Road Trip: climbing the 2,758m Passo dello Stelvio

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.

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, having previously worked on Cycling Plus and What Mountain Bike magazines back in the day. He also writes about e-bikes for our sister publication ebiketips. He's won three mountain bike bog snorkelling World Championships, and races at the back of the third cats.

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