Roads to Ride: The Stelvio

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Stelvio Trafoi

As the sixth part of a series to explore the famous roads of cycling, here is the Passo dello Stelvio in the Italian Alps. The idea is to discover the road and its place in the world, whether as part of cycling’s history or to look at the route on a day without racing and it is open to all.

The Stelvio is Europe’s second highest paved mountain pass but superior in legend to the Col de l’Iseran thanks to history, pedigree and the sheer experience of climbing and descending this giant.

The Route
The Passo dello Stelvio is 2,758m above sea level according to the large sign at the top. There are two main routes to the top and a third via Switzerland.

The SS38 goes from Bormio on the west to Ponte di Stelvio on the east via the pass. Each side offers a similar experience being 22km from Bormio at 7.1% and 24km from Ponte di Stelvio at 7.4%. But the Bormio side offers more variety, a flat section 5km from the top and 12% for most of the last two kilometres. The Ponte side is regular and the carefully placed Trafoi bends are a work of engineering. Is there a better side to climb? Both offer something but the Trafoi bends on the Eastern side are the “must do” experience plus you avoid the narrow tunnels on the Bormio side but ideally you don’t want to choose, you want to try both approaches.

Stelvio profile

The Feel
This is a long climb, I cannot find the record but either side requires 75-90 minutes in the Giro so you’ll probably need 90 minutes, perhaps two even three hours.

Daniel Friebe’s bible “Mountain High” quotes Fausto Coppi saying he thought he was going to die and Marco Pinotti labelled it “ascetic” whilst Friebe himself calls it a “treat” and “spiritual.” I’m with Pinotti. This is a climb that is romanticised by journalists and rich in history but when ridden it’s more grim treatment than a treat. Yes the scenery stuns but the higher you go the more the mind is numbed by the cold and the dwindling blood sugar, plus the altitude extracts a usury interest rate on your oxygen debt, any anaerobic ambitions risk default. It takes a long time to reach the top and when you do make it the mind is on the descent and your clothing, damp with sweat. It’s hard.

Stelvio poster

Still, the Trafoi bends are special. Imagine looking at an image of Alpe d’Huez an tablet device and then using your fingers to stretch the image to vertical and you get the idea, this climb makes you crane your neck like a tourist in Manhattan. The Eastern side has 48 hairpin bends and these are concentrated above the village of Trafoi when the road leaves the natural course of the valley to snake up the wall of the valley, quickly rising above the tree line. You can admire these bends for the engineering and quietly thank the constructors who ensured a regular gradient, unlike many other Italian passes. But it’s relentless, the bends hang high above and seem so far away. This side also has the Piccolo Tibet mountain refuge. Built in 1959 by a mountaineer it might sound exotic, but no, you really are so high up amidst a rocky landscape with glaciers hanging around that this does feel Himalayan. The remote feeling is quickly forgotten at the summit where shops and restaurants crowd the top, the satisfaction of reaching the pass is there but spiritual pride has to compete with the garish market forces.

The Bormio side is different. Engineered too, but instead of climbing up the mountain, at times it goes through it with a series of tunnels. In the past these were scary even to climb because they were dark, wet and narrow and traffic, including descending cyclists, didn’t always spot the rider climbing. Plus there’s the acoustic effect where even a small Fiat sounds like the truck from Spielberg’s Duel. The good news is that these have been upgraded with lighting which makes all the difference. But the other sections are calm and scenic and worth the effort. Both sides now have wooden signs that count down the hairpins remaining to the top.

The Stelvio is not just a climb but a descent of course and one of the best in Europe. However, be prepared for the cold. The height and isolation of this road means it is perpetually cold and warm temperatures are rare. Indeed even before climbing be sure to check the weather report in case the clouds come in because having to ride down in the rain without sufficient kit will be miserably unforgettable.

The Pass
The pass marks the point between three borders. It is the point between the regions of Lombardia and the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. But the pass also sits next to the Swiss border and can be reached by the Umbrail pass which joins the Stelvio just a few hundred metres below the pass.

