Passo Stelvio (Stilfserjoch) — Europe’s Most Beautiful Pass

Passo Stelvio is a legend.  The third highest, Passo Stelvio is unquestionably the most scenic european mountain pass.  The riding challenge is thrilling and the high mountain experience is unmatched in all of cycling.

We’re staying in Bormio, so Passo Stelvio is right at our doorstep.  For years, the east side has been famous for its 48 switchbacks and 6000 feet of climbing.  It is one of cycling’s most incredible experience.  The west side has been the poor stepsister.  With only 39 switchbacks and 5000 feet of climbing, it just hasn’t gotten much press.  That is until the 2012 Giro d’Italia climbed the east side on its queen stage, preceding the mountaintop finish on the Stelvio with climbs of the Tonale, Aprica, and Mortirolo.

Now that the west side is famous, I can unembarassedly share my account of climbing the west side.

Our group’s plan was to ride the west side of the Stelvio, head north over Passo Umbrail into Switzerland, and back up the east side of the Stelvio for an incredible day.  I did this ride last year and felt like a wimp today, so I only rode the west side.

Here’s a view of the middle part of the western slope of the Stelvio.

The western side is divided into five sections:

  1. approach — Heading out of Bormio, you quickly start gaining altitude.  Going through a small tunnel and past Bagni Vecchi (old baths… hotsprings), you get your first view of the steep valley, Val Braulio.  The stone is dark sedimentary rock with very little growing in it.  The road follows the north side.  Despite there being few trees, it is cool and shady.
  2. tunnels — Soon you reach a set of tunnels, about 5 to 7 in total.  At the top of the tunnels, you have climbed about 2000 feet with 3000 to go.
  3. switchbacks — Exiting the last tunnel, the grade picks up to a tough 10% with short 14% section approaching the majority of the switchbacks.  The photo above shows some (not all) of these switchbacks.  The switchbacks follow a beautiful waterfall.  From the top you can see a beautiful view below.
  4. long valley — At the top of the switchbacks, you have climbed about 3500 feet.  The next step is a long grassy meadow, well above treeline.
  5. final ascent — The final climb has several switchbacks climbing the last 1000 feet to the summit.

Here’s another view of the switchbacks (part of section 3).

And here is a view looking back at the farm, church, and war memorial in the long flat valley.  In World War I, the Stelvio was the site of the world’s highest battle.  Brave footsoldiers suffered the elements of brutal Alpine winters to defend this pass on Italy’s northern border.  There is a touching war memorial here to the soldiers who gave their lives.

Finally, here I am at the top of the Stelvio, posing proudly by the bronze plaque commemorating Fausto Coppi.  There is a remarkable styrofoam reproduction on the other side of the road.  Most cyclists get there picture taken by the styrofoam version because it is behind a podium, but this is the real Fausto Coppi monument.

I should also point out my styling Stelvio kit.  A lot of the passes have nice souveneir shopping at the top.  Most of the souveneirs are handy things like bumper stickers, stuffed marmots, and t-shirts.  The Stelvio has an extraordinary selection of souveneirs, especillay for cyclists.

You can get Stelvio tshirts.  Some of them show cyclists, but most are motorcycle-themed.  Fortunately, there is an abundance of cycling souveneirs in the form of jerseys, bibshorts, socks, and even do-rags.  The popularity of the Stelvio has created quite a market for bike kits, and the 10 or so merchants compete with an abundance of designs in many different colors.  I like the one I got the best, but there are many other choices.  Having the 2012 Giro climb the Stelvio popped the market up another notch, and some of the jerseys (including the one I got) commemorate the other passes on that incredible stage.

At the top, you can see the top 2000 feet of the legendary eastern slopes.  It’s one of the most dramatic landscape views in cycling.  No, I didn’t climb it this year.

So that’s pretty much my ride up.  The descent home was a zoom.  I really enjoyed it!

But before I close, I want to share two more interesting things:

  1. the old road
  2. what’s new on the Stelvio

The Old Road

The road is in excellent condition, but the Stelvio has evolved over many years.  There are two sections of old road remaining that are quite rideable.  Both are closed to cars but you can easily ride them on your bike.

Here’s a view of the lower section from above.

This section was presumably closed because it is so twisty, but it’s still quite rideable and it is very beautiful.

The upper section was clearly closed due to rockfall.  The old road is under a cliff with lots of loose rock.  The new road is under clear skies.  The old road has a lot of accumulated rockfall, but is easily rideable on an ordinary roadbike without any special skills.  Here’s a view of the worst of the rockfall just before the summit.

What’s New

In support of the 2012 Giro d’Italia, the west side of the Stelvio was improved in two ways:

  1. signs
  2. tunnels

For the first time, there are signs on each switchback.  That means you can easily count the switchbacks now.  (Yay!  There are 39 of them.)  The signs are made from wood and individually hand painted with the images of local wildflowers.

The switchbacks are numbered from the top, so number 35 in this photo is pretty near the bottom.

And the tunnels…  Wow, what a change.

In the past, I would give people a safety lecture about the tunnels.  This was particularly important for cyclists planning to descend the west side as they might get a nasty surprise as they entered the tunnels at gonzo speed.

So here’s my old safety lecture: “Most tunnels in europe are safe.  Most tunnels in europe are well lit.  The tunnels on the Stelvio are pitch black with just enough light shining in to dazzle your eyes but not enough to see the ground or the walls.  Most tunnels in europe have excellent pavement.  The tunnels on the Stelvio have potholes.  Big ones.  Hold on to your handlebars.  Most tunnels in europe are dry.  The tunnels on the Stelvio are wet.  There is lots of runoff.  Water drips from the ceiling.  There is even a waterfall in one of the tunnels.  Cyclists have died in these tunnels.  Slow down and be careful.”

But the tunnels are entirely different now.  In preparation for the 2012 Giro d’Italia, the tunnels (and the entire pass) have been repaved (pavement is wonderful now!).  Even better, the tunnels have lights.  Good golly!  After all these years, the tunnels on the Stelvio are lit!  You can see the edges of the tunnels.  You can see the pavement.  And the cars can see you!  And now that I can see the walls, I realize the tunnels aren’t as narrow as I thought.  Here is a view of one of the tunnels to prove it is now lit.

Oh yes, the tunnels are still wet in places but for some reason they were drier this year than any time I have been through them and the waterfall was much reduced in flow.

A big thanks to the Italian road department for their excellent work!  This will greatly improve safety for cyclists who come from all over the world to ride this monumental mountain and enjoy the Italian national sport.

In closing, I’m sure you want some ride stats.  My ride was 29 miles and 5200 feet, but that included a short jaunt to Passo Umbrail and a quick exploration down the other side to see the view.  If I had just done Passo Stelvio, it would have been about 26 miles and 4900 feet.

The rest of our crew (I was the only wimp.) did the entire ride — both sides of the Stelvio in one day.  If you’d like to read about that ride, my account from last year is here.  It has more photos and a good description of the famous eastern side.

About bikealps

avid cyclist and photographer
This entry was posted in bicycle touring, Dolomites, Italy, travel. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Passo Stelvio (Stilfserjoch) — Europe’s Most Beautiful Pass

  1. Anarya Andir says:

    Wonderful post and photos!

  2. Wow! Well done and congratulations on the ride, the post and the photos. Thanks for writing. Greetings from Thailand. K

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