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The Stelvio Pass: the world's most stunning road climb

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17 Sep 2018
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Words: Peter Stuart Photography: Paul Calver

Big Ride: Stelvio was originally published in Issue 35 of Cyclist Magazine

It was on the Stelvio Pass, on its introduction to the world of pro cycling in the 1953 Giro d’Italia, that Italian ‘Champion of Champions’ Fausto Coppi made one of his most famous attacks. He broke the race leader, Hugo Koblet, putting three and a half minutes between them to steal the maglia rosa on the penultimate stage, and effectively secure his fifth and final Giro victory.

The majestic and pain-defying ride set a precedent for the Stelvio as the scene of courage, drama and triumph, and many other decisive and controversial moments have been played out on its slopes since, cementing the pass’s status as a cycling icon – the jewel of the Eastern Alps.

It’s this rich history and harsh physical challenge that has drawn us to the Stelvio, with its 2,758m summit and 1,800m of vertical gain over 25km, but it is far from being the only attraction of South Tyrol.

At a point where Switzerland, Italy and Austria collide, there’s a wealth of culture and natural beauty, and it’s a sacred land for cyclists. For today’s ride, we’re treating the Stelvio Pass with due respect, tackling it first on our route out of Glorenza, hopefully to minimise the risk of it breaking us.

Us, by the way, is myself, Ryan and Herbie, two riders from my regular chain gang, along with Agustina of the Dolomite Mountains tour company, who is guiding us around the Alpine roads from the comfort of the car with photographer Paul.

Ryan, Herbie and I have been discussing the idea of a trip to the Stelvio for some time, and the challenge of the climb has occupied our training for months now, thanks to its reputation for breaking pro riders.

There are three route options available for climbing the famous mountain, and for our ascent we have chosen the more scenic and dramatic side of the climb from Prato allo Stelvio. With 48 hairpins snaking in a consistent gradient up the mountainside, it’s something of a surprise to discover it wasn’t purpose-built for cyclists.

Origins of the Stelvio

By the time that it was first featured in the Giro, the Stelvio road was already 128 years old. Although it’s easy to assume it must have been built with cycling or driving in mind, the original purpose was military and political.

Holy Roman Emperor Francis II had just acquired the area of Lombardy under the realm of the Austrian Empire in the 19th century. The Empire wanted to connect the province to neighbouring region Tyrol, a state of Austria, to maintain a watchful eye over the new territory, and so a road between the two seemed like the best means of doing so.

The result was hailed as an engineering marvel – and a museum detailing the construction was built in Bormio, named after the chief engineer Carlo Donegani.

In the hope of having a clear run at the historic slopes, we set off early, just as the sun is rising. The day begins with a debate about kit. It’s October, and the weather at the top is rumoured to be freezing.

Of course, the Italians have a different idea of freezing to us hardy Brits, and Herbie reckons a set of leg warmers and a packable rain jacket should do the job, while Ryan and I pad ourselves in layer after layer of state-of-the-art winter gear.

We leave the comfort of our hotel in Glorenza as the sun edges just above the horizon. Glorenza is a charming spot, which can’t seem to decide whether it’s Austrian, Swiss or Italian, and consequently, we don’t make much attempt to speak in anything other than English.

The town, a time capsule of Germanic Art Nouveau that could have come straight out of Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, is a perfect start point for our route – sitting at the lowest point of this region of the Eastern Alps.

In the low light, the long road to Prato allo Stelvio is like a silver bolt splitting the misty blue landscape. We sleepily roll up to speed, and with the road sloping gently downwards to the lowest altitude of the day we pick up to a healthy 40kmh, but temper our speed in anticipation of the long climb ahead.

The early kilometres are rich with local colour, which piques our interest through the early-morning mists. Glorenza is surrounded by vineyards and rustic church towers, and the architecture seems to fade from Germanic to Italian from one kilometre to the next.

We try to keep up a decent pace to preserve warmth, and for that I’m in good company today. Herbie is an endurance fanatic, with a sub 10-hour Ironman triathlon to his name and a turn of speed that’s won him the handful of cycling races that he’s entered.

Ryan is a more leisurely cyclist but, having rowed at six World Championships, he has pneumatic quads. My one saving grace is my weedy physical build, which gives me a small hope of keeping up on the ascent. For now, though, things remain civil. We reach Prato allo Stelvio and turn right towards the foothills of the Stelvio Pass as the gradient creeps subtly up to double digits.