The Giro
Fausto Coppi was the first to the top in 1953 in a race winning move. There’s a monument to him on the climb and the high point of the Giro is called the Cima Coppi, the Coppi summit. The images of him climbing in between walls of snow live on today and are often recreated when the race passes in modern times.

Coppi Hinault Stelvio

Different years, same images

The race returned in 1961 when Charly Gaul, perhaps the greatest ever climber, won after descending in to Bormio. It’s been used sparingly since and in recent times the Giro has held the stage finish on the summit to literally heighten the importance and drama. That said this is as much a descent as a climb and in 1980 Bernard Hinault and Jean-René Bernaudeau went wild with the unlit tunnels to rip the race lead away from Wladimiro Panizza on the road down to Bormio.

Ivan Basso fared worse. Leading the Giro he fell sick and lost 42 minutes on the climb. Yes forty two minutes. It only reminds us that if the Stelvio consecrates the winner it is fiendish for the others, a graveyard of ambitions.

Cancellations are a feature as much as participations. The cold weather means snow and the race has been prevented from crossing in the past and it almost happened last year. In 1984 Laurent Fignon was ready to ambush Franceso Moser on the big mountain stage but the organisers cited poor conditions only the Frenchman protested and claimed it was a ruse to help home rider Moser win the race. Fignon seems to have been vindicated by journalists who drove over to verify the climb but over the years this climb has not been a regular in the Giro. Last year we saw the Giro close to abandoning the stage.

On a normal day
Things are never normal at 2,750 metres. Snow means the road is closed today and won’t open until May. The ski season is on now and the Stelvio is part of the Ortler ski area. The road season is really from late May to early October. Once you get into June the pass welcomes of cyclists testing themselves on this special road. Many are Italians but there’s a large share of Germans too riding brands you don’t see elsewhere like Simplon or Red Bull. The Germans don’t just come to pedal, most seem to ride this by motorbike and the valley echoes to the roar of unrestricted sports bikes as their riders exploit the hairpin bends. This can frustrate, the road is open to all and no doubt locals get sick of cyclists weaving up the road and pretending to be a falcon on the way down but the motorbikes do go fast and spoil the mountain peace. Many motorists also drive up for the view and many eye the cyclist with curiosity: why did you ride up?

Stelvio summit

Europe’s most urban mountain pass? (and spot the Devil’s trident graffiti)

Unlike the higher Col d’Iseran (2,770m) which is topped by a little more than a sign, a chapel and a boast there’s plenty going on at the top of the Stelvio. Having climbed through emptiness the top is a surprise. It’s crowded and you might feel like plunging down the other side to avoid the crowds. You’ll find restaurants, souvenir shops and you can even stay the night in one of several hotels although at 2750m a good night’s sleep is unlikely: expect to find curious travellers and hypoxia-hunting athletes. Strangely there’s also a bank, a novel take on high finance. Next to the bank is the Stelvio museum which tells the tale of the pass, from bronze age to concrete age and the construction of the road.

Say Cheese
Say Stelvio to many in Italy and they’ll say formaggio because it’s a type of cheese commonly sold in supermarkets across Italy. Stelvio DOP is also known by the German label, Stilfser and the Stelvio pass is also known by its German name Stilfserjoch although cycling speaks Italian thanks to the Giro so it’s always Stelvio for us.

Stelvio cheese

As mentioned above the pass is on the border of the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region, a semi-autonomous part of Italy where the majority of the population speak German first and Italian second and the Stelvio has played its part in history. It was first built because the Austro-Hungarian empire controlled Lombardia and needed access and after years of work it was opened in 1825. Later Lombardia returned to Italy and the pass marked the border between Italy and Austria. But the climb today is firmly Italian on both sides even if the Südtirol area is Germanic in tone.

