There’s nothing like a good fillet steak with some rice and a little salad. At least that’s what Alberto Contador says when he’s in town. As for Michele Scarponi and the other top Italian racers, Mama’s pasta is never far from their top choice—simple, home-cooked and very traditional. After apologizing for talking so much (which she did), the friendly waitress at the Albergo La Tea continued to talk some more, and then some more, so much so that I could have written a behind-the-scenes dining feature on half of the top riders in today’s peloton.

Words/images: Steve Thomas

It was early morning in late August and quiet time in Livigno, Italy, as far as the town’s semi-resident pro cyclists were concerned. The Vuelta was mid-flow and the mountain bike worlds were imminent, which explained the calm. The hotel rooms were all but empty in Europe’s premier altitude-training town.

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The benefits of training at altitude have been debated and resolved over and again, but “sleep high, train low” has been the model in recent years. Livigno has put itself firmly at the top of the list of ideal destinations by combining thin-air sleeping with high-quality riding. Throw your bidon in any given direction from this duty-free alpine paradise and it’s likely to land at the foot of a classic Giro climb. The Stelvio, the Gavia, and countless lesser-known but equally epic climbs can be found within a short ride of Livigno and the 1,800-meter (5,905-foot) elevation of its valley floor. And, to add to the highs on offer, La Tea sits atop a pass 170 meters (557 feet) higher than the town.

In alpine terms Livigno is quite unusual. Its wide, high and flat-bottomed valley means that the usual practical problems associated with altitude training are greatly reduced—those being acclimatization and the need for long periods of low-level exertion to build up to your maximum effort levels, which take effect even at this comparatively modest elevation. The great thing about not being “sky-high” is that riders can come in and out of Livigno and gain noticeable thin-air benefits without the drawn-out acclimatization periods.

“In alpine terms Livigno is quite unusual.”

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Most regular cyclists and other athletes that train here stay in the main town and ride from there; but Contador, Peter Sagan and the other elite riders climb the high mountain passes, and then head into the valleys to take on long loops, sometimes mountainous, sometimes scandalously flat, before returning to the hotel for their fillets or pasta.

As we desperately tried to leave La Tea, the friendly waitress produced a pile of signed jerseys, a virtual who’s-who of pro cycling. It really was quite surprising just who has, and does train here—and more so how many pro riders come to these hills on a very regular basis.

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Livigno also has a partnership with the Tinkoff Sports Academy, meaning that groups of aspiring riders and fans decked out in full team strips have become even more frequently spotted during the past year or so. And in 2015 several UCI WorldTour and other pro teams staged mid-season training camps in town in search of the magic effects of Alberto’s beef-fillet steaks.

If you’re considering some epic Italian pass-bagging, a little stargazing, or even some serious thin-air training, your orders will be waiting in Livigno—as will the duty-free vino. livigno.eu

From issue 50. Buy it here.