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Classic climb: The Trollstigen, Norway

In-depth
8 Jun 2021
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You might not see trolls, but this Norwegian classic includes towering rock walls, waterfalls, tightly stacked hairpins and epic views

Words: Stu Bowers Photography: Paul Calver

Visitors to my home frequently find their gaze drawn to a large framed print adorning my living room wall. The image is of a magnificent, serpentine road ascending through a work of art created entirely by nature. Rising from a verdant valley, the ribbon of tarmac snakes its way up into an ominously rugged landscape, surrounded by vast cliffs and jutting, jagged peaks dusted in snow.

‘Is that the Stelvio Pass?’ is the most typical question. It’s an easy mistake to make given the tightly stacked hairpins on view, yet where the stats are concerned this climb is but David to the Stelvio’s Goliath.

Located among the fjords of Norway, about 200km north of Bergen, the Trollstigen’s summit stands at 870m, which is nearly two vertical kilometres lower than the Stelvio’s.

It has only 11 hairpins to the Stelvio’s 48, but just as in the Biblical story size and stature don’t always mean supremacy. The sheer sense of wonder that greets riders on the Trollstigen far outweighs its vital statistics.

Trolling around

One important thing to consider when planning a trip here is the time of year. The Trollstigen is subject to winter closure but the actual dates vary each year – sometimes considerably – so you’ll need to check in advance.

To ride this incredible road the best option is to head south from Åndalsnes. Glimpses of the distant peaks appear almost immediately as you leave the outskirts, serving as a teaser for what you will soon be getting up close and personal with. The contrast between the fjords and mountains here is striking and one of Norway’s main attractions for cyclists.

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A right turn after about 4km takes you across the Rauma river and onto route 63, better known as the Troll Road in honour of the creatures that are a big part of Norwegian folklore.

Check flights and hotels near Trollstigen now on Expedia

The mythical beings are often portrayed as spirits of the underground, with no certainty as to whether they are friend or foe to humans. Evidence suggests they were mostly feared, though, and so strongly did people believe in their existence that as recently as a few hundred years ago villages would ring the church bells to ward off these diminutive, grumpy souls.

You’ll encounter several trolls on the way up the Trollstigen. Some are stone statues, some are wooden sculptures or images on signposts, but as for real ones? Well, you won’t see them but they may be watching you.

Some would have it that the turning onto the Troll Road is the start of the climb, but although the road does begin to rise for a time as it meanders through the lush Romsdalen valley, the tactically smart thing to do here is bide your time and save your legs.

View this as a warmup for the main act to follow and don’t get excited prematurely, especially if you have any designs on troubling the sharp end of the Strava leaderboard.

A short descent returns you once more to the valley floor and a few more kilometres of false flat must still be covered before the true nature of this beast reveals itself. Ahead lies an ascent of 7.9km up to the visitor centre, which most riders consider to be the summit of the ‘main’ Trollstigen climb.

The shift in gradient as you begin the climb proper is noticeable but not too aggressive. The slope ramps up to a steady 6-7% and stays there for most of the climb. But be warned, the average is 8.2% thanks to a few steeper ramps in the mid-section nudging over 10%.

The first hairpin rolls around after about 2km, and this is where things really start to get exciting. You’re no longer cloistered by trees so it’s the first time you get to really appreciate the enormity of the landscape. Suddenly you feel rather small.

Check flights and hotels near Trollstigen now on Expedia

However I think it’s approaching hairpin three when the true visceral impact of the Trollstigen really hits home.

Full reveal

At first glance you might think you’re riding to a dead end, so imposing and vast is the wall of rock ahead, but look closer and you’ll see the road, a zig-zag scar like Zorro’s calling card in its sheer face.

At this point it’s hard to keep your eyes on any one thing, let alone the road, so tempting is the scenery.

Be sure to soak it in, because the Trollstigen packs a lot into a short distance. Particularly mesmerising is the Stigfossen waterfall that cascades 320m down the mountainside, passing directly under the road at about the halfway point in the climb.

Vertiginous cliff faces hang all around but the 1,700m Trollveggen, or the Troll Wall, that towers high above to the south is a main attraction. Its 1,000m sheer face is the largest vertical drop in Europe and as such is a magnet for experienced climbers and, until it was banned, base jumpers.

To the west are Bispen (1,450m), Kongen (1,614m) and Dronninga (1,701m); to the east Stigbottshornet (1,583m) and the Storgrovfjellet (1,629m).

Considering the hostility such a landscape presents to the passing of motor vehicles it’s hard to believe it took just eight years to construct the Trollstigen road, which opened in 1936.

More recently, substantial government investment has ensured the road is impeccably maintained. There’s no need for 30mm tyres and flexible seatposts here. Your derrière will be cosseted by a beautifully smooth strip of black tarmac the whole way up.

There’s little by way of reprieve in the climb’s upper reaches. The gradient hovers at around 7-8% but the reward is getting to enjoy a new perspective, having crossed to the opposite side of the valley.

Check flights and hotels near Trollstigen now on Expedia

Those with a fear of heights might be less inclined to stare back down the climb however, as there’s not much by way of barriers. A row of rocks, each a few metres apart and resembling a troll’s crooked teeth, is at times the only thing between you and the sheer drop.

And while we’re on the subject of vertigo, once you finally reach the plateau and the visitor centre at around 700m, if your stomach allows be sure to take the short stroll onto the viewing platform that juts out from the cliff edge, dangling some 200m above the road below. It’s a view you’ll never forget.

Norway’s infamous Trollstigen touched my soul in a way that very few ascents ever have. I guess that’s why, given the many iconic cols and passes I’ve ridden, this is this one that hangs on my living room wall.