Access
Bormio is your best bet. The piece above has concentrated on the Eastern side but Bormio to the west offers the best location although reaching Bormio is not easy as it’s 200km from international airports like Milan. But it’s a place to explore the Stelvio and other passes are within reach: Aprica, Tonale, Gavia, Mortirolo, it’s like choosing which dentist to visit. Certainly there’s a choice to intimidate almost every day but also the chance to make a vertical exploration of cycling’s history.

As well as location, timing matters as the weather needs to be good. Don’t go before June as the snow is a risk. On 31 August the road will be closed to all traffic except cyclists.

Bormio is scenic enough and has many cycle-friendly hotels with safe storage for your bike. Look for a family-run place and be sure to dine on pizzoccheri which are squares of wholemeal pasta and bresaola, cured beef sausage that’s sliced finely, a rich source of iron to help you cope with the mountains above.

If the Stelvio is a legend then next week a myth from Tim Krabbé’s book “The Rider”: Le Mont Aigoual. Only it’s not fiction but a real place that has hosted the Tour de France and other races..

Part I – Alpe d’Huez
Part II – The Ghisallo
Part III – Mont Ventoux
Part IV – Col de la Madone
Part V – Col du Soulor
Part VI – Passo Dello Stelvio
Part VII – Mont Aigoual
Part VIII – Col de la République
Part IX – Croce d’Aune
Part X – Strade Bianche
Part XI – Col d’Eze
Part XII – The Poggio
Part XIII – Arenberg Cobbles
Part XIV – Col du Tourmalet
Part XV – Côte de La Redoute
Part XVI – Col du Pin Bouchain
Part XVII – Puy de Dôme
Part XVIII – La Planche des Belles Filles
Part XIX – Col du Lautaret
Part XX – Col du Palaquit
Part XXI – Champs Elysées
Part XXII: The Col du Galibier
Part XXIII: The Lacets de Montvernier
Part XXIV: Hautacam
Part XXV: The Schelde Bike Path
Part XXVI: Col de Marie-Blanque
Part XXVII: Jebel Al Akhdar
Part XXVIII: Genting Highlands

Main photo with permission of ski-epic.com

Pin It

{ 34 comments }

Tommy B February 2, 2013 at 10:17 am

A great article. REminds me of why I love the sport of cycling so much.

ARi February 2, 2013 at 11:17 am

From 2013 there will be a toll for all motor vehicles on Stelvio. This might help lighten the traffic a little…

Simon Fielder February 2, 2013 at 11:52 am

Good summary. I went up the bormio side last September. It was raining from 2k upwards and by the time we were at the top it was very cold and uncomfortable. It’s not a beautiful mountain, quite industrial with the hydro electric power plants and the motorbikes are a pain distrupting the cyclists rythem. The gavia is a much more pleasant clim in my opinion.

james February 2, 2013 at 11:52 am

This ones on my bucket list, hopeful to do it in 2014.

Tom February 2, 2013 at 11:57 am

Spielberg’s Duel. I remember watching it back when it originally aired as a Movie of the Week on TV. Made a strong impression on me as a 10 yr old. Good call.

Anonymous February 2, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Good article, enjoyed reading that.

There’s a very good video on uTube from UK TV’s The Cycling Show with Graham Little, Kristian House and Darren Parish riding The Stelvio. It’s an enlightening look at riding the pass if you’re thinking of giving it a go;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sW_aoTL-RBc

14 minutes but well worth a watch.

Guy H February 4, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Ah, good spot. I did wonder which climb that was recently but couldn’t remember. That was brutal!

hoh February 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Thanks for the lovely piece.

BTW, “Red Bull” is actually known as “Rose” now in German. They make a pretty good aluminium frame. Better if you buy the version with di2 components (though personally I still prefer mechanical shift).

Starwasp February 2, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Hey INRG

You should take a look at the joux-plane. Not only lots of interesting history but when we did it several times last August, the traffic was 80% cyclists, 20% reasonable car drivers and zero percent motorbikes.