The first 5km is surprisingly straight as we edge our way into the mountains. The pine trees rise around us, and we follow a mountain stream that creates an ambient roar – the only sound on these empty roads. It’s not long before the famous series of bends begins.

The 48 turns on this side of the Stelvio are each labelled with its number in the sequence. We speculate as to whether we will be seeing 1 first, or 48, and by the time we hit the first bend, it turns out to be neither. The sign has clearly been stolen as a souvenir for an over-enthusiastic tourist.

The second turn is labelled 47 and we realise it will be a countdown. My choice of clothing has begun to work against me, as I’m already overheating. I keep telling myself, ‘One degree lost every hundred metres of ascent,’ but it’s little consolation at this stage.

We wind around hairpin after hairpin, ticking off the numbers as we go. As we move into the high thirties, with 10km of the climb done, the prospect of the 1,000m of vertical gain over 15km that sits ahead of us is a little intimidating.

With thick forest all around us, we’re yet to be rewarded with the stunning vistas the pass is famous for, but there’s still a special feel to the technical maze of roads as we gain height quickly.

The gradient spikes up and down from 4% stretches to out-of-the-saddle squeezes into the mid-teens. A pattern is emerging of Herbie and Ryan rolling ahead like steam trains on the shallow gradients, only to slow as the road spikes up, allowing me to keep up without obliterating my reserves.

A hint of friendly competition has crept in and it’s clear our climb will feature more poker faces and pain than scenery spotting and selfies.

The tough get going

As we approach 2,000m of altitude, with 10km to go, we break the treeline – and the view of the valley to our left is worth the wait. With snow capping the mountains and a misty cloud floating below us, a glowing golden morning light makes us feels as though we’ve broken through the clouds of Mount Olympus.

It’s a tough stretch as the road hits 10% for the best part of a kilometre – enough to arrest conversation and sew a seed of doubt about whether I can keep going to the top. As we roll up to hairpin 25, the slopes seem to stretch endlessly above us yet, despite my aching quads and sore knees, I’m savouring the struggle to the top.

When we reach number 16 on our corner countdown, the panorama of the final hairpins comes into view, and it’s both awesome and intimidating. It’s mind boggling to consider Coppi climbing up to these heights and having the energy to attack his rivals on this brutal moonscape.

What’s more, as we start to reach the 2,400m mark, the altitude with its thin air is taking its toll, and it seems that my lungs are working overtime for little output. A few classic cars speed past, and for once I feel no pang of resentment for them intruding on a perfect scene.

This road is too perfect to be saved for only one type of vehicle. As we approach the final tangle of hairpins and the signposts slip into single digits, a mist rolls in, and we climb without a view of the summit. These final hairpins are so tight and so steep it’s like climbing into a medieval castle. Cruelly, this is the steepest section of the day, at just under 10% for the final kilometre, and turning the cranks feels like weight training.

With the countdown seemingly complete, I make an early break for the top, assuming a straight road to be ahead, but when a thick cluster of hairpins comes into view above me, three corners multiply to 30 in my mind, and Ryan sprints ahead.

Two corners and a short stretch later we finally reach the summit sign ‘Passo del Stelvio Cima Coppi’, to find a slightly smug Ryan and, a little incongruously, a row of gift shops where we had expected hostile emptiness. We grab a quick, victorious coffee and contemplate what has been an epic climb before moving on.

Swiss ease

Once we’ve descended the east side of the Stelvio, we take a right turn onto the Umbrail Pass and into Switzerland. We have our passports in our back pockets, but we’re waved through casually. So much for Switzerland’s tough stance on European migrants, although admittedly we’re travelling a bit light for a permanent move.

The Umbrail Pass is possibly one of the most overlooked parts of the Stelvio experience. People often speak about ascending from either the Bormio side or from Prato allo Stelvio, and the Swiss cut-through of the Umbrail Pass is rarely mentioned. Yet this alternative provides some excellent character, and as soon as we begin the descent we make plans to climb from this side tomorrow.

The descent is filled with tight, technical corners, but each is a delight on account of the pristine Swiss road surface – broken up by one 500m gravel patch that adds some welcome variety to the descent.

While the upper heights of the pass were dulled by mist, the sun has pierced through, replacing murky grey with autumnal brown and green. It is cold, though. Herbie has lost feeling in both hands, and I’m happy that my winter kit masterplan is finally paying off. 

