Of all the mountains one can ride a bicycle up, Passo Stelvio fascinates me the most.
Sure, at 2757m Passo Stelvio isn’t the highest pass in Europe. Col de la Bonette Restefond (2860m) is the highest and Col de l’Iseran (2770m) is second. Passo Stelvio also isn’t the biggest climb. From the classic east side, it is only 6000′, while the south side of Col de la Bonette is 7500′ and several other climbs, Mt. Ventoux for example, roughly match the Stelvio in total climbing.
While the Stelvio is only one of europe’s biggest climbs, it stands alone in terms of the challenge and mountain experience. Compared to Col de la Bonette, the Stelvio is far more scenic. The beautiful alpine green, the dark volcanic rock, the huge vertical drops and rises very near the road, and the glacier make the Stelvio unique.
The Stelvio is raw, rough, and challenging in a way that no other climb is. When you summit Col de la Bonette, you are at the top of the world. The mountain peak above you is close, maybe only 300m higher. At the top of the Stelvio, there are big peaks and a glacier very nearby. Seeing all this elevation below and above you gives you a sense of awe and makes this climb more epic than any other.
Cycling up the Stelvio is quite a challenge. Finishing at the top is exhilirating, no matter how sore and tired you may be.
I’ve climbed the Stelvio several times in my life. Counting this ride, I’ve climbed the east side twice and been up the west side five times. Before today, I had never done a “double Stelvio.”
We were staying in Bormio, which is due west of the Stelvio. The east side of the Stelvio is awe-inspiring, but the west side is far more challenging and impressive. So, to do the west side, we were literally forced to also climb the east side.
To make things a little more interesting, just before you reach the summit on the east side, you can turn left and climb over the Umbrail Pass, which descends into the Müstair valley in Switzerland. From there it is a short ride to Prato allo Stelvio, which is the base of the climb on the west side. So, our route would be up the east side of the Stelvio, over the Umbrail pass, down around to Prato allo Stelvio, and finally up the classic 6000′ climb where you get to experience all 48 switchbacks of the Stelvio in all their glory. In total, this would be 60 miles and 10,000′ of climbing. The east side of the Stelvio, going over Umbrail pass is just over 4000′, and the west side of the Stelvio is about 6000′ of climbing.
Enough hype, let’s get to the action!
The weather was very nice, with temperatures in the upper 70s and very few clouds in the sky. Leaving Bormio, we headed up the east side of the Stelvio. The road climbs up a canyon with steep slopes made of dark volcanic rock and very few trees or other vegetation. After a few switchbacks, we get to a section of tunnels.
The tunnels were built to protect the road from snow and rockfall, but they don’t protect cyclists from water. There is a fair amount of water on the road and dripping from the ceiling. The tunnels are dark, too. I had planned to bring a light, but I forgot. I remember the tunnels being a bit scary dark from previous years, but in reality I could see just fine without a light. One thing to note for the descent, though, is that the pavement is rough and has a few bumps and potholes. That, and the fact that it takes your eyes a while to adjust to the dark means that it wise to descend through the tunnels slowly.
Just above the tunnels, we see a set of switchbacks that go right up a steep part of the mountain.
Rudy and I stopped to admire the road behind and Ajax took this photo of us.
Ajax found a bit of the old road and gave it a try.
After this set of switchbacks, the gradient relaxed a bit as the road headed up a flattish meadow valley. In that valley is an old church and a memorial to the battles fought in WW1 overf these mountains.
Finally, we reach the summit of Umbrail pass where we ask a German cyclist to take the obligatory summit photo in front of the sign. At this point, we’ve climbed about 4200′.
The descent of Umbrail pass is fast and fun. Umbrail pass is a remarkable road. It is in good condition and carries virtually no traffic.
We enjoy several switchbacks.
and soon find ourselves at the start of a 1-mile section of dirt road. Fortunately, the dirt is firm, smooth, and does not slip. I take it easy, but had absolutely no issues with traction.
After the short dirt section, the road continues to drop and drop and drop. In total, Passo Umbrail is a thrilling 4000′ descent into the Müstair valley where we experience perfectly groomed Switzerland and drop another 2000′. The gentle grade lets us ride fast and enjoy the scenery.
Eventually, we reach Prato allo Stelvio, which is the base of the climb. We’ve climbed 4500′ so far in about 30 miles. At this point, I feel great. I’m ready to race a crit! Little do I realize the meltdown that is to come as I work my way up the Stelvio.
So, 48 switchbacks and 6000′ here I come!
Eventually, we get to the beautiful town of Trafoi. I have long admired the church in Trafoi and the view of the meadows with the mountains and glacier behind.
As I climb higher on the road, I get a closer view of the glacier and the moraine below it. One thing that strikes me is the sheer verticalness of the mountain. Below the glacier is a huge canyon. I’m sure that years ago the glacier must have been bigger. Even so, the view of the glacier, the moraine, and the deep drop below gives me a sense of just how much elevation there is here. Imagine living here in 1820-1824, 180 years ago when the road was first built!
The height of the road is dizzying. With each switchback, the road goes a little bit higher.
Soon I reach the Rifugio, Berghotel Franzenshöhe, where I can see both the hotel and the final 20ish switchbacks above. At this point, I have climbed 4000′ and have 2000′ vertical to go.
Rudy has stopped at the hotel and is drinking water from the fountain.
I fill my bottles, too, and hydrate for the remaining climb ahead. Altitude can dehydrate you and it is a warm day. Fortunately, there are many places to get water on the Stelvio.
Nearing the top, I see the London pain train coming my way. Riding the Stelvio sure must be different than the plains of southern England.
From the top, there is a dizzying view of the switchbacks below. While this may look like a high wire act, remember that this is only 2000′ of elevation. There is 4000′ more before the bottom!
At the top, I enjoy a well-deserved wurst sandwich with zwiebeln (onions), sauerkraut, and senf (mustard). Well, actually, I have two. No worries, even after the second one, I am still voraciously hungry.
There are three wurst carts at the top as well as a long line of stores selling souveneirs. In addition to the usual alpine gifts, they have Stelvio t-shirts as well as jerseys and complete kits of several designs, each commemorating the climb up the pass. Rudy bought one and will soon be showing his stylish cycling threads in norcal.
In addition to the normal road sign at the summit of the pass, there is a bronze monument to Fausto Coppi and a podium with a fake (plastic) Fausti Coppi likeness behind it. Always seeking to commemorate our climbs, we ask a Duth cyclist to take our picture on the podium.
Just as we start down, clouds come in, so it gets a little chilly. We’ve got sore bodies and a 4000′ descent ahead of us.
Even with sore hands and a sore back, the descent is loads of fun. Passing cars is a piece of cake. On a bicycle, you can see around the curves better than the cars can are more nimble. You also have better brakes, so you can let it fly on the straightaways and quickly get speed under control for the switchbacks. We zoom down the hill, through the tunnels (ok, ok, I slow down quite a bit in the tunnels), and pretty soon find ourselves in beautiful Bormio just in time for dinner.
OK, so I’m a wreck, but I had a great time!
- distance: 63.5 miles
- total climbing: 10,155′
- passes: Passo Umbrail (2503m), Passo Stelvio (2756m)