Surely one of the key criteria for attractiveness in an alpine climb is the degree to which the cyclist has the alp to him/herself…

The Inner Ring February 2, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Yes, it’s on my last. Lance Armstrong hated it – a good reason to investigate – but the main reason is that it is unlike most other Alpine climbs as it winds up through fields and pastures and whilst it is hard and often decisive, it never feels like it is clinging to a mountain. Anyway, more to come.

Ian Tivey February 5, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Joux-Plane is a horrible climb… looks much easier on a gradient chart than on a bike. Beautiful views of Mont Blanc, if you can see through the sweat in your eyes!

James Warne February 2, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Great post! The Stelvio is on my bucket list.

Aaron February 2, 2013 at 3:05 pm

What a picture! Along with many Alpine climbs, this one is on my bucket list as well.

Larry T. February 2, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Ahh, here’s a climb I could blather on about for hours. I’m fortunate to be able to ride it every other year since 2000 with our clients (not really, they’re mostly far ahead of me!) plus once or twice when we worked for another tour operator, always from the “correct” classic Trafoi side. When laying out CycleItalia’s itinerary we made a LOT of effort towards securing lodging within reasonable cycling distance of Prato allo Stelvio so no van transfer would be needed. I’ve been up this in wonderful weather like last year – we sat in shorts and short sleeves at the top while chowing down on the infamous grilled sausage panini, washed down with cold beer. Other years we’ve been up there under light snow, one of those climbs where you’re putting on more clothes as you climb and can’t wait to get off the top and down to warm and sunny Bormio. Avoid the weekends if you can, we changed our itinerary so we could enjoy it on a Monday when it’s much calmer – seems the Swiss boyracers that plague it on weekends must have to work, or at least check on their trust funds on Mondays! One year we lucked out when the road was closed due to a snow slide, but we climbed over and continued, with only a few other crazy cyclists for company! Certainly a must-ride for any cycling fan, we’ll be there again in 2013, on July 8th.

Tobias February 2, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Im going to Bormio first week of july this year to explore all legendary climbs. This piece (and the other comments) make me long even more, its going to be epic… (Fingers crossed for good weather)

Jesse R. February 2, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Amazing read. Thanks for this.

Daniel February 2, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Nearly every time I read a post here I’m reminded of my love of cycling and this was no exception. Inrng you capture the pure essence of your subject and this brings me back, time after time. Thank you

Term1te February 2, 2013 at 7:01 pm

Another one for the bucket list.

Bundle February 2, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Good piece. The Bormio side was the most memorable ride of my life. Always great to read about it. Too bad you chose to omit 1975′s Bertoglio vs Galdos showdown, the last day of one of the best Giros of the past 50 years.

The Inner Ring February 2, 2013 at 8:22 pm

True, and Fuente got the better of Merckx on this climb too. It has a habit of overturning things.

nathang February 3, 2013 at 1:01 am

Will be in Bormio for a few days from 1/7/2013.
Looking forward to tackling Stelvio/Umbrail, Gavia/Mortorola, two big days of riding.

Larry T. February 3, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Have fun! One year the Stelvio proper was closed due to snow slides so we detoured through Switzerland and the Umbrail. Not as tough but on the dirt surface I was glad we were going up rather than down! Watch out for cows if you’re descending. We were able to complete the ascent once back into Italia but it was certainly not the same as doing the famous 48 numbered switchbacks – even after all these years I still get excited when I get the chance to ride it. 2014 will be my next chance. One hint – do NOT eat pizzoccheri until AFTER your’re done cycling – way too heavy to ride on, even with low gears – save it for a celebration afterwards with a second plate of bresaola/argula/shaved grana and a bottle of Sassello, Grumello or Inferno! Oh, and enjoy schiatt as an appetizer…these little fried things are delicious!

Ankush February 3, 2013 at 10:15 am

beautiful beautiful post, to me the most romantic in this series. Thank you Inrng for this one, Stelvio is up there on my list too.

c40jim February 3, 2013 at 4:47 pm

My favourite climb, at last. Now we just need my favourite ride (Sella Ronda).

