Early Winter on the Passo dello Stelvio
As far as famous climbs go, there are few, if any, that can claim spots higher in the pantheon of legendary climbs than the Passo dello Stelvio. It is synonymous with all that is great about the mountains in most people’s minds…and when it comes to switchbacks, there’s nothing quite as magical as the 48 numbered tornante heading up the climb’s northern face.
I remember vividly the first time I saw an image of the Stelvio. It was 2002, I had only just begun riding bikes, but I had already been infected with the virus that still accompanies me today – an obsession with finding new roads, new climbs, new places. It didn’t take long before I stumbled upon a small journal post about the famed pass, and it was only minutes later that I saw the northern side of the pass with its upper switchbacks golden in the late day sun.
It stuck with me. It would be many years before I’d have the chance to see it and feel the road and the mountains for myself, but it was always a special memory.
When I finally saw the north side this May at the end of the Giro, I was exhausted and sick. This May’s Corsa Rosa was our first ever full Grand Tour, so by the time we made it to the penultimate day pass-top finish on the Stelvio, we were spent. There was little that was turning my head in awe at that point, save for a pillow. After De Gendt’s rampage and Hesjedal’s excellent defense against Rodriguez’s attacks, I walked over to see the still snow-covered, still closed northern side, and it brought me to a halt. I’m nowhere near a point where I’ve seen even a fraction of what I hope to see in my life, but still, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve seen a lot of climbs, a lot of views, a lot of everything when it comes to roads, but the first time I laid eyes on the mountain face bathed in switchbacks, it was beautiful, special. Same with the second time. I don’t know exactly what it is about that view, but it’s like very few others. The feeling is akin to the first time I rounded the bend to the final pitch to the chapel atop the Muur van Geraardsbergen. There are a few scenes that lovers of the bike should see, and the Stelvio is high, high on my list.
There are three approaches to the pass – from Bormio (my least favorite), from Switzerland, and the ultra-famous northern approach, which begins in Prato and has 48 numbered switchbacks over the course of its 25 kilometers of ascent. At the top, you’ll be pedaling through thin air for Europe. With an altitude of 2757 meters, it’s the second highest paved pass in Europe (behind only the Iseran in France) and the fifth highest paved road.
The idea for a road linking the Valtellina with Tirol is quite old, reaching back to Napoleon himself. It wasn’t until 1818 that the gears began to turn when soon to be famous road engineer Carlo Donegani began surveying the project. Work began in 1820 and was completed five years later with the help of 2,500 workers. Donegani was the rightful recipient of numerous accolades including the title of Count of the Stelvio. His vision, nearly 200 years old now, has stood the test of time. The road up and over the pass is not just a utilitarian path – it’s just plain gorgeous. I’ll halt there and direct you to a true writer’s account of the history and all that is great about the Stelvio – an excerpt from Daniel Friebe’s book, Mountain High .
While the Giro is fond of the Stelvio, its excessive altitude puts some limits on inclusion into the race. The Stelvio has featured in the Giro d’Italia ten times, beginning in 1953, and most recently this past year. The Stelvio will once again play a major role in deciding the Giro d’Italia’s winner in 2013. It will be the middle climb in a monstrously difficult stage that will feature three climbs in just over 70 miles of racing: the Gavia, Stelvio, and Val Martello.
This fall, my wife Ashley (in the photos) and I had a plan: we wanted to shoot the Gavia and Stelvio just before the winter hit. I wanted that light, the color, the feel of fall. We planned to get to Bormio by Saturday, but were sidetracked by the Red Hook Crit in Milano, which was on Sunday. The weather was perfect. We had been watching the webcam for weeks, and on that Sunday, the scenes we saw playing out before us on that dodgy webcam were enough to take screenshots of. By the time we got to the pass on Monday though, the region was in the midst of the season’s first snowstorm. It snowed from Sunday night, all the way through the next evening. The Gavia was closed. It’s always the first to go, so that part of the plan was scrapped, leaving the Stelvio…which only rarely closes, which can only be for one reason: there’s a ski area at the top.
We had to make do with the best we could on the first day, shooting in a blizzard, laughing at our snow clogged cassettes, our lonely tracks in the snow, and the fact that an entire mountain was ours, and ours only. It made for some entertaining pictures and a way to get our minds off the fact that we had missed perfection by one day.
Two days later, we ventured to the top and instead of bike riders, there were joyful early season skiers relishing the fruits of the bountiful harvest of the storm. We had given up hope of shooting the north side, but the road was clearing quickly in the bright, warm fall sun. We rode down and laughed at how different the road that was choked with cars only a little while before was under the blanket of winter. As we headed home, we saw the plows working their magic from far below – tomorrow would be our chance to play on a clear road.
And so it was. In an amusing intersection between typically summer and winter activities, cross country skiers shuffled by along groomed paths, while we pedaled only a couple meters away from them in long-sleeve jerseys and knee warmers. It was warm.
The climb itself is fair and true. It’s no monster like the Zoncolan or Crostis. It’s a fairly constant 6-9%, designed for transit, and not an after-thought like some of the famously paved farm roads of the area are – say the Mortirolo, for instance.
So the suffering does not come from lack of gearing, but its never-ending nature and the toll that the altitude begins to take on the lungs. When you see the sign Cima (summit) Coppi 48 hairpins later, which is the name that the Giro gives its highest pass each year, you’ll have reached the top. I’ll spare you the self-indulgent details of making our way to the top. The only way to experience a mountain like this is to ride it yourself, as fast or as slow as you wish.
If you’re ever fortunate enough to have the opporutnity, riding the Stelvio Pass is like no other climb you’ll ever experience. It’s perhaps the greatest climbs in Europe, and riding it in early winter was a sight that’s etched in our memories forever.