It’s my last day of riding on this trip and we decided to do a big ride. Four passes, all over 2000 meters, 9000 feet of climbing, and two glaciers to see. The official ride is just three passes — Forcola di Livigno, Eire, and Foscagno — but the turn off to Forcola di Livigno is just 1000 feet or so below the summit of the Bernina, so you can easily add a fourth summit.
Bormio is indeed a bicycle playground. The two most famous rides — Stelvio and Mortirolo/Gavia — are so famous that everything else gets overlooked. This ride, however, is really special and should be on the top of your list of “undiscovered” rides when you visit Bormio.
The ride starts by heading down valley from Bormio to Tirano. This valley suffered a terrible tragedy in 1987, the incredible Morignone landslide, which buried a town and required re-routing of roads. 25 years later, road work valley floor continues. Here is just one view of all the work going on — heavy equipment grading the river and adding huge stones to the river bed to protect it.
Navigating this descent requires a careful look at the map to avoid the new auto tunnels. For navigation information and more information about the Morignone landscape, please click here.
As we approach Tirano, I’m leading the group down the descent. The descent is pretty gentle, but just before Tirano our speeds pick up. I ride through a radar trap and the neon sign starts flashing “60 kph” (my speed, the limit is 50 kph) alternating with a frowning face 😦 Craig and Sue were following me. Craig reports that Sue was laughing so hard she almost fell off her bike. I look down and see I’m doing 36 mph which is exactly 60 kph and then start picking up speed to a bit over 40 mph.
Entering Tirano, we see office friendly. Fortunately, he pays no attention to me. 🙂
In Tirano, we turn right up the valley to start climbing Passo Bernina. At this point, we have about 300 feet of climbing.
Starting Passo Bernina, a sign warns us to prepare documents. Oh, golly!
We’re just about to cross from Italy into Switzerland. They check the cars but pay not attention to our cycling group, so we start heading up the pass.
Passo Bernina is actually a very famous pass for two reasons:
- The train route is extraordinary. Bicycles are superior to trains. We can climb steep grades and we can make tight turns. To overcome the inferiority of trains and get up this pass, the Swiss have engineered an incredible railroad. Down low, there is an elevated circle to allow the train to gain altitude with a wide radius. Further up, the train heads into a tunnel in the mountain and makes a series of circles to gain altitude. This route is one of the most popular routes for train historians and model railroad builders. It has also been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Bernina is a big pass. Elevation at the top is 2330 meters. The bottom is quite low, about 450 meters. This makes the total climb over 6000 feet, making it bigger than Mont Ventoux. It’s one of the biggest climbs in europe and it is really beautiful, too.
So, we start climbing up. About 1/3 of the way up we get to Miralago. I always thought “Miralago” meant mirror lake, but Ajax tells me it really means view of the lake. If you get here early enough in the morning, the lake is really a mirror, as it was on my first european cycling trip in 1991 when I stayed in Tirano and got a really early start. Today, it is just as beautiful.
At the lake, the road is thankfully flat, but soon we are climbing again. We climb and climb, climb and climb, and climb and climb.
Eventually we reach the turnoff for Forcola di Livigno. Our group heads off to the right, but Rudy and I want to see the top of Passo Bernina. It’s only another 1000 or 1500 feet of climbing. To prove we actually climbed this monster, here we are by the pass sign at the top wearing matching Hammer Nutrition kits. Thanks, Hammer!
Hammer has a full suite of nutrition products:
- Perpetuem — Basic endurance fuel for your waterbottle. Based on maltodextrin, perpetuem gives you long-burn fuel for endurance efforts, without energy spikes. Years ago, before Hammer engineered this more modern product, I used maltodextrin for ultraendurance — double centuries, etc. — and had very good results. You can put a lot of calories in your bottle without causing cramping while maintaining a refreshing flavor.
- Endurolytes — little pills with electrolyte replacement to avoid cramping
- Hammer Gel — a quick sugar burst to keep your energy levels up — I used this a lot when racing in the early 2000s.
Back to the ride. One of the cool things about the Bernina is the glacier at the top. I always get a special feeling when I can admire a glacier up close. Yes, I’m willing to climb an extra 1000 feet or so just to see a glacier. Here it is.
As we’re heading up, we see the German U23 team flying down the hill. They are here training for the Tour de Avenir. It’s pretty common to see teams training on this loop. In 2000, I rode (briefly) with Mapei.
So, we descend Bernina back to the turnoff to Forcola di Livigno. We see another border crossing, this time from Switzerland back to Italy. Entering Switzerland, we were advised to “prepare documents.” This time, the booth is completely unoccupied. Yep, nobody home. Italy leaves its border carelessly open to potential waves of Swiss immigration.
At this point, I’ve climbed about 6400 feet. The total ride is said to be 9000 feet of climbing, so that means the next three passes will be only about 1000 feet of climbing each, right? I sure hope so!
Climbing Forcola di Livigno, I look back towards Switzerland to see this view. You can see we’re high above treeline. With four summits at about 2200 meters, each, there are a lot of views with no trees on this ride.
Forcola di Livigno turns out to be a pretty easy climb. Just 1000 feet, as advertised, after you’ve climbed all the way from Tirano up to the junction. It’s a screaming descent, too. It’s pretty straight and the grades are moderate, so the miles just fly by. How long can you stay in a tuck?
Wow, that was nice!
Now we’re in Livigno. Livigno is a special shopping town. Due to some very old history, there are no taxes here. Livigno was acquired from Austria a long time ago and one of the conditions of the acquisition was that Livigno would not pay taxes. So, it’s become quite a shopping hub. I was more interested in riding than shopping, so I can’t report on the details, but Ajax reports that gasoline costs about 40% less than it does elsewhere in Italy. Apparently it’s not just the 15% VAT tax that is missing here.
From Livigno, I turn east (right) to head up Passo d’Eire. It’s a pretty easy climb, about 1200-1500 feet to the top. Near the top is a downhill mountainbike resort. On the road I see several mountainbike fully outfitted with special downhill bikes and full face helmets. They are descending back to Livigno, where they must be staying. Presumably they took the ski lift up. But why are they descending so slowly on the road? I can go way faster on my road bike!
From the top of Passo d’Eire you can almost see the top of Passo Foscagno. It’s just a quick descent before you start the small climb. The climb is a bit annoying at the top, however, as there is a false summit. When you get to what looks like the top, you see 2-3 switchbacks to go and there is a fierce headwind. Oh, well, it’s not too bad of a climb anyway.
I quickly start the descent as I want to get back to our cozy hotel in Bormio to see my wife and all my bike friends. I take one quick stop on the way down to get this photograph of a really beautiful glacier. Yes, this is a big one, and the peak towers way above the rest of the landscape.
The descent is a zoom. This ride has four terrific descents. Sure, there is a lot of climbing, but it’s all front loaded. Once you summit the Bernina, you have three easy climbs and four fabulous descents to go.
Ride stats, eh? 83 miles and 9300 feet of climbing. If you skip the Bernina summit, I’d guess you’d get 78 miles and 8000 feet of climbing. A really beautiful ride and a wonderful day on the bike. I highly recommend this ride!