The Passo dello Stelvio is the highest strip of asphalt in the Alps. The road sign, hardly legible due to all the stickers attached to it, can be reached from either Italy or Switzerland. If you see this sign, you know that you have reached the end of a long climb — unless you have the brilliant idea to ride up it from both sides in the same day that is.
Bormio — the ideal base camp
The Passo dello Stelvio straddles the border between Italy and Switzerland. Bormio, the town at the foot of the climb on the Italian side, is a perfect base camp for cyclists who like a challenge. Both the climb to the Passo Gavia and the Stelvio begin in the town centre, and other famous climbs such as the Mortirolo and the ascent to Livigno are within cycling distance.
Bike riders won’t be able to believe their luck in Bormio. At one point one is faced with the difficult choice of whether or not to turn left and climb the Stelvio, or to right up the Gavia. We’re turning left today and beginning this 21-kilometre-long climb.
Half way up the climb from Bormio
A climb with many faces
This is a point you should not forget. Once you climb out of the old centre of town, and turn up the quiet road at the start, it doesn’t yet look like there’s much to be worried about. But after a few hairpin bends, though the route has an average gradient of 7,7%, you’ll suddenly hit the steepest kilometre which peaks at 10.9%.
Trees then make way for blocks of rock, tunnels and a few ruined buildings; the changing decor almost exactly matches the increasing pain in your legs. And if you think the end of the first (long) tunnel marks the beginning of easier cycling, you will be sorely mistaken. Although it appears that the long road leading into the distance is the end, the strip soon turns into a series of hairpin bends, marking a steeper section, and you’re only halfway up the climb. The end is no way near.
If you’re still feeling great around 3 kilometres before the summit, it’s really worth considering turning left into Switzerland. This descent, the Umbrail Pass (which you probably climbed up if you cycled from the north to Bormio) leads you through a series of hairpin bends to the beautiful valley hiding the village of Prad am Stilfserjoch (Prato allo Stelvio). And, you’ve guessed it, the climb from this village is the starting point for the second ascent up the Stelvio. Once you’ve survived the transfer to Prato, it’s time for the next 25 kilometres with an average gradient of 7.9%.
The Stelvio loop from two sides
48 corners to a heavenly view
Bear in mind that this is a circuit of around 100 kilometres with 4,000 metres of elevation gain. In short, you will burn many calories. A tip from a veteran of this route is tp make sure you take on calories all the way along the route. The first time that I tried it, I had a serious energy deficit up the second climb. A fight against a descending average speed doesn’t make it any easier once you reach turn 24 and see the summit far in the distance.
For those arithmetic fans: 48 minus 24 means that you still have 24 corners before you have reached the top, all within the final 7 kilometres. In other words: steep. Enough for me to stop on turn 22 (very much against tradition) and load up on a piece of cake.
The most-value-for-money-ever cake works wonders, and the fuel goes directly into the legs. And once at the summit, you are rewarded with the most splendid views of the surrounding nature which you can keep staring at for ages. The Stelvio from two sides asks a lot of a cyclist, both on a physical and mental level. But with enough drinks, energy gels, training and a positive mental attitude (or simple ignorance of what exactly lies ahead) reaching the serene summit after this hard day on the bike is the best reward you can wish for and a legendary spot for taking stock of one’s cycling life.