunch, followed by a fun, fast, twisty descent towards Bolzano, brought us to the city's incredible bike trail system.

I don't think I've ever been to a city quite as friendly to bicycles as Bolzano, something I didn't notice when I first arrived for my brief stay before the trip started. There are a huge number of extensively used bike paths. No cars are allowed in the middle of town, which is a pedestrian mall, surrounded by beautiful scenery.

It's really a lovely town... and, after the typical dinner-work-sleep-work-eat-pack ritual, we left it all too soon for what was scheduled to be our biggest climbing day yet.