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The second highest paved pass in Europe: what's it like to go up? And come down?

When we reviewed the Simplon Pavo Gran Fondo Disc here on road.cc, Stu called it "A pure cruiser, so subtle and comfortable that you might not notice until you stop riding". And when we went out to Italy recently we thought we'd put that to the test. You've already seen the bike tackling the mighty Maratona dles Dolomites, and we also had a go at another bucket list ride: up the fearsome Pass dello Stelvio.

At 2,758m the top of the Stelvio is the second highest paved pass in Europe, and the sixth highest paved road of any kind. As such, it's a serious undertaking, with our start point in the town of Silandro two full vertical kilometres below the pass. The most famous bit of the Stelvio is the top of the climb from the North: the road climbs up the vertiginous valley wall with the hairpins stacked almost on top of one another, and from the top you can look back down about 600m of the 1,800m climb. There are 48 hairpins on the Northern side, and incredibly the road is nearly 200 years old, having changed its route very little since it was originally built to link the then Austrian province of Lombardy with the rest of Austria. Now the climb is entirely in Italy, with the Umbrail pass snaking off into Switzerland on the descent towards Bormio.

Stelvio hairpins

Stelvio hairpins

As you can see, even in the middle of Summer it's cold on top of the Stelvio: there was plenty of snow on the final ascent. As such it's a good idea to take something warm to sling on for the descent, and grab a newspaper from the pizza restaurant: they have a box of old newspapers specifically for that purpose! And how did we find it? Watch the vid and find out...

Passo dello Stelvio (from Prato)

  • Length: 24.5km
  • Average gradient: 7.4%
  • Maximum gradient: 13%
  • Starting elevation: 934m
  • Finish elevation: 2758m
  • Height gain: 1824m

​Riding notes

The Stelvio is a long climb and once it steepens up (after about 7km) it's pretty unrelenting. At the same time, it never gets really steep either: the slope touches 13% but most of the time it's below 10%, meaning that it's not super hard if you pace yourself. The views all the way up the climb are incredible, so it's worth taking a bit of time to enjoy them if you can. The air noticeably thins once you get above 2,000m, and the hairpins at the very top are hard work more because of that than because they're any steeper.

After you leave Prato dello Stelvio at the bottom there's not much in the way of chances to refuel, so make the most of them. There's a few places in Ponte di Stelvio and Trafoi, but both of those come before the climb really starts, so make sure your water bottles (and pockets) are full before you hit the main climb. There are lots of places to eat and drink at the top though! The pizzas at the cafe up the steps on the left are good, and good value.

There's a fair bit of traffic on the pass, predominantly people driving/biking as a leisure activity. Some of the bikes/cars/coaches won't make some of the tighter hairpins without taking up basically the whole road, so watch out for that, especially on your way down.

Dave is a founding father of road.cc and responsible for kicking the server when it breaks. In a previous life he was a graphic designer but he's also a three-time Mountain Bike Bog Snorkelling world champion, and remains unbeaten through the bog. Dave rides all sorts of bikes but tends to prefer metal ones. He's getting old is why.

9 comments

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Boss Hogg [107 posts] 4 months ago
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Mythical...

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Bahrd [15 posts] 4 months ago
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Have you found a larger (160mm) front rotor necessary on a descent? 

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Sub4 [54 posts] 4 months ago
3 likes
Bahrd wrote:

Have you found a larger (160mm) front rotor necessary on a descent? 

I've tried 140/140 and 160/160. The extra braking power certainly makes a difference for me, although more likely to be found on some West Yorkshire 25%er than the Stelvio! I would certainly recommend for 'bigger' riders.

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crazy-legs [944 posts] 4 months ago
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Did Stelvio in mid-June. Even on the summit the temperature was up in the 20's, down in the valley it was high 30's!

Did it from Bormio and Prato as an out-and-back ride and then a few days later I did a lovely loop into Switzerland, up Umbrail to the summit and then down to Bormio. Worth ndoing as an iconic climb but it was quite busy with tourist traffic, mostly motorcycles but also a few camper vans that had great toruble getting round some of the super-tight hairpins.

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alansmurphy [1242 posts] 4 months ago
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Beautifully shot video. I mean you had help, Skegness wouldn't have provided some of the same backdrop but chapeau.

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CXR94Di2 [1859 posts] 3 months ago
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I've been up and down the Stelvio on a motorcycle, and boy is it hard work on the hairpins, very steep with no option other than to get round without stopping, has your foot wont reach the ground on the inside of the curve.  The right hand turns had to be done on the other side of the road(when no traffic was coming).  Made the disc rotors blue on the descent and we weren't gunning it.    

Certainly an epic if you get the chance.

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whobiggs [127 posts] 3 months ago
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turn the music down, I had to keep going up and down with the volume when he spoke!

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BehindTheBikesheds [988 posts] 3 months ago
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Have just supported 5 friends all in their 50s who have done the Raid Alpine in 6 days.

It included;

Col de la Ramaz 1608

Col des Saises 1650

Col de la Couille 1678 (An absolute sod of a climb in 34C!) 

Cormet de Roseland 1967

Colle di Sestriere 2035

Col du Mont Cenis 2081

Col de Vars 2108

Col d'Izoard 2360

Col de I'Iseran 2764 (blowing snow and sleet)

Cime de la Bonnette 2860 (excellent weather but spoiled by Italian motorcyclists) 

Plus various other Cols that are no gimme's.

I was in a VW transporter, the ascents were brutal, the descents magnificent for the most part, dropping 1800m through a 20 mile long Gorge was sublime. I was jealous of the fantastic bits but glad I wasn't doing the ascents (102kg so climbing really is not my forte). Epic trip all round.

The highest paved road classification is somewhat confusing, there are higher paved roads than the Cime but they are dead end/private non public access roads.

The Stelvio is higher than the Col de la Bonnette with Iseran the highest, the Cime is just a loop road.

Bon courage to all those that attempt the big mountains.

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Boss Hogg [107 posts] 3 months ago
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Bahrd wrote:

Have you found a larger (160mm) front rotor necessary on a descent? 

160/140 at the very least.