The Dreiländergiro is regarded as being one of the best classic amateur road races in Europe. This epic race crosses 3 countries and climbs the world-renowned Stelvio Pass. But what was it actually like to race?
The Dreiländergiro offers 2 options, the 120km, and the 160km, both routes have over 3000m of elevation. Most of the elevation comes from the legendary Stelvio Pass, climbing 2758m over 24.3km with 46 switchbacks through the Alps. You might be surprised to hear this ... that part is a bit hard.So how was my experience racing? I would say I'm a decent cyclist, but not a strong cyclist, I can hold my own in most competitive triathlons, but with an FTP* of about 318w. The pros push north of 400w. So my thought was “this will be hard however I might be able to stay with the front pack for the entire race”. I was wrong.
The race started at 6:30 am so I woke up before 5am to get a big meal in. I got to registration and borrowed a pump to check my tire pressure. Instantly my rear tire exploded, so I had to use my only spare innertube to fix the puncture. My advice to anyone doing a long-distance race, bring more than one innertube! I had to head into the race without anything puncture repair kit wise. That added an extra layer of stress when racing.We all lined up in pens depending on our estimated time of finishing the race. The start of the race was calm. The shortest edition of the Dreiländergiro is 120km so no one wanted to sprint off. I made my way to the front of the race, I wanted to keep my eyes on the front of the peloton. After 15km we started descending into a valley, this descent was long and steady, exposing another preparation mistake from myself. My chain ring was way too small**! I was spinning out at 65km, compared with everyone else who sat at a comfortable cadence. All I could do was get aero and try not to lose too many places.
After the descent we followed the valley until we came to the bottom of the Stelvio Pass, I didn't do my diligence when scouting the course. I was aware there was a big climb and I thought my experience of riding the mountains of Wales would have prepared me. I was wrong. The pace at the start of the mountain was maintainable, sitting at about a 7 out of 10 effort and heart rate at about 143bmp. After 15 minutes of climbing, I realised I was the only person out of the saddle peddling, not out of choice, but out of necessity. I looked down at the other cassettes *** in the front pack, they all looked a lot bigger. They sat spinning at normal cadence whilst I sat at about 50 rotations per minute. For perspective, I normally sit between 80 and 90 ****. I was using my muscles way more than my cardiovascular system, and I'm not a strong cyclist, I'm more cardiovascular conditioned. Another mistake. Not swapping out my cassettes for a bigger one. I tried to hang on for as long as possible but after noticing we were still at 25 more switchbacks to go until the top, I sat down and settled into a more maintainable rhythm.
Once I got within 10 switchbacks from the peak of the mountain, I started to feel the altitude. When researching altitude after the race, any elevation above 2500m you can start to feel symptoms of altitude sickness. I was cycling way above ability and didn't even think about altitude being a factor! Again I reduced my effort. The Dreiländergiro offered five aid stations, the first main one was at the top of the Stelvio. I stopped briefly to refill my bottles. This was the halfway point!
The descent was tricky, I'm not sure if it was from altitude or fatigue. But at the very first switchback, I went in too fast, I locked up my back wheel skidded, and had to release the brake again. I was still going too fast, I attempted to brake hard again to stay off the barrier at the same time one specific muscle in my quad cramped up hard. It is safe to say I took the rest of the descent a lot easier. Another lesson learned, it is so important to decent within your ability. I was trying to follow locals who were used to hitting switchbacks fast.
After descending for what felt like more than 30 minutes it was time for the course to split. I turned right and the cyclists doing the full 160km race went straight. Even though a lot of cyclists went past me, I found I was still in a very competitive cycling pack, and I just had to survive to the end of the race. The route on the way back took us around most major climbs and went around some spectacular lakes. I can honestly say, I've never cycled on such stunning roads in my life.
This race was a perfect combination of breath-taking roads, changing climbs, and competitive athletes. Even better, people are encouraged to enjoy the race. There are restaurants and coffee shops scattered throughout the course. So a lot of people would stop for a proper meal and world-class coffee. This race has something for everyone. For me, It taught me a lot about who I am as a cyclist and it also exposed a lot of my weaknesses. This course took my breath away, both literally from the altitude and figuratively from the views. It made me realise why I love cycling, you get to see so much of nature while improving your physical and mental health.
This is a race I will treasure for the rest of my life.
And to elevate the experience even further, Dreiländergiro is a green event. Presca has worked closely with the event organisers on making this event as eco-friendly as possible.
If you are looking for a bike race like no other, I recommend the Dreiländergiro. Truly a biblical cycling experience, with amazing people and on the best roads in the world.
presca community co-ordinator & semi-pro triathlete
*FTP stands for Functional Threshold Power, which is defined as the highest average power you can sustain for approximately an hour, measured in watts.
**The size of a chainring (often expressed in terms of the number of teeth on it, e.g. a 53t ring) plays a direct role in your bike's gearing, with bigger rings meaning a higher (harder to push) gear and smaller rings a lower (easier to push) gear.
***Fundamentally, a lower number of teeth on the chainrings results in an easier gear, while conversely, a lower number of teeth on the cassette provides more resistance, and therefore a bigger gear.
****Recreational cyclists typically cycle at around 60 – 80 RPM, while advanced and elite cyclists pedal anywhere from 90 to 110 RPM. Riding at a high cadence of around 85-90 RPM puts more stress on your heart and lungs, but a lot less stress on your legs and back.