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The Passo dello Stelvio, the world's greatest climb

22 Oct 2020

It's confirmed, the Passo dello Stelvio will feature in this year's Giro d'Italia. So let's celebrate the greatest climb in the world, one that has the beauty, the heritage and the hairpins… lots of hairpins.

This makes the Stelvio the greatest climb of them all

Words Henry Catchpole Photography Alex Duffill

Exactly 200 years ago – some 60 years before the bicycle as we know it was invented – work began on possibly the most famous mountain pass on Earth.

Holy Roman Emperor Francis II (who by this stage was, confusingly, Emperor of Austria Francis I – hence his nickname of the Doppelkaiser) wanted to connect the Austrian crown land of Tyrol with its new territory in Lombardy, which it had acquired in the Congress of Vienna. So he commissioned Italian engineer Carlo Donegani to build the Stilfser Joch, which is what we now know in Italian as the Passo dello Stelvio.

The name is taken from the town at the start of the northeastern side of the pass, Prad am Stilfserjoch or Prato allo Stelvio (and they are in that order on the bilingual signs as the vast majority of the population speaks German).

Setting out from here, the 24.1km climb begins relatively gently. In fact, given that pretty much every photo ever published of the Stelvio shows a plethora of hairpins, you might begin to wonder after a while if you’re on the right road.

Lambs to the slaughter

Up the valley you have the waters of the Trafoier Bach babbling away next to you. So closely do road and river mirror each other that it’s like the watery other half of a dual carriageway, first on your right and then, after about 3km, on your left. It peels away briefly as you reach Gomagoi… then rejoins. But still no switchbacks.

It’s only as you emerge from an avalanche tunnel some 7km into the ride that the SS38 first doubles back on itself. It’s an impressive first effort too, with the road sitting proud of a big stone wall, creating a balcony effect. Then it zags to counter the first zig and it’s another 2km before the next pair of hairpins arrives in Trafoi.

It’s a curious start, then. After 10km of the total 24.1km, just four of the 48 hairpins have been tackled and the gradient has averaged around 6%. 

Next come the trees. For about 6km you ride up between dark green needles, and while the hairpins now arrive in earnest, the views are fairly fleeting. So in order to distract yourself from the gradient, which is now closer to 9%, it feels like a good time to ponder the times that a professional peloton has passed this way.

Coppi’s climb

The top of the road stands at a breezy 2,757m in altitude, meaning it was the highest pass in the Alps for well over a century until the Col de l’Iseran opened and pipped it by just seven metres. Given this fact, it might seem curious that the Iseran made its debut in a Grand Tour earlier – just a year after it was opened, in the Tour de France of 1938.

The Stelvio didn’t appear in the Giro d’Italia until 1953, however the Italian climb’s Grand Tour premiere was the scene of a drama befitting the scale of its slopes.

Swiss rider Hugo Koblet was in the maglia rosa on Stage 20 and, having kept four-time Giro winner Fausto Coppi at bay on the previous day’s mountain stage, looked like he would emerge victorious in Milan. In fact it was claimed by some that a truce had been agreed between the two protagonists before the penultimate stage.

Koblet, however, was showing signs of weakness as they reached the Stelvio and so one of Coppi’s domestiques, Andrea Carrea, began to set a furious pace. Yet it was Koblet who arguably broke any truce first.

Just after Carrea had swung off the front, job done, an attack was put in (at Coppi’s behest) by a young rider named Nino Defilippis, whom Koblet chased down and then went past. Coppi counterattacked, however, and proceeded to pass both of them ‘like a motorbike’, according to Defilippis.

Il Campionissimo, perhaps further inspired by seeing his Dama Biancha (Giulia Occhini, his mistress, not his bicycle) on the way up, soared over the top and down to the finish in Bormio. He took victory not only on the stage but in the race as Koblet crashed twice on the descent and lost three and a half minutes to Coppi. The two had been friends before, but never were again.

It’s fitting that when the Cima Coppi prize (awarded to the first rider to the highest point of the Giro) was introduced in 1965, the Stelvio was that race’s zenith. Less fittingly, it was one of the occasions when snow was still lying thickly on the slopes of the climb, so although the riders didn’t have to give it a total miss as they did in 1988 and 2013, the finish line was nonetheless brought down to just under 2,000m.

More recently, the colonic coils of the Stelvio have seen stomach problems on a couple of occasions. Ivan Basso lost over 40 minutes with tummy trouble in 2005, while Tom Dumoulin had to take a significant comfort break in the middle of 2017’s Stage 16, which saw a double ascent to the Dreisprachenspitze or Peak of Three Languages (Italian, German and Romansh since you ask).

The Stelvio was meant to appear on Stage 18 of the 2020 Giro this May, but sadly northern Italy has other things to deal with.

Storming the fortress

With 17.5km and 28 about-turns behind you, the daunting denouement of the climb comes into view. A stack of switchbacks scales the wall at the end of the valley, a helter-skelter of hairpins that looks all at once horrendous and heavenly.

It might not register as you contemplate the 500m of vertical ascent to come, but there is an aspect of the Stelvio that really deserves praise from an aesthetic perspective. The drops at the side of the road mean that a barrier of some sort is necessary to mitigate against fatigued cyclists and absent-minded motorists simply wobbling off the edge.

But instead of some ugly metal Armco, there are low stone walls that look like castellations hewn sympathetically from the landscape. It bolsters the impression that you are entering some sort of mountain fortress.

The steepness of the climb and the lack of trees up high means it’s easy to look over the ramparts to the road unfurling beneath you. It’s not quite as encouraging looking down as it is intimidating looking up, but it’s still a fillip as you tick off the kilometres.

Depending on whether your bidon is half empty or half full, the tornati are either irritating as they upset your rhythm or a nice way of breaking up the climb by giving you small targets to aim for. If you weren’t born in Colombia you’ll notice the thinner air as you climb this final stretch too.

Then you reach the summit of this wild and inspiring road… only to discover that in the last 200 years a large number of buildings have been built. Some are hotels, most are shops trying to take advantage of oxygen-starved minds by selling commemorative tat.

I suggest you simply turn your back on it all and look down upon the beauty of the road you’ve just climbed.