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Some useful, and some not so useful observations on riding Europe's second highest road pass

Last summer summer road.cc and off-road.cc sent a team of crack operatives (well, me, Dave and Jon from off-road.cc) on a road trip to the Italian Dolomites where we rode new bikes at Eurobike Live, tackled the Maratona dles Dolomites gran fondo, some very fine Italian dining and on our day off me and Dave rode up the Stelvio. Dave, did it with a video crew (that’s just the way he rolls) and you can see how he got on here. I rode up ahead and waited at the top without any money or enough air in my front tyre* - cos that’s the way I roll.

*Luckily I met a Dutch bloke with a pump just as I was about to start back down. He probably saved my life.

Stelvio - Turn 48 closer.jpg

 

1. It’s got 48 hairpin bends going up from the Italian side, nearly all of them in the second half of the climb. They’re all numbered and 1 is at the top. 

2. At 2760 metres It’s the second highest road pass in Europe… don’t know what the highest is*, but don’t ask me to ride it.

*Someone will tell us in the comments.

Stelvio hairpins

 

3. There are three ways up one on the Swiss side and two on the Italian side - the pros have raced up them all. Probably.

 

Stelvio - it's along way down and there's still a long way up.jpg

4. At an average of 6 per cent the Stelvio is not very steep, but it is very long. Very long - 24km on the Italian side. It’s the topographical equivalent of the small child in the back of the car asking ‘are we there yet?’ for kilometre after kilometre after kilometre. Its brutality lies not in the gradient* but in its  persistence. Until you get to the top. 

*although it is a long way up (obviously) - we started in Silandro back down the valley and the height gain from there was 2km.

5. Unusually for both Switzerland and Italy there are very few places to refill your water bottle on they way up*- and for most of us it’s definitely more than a one bottle mountain - so it makes sense to pack two. *Maybe that’s so they can sell you some when you get to the top.

6. On the way up the Stelvio smells of burning clutches with a faint hint of pine. On the way down the aroma is of overheating motorcycle disc brakes with a faint hint of pine. That’s because…

Stelvio - Turn 48 closer.jpg

 

7. These days aside from straddling the Italian/Swiss border, and being very tall, the Passo dello Stelvio’s basic function would seem to be as a place for people* of a certain age to challenge themselves using their wheeled vehicle of choice. We fitted right in.

Imagine a giant track day for middle aged men in Lycra, leather, or sports cars of varying vintages - all on the same track all at the same time, and you’ve pretty much got it - although that makes it sound busier on the road than it is. 

Did I say middle aged? Somewhat unusually the cyclists were the ones keeping the age average on the road down and there were a fair number of female cyclists too. The bravest people on the mountain were also women – riding pillion. 

*People who are mostly men.

8. Speaking of motorcycles, expect to meet a lot of them on the Stelvio. A LOT. Oh, and a lot of posters reminding motorcyclists of their responsibility not to kill themselves on the road ahead. Great squadrons of them sometimes taking up both lanes of the road because - well, they can – and because as the hairpins get tighter and more cambered nearer the top the only way some of the big touring bikes can get round is by taking the outside line even if it is on the wrong side of the road and you’re coming up/down the other way. They mean you no harm but…  

 

Stelvio - there.jpg

9. Speaking of the top, after slogging your way through some of the most stunning scenery Europe has to offer the top itself is something of a disappointment. In fact it wouldn’t be selling it short to say that the top of the Stelvio is a bit of a dump. Quite an expensive and tacky one too. I’m sure you can get a 'My dad/mum rode up the Stelvio and all I got was this crappy t-shirt’ t-shirt, you can definitely buy official Passo de Stelvio cycling kit. Who would buy and wear such kit you ask? Well the bloke we saw in Corvara the next day for one.

Stelvio - winter wonderland on June 30.jpg

Oh, and it’s very busy up there, you’re not going to spend all that time riding or driving up Europe’s second highest road pass and not stop so everyone does if only to wander around in a daze wondering how they can get a picture of the view minus their immediate surroundings, that or boggling at the price of a bottle of water.

The top isn’t all bad though - for starters it's the top so all the climbing has finished* AND you can get a very good and reasonably priced pizza in the pizzeria up the steps from the Banco Populare, which also offers a supply of newspapers and magazines for you to stuff down your jersey for the ride back down. And you will need them. 

 

10. Because it’s can get cold up at the top - so pack a jacket and maybe some knee warmers. There was snow on the ground even on the last day of June when we rode up and there was even more on the Swiss side which faces north. In fact Mother Nature celebrated our arrival at the top by laying on a passable impression of February** with a heavy snow shower too. Meanwhile a few bends down wild strawberries were ripening in the sun (I know that because Dave stopped and ate them on the way down). 

*Some people ride back down and then do it again… yeah, insert eye-roll emoticon here.

**If the live webcam at top top of the Stelvio Pass is anything to go by actual February involves substantially more snow.

11. Disc brakes are a very good thing to have on your bike for riding down the Stelvio - particularly for the succession of tight hairpins at the top where, you may well need to hold a tight line either on the inside or outside of the bend and be prepared to change it suddenly should you encounter a motorbike or a Swiss bloke in an convertible Mustang coming the other way on the wrong side of the road. 

