Iconic Places: Passo dello Stelvio
Where: Between Bormio and Prato allo Stelvio, Sondrio province, Italy
Length: 13.2 miles (west slope, from Bormio)
Average gradient: 7.4 percent
Maximum gradient: 13 percent
Elevation gain: 5,124 feet
Length: 16 miles (east slope, from Prato allo Stelvio)
Average gradient: 7.3 percent
Maximum gradient: 14 percent
Elevation gain: 5,900 feet
Situated between the mountain towns of Bormio and Prato allo Stelvio, and rideable from either side, the Stelvio Pass is the queen of Italian climbs. The 30 miles of snaking, high-altitude tarmac have seen some of the greatest battles of the Giro d’Italia — Fausto Coppi, Hugo Koblet, Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, and, last year, Ryder Hesjedal and Joaquim Rodríguez, have all laid out their souls on its slopes.
History: The fi rst battle between professional racers and the Stelvio came in 1953, as the Giro set Italian great Fausto Coppi against the highest pass ever used by the race. The Italian campionissimo battled against Swiss climber Hugo Koblet, who wore the race leader’s pink jersey, until 11 kilometers to go; still facing the final 34 of 48 unyielding switchbacks, the Italian attacked, winning the stage and the race. Coppi said afterwards that he “thought [he] was going to die” upon its slopes.
Cities: The Stelvio is situated in the Ortler Alps in the province of Sondrio, an area of northern Italy that borders both Austria and Switzerland. The top of the Stelvio sits only 200 meters from a narrow Swiss peninsula, where the country juts out into Austria and Italy; it’s so tight that an agreement had to be made during World War II that neither side would fire across the narrow strip of neutral Swiss land.
Travel: The nearest major international airport sits in Verona, 218 kilometers (a three-hour drive) from Bormio and the Stelvio’s western slope. The base of the western slope lies in downtown Bormio, at the intersection of SS38, the road that traverses the pass, and Via al Forte. From the east, the climb begins in Prato allo Stelvio, just as SP50 splits off from SS38; take a look southeast and it’s impossible to miss.
Ride: The Giro has tackled the Stelvio from both the east and west numerous times. In 2013 it would have hit the climb from the west had it not been canceled. The western climb features a number of rugged and dark tunnels, eternally dripping with small springs and snowmelt — so bring a tail light. Long, straight stretches with few switchbacks wind their way around the northwest side of the mountain before the climb hits a wall: 14 tight switchbacks within 3.5 kilometers. Another long, mostly straight stretch follows, climbing slowly up a high valley, before a final 4-kilometer kick to the top.
The eastern slope packs almost all of its 48 incredible switchbacks into its second half, where the road turns skyward, an 11-kilometer serpent tracking back and forth across the mountain’s bare face. Trees are left behind with 8 kilometers to go, and the final stretch is the toughest; the only consolation, perhaps, is that the inevitable wind turns from head to tail every few minutes.
Lodging: Hotel Funivia is part of a large and popular chain of Italian bike hotels. The hotel’s location in Bormio, with easy access to the Stelvio’s western slope, along with its cyclist-specific services like a workshop, bike wash, guided tours, bike rental, and rescue services in case of mechanical issues, make it a fantastic option.
Food: Sitting in such close proximity to both Switzerland and Austria, it’s no surprise that food near the Stelvio isn’t the traditional Italian fare. Hearty mountain cheeses and meats are the standard, and the local cheese fries are not to be missed. For inspired local cuisine, an hour-long drive over the beautiful Passo del Foscagno into Levigno and the Michelin-starred Chalet Mattias is well worth the effort. The dining room is small, so call ahead.