What's Cool In Road Cycling

Top Rides: The Passo Dello Stelvio!

The legendary passes in the high Italian Alps are admired, feared and respected by all that ride them. And the biggest of them all, the Passo dello Stelvio, has it all. Not only is it the highest mountain pass in Italy, at 2,758 meters, but with extensive switchbacks and long climbing kilometers on both sides, with another road joining from the Swiss side of the border, it offers one of the most beautiful, challenging and rewarding high mountain loops anywhere in Europe…and it’s also the crowning summit finish of the 2012 Giro d’Italia. Let’s take a closer look!

Contributed by Steve Holmes

I was in Europe for 3+ weeks training back in September, leading up to the 6-day Vuelta a Mallorca stage race I was doing in early October to round out the season. A flight from London Stansted to Milano Bergamo via Ryanair put me within a 3 hour drive to the mountain town of Bormio, perfectly positioned in the valley at the bottom of both the Stelvio and the Gavia.

Route Details
Bormio – Passo dello Stelvio – Passo Umbrail – Santa Maria Val Mьstair – Pontevilla – Glorenza – Prato – Passo dello Stelvio – Bormio. For the map, head on over HERE!

Distance: 105km

Passo dello Stelvio – 23km @ 7.1%, 1533 meters gained
Passo dello Stelvio – 25km @ 7.4%, 1808 meters gained

4-5 hours

The Bormio Side
Despite being mid-September, it was cold! The locals said it had been 20°c the week before (isn’t it always?), but the skies were clear blue, the roads dry, and the Stelvio beckoned.

Meeting up with 3 training friends at the Bormio Bike & Ski store at 10:00 (not only an excellent place to rent bikes, which they did, but the store owner Danielo also joined us on the following day’s excursion over the Mortirolo and Gavia pass, in a snowstorm!), we headed to the main road through town, turned north onto the Via Stelvio, and so it began.

From the Bormio side, the Stelvio was an incredibly enjoyable climb. A length of 22km, some 22+ switchbacks, and an average gradient of 7.1%, this was no problem in a 39×23. The roads were like silk the entire way up, enhancing my admiration for the way Europe takes care of its roads.

With the sun still fairly low in the sky, the first few kilometers of the climb were a little chilly, but the gradient allowed for a smooth and high cadence to stay warm. The steep rocky mountain towered up on both sides, as we worked our way along an edge of the mountain within a valley, tight switchbacks turning us into the warm sun on occasion.

After 4 or 5 km, a series of small tunnels cut their way through the mountain wall, and for the most part these were lit with natural sunlight from stone windows cut in the side. Nothing here quite as scary as the 700 meter long tunnel 3km from the summit of the Gavia, which plunges you into total and terrifying darkness due to the end being around a corner…).

As we exited these tunnels, a fantastic view opened up of the major challenge on this climb.

A series of switchbacks stacked so closely and tightly on each other, you’d think the mountain had melted. A power station is nestled in these turns, as the huge and beautiful waterfall off the left side of the road must harness some incredible power. The gradient here lessened slightly, and climbing felt almost effortless. At this point, we were high in the sun, and it was warm—almost too warm.

Once over these turns, we entered the final valley—a long, gentle road extending for 2-3km along the inside edge of the mountain top, through green grass dotted with sheep. Some of the old mountain station buildings are in this section, and they made for some very classic photography.

As we curved around this valley, the summit became visible some 4km away—up in the snowline. The road began to twist and turn again, as we entered the last dozen switchbacks. About 3km from the summit, a very unique sign offered a great choice—Switzerland, or Stelvio?

We carried on to the right, up through the white glaring snow and on smooth black tarmac, a new section of road to the summit (the old road is being repaired in the final km). With stunning views of Switzerland over our shoulders, the summit of the Stelvio was before us.

About a hundred meters before the top—on the old road to your left—sits the actual “Passo dello Stelvio: 2,758m” sign, so be sure to take that golden photo opportunity.

At the summit, as well as a smattering of gift shops, restaurants and cafes, and the hot dog vendor wearing the feathered green Alpine Mountain Corps hat and appears to be in or on every piece of marketing literature about the Stelvio, there is a memorial plaque to the great Fausto Coppi, who was the first over the summit when the Giro climbed the Stelvio for the first time back in 1953.

And then of course, there’s the view north…

From here, you can drop down the north side of the Stelvio towards Prato and climb back, but the real beauty of the ride lies in another country—Switzerland! We wrapped up, turned round and headed back down the side we had climbed for 3km, and then took the “right turn to Switzerland.” And it is literally that—the road is the old border between Italy and Switzerland, but with the barrier permanently raised, a fun descent into another country lay before us.

The descent of the Passo Umbrail was fast and fun (despite a section around 3km down which was unpaved—but rideable—for around 3km), 14km in length and just as twisty as the Stelvio. As we swept down through the trees and corners, an incredible view of rolling green fields, high mountain backdrops, and little Swiss villages nestled in dips and valleys appeared before us. Suddenly, the Stelvio seemed so very far away.

The Valley
At the bottom is the small town of Santa Maria Via Mьstair, quiet and seemingly empty. We turned right onto the main road, and the descending continued in the form of long, sweeping valley roads which seemed to go on forever. For 5km we glided through villages dotted with beauty and history, and in Pontevilla the border patrol waved kindly as we flew through the border once more, from Switzerland back into Italy. Two country borders in less than an hour, nice!

Another few kilometers descent to the outskirts of Glorenza, and a well-signposted right turn took us towards Prato. This road was straight, smooth and fast, cutting a path through wheat fields and small clumps of trees, the mountain range some 7km infront of us, and the 53×12 felt almost effortless compared to what was waiting on the other side of town.