After we’ve dropped 1,000m or so, the air grows thicker and we dive into another labyrinth of hairpins above Santa Maria. There’s no doubting we’ve left Italy, as this road feels like a diorama of twee Swiss perfection.

We roll into Santa Maria, a crucial crossroads for cycling routes in the region. The Fourn pass stretches off to the west, which would offer up a 250km monster loop back to Glorenza.

There’s also an alternative 65km loop to Glorenza, but that seems too short to do justice to such a stunning day, and an insult to the other treasures of South Tyrol. We reckon on riding to the east, though, back to Italy and Lago di Resia. But not before lunch.

We park up at a cafe with Swiss banners and wooden animal carvings outside. Instead of fumbling to make sense in Italian or German, we politely point to some mounds of food and dig in to replenish the energy lost on the Stelvio. With stomachs filled, we’re back on the road.

We coast merrily from Santa Maria back towards Italy, still descending from our high point on the Stelvio, until we reach the juncture where the descent flattens out and we find ourselves working in a tight chaingang into a mild headwind. Once again we coast through the border control before starting the climb into Laudes.

The great lake

Passo di Resia is no Stelvio, but on any other day it would be a climb worthy of note. It rises 500m over 10km, with 4-5% gradients throughout, then levels off for a 10km shallow ascent into the hillside. The carrot at the end of the stick is the Via Paese Vecchio, which overlooks the Lago di Resia.

The lake, which is the Alps’ largest reservoir at altitude, is a perfect blue hub of water sports and lakeside leisure. Its most iconic feature is a 14th Century church submerged below the water – one of the victims of the reservoir’s construction in the 1950s. The church was left in place rather than being demolished, and sits in a bed of ice in the deep winter.

We happily jostle for position until we come face to face with a group of loggers who wave energetically for us to stop, which results in the screech of brake pads and elevated heart rates.

The zig-zag climb to the lake is the type of numbing slow burn that’s a little too shallow to feel rewarding and, with the broad landscape sweeping uphill, it doesn’t really feel that we’re gaining height, even though my Garmin and legs say otherwise.

It isn’t the most enjoyable part of the ride, as the SS40 road is relatively busy. But the sun is out and these rural Italian drivers seem in no hurry, so we’re given plenty of space as we trundle upwards at 20kmh.

We can see the road stretching through the vast flat plain ahead of us, bordered by mountains on either side, and we’re eager to reach the Lago di Resia, where we’ll snake into the hills ourselves. We pass the smaller Lago della Muta Haidersee before hooking left through San Valentino to Via Paese Vecchio.

The road narrows to a perfectly paved single lane track, and tilts upward gently into the hillside. A turquoise lake to our right set against the background of bare mountainside makes for a view starkly at odds with the spectacular heights of the Stelvio a few hours ago. The temperature is picking up and the cool waters of the lake seem to beckon.

The road gently undulates and the trees on either side give us shelter from the wind. When the single track turns into a steep descent we’re all caught a little unaware – Herbie is busy snapping selfies while Ryan is trying to pull his jacket over his shoulders. We manage to assemble ourselves and pick up the pace, with the smooth surface and sweeping bends begging us to descend fast.

We happily jostle for position until we come face to face with a group of loggers who wave energetically for us to stop, which results in the screech of brake pads and elevated heart rates. With the tree felled, we set off down to the other side of the lake. Once we round the lake’s furthest edge we’re back on the SS40, but a tailwind ensures the road is much more enjoyable than it was in the opposite direction.

We cruise along in the wake of a caravan conveniently sitting at around 50kmh. It’s all going swimmingly until a darkened tunnel sweeps into view. Coincidentally, we’re now beside the lake’s famous bell tower, so we park up to take in the view and scope out the tunnel’s length.

The tower is like a trapping of an ancient age, and local legend has it that it still chimes in the mid-winter, despite the bells having long since been removed.

Once we’ve cleared the lake, we’re once again on the zig-zag road south, with a healthy negative gradient. It’s the perfect wind down to the day, and we roll fast all the way back to Glorenza, onto the cobbled town square streets and straight into the local cafe.

Despite our enjoyable excursion to Lago di Resia, it’s the Stelvio that dominates our conversation. It may not boast the highest heights, the steepest gradients or the longest ascent, but the climb is like an emblematic champion – the ultimate all-rounder.

Climbing its slopes leaves us with no question as to why it has hosted so many of the sport’s great battles, and is destined to stage many more.