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Shadow of the Stelvio: Bormio gravel ride

In-depth
13 May 2020
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Around the corner from the classic road climb you’ll find a wealth of hidden trails and gravel tracks just begging to be ridden. This article was originally published in issue 2 of Cyclist Off-Road magazine

Words Peter Stuart Photography Ben Read

Mountain folk are tough. I keep telling myself that over and over while I cling on, head down, to Daniele and Carlo’s wheels as they tap gently up the incline ahead of me.

They appear to be scaling today’s first climb almost effortlessly, chatting freely with each other along the way, while I, on the other hand, am already seeing stars.

It’s a sharp start to the day. We’re in the beautiful Valtellina valley in the north of Italy, near the border with Switzerland. A morning haze gives the landscape a bright blue glow as we labour up the tightly packed hairpins that lead from our start point in the town of Bormio to the reservoir at Lago di Cancano.

The climb itself is around 8km at an average of 7% on pristine tarmac, and it’s one of the most fetching roads in the region, spread over the mountainside like a decorative flourish added to a gourmet dessert.

It should really be more famous, but as it is a dead-end, the climb has never been used in the big pro races, so it remains pleasingly undiscovered by the masses.

I thought today’s ride would mainly be rolling over gravel tracks, so this severe uphill start on tarmac is a little surprising. But I guess that is the essence of gravel riding: a mixture of different terrains that can all be tackled by bike. And today’s ride certainly promises that.

King of the castle

As we near the top of the maze of hairpins, a castle comes into view, its square silhouette jutting out sharply from the horizon in the low morning light. It sits on the edge of a huge rock, and behind it lies another castle, a mirror image, nestled between two jagged peaks.

‘They are the towers of Fraele,’ says Daniele, before explaining that they were once the fortifications from an ancient road that guarded the entrance to this valley. The ravine below them was known as the burrone dei morti, the ‘ravine of the dead’.

 

Today, they provide a different barrier for us – one that’s thankfully less morbid. The towers mark the point where road turns to gravel, and where we leave the tarmac to enter the rocky trails and tracks of the Stelvio National Park.

Daniele, our guide for today’s excusion into the mountains, owns Hotel Funivia in Bormio, and is affectionately known as Stelvio Man here in the valley. And it seems he is known by everyone who lives here.

While we were sitting for coffee before we set off there were at least half a dozen shouts of ‘Ciao, Daniele!’ from passers-by, and as we started the ride it seemed we couldn’t turn a corner without a wave or friendly toot from a passing car.

Carlo, meanwhile, works with bike brand 3T, and he has kindly provided us with a pair of Exploro bikes for our adventure. He tells me he usually prefers running ultra-marathons to doing long bike rides, but a glance at his lean, muscular limbs tells me that he won’t be the one slowing us down today.

 

I should have guessed at how tough today’s ride would be when I watched my companions smash back their espressos like Jäegerbombs so they could order a second while I sipped my first.

‘It was a tough ride with Davide yesterday,’ Daniele had said, massaging his quads as he downed his next coffee. He was referring to Italian WorldTour pro Davide Formolo, and he wasn’t simply name-dropping either.

Daniele’s hotel had Rigoberto Uran as a guest only last week, and, as I later discover, he seems to keep a vast array of pro cyclists as close friends.

Far from the madding crowd

Our ride will trace the foothills of the Stelvio Pass before passing the Lago di Cancano and heading onto the trails and tracks that link Bormio with the ski resort of Livigno.

The brisk pace doesn’t relent as we continue on a wide gravel road alongside the tiny Lago Scale, overshadowed by the 3,000m Monte Solena that sits behind it.

 

It’s not long before the road narrows to little more than a goat track as we reach the vast Lago di Cancano reservoir. We flit between riding sections on wide gravel roads and stretches on rocky tracks and trails peppered with streams and landslides.

Compared to riding on the road, the going here feels quiet and untouched. The only noise is the rumble of gravel and rocks below us, and it requires our full concentration to find the right line while keeping up a good speed.

We make our way along the water’s edge and stop at the dam that cuts across the centre of the reservoir. It’s an impressive structure. Its neat and orderly lines are at odds with the jumble of limestone cliffs that surround it, and we can’t resist rolling to the centre of the reservoir for a view of the mountains on all sides, including the jagged snow-capped peaks around the Stelvio.

We treat ourselves to a quick stop and a few pictures of our bikes hanging from the dam’s railings with the Alpine panorama set behind them. Daniele has an eye for an Instagram shot, and I have no doubt that the picture will light up on his Stelvioman account in a few hours.

 

I grab my bike off the railing and watch, with a slight gulp of vertigo, as my bar end plug pops out and plummets to the dam’s base hundreds of metres below me.

From here we ride to the northern tip of Lago di Cancano, where the Passo di Valle Alpisella trail to Livigno lies in wait.