Stelvio - the road rises.jpg

 

12. Contrary to what you might think the best bits of the descent – on the Italian side at least – are nearer the bottom as the distance between hairpins increases. In fact, the fastest bits are after you’ve left the hairpins behind… there’s still a lot of descending still to do. 

 

Riding to the Stelvio the gravelly bit.jpg

13. There are some great mostly traffic free routes along the valley leading to the Stelvio following the river - mainly gravel (check ‘em out in the gallery above), but totally doable on a road bike – well, we did ‘em on road bikes anyway. Riding the gravel roads was a lot of fun and the route goes right down the valley - so you could get a decent day’s ride out of just them. Or you try a different type of fun and hook the Gavia, Mortirolo, and Stelvio in to one ride - I bumped in to a young Canadian at the top of the Stelvio as he completed that fun triple or as he called it ‘my hardest day on the bike ever’. 

Maybe next year…

 

Plucked from the obscurity of his London commute back in the mid-Nineties to live in Bath and edit bike mags our man made the jump to the interweb back in 2006 as launch editor of a large cycling website somewhat confusingly named after a piece of navigational equipment. He came up with the idea for road.cc mainly to avoid being told what to do… Oh dear, issues there then. Tony tries to ride his bike every day and if he doesn't he gets grumpy, he likes carbon, but owns steel, and wants titanium. When not on his bike or eating cake Tony spends his time looking for new ways to annoy the road.cc team. He's remarkably good at it.

9 comments

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fenix [1097 posts] 9 months ago
1 like

I'd not include the bit from Tirano cos then it's a long long nasty climb.

I did it from Bormio on a day when the barriers where down but the road was clear. Possibly the best days cycling ever. This was May and the snow was about ten feet deep at the side of the road at the top.

I thought there are two ways up from Italy and one from Switzerland ? A misprint maybe ?

Rim brakes were absolutely fine for me and all the times the giro rode over it too.

Watch out for marmots on the way down. I hit 50mph and thought marmots had been invented for merchandising until one dashed across the road in front of me. Surprisingly large too.

There a couple of bike hotels in bormio too. Great cycle facilities and laundering of kit. No having to wash your shorts in the sink...

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Chris Hayes [304 posts] 9 months ago
3 likes

Nice article.  More of these please.... I used to watch The Greatest Climbs but it seems to have been taken off.   

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justDave [39 posts] 9 months ago
3 likes

At 2770 the Iseran is a whole 10 metres higher than the Stelvio, so that's the highest pass in Europe.

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Daveyraveygravey [623 posts] 9 months ago
3 likes

It's closed to vehicles once a year (usually the first Saturday in September) and you can ride up it from either Bormio or Prato on your bike without the middle aged men whizzing by on their noisy motorbikes or flash cars.  When the weather is nice they get 11,000 people...the closure starts from Trafoi about 8 km above Prato on the Swiss side.  

I arranged my whole summer break last year around that date, found a lovely ski place that was good value (and the missus fell in love with!) and was all fired up to do the climb.  About a fortnight before, my cycling buddies who had all been up it in July without me started messaging me about the weather forecast being suspect and sure enough as we drove up through italy the day before, the temperature which had been around 30 degrees all holiday started dropping, settling at 3 degrees when we got to the ski lodge.  By the time we got in the hot tub (you just have to!) it was snowing and I was thinking about not even setting my alarm to get up and climb the next morning.

Next morning was 5 degrees and raining.  I had a ten hour drive to do, and decided not to risk the bike ride in those conditions.  I found out later they shut the road about half way up, it was snwoing and the frozen roads were pretty treacherous.

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maviczap [233 posts] 9 months ago
1 like
justDave wrote:

At 2770 the Iseran is a whole 10 metres higher than the Stelvio, so that's the highest pass in Europe.

Yes, but by the sound of it, much quieter than the Stelvio traffic wise.

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Miller [149 posts] 9 months ago
1 like

I wouldn't count on the Iseran being any quieter. The French love their Motos. Fabulous climb and descent though.

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Tony Farrelly [2963 posts] 9 months ago
1 like

@Fenix - You're dead right it should have read two on the Italian side and one on the Swiss - does now. 
I was glad of the discs not for the actual descending itself but for dealing with the oncoming traffic that was all over the road - particularly on the higher hairpins when my hands were freezing. Even so, definitely a great climb (I'd defo do it again) and the closed road gran fondo sounds brilliant.

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maviczap [233 posts] 9 months ago
2 likes
Miller wrote:

I wouldn't count on the Iseran being any quieter. The French love their Motos. Fabulous climb and descent though.

Depends on the time of year, it was almost deserted in September when I did it. It also depends which side you do it from. Here's an almost empty car park.

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Geraldaut [61 posts] 9 months ago
0 likes

I have my in-laws near Meran and did the Stelivio last summer for the first time, from Meran and back.

Some picture on my strava ride:

https://www.strava.com/activities/1135389669

I went up from Müstair (Switzerland). You really get to feel the altitude, at least I had to stop often nearing the top. A nice region to for riding!