The Passo dello Stelvio (or Stelvio Pass) in the Italian Alps is one of the most photographed roads in the cycling world. It’s a marvel of engineering that writhes up the slopes of the second highest paved mountain pass in the Alps.*
La Gazetta dello Sport described the Stelvio climb from Bormio as “a serpent of asphalt, five tunnels, 21.5 kilometres and 1,541 metres of climbing.” The average gradient is 7% and the maximum is officially 14% but it’s rarely above 9% for long.
Cycling the Stelvio-Bormio side of the pass is the “easier”, less famous way to do it (the ascent from Prato is the “classic”). But don’t discount the Bormio side – it’s got a more varied beauty than the Prato side and it also has a good dollop of Giro history. It was the ascent used in the 1956, 1972, 2012 and 2014 Giro d’Italia. It is also the climb used on the annual Granfondo Stelvio Santini.
If you’re staying in Bormio, Passo dello Stelvio climb is right on your doorstep as it rears up practically from the town centre. You can always tackle both sides of this infamous mountain via this demanding loop!
*(In case you’re wondering, the first is the Col de l’Iseran – it’s got a whole 12m more than the Stelvio Pass.)
All metrics in this article are approximate.
Highlights of cycling Passo Dello Stelvio (Bormio)
We loved the varied character of this mythical climb. It takes you from the narrow, rocky valley above Bormio through lush green pastures to the austere, cold summit of the Stelvio.
The central section (at around kilometres 10.5-16) is quite spectacular: hairpins beside a roaring waterfall lead you up to a gorgeous Alpine valley.
1. Switchbacks and tunnels: 0-9 km
The Stelvio climb from Bormio starts at around 1,225 m. The climb has a 7% average gradient and these kind of pitches hit you immediately on the switchbacks that take you out of town – don’t expect an easy warm up.
The road is then pretty straight as you climb up above Bormio, with views along the Braulio valley, through sparse woodland with the grey barren peaks of the Pass looming above you.
You hit a couple of short switchback sections at the 6-7 km mark and between kilometres 6.5 and 9, prepare yourself for the tunnels that take you through the mountainside. This was our least favourite part of the climb as the tunnels are narrow and, though they’re thankfully lit, we found them intimidating as the noise of any vehicles is amplified (so a small fiat sounds like a ten tonne lorry)… There are also traffic lights (so you may need to stop – see photo below) and you may find the road is damp. Make sure you’ve got lights on your bike and that they are on.
2. Hairpins and Alpine valley: 9-16 km
Once out of the tunnels, the road rises steeply