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Words: Sebastian Kienle | Video & photography: Christophe Margot

The Stelvio Pass is arguably one of the most iconic climbs in the world of cycling. With its endless switchbacks and breathtaking scenery, it is on the bucket list of every road cyclist. No surprise that current time trial World Champion, Annemiek van Vleuten and 2014 Ironman Hawaii winner, Sebastian Kienle picked it for their mid-season training camp.

During our time in Livigno we were treated to perfect weather conditions, and the day of our tour was no exception. In the morning it was still a bit chilly, perfect to get the engine warmed up on the first climb from Bormio towards Stelvio.

In the previous weeks, you could see the stars of the cycling scene at every corner. Wout van Aert training for his Cyclocross season, the team from Mitchelton-SCOTT preparing for their road World Championships and endless cross-country riders putting in their last training miles before the World Championships in Lenzerheide.

Now it was significantly calmer, and we often had the road almost entirely for ourselves.

Annemiek arrived and was keen for an easy day to adapt to the altitude. Like this, we had enough time to enjoy the stunning scenery while chatting along the way. I looked forward to getting out on the road with her after recently seeing a video where she really impressed me with her determination. Although the amount of altitude would scare most triathletes, a big cassette made it possible to ride up the climbs with a reasonable amount of ease.

Umbrail, Stelvio and Paso de Fraile was on today’s program. With three major climbs I was definitely happy to be well adapted to the altitude before this mammoth of a day on the bike.

While the Stelvio Pass is by far the most famous of these three, this doesn’t mean the others are less stunning. The descent of Umbrail is one of the best you can find, and now with new tarmac it is even more enjoyable.

Nevertheless, the highlight of the tour is the last climb up Paso de Fraile to Lago di Cancano. Almost no traffic, amazing scenery and the best nut cake you can find greeting you at the top.

This year I stayed in Livigno for the first time in my career, but definitely not the last. It was the perfect place to train in summer not only for road cyclists, but also for triathletes (great swimming pool, trails and running track) or for mountain bikers.

The thing I enjoyed the most was the atmosphere, even though the ratio of tourists to residents is likely 10 to 1, it still has a unique feel.  There are many great cafes and restaurants (Why Not is a great burger place, Hotel Larice is the best Sushi restaurant in town, and Latteria is the place for a coffee or ice cream stop).

I was amazed to have the opportunity to go on a ride with Annemiek. It is such a disgrace that women’s cycling gets a fraction of the attention of the men’s sport.  Being that Annemiek is a two-time time trial World Champion, and has the same race weapon as myself, the Plasma 5, I understand what it takes to ride and race on her level. It is incredible how many ups and downs Annemiek has pushed through in her career and how far she’s made it in the sport. I am sure she would have the ability to excel as a triathlete as well.

Even though most of the bike courses in triathlon are flat, I love to go riding in the mountains. A climb like the Stelvio has something spiritual about it. You must divide a big climb like the Stelvio into many segments to make it to the top, especially if you descend on the other side and you know just how much you must climb up again.

But this feeling of satisfaction to arrive at the top doesn’t get old. It is also easier to ride for a long time with a higher heart rate if you must conquer such a beast twice in a day. On the flat it would be tough to ride for six hours with a heart rate around 160 beats per minute. I feel like it is the best way to get in great shape, not only physically but mentally. I have the feeling it is a detox program for the head and soul. I am looking forward to this year’s training camp in Livigno and I will definitely give Annemiek a call before I go there again.  

THE ROUTE

The route starts in Bormio, one of the major hotspots for cyclists and motor bikers in summer. Almost from kilometre zero the road rises with an average of 7% over the next 21km to the top of Umbrail. Next comes a long and technical descent to Santa Maria, from which it goes rather flat for around 30km to the start of the famous side of the Stelvio.

25km and 47 switchbacks later you arrive on the top of the Stelvio at 2,757m. From there a fast descent brings you back to the starting point in Bormio. Now you have the option to call it a day or tackle the stunning Paso de Fraile, which is another 30km and 1,100m out and back to Bormio.

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