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The Giro’s new star: Passo dello Spluga Big Ride

In-depth
9 Nov 2021
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The Passo dello Spluga is the latest climb to join the pantheon of Giro d’Italia greats. Cyclist discovers what makes it so special

Words Joe Robinson Photography Alex Duffill

Petrichor is the name given to the sweet smell of rain as it bounces off dry earth. It derives from Greek with the word petra meaning stone or rock, and ichor roughly translating as the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods. So intoxicating is the scent, it seems fitting that its origins are so divine.

Right now it’s mixing with the clean, Alpine fragrance emanating from the high trees and the earthy moss of the lower foliage to create a kind of natural Vicks Vaporub that I just want to inhale deep into my lungs. The crisp air has turned my once-golden cheeks red, giving me the kind of complexion even little Prince George would envy.

The freezing rain stings my hands and plunges them into tingling numbness. As my legs get wetter they get colder and begin to sting as the chill reacts with hot legs that have worked so hard to get me to where I am. Aside from the ping of hail bouncing off my helmet and the distant ring of cowbells, I can hear only silence.

Yet despite the rain, I have longed for this moment – the feeling of being in the mountains again on my bike. I’ve missed the stillness, the calmness. It has been a tough old year thanks to Covid, with its lockdowns and restrictions and the interminable buzz of news reports and online meetings that have come with it.

And, yes, there are many more pressing problems in this world than not being able to ride your bike abroad, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel slightly overwhelmed with emotion, standing as I am on top of a mountain once again. 

And what a place to feel those sensations: Italy, for many (myself included) the greatest country of them all. This is a nation whose football may be as conservative as its opinions on food, but when it comes to cycling it is a place that values panache over simply performance.

This is the land of rolling Tuscan hills, towering Dolomites and dramatic Alps. It is a country teeming with beauty at every turn, and home to a climb you’d probably never heard of until this year, when it made its debut on the penultimate stage of the Giro d’Italia.

The Passo dello Spluga is an ascent that has it all, from curled switchbacks to imposing tunnels, stunning waterfalls and vast plains. It is 30.2km of pure Alpine perfection, dotted with quaint villages and picturesque lakes. It even has a gift shop near the summit. 

In safe hands

My guide for today is Imad Sekkak and he has a story to tell. In fact, a man even offered to write a book about him once, so inspiring is his tale.

Aged 12, Imad emigrated from Morocco to Italy in search of a better life. Unaccompanied by parents or siblings, he arrived alone in the Lombardian city of Lecco, where he was soon introduced into the city’s care system and met the Negri family, whose son Luca became his social worker.

Soon Imad was part of a family that loved cycling, and it turned out he was a natural at it. Before long Imad was winning local races; then he began winning national races. Then some serious people started taking note.

In 2018 the UCI invited him to its headquarters in Switzerland to ride as part of its development team. While there he competed at the Junior World Championships in Innsbruck in 2018 for Morocco and then rode for the UCI’s invitational team at the Tour de l’Avenir, the prestigious under-23 stage race, in 2019.

From there Imad spent two weeks with Alberto Contador’s Eolo-Kometa team in early 2020, with a real possibility of gaining a pro contract. Then Covid struck. Any chance of going pro was on hold, and with that came an understandable wavering of commitment and a loss of time. Imad is still only 21 and believes he can make it as a pro, but for now guiding tourists around the Italian Alps on behalf of BikeItBellagio keeps the days ticking over.

The Spluga is Imad’s favourite climb because it was at the Church of San Giovanni Battista, halfway up the ascent, where the social care community that welcomed him to Italy a decade ago was formed.

He knows every inch of this climb like the back of his hand: every switchback, every tunnel. He shares some of this knowledge with me as we finish our cappuccinos and chantilly cream croissants in the base town of Chiavenna.

The first nugget is that there will be no warm-up. The climb begins as soon as we leave town and won’t relent at all for the first 13km. This first third of the climb is steady though, he assures me, so will ease me into the ride.