I’ve done this ride twice 1995 and 2003, both times with Larry T (one with his prior employer). Timed in 03 I was a little slower than the pros – 2:23. At the top, Heather (Larry’s better half) and I were watching the crowds. I pointed out some guy with a full Saeco kit and a Mapei painted Colnago and said what a faux pas. I pointed out another guy on a Time with the matching Quick Step kit and Heather said it gets really pricy when you have a matching car too. Five minutes later and there were seven pros chatting and refuelling. We tried to follow them down but they dropped us there too.

I’ve told my kids to scatter my ashes there and was going to show my older son the to in 2010. Unfortunately, I crashed coming into Bolzano the day before on his 25th birthday. Spoiled both our days and kept me off the bike for 10 months. So, I’ll try again this year with friends but no kids.

I love this series and the blog. Keep it up.

Willie February 9, 2013 at 4:42 am

Jim! Saluti from Tucson. Hope you are well and glad to hear you are going back to Italia!
Ciao-Willie

Velodoom February 3, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Good luck had me at the base of Aprica pass for work the week before the Giro climbed the Stelvio last year. I was able to bring my bike and get a hotel in Bormio for the weekend. It was the hardest climb I have ever done by far – but it was so exciting to have the roads closed and to see the Giro motor up the mountain! I was worried about the weather for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, but all worked out well and it was the perfect day. Will remember for the rest of my life!

Will February 3, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Great Post. Dream climb from all three sides. Agree that Bormio is the best base town for Stelvio. Nice old village and squares and also at the very start of Gavia.

Minor trivia – someone correct me if I am wrong – but I believe that Umbrail Pass is the highest paved pass in Switzerland (there is a short unpaved stretch part way up – but ride-able on road bike).

The Inner Ring February 3, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Glad I get the seal of approval! I’ve ridden the others in the series quite a few times but the Stelvio only twice on each side and memories were numbed by the cold and fatigue so the recall was harder.

By deduction the Umbrail pass has to be the highest as the Stelvio is Europe’s second highest and the Umbrail joins right near the top of it, it must be well in excess of 2500m.

will February 3, 2013 at 9:58 pm

The Col sign for Umbrail say 2503 metres:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/willj/4951463449/

I suppose the next highest paved passes in Switzerland would be Nufenenpass at 2478 metres and then Grand St. Bernard at 2473m.

Regardless, it is a VERY quiet and scenic third way up Stelvio.

Monty February 4, 2013 at 12:07 am

Echo all the comments above about how excellent this series of posts is. If only I had the time and ability to go do some of them!

What I do have is a family holiday booked for Majorca in the summer. It is not entirely coincidental that the location of the apartment (Puerto Pollensa) is not a million miles away from Sky’s training hotel.

Any chance that you could feature a Majorcan climb? I know they don’t have the history of the other climbs you’ve covered….

@CitrusCityCycle February 4, 2013 at 3:54 pm

THIS is why i love cycling: thanks for this series, look forward to future posts. Thank you!

Owen Rogers February 4, 2013 at 10:31 pm

Sorry folks, I”m one of those who’s ridden it on motorbike. Well nearly, I came face to face with another bike cutting one of the hairpins and ended up falling over. Not sure I’m man enough to ride it on the push bike, but I wouldn’t allow myself to be beaten if I went.

steve pucci February 24, 2013 at 2:37 pm

beautiful climb. took me 1:55 from bormio.. was 90f at base… 40f and 40mph wind at summit. on the descent i had to stop twice to do push ups on the side of the road to stop shaking from the cold. was ok by the time i hit the flat area 5k below the summit.
tkfully it sprinkled but stopped before we descended.
as mentioned..lotta motor bkes and you can hear the sound when they are still a long way off.

pietro bombardieri June 28, 2013 at 7:18 pm

The stelvio made me a cyclist. For the rest of my life. Yes it may be hard.however it is uplifting in a spiritual way that I can’t describe in words! Even if it is cold or raining it doesn’t matter,you will make it it draws you in, anyone who has done it will know what I mean.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 5 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: