Some may already be aware that last year I was fortunate enough to spend 8 weeks cycling in Italy and France. Given that many cycling-nuts will be heading to Europe again this year, I thought it a good idea to begin a series of rolling posts, each featuring a review of one of the amazing climbs that I had the privilege to ride in August/September last year.
With no particular order in mind, I am kicking off with a climb accessed from my new favorite cycling town (sorry Bourg D'Oisans) Bormio in the amazing Italian Alps, the mighty Passo Dello Stelvio.
For many years the Stelvio was Europe's highest road pass (it is now third behind the col de la bonette and the col d'Iseran, both in France) and is a very important route historically. In cycling terms it may be the purest of road climbs.
The Stelvio may be climbed from either Bormio or Prato Allo Stelvio, both are long and difficult ascents. From Bormio the climb is 21.4kms long and averages 7.2%, but like with all big European climbs the average gradient means nothing. The Bormio climb features some short sections at 3% and others at 14% and represents a massive cycling challenge. The road surface is consistently good as you head out of town and straight onto the lower slopes of the climb.
The first section is around 5km of 8% before the road flattens for about a km or so. After the brief respite there are more ramps at 8% as you enter the series of 8 tunnels, known to cyclists as the most difficult part of the climb. After the tunnels you pass the steepest section (14%) and then go by a small cafe before commencing a series of around 15 hairpins. It is from these bends that the true splendor of the Stelvio becomes apparent, the views are incredible here. After the bends (which are less severe than the gradients that precede them) the road meanders up through a valley and the road flattens for a while.
With about 5kms to go to the summit, you pass the junction with the Susten Pass, which takes you to Switzerland just a few km away. The final 3km are actually the hardest part of the climb with an average gradient close to 10% but the the climbing is now almost done.
The views from the summit of the Stelvio are close to the best in Europe and the feeling of having reached there on a bicycle is an indescribable sense of achievement and pride. It is always busy up there, tourists (many cyclists) motor bikers and even hikers who have somehow made it up there on foot.
If the Bormio side of the Stelvio is incredible (and it is) the Prato side kind of transcends reality, it is even more beautiful! The start of the climb from Prato to Gamagoi is curiously a little unremarkable but once you leave this little village the road is transformed. Riding the hairpins, through dense pine forests on a silky smooth road surface is just divine and despite the 8% gradient it is easy to make progress. On clearing the forest you soon enter the village of Trafoi......and it may be a contender for the world's most beautiful town. Set in a deep valley, surrounded by 3000m+ peaks, split by a raging mountain stream and featuring exquisite buildings from ancient times, it is kind of like something from a storybook and even though I have ridden through there it still doesn't seem real. Reality however is something that DOES confront you once you leave Trafoi, 11.5kms at an average gradient of almost 10%! The Prato side of the Stelvio features 48 hairpin turns, counted down from the bottom, and most of them are in this 11km section.
The difficulty of the challenge is easily balanced by the visual feast that is all around you. Stunning views back down the valley as you climb the bends and admire the achievement stretching back behind you. All around are massive glaciers, the size and power of the setting is truly humbling, gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. Cyclists are everywhere, motorists are courteous and so respectful (such a pleasant feeling coming from Australia where cyclists often seem to be public enemy number one), one gets a sense that it is a feeling that would be hard to replicate doing anything else.
The final 5 kms are amazing, the views are still there but you can't help but be taken with the serpent-like road that somehow clings to the side of a mountain, how on earth did they do that? And then the summit is there, after 26kms at an average gradient of 7.8% and more than 2 hours of climbing, exhaustion, exhilaration, euphoria, excitement all at once, loud, vivid, alive!
The Passo Dello Stelvio......one for the bucket list of every cyclist, and gee even if you are not a cyclist, visit once before your time is done.
Brian Bubba Cooke
Exercise Physiologist, coach & cycling tragic for 30 years. Love the freedom, reward and sense of achievement that one can only experience in our amazing sport.