Following as it does the Liro river upstream, a lack of switchbacks makes the climb’s opening stages more of a meandering waltz through a high-walled ravine until it reaches the shores of Lago di Prestone, the first of two lakes on today’s ascent. The kilometres tick by as Imad recounts his story and I practise my poker face, pretending I can match his strength on the pedals.

After 2km of flat road we reach Campodolcino, where the road forks. The left branch would take us on to Isola, which is where the Giro joined the Spluga climb on Stage 20 earlier this year, having approached from Switzerland.

If you saw that stage you’ll remember it for the outstanding performance of Ineos super-domestique Dani Martínez in service of maglia rosa Egan Bernal – it arguably sealed victory for Bernal. I also remember it for some of the most breathtaking images of the entire three weeks.

Tunnel of love

For what seems like an eternity on leaving Campodolcino we dip in and out of a sequence of tunnels and hairpins that has us gaining altitude up the mountain’s face at double-digit gradients.

There’s a sense of mystery riding through a mountain tunnel. The temperature cools and the light softens; my senses heighten as I lose perception of where I am. My focus becomes sharper as the whoosh of my carbon wheels and huff of my breath echo off the jagged rock surrounding me. My inner monologue is telling me to just ‘tap, tap, tap, tap’ on the pedals as my legs fire like pistons in perfect time.

It’s hypnotic. Two kilometres take what feels like an eternity to pass as I savour this lucid dream. I don’t want it to end. Yet when finally we do emerge at the turn for Madesimo, the focus is broken by the thundering of a waterfall cascading off the cliff edge. All I want to do is turn around and do it all again but my inner Yazz pops up to remind me of my fate for today: the only way is up.

If we were to turn right at this point we would end up at Madesimo and Alpe Motta, where the Giro stage finished earlier this year. It is also where the Milanese middle classes head on their winter ski breaks, as it doesn’t cost quite the same fortune as nearby St Moritz. However, we are not turning, and instead continue straight up the climb towards the Swiss border.

Up until this point the Passo dello Spluga has felt claustrophobic, almost asphyxiating. With the first 21km closed in by forests of Alpine trees and long, lurking tunnels, the views have been teasing us with occasional glimpses, peeking out from behind the curtain without showing too much leg. By the time we emerge from the final tunnel we are 1,700m above sea level and the teasing stops. The view reveals itself in all its glory, and I’m a willing customer.

I gawp at the vastness of the mountains above us with their snowy peaks, while down below the pastures are decorated with the red dots of the casa cantoniera road worker houses. Directly in front of us is the imposing stone wall of the Lago di Montespluga dam, the attention-seeking star of the show with its rippling waters lapping in the wind.

With all this visual stimulation surrounding me the climb is beginning to feel, dare I say it, easy. In fact, the 2km stretch next to the lakeside is level enough for me to click back into the big ring, and there’s a part of me that wants to smash out the final 2km to the summit and get going on the descent into Switzerland.

However, Imad advises that we cruise the last 2km so we can drink it all in, and in truth it’s good advice as this is the most handsome part of the climb. Peering over the swooping switchbacks that act as a gantry above the glistening lake, I can’t help but be reminded of how much I missed views like these during the dark winter days of lockdown. 

Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in

I’ve only been refused entry to a nightclub once in my life – The Roxy off Oxford Street – and I can still remember how much that hurt. Granted, I was underage and didn’t have any ID but that’s beside the point. I really wanted to go in, I couldn’t, and that made me sad. That feeling returned at the top of the Passo dello Spluga.

A stone’s throw from the summit, a text from the Swiss government pings up on my phone. It informs me that if I wish to enter as a British citizen I will need to quarantine for ten days, no exceptions. I’m not even allowed to nip down the Swiss tarmac – the Splügenpass – and ride straight back up. If I ride any further than the summit I will be liable for a fine. And, as Imad reminds me, it will be a Swiss fine and so won’t be cheap. 