The Prato Side
Once in Prato, a right turn onto the main street and the north side of the Stelvio began. Over 25km of climbing would pass beneath our wheels before reaching the now-familiar Cima Coppi summit, averaging 7.4% but the last 13km was much steeper than that, hovering around the 9% mark but seeming much harder given the terrain already covered.

A couple of km up the gentle slopes from Prato, as the heat rose quickly and the sun was still high, a bizarre house whose walls, fences and gardens (on both sides of the road) were decorated with hanging sculptures and ornaments made entirely from animal skeletons, rib cages, skulls and spines, gave you the impression we’d passed the point of no return…

About 8km in, the small village of Trafoi offered a last chance for sustenance—everything was closed in Prato as we rode through. As well as refilling empty bidons from a kind local’s garden hose (I trust high-Alpine tap water!), the last restaurant/cafй before town offered basic sandwiches and good, strong espresso—perfect for the final assault on the Stelvio!

For the next couple of kilometers, the road was kind to us, gently winding through the Trafoi valley and offering amazing views across the fields to the left. The small town church, sat alone in the field, seemed like a miniature model compared to the towering mountain face behind it.

And then the road started to bite back. The gradient increased suddenly, like a slap in the face, and I found myself in the 25 for the first time this day. Despite this being the north face with the fabled 48 numbered switchbacks (Alpe d’Huez, 21 switchbacks? Pah!), the numbers came few and far between. I swear there was a good 6-7km between 48 and 47…

The road narrowed as it steepened, resembling very much the lower curves of the Gavia which we would climb the following day in a snowstorm. The lack of switchbacks made this part of the climb seem particularly energy-draining. The views, however, continued to draw the mind away from the effort, with the snowy peaks rising majestically to the left and infront. Man and bicycle against granite and gradient.

Around 30 turns from the summit, with some 10km still left to climb, the clouds began to close in around the summit, and the sun quickly disappeared—along with it, the nice warm temperatures. The damp jersey, unzipped since the heat in Trafoi, was quickly zipped again, sensing bad weather by the summit.

The Final Ascent
A couple kilometers more, and the straight roads ended. As the sign showed “24 tornante” remaining, the short distance but incredible altitude still to gain became suddenly apparent. Straight ahead, etched into the rock face like a pathway to the clouds, were the fabled switchbacks leading to the summit. Dark stone walls along the side of the road, combined with the now-grey sky and the dark green face of the mountainside, made this final ascent seem even more foreboding.

The gradient pitched up here to a seemingly-constant 9.5%, but pride pushed us forth, standing and accelerating out of each 180° turn. The still-smooth roads snaked their way upwards, taking us through the final 400 meters of altitude gain in just a handful of kilometers. As I turned each corner and looked back down to the road below through the castle rampart-like stone walls immortalized in classic photography by the likes of Timm Kцlln, I realized just how high this was. Seeing a rider below me, I couldn’t see his feet beneath his back…

With 4 turns left and the final kilometer approaching, the effort was on. Down in the 16, standing, we leaned into each turn like it was a descent. Turn 1 was on us fast, and this opened into a dead-straight run-in to the summit some 200-300 meters ahead. Tired, cold, thirsty, but elated, the Passo dello Stelvio had been conquered!

As we regrouped, refueled, and hurriedly put on every single spare layer for the descent (it was barely above freezing at the summit by this time), the very same feather-hatted hot dog vendor recognized us from our earlier ascent, and was pleasantly impressed at our achievement for the day. For someone who has no doubt seen numerous Giros in his lifetime, I think that was quite a compliment.

And so began the incredible drop off the Stelvio. Freezing and struggling to grip the brakes with gloved-yet-numb hands, we glided around the first smooth fast turns, back towards the “Right Turn to Switzerland.” A few more turns and the long sweeping valley afforded us the fastest part of the descent—straight, fast roads with no need to brake for 3-4km, we hit over 55mph as the sun began to break back through the clouds.

Around the awesome switchbacks near the waterfall and power station, the heat was already increasing, which lead to easier and more enjoyable descending. Due care was taken through the tunnels—with the sun now out again, the blindness on entering these tunnels at over 40mph once was enough to force a little more care into the next one…

The rest of the descent was fun and fast, the switchback turns perfectly angled and paved for maximum speed and safety, and local cycling-savvy cars moving to the right and eagerly waving you by with a smile. The wonderful empathy of Italy’s drivers sure felt good. I was also struck by the number of riders we saw out that day—a handful at the most, and none at all on the north side of the mountain.

In what felt like 10 minutes, we were 22km from the summit and back on the outskirts of Bormio, where this day began some 105km ago. A few turns in town towards the church tower put us in the cobbled town square, surrounded by cafes and warm locals, and a doppio espresso was the perfect toast, to the perfect ride—the Stelvio Doppio!

As one final way to wrap up a perfect day, I highly recommend the Bormio Terme heated pools, in the center of town. One fee gives you access to all 5 pool areas—which have bubble jets, circular flows, waterfalls and more—3 of which are indoors, one half-outdoors (with views down to town and across to the foot of the Gavia), and one fully-outdoors under the stars, with the silhouette of the Stelvio towering higher still.

Bormio to summit 1 = 22km

Summit 1 to Swiss Border = 3km

Border down Umbrail to Santa Maria = 14km

Santa Maria to Italian border @ Pontevilla = 5km

Border to Glorenza turn off (towards Prato) = 9km

Glorenza straight to Prato = 7km

Start climbing right from Prato = 25km

Summit to Bormio = 22km

Total Loop = 105km

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