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August 3, 2010

Passo dello Stelvio

Filed under: Italy, Road Bike Travel, Travel — anotherheader @ 6:51 am

Leaving Bormio, Passo dello Stelvio is 21.3 kilometers ahead.

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche

“Just because we planned to do it doesn’t mean we have to.”

Only 35 switchbacks remain

–Becky in Bormio

I suspect that Becky held hope that I’d given up on the idea of climbing Passo dello Stelvio.  There never was a retraction of her “Just because we planned to do it doesn’t mean we have to” proclamation announced a couple of days before.  Apparently Becky does not subscribe to Nietzche’s dubious reasoning.

Becky’s statement was undoubtedly true.  The hot weather in Bormio emphasized the point.  We did not have to climb Passo dello Stelvio.  And Nietzche’s logic is debatable.  But there was one factor that made Passo dello Stelvio inevitable.  Reinforced by our ride off of Bormio 3000 the prior day, we had not found a mountain biking route in Europe that we really enjoyed.  Not to say that singletrack ecstasy wasn’t near by.  We just had little confidence that we could find it in short order.  Our best option, it seemed, would be a road ride.  If it were going to be a road ride, Passo dello Stelvio it would be.  So, soon after our Bormio 3000 descent, we set about swapping the knobby tires for slicks and replacing brake pads on the bikes.

One of the numerous tunnels on the lower portion of the road to Passo dello Stelvio

“These pumps suck,” I said.

After a half hour of trying, we could only get 70 lbs of air into our 100-psi max mountain bike slicks.  The sweat was rolling of our bodies.  There was desperation.  Perhaps it was psychological but we needed that last 30-psi desperately.  The concept of climbing to Passo dello Stelvio with under inflated tires was crushing.

Caution: Exclamation Points ahead

In the morning, all signs pointed to another hot day.  With breakfast at the hotel beginning at 8 am, an edge of dawn start was impractical.  It was time for Plan B.

This time there actually was a Plan B.  Plan B still entailed ascending to Passo dello Stelvio.  The difference was that we would climb the western side of the pass starting from our hotel in Bormio.  Beginning in Bormio eliminates 900 feet of climbing.  More importantly, it would save us the hour and a half drive to climb’s start on the Bolzano side.  Starting an hour and a half earlier would keep us out of the heat of the day.

From Bormio, the 13.4-mile climb to Passo dello Stelvio is daunting.  With an average gradient of 7.1% over 5,000 feet of the climb, this would be the hardest climb we had ever attempted.  If you are keeping track, that would be 700 feet more of climbing than our route up Col du Tourmalet from Esterre.  It certainly would not help that the top of Passo dello Stelvio is above 9,000 feet in altitude, more than 2,000 feet higher than the top of Tourmalet, and that the start in Bormio is near 4,000 feet.

Soon a left turn will take you to Switzerland and a right will take you to Passo dello Stelvio

Just before we rolled out of the hotel into the cool mountain air of an alpine morning we managed to squeeze in 10 more psi into our tires.  Somehow that felt better.  The small change was somehow essential.  On the road, the first couple of kilometers climbed gently with a 5% gradient out of the village.  With the fresh cool air, it felt good.  How hard could this climb be?

Becky practices her Japanese Tourist posing technique on the climb of Passo dello Stelvio

Soon enough the road turned steeper, averaging near 8% for an extended stretch, as the grade moved up the valley’s hillside.  The route from Bormio to Passo dello Stelvio passes through several narrow and dark tunnels.  In a car, the tunnels are sketchy.  On a bike, with the eyes adjusted to the bright alpine sun, it is very difficult to see anything.  The small headlamps we brought for our bikes were little help.  We were riding by Braille.  But at least the gradient eases a bit through the tunnels.

When the tunnels end the road goes back to being viciously steep.  Soon the ladder of switchbacks start and the road moves above the thinning trees.  Top Gear chose the road over Passo dello Stelvio as the “greatest driving road in the world” (Transfăgărăşan Highway in Romania now has this Top Gear honor).  It is a spectacular piece of road construction.  Of this we were certain.  There was more than enough time during our climb to appreciate the fine details and finesse of Italian road construction.

Past the switchbacks, the western approach to Passo dello Stelvio flattens on a long gently bending road that climbs through the alpine pastures above the tree line.  This segment, averaging around 5% for 2 miles, is one of the reasons why the climb from the western/Bormio side is easier than the ascent from the east.  Not that this section is truly easy or extended.  Soon enough, the 5% sloped vacation ends into a brute.  At an average of 10.7%, after a very long climb, the last 1.5 miles is soul crushing.  Factor in 9,000 feet of altitude and a 10.7% gradient; this pitch clearly violates the Geneva Conventions.  On paper, the finish of the climb to Passo dello Stelvio is harder from the west than from the east.

Nearing the top, something was written on the road.  Getting closer I could make it out.


“2 km.”

I assumed, correctly, that this was the distance to the top.  On many of the alpine climbs we have done, there are signposts along the way counting down the kilometers to the top.  Where the winter snows are deep and the avalanches frequent, the signs are forgotten.  The distance is often written, like this, on the pavement.*

At the two-kilometer mark, the road looked through my constricted pupils as if it went straight up.  It was time to start practicing breathing out of the ears.  I needed all the oxygen I could get.

Something happens to me at the two-kilometers remaining marker on big climbs–I start dreading the arrival of the one-kilometer marker.  Late in an ascent, it takes me an eternity to wobble through the penultimate kilometer.  After the invariable false alarms, when the marker finally appears indicating that there is but one kilometer left, it reminds me of how much suffering the just covered kilometer entailed.  And now the effort would need to be repeated for another tediously long kilometer.  It’s not like your going to turn around at this point.  You have no choice.  You are going to finish the climb.  You are going to suffer.  I don’t need the one-kilometer marker to remind me of the torture ahead.

350 meters to go

Inevitably the one-kilometer mark passed.  I looked back to see Becky laboring up the slope below.  She’d make it, it seemed.  I’d have to continue on.  Sometimes it would be good to be supportive of someone who couldn’t make it to the top.

I pedaled up further.

“500 mt.”

It was marked on the pavement again.

“At least that’s more inspiring than the ‘1 km’ mark,” I thought.

Becky’s reaction to the 500-meter mark was of annoyance.

Soon “400 mt” was painted on the road.

The goal

Then “350 mt” was painted on the road.

“Someone has a sick sense of humor here,” I mused, wondering if there would be a meter-by-meter count down coming soon.  After all, you could already see the finish at the pass.  It wasn’t that far away.  The numbers weren’t really required.

Finally, when the distance finished clicking off in 50-meter segments, I was at the top.

“Wow, that one really hurt,” I thought at the top.

I’m pretty sure that this notion was nowhere near original.

In our “middle ages” climbing 5,000 feet over 13 miles on bobbing 30-lbs full suspension all mountain bicycles was twisted.  The kicker that made this truly bonkers is the altitude.  The thin air is the killer.  The stretch between 7,000 feet and top at 9,045 feet is particularly gutting.  Passo dello Stelvio was by far the hardest climb we have ever done.  I don’t know what were thinking or why we immediately wanted to climb the harder side of the pass.  Is psychopathology of the urge for self-mutilation really all that different than the desire to climb long and brutally steep road?

The last switchback

It was chaos at the top of Passo dello Stelvio.  Along with the spent cyclists who’d survived the struggle to the top of an endless hill and were now celebrating by photographing everything in sight, there were motorcyclists and tourists everywhere.  The street between the passes buildings was a jam of people.

Amongst the mill, German sausage carts were pumping out the wurst for long lines.  In German, Passo dello Stelvio is called Stilfser Joch.  There’s plenty of German/Austrian history in the region.  On the pass, it did not seem like we were still in Italy.

“Where did all these people come from?” a dissociated voice in my head asked.

Becky pedals the last few meters to the top through the crowds

These “mind voices” seem to start towards the end of long climbs.  The answer was simple.  Most came up from the Bolzano side of the climb.

A vertigo-inducing peek over the edge of the embankment on the eastern, Bolzano side of the pass revealed a stacked set of switchbacks climbing up ladder style from the valley floor.  With snow capped peaks lining the sides of the steep-walled glacier-carved valley, the eastern route defined breathtaking.

“Wow, that looks really hard,” I said as Becky peaked over the edge to the hard side of the climb.

From the top, it did look like a very, very difficult climb on a bicycle.  But, since our friend “Loser Boy” Ken has ridden this route, it cannot be, by the official rules, that hard.  For us, an attempt to climb the Bolzano side of Passo dello Stelvio will have to wait for a future trip.  Maybe we will be able to try it on a day that they close the road to motor traffic.

This way to Switzerland

Before long it was time to leave the alpine chill at the top of the pass.  Though the standard procedure for many cyclists seemed to be to load the bikes on a car and head down the hill inside a vehicle, we took the old fashioned approach.  We road our bikes down the hill.

The descent felt like retribution.  Going slow was not an option.  We passed bikes.  We passed cars.  (Cars don’t like being passed by bikes.)  Going slow was never a thought even though the route’s wet slick tunnels were scary pitch dark.  All of our descents off of the big climbs, Hautacam, VentouxCol du Tourmalet, and Alpe d’Huez have been ripping fast fun.  Sometimes it seems we should just cut out the middleman, shuttle to the top, and drop the road at top speed.  At least if we had driven to the pass there might have been some justification for having heavy full suspension mountain bikes on the top of Passo dello Stelvio.  But would the dessert of the descent taste as good without the soul-torquing climb?

It was warm, in the 90’s, when we returned to Bormio.  Our early start had dodged the heat of the day but our room lacked air conditioning.  We needed a way to cool down so we headed over to Bormio Terme to frolic in the elaborate pool waters with the locals.

Passo dello Stelvio was the last of our great climbs on our European tour.  Not that there weren’t other good road bike climbing options on our itinerary.  Our route, through the Pyrenees, snaking through the alpine regions of France, Spain, and Andorra, covered pass after pass of amazing remote roads with long, numbingly steep grades.  And it only got better.  In Italy, heading west from Cortina d’Ampezzo to Bormio, we passed numerous beautiful road climbs choked with bicycles.  (There was a bicycle festival going on.)  Perhaps even better were the postcard perfect alpine road passes of Switzerland.  Col après col, pass after pass, passa dopo passo, pass nach pass, no matter how you say it, not matter which language you choose, there are too many rides and too little time.  Where do you start?

The route to Passo dello Stelvio from Bolzano

*Bormio’s sister city is Alpe d’Huez, France.  It is probably unconnected, but both Passo dello Stelvio and Alpe d’Huez mark the progress on the climb by counting down the switchbacks.  There are 40 switchbacks labeled climbing up from Bormio to Passo dello Stelvio versus 21 marked switchbacks on Alpe d’Huez.

Becky practices her Japanese tourist pose at Passo dello Stelvio

1 Comment »

  1. […] few cyclists working their ways up the hill looked completely miserable.  Was it a surprise that Becky was reluctant to do the ride in the coming […]

    Pingback by Italy and Switzerland: To Val Müstair and Bormio « Another Header — January 24, 2011 @ 2:05 am

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