Our ride is stopped in its tracks, the chance to experience the Swiss side of the mountain snatched from me, just like when that bouncer sent me packing all those years ago. It’s especially painful because sprawled out before us is a piece of architectural magic: a road that for 9km twists and turns more than John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

But Covid has struck again. Hopefully when you visit, dear reader, it will be in a post-pandemic world and you will have the chance to not only ride up the Passo dello Spluga on the Italian side, but to descend the Splügenpass on the Swiss side too. But for me, it’s a quick about-turn and a 30km descent back to Chiavenna.

Other than a quick stop in the gift shop in the town of Montespluga to buy a fridge magnet, Imad and I cruise down the descent in just short of an hour. The tunnels that were so alluring on the way up become nerve-wracking on the way down as we fly into the narrow, dark abysses, praying that a Fiat Panda isn’t coming the other way.

After 18 months of working from home and Zoom quizzes, these are the thrills I’ve been so desperate to feel again.

Splurging out

Follow our Spluga route… or go even further

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/118italy. Start in the town of Chiavenna about 20km north of Lake Como. Take the SS36 out of town, signposted for Passo Spluga. Now it’s simply a case of sticking to the same road for the next 30.2km, as it heads upwards to the Lago di Montespluga and onwards to the border with Switzerland. Thanks to Covid-related border restrictions, this is where our ride ended, but in a post-Covid world you can add another 18km and an additional 660m of ascent by dropping down to Splügen on the Swiss side before making the return trip to Chiavenna.

Eat like the locals

Because you can’t ride on just bread and water

Order this pasta dish…

Pizzoccheri consists of short tagliatelle traditionally cooked with Swiss chard and diced potatoes, layered with creamy Valtellina Casera cheese, topped with Grana Padano and drizzled with garlic that has been fried in butter. It’s as rich and delicious as it sounds.

A glass of wine…

The region’s most noted wine is Sforzato di Valtellina, a dry red that is based on the well-known Nebbiolo grape variety. It’s full-bodied, rich and commonly has a high alcohol percentage of around 14.5%. Serviceable bottles cost around €20 in a restaurant.

And if you're still hungry…

The Valtellina valley is well known for its Bresaola – air-dried, salted meat – and in particular slinzega, which utilises smaller cuts of meat for a more intense flavour. Traditionally the meat of choice in these parts was horse but now venison and beef are just as common.

The rider’s ride

What better bike for an Italian Alpine adventure than one from an Italian dynasty? This is the latest iteration of the legendary Specialissima race bike and, released in late 2020, represents Bianchi’s big leap into modernity.

Out go the skinny, round tubes and classic styling; in come aero tube shapes, fully integrated cabling, clearance for 28mm tyres and disc brakes. The new Specialissima is your quintessential all-rounder, mixing comfort, speed and light weight. This particular build – with Shimano Ultegra Di2, FSA bar, stem and seatpost, Fizik saddle, Fulcrum 418 carbon wheels and Vittoria Corsa 25mm tyres – weighs just over 7.5kg (size 57).

The highlight, however, remains the Countervail system, a viscoelastic material in the layup that reduces vibrations from the road without compromising on lateral stiffness. It’s the ideal bike for a big day in the Alps.

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew from Heathrow to Milan Malpensa with British Airways, which cost around £150 return. We then took the express train to Milan Centrale then a connecting train to Tirano, getting off at Varenna. From there it’s a walk to the docks and a foot ferry over to Bellagio, where BikeItBellagio is based. Alternatively the train continues on to Chiavenna.  

Accommodation

We stayed at Marco’s petrol station next door to BikeItBellagio. Marco is a local legend who converted the flats above his garage into accommodation for cyclists. His petrol station doubles as a bar and cafe, and as a former baker his pizza, focaccia and croissants are worth the stay alone.

Thanks

To Casey and Luca at BikeItBellagio for hosting us, our driver Mario, who despite his lack of English could still make a joke about the Euros, and Imad for his impeccable guidance. BikeItBellagio offers guided rides as well as Bianchi bike hire. Visit bikeitbellagio.com for info.