Smugglers’ Run

These tracks have seen a lot of history. That’s a strange thought given how utterly untouched the surroundings seem. In the medieval period, the ominous Fraele towers oversaw the royal road that ferried salt and wine into the Bormio region.

In the 20th century, this valley became a hotspot for smuggling between Livigno and Bormio. This was because of Livigno’s tax-free status, granted in 1910, harking back to the town’s links to the Austrian Empire.

‘All the small valleys, passes and roads around Livigno saw constant fights between smugglers and police after World War One and World War Two,’ says Daniele.

‘There are also many stories about the complicity between police and smugglers, who most of the time were just poor locals trying to earn some money for their families. Things here in the mountains were very difficult after the war.’

 

I assume that Daniele isn’t speaking from memory, but given his almost mythical status in the region, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn he is immortal and has lived here forever.

The thought of traders scaling this loose rock and gravel on carriages laden with wine and salt is hard to imagine. I’m finding it hard enough on a cutting-edge carbon fibre bike.

I search out my line carefully, making sure I can keep my cadence over the steeper inclines. With some loose gravel below us I know that if I step off the pedal, getting moving again will be tricky.

We pass gleaming lakes lined with bathers and fishermen. I honestly have no idea how they got here, though a few spark into life to wave and shout the inevitable, ‘Ciao, Daniele!’

A vast scree slope to our right almost almost blinds us as the sun bounces off its stones, and we have to squint to see the trail ahead. But soon the narrow valley that we’re riding up flattens out and we crest the Passo di Valle Alpisella to be greeted with a wide vista of the mountains that surround Livigno down below.

 

We pause for a moment to take in the view before turning around to shoot back down the same gravel track we’ve just come up. It would make a great descent if we were simply retracing our steps all the way back to Bormio, but Daniele has an even better idea. We stop at a turning onto a narrow and rocky trail, where we’ll put our wide tyres and off-road handling skills to the test.

‘I’ve never done this route by bike before, but I think we’ll be fine,’ he says looking back at me with a confident smile. I wish I could return that smile and make it look genuine, but heading into the unknown is all part of the adventure of gravel riding, so I let a bit of pressure out of my tyres and we turn off onto the small and steep trail.

We find ourselves on a narrow, rocky ledge that cuts across a scree slope on the mountainside. At its best moments it’s tough gravel, at its worst just a pile of randomly scattered limestone debris.

It’s intriguing how quickly our riding habits change. Daniele, who thinks nothing of diving full tilt down tarmac descents, is a little out of his comfort zone here on the loose ground and takes things steady, progressing cautiously but with impressive composure.

 

Meanwhile Carlo has come into his own. He sails down the steep incline, appearing to float over the rough rock-strewn terrain. I’m wrestling crudely with my bike, sweating, swerving and occasionally swearing, but I manage to make it down the toughest stretches without incident or accident.

An increasingly impressive view of the mountains and reservoir opens up below. We don’t get much time to appreciate it, though, because the trail is seriously steep and the surface loose and unpredictable.

I’m stunned for a moment by the versatility of my 3T Exploro, which on this morning’s tarmac ascent had felt every bit the road racer, yet with its wide, flared bars and wide (now softer) tyres, feels now as though it could be a mountain bike.

Edge of adhesion

At times, the trail is so challenging that I find myself surrendering control and almost falling down the slope in the hope that something flatter and less loose will emerge around the corner and allow me to scrub some speed off.

When I make sight of flat ground, it comes with a strange mixture of relief and disappointment – riding on trails like this always puts me on edge, but it has undoubtedly been the most fun we’ve had on today’s ride.

 

We loop back towards the reservoir and begin to trace the Lago di Cancano south. When we’re once more within sight of the dam, Daniele tells us it’s lunchtime. I look around, slightly bewildered about where among the trees and jagged peaks a cafe could be concealing itself.

We ride up onto a rutted singletrack and up into the woods, and emerge in a clearing to discover a wooden cabin with a wood-burning barbecue crackling away.

‘This is how we do things here in the mountains,’ Daniele says with a shrug. The cabin is Daniele’s family getaway, and is so uniquely quiet that it makes the town of Bormio seem like a metropolis.

‘Do you have Wi-Fi?’ I ask. Daniele bellows with laughter, shaking his head, and I suddenly feel very metropolitan.

We settle down to eat, and even crack open some beers. It strikes me how different off-road riding is to pure road rides. Taking time out to just relax would feel like heresy on a pacy road ride in the mountains.

‘They built two dams here, one in the 1930s and one in the 1950s,’ Daniele says. ‘The first was too small, so when they built the second one they flooded the original power station. It’s still right there under the water.’ He points at the vast, mirror-flat lake. ‘Two power stations, and we still don’t get any power here in the cabin!’

 

We linger over lunch perhaps longer than we should, and even have a brief snooze in the sun, but eventually the time comes to jump onto our saddles once again.

The trail along the reservoir leads us swiftly down to the smaller lake of Lago Scale and we eventually pop out again on the Cancano road climb. But just as I’m tucking down with my chin on the handlebar and preparing to race down the hairpins, Daniele slows us down and directs us off the road onto a small track.

We roll onto a hard-packed gravel path that slices along the hillsides of the Valtellina valley. The track is 10km long and straight enough to allow us to sit in a line and hammer out a decent pace, punctuated by the occasional steep ramp to keep things varied.

Occasionally the gravel shifts beneath me and my wheels skip, which is enough to keep my heart rate high and my attention on red alert.

 

Livigno Vida Loca

For long stretches the track is like a corridor of trees, and when sunlight pierces through the canopy it casts jagged shapes on the gravel.

The dappled effect makes it hard to see let alone choose the best line, and I’m thankful for my bulbous tyres as I bounce off unseen tree roots and rocks. Exiting the avenue of trees, we then negotiate wide open cliff edges that give us a full view of the mountain towns far below.

We pass through some small villages and farms, once hideaways for Livigno smugglers, with a few cheerful shouts of ‘Ciao, Daniele’ reaching us as we go.

It’s a shame when we return to the tarmac and say goodbye to today’s gravel, yet when we almost immediately shoot up to 70kmh, I’m reminded of why I love riding on the road too.

At the village of San Carlo, Daniele swings us onto a gravel track-cum-cycle path that follows the Viola Bormio stream until we reach a cafe set into the hillside, where predictably the owner rushes out to greet him.

Another cool beer caps the day off perfectly. My quads feel as though they’ve been pumped full of battery acid, and I reflect on how tough the day has been considering the route is little more than 75km.

As we unwind I can see the lower slopes of the Stelvio in the valley beyond Bormio. It’s a legendary road climb and one I’ve done several times, but now I find myself reconsidering my attitude towards it.

To come here and stick only to tarmac would be a real waste. It would mean missing some of the region’s most stunning landscapes, not to mention the adrenaline of scrabbling down rocky descents and losing bike parts down enormous ravines.

Beyond the Stelvio

Follow our on-and-off-road route in northern Italy

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/or2/bormio. Starting in Bormio, ride onto the SS38 Via Stelvio, before turning off on the smaller SS301. That road turns into the climb to Cancano reservoir. Turn right at the reservoir and follow the gravel road to its northernmost tip, before turning off on a small fork in the road following a narrow gravel track signposted for Livigno.

Follow that road to the summit and return, looking out for a small left turning onto a rocky trail near a signpost for Lago di Cancano. That descends to the reservoir, which you follow along its southern side before returning to the descent towards Bormio.

Take a small right turning after the third hairpin and ride the gravel road towards Arnoga. There, join the SS301 and return to Bormio, turning off onto the scenic bike path just before San Carlo, which runs all the way back to your starting point.

 

The rider’s ride

3T Exploro Team Force, £4,500, saddleback.co.uk

The 3T Exploro was conceived for exactly this type of ride: going quickly on mixed terrain and sometimes into the unknown. The bike uses the same dropped chainstay design as the Open UP, which means it can fit 2.1in tyres on a 650b wheel size. For this ride we used a set of slightly narrower Panaracer Gravelking 1.9in tyres, which proved to hit a perfect sweetspot between fast and protective.

The flared 3T Superghiaia handlebars seemed strange when I first saw them, but on a ride like this the extra bar width when in the drops proved invaluable on more technical terrain, where they offered a good deal more stability and control.

The Exploro also uses aerodynamic tube shapes, which may seem a little odd for a bike destined for gravel, but the stiffness and aerodynamic benefits were much appreciated on fast downhill tarmac sections and pacy segments on hard-packed gravel.

How we did it

Travel

We flew to Milan Bergamo, which is serviced by numerous carriers including RyanAir and British Airways. From there, we used Bormio transfer service Elma Viaggi (elmaviaggi.it), which provides transfers from Milan airport to Bormio, including bike carriage, from €300.

Accommodation

We stayed at Hotel Funivia in Bormio (hotelfunivia.it), which is a gem for any cyclist visiting the region. Owner Daniele Schena, affectionately known as Stelvio Man, has customised the hotel for cyclists, with a workshop and bike lock-up alongside a cycling-themed cafe and regular post-ride pasta feasts. It’s no surprise that the place has regular visits from WorldTour pros.

Hotel Funivia also offers bike rental, with prices starting at €40 for rental of a Pinarello GAN, and offers a range of top Pinarello and 3T bikes as well as some e-road bike options. Prices start from €149 per night for a double bedroom.

 

Thanks

Many thanks to Daniele for being our guide and host for the ride, and to 3T for offering us bikes and support on the route. Also to Paolo from Spot-On Bikes (spotonbormio.it) in Bormio for helping us with bike set-up and spares.

Many thanks to e-bike rental service e-stelvio (e-stelvio.it), which loaned our photographer Ben an e-mountain bike to follow us for the day. Visit hotelfunivia.it for more details on cycling packages and bike rental available with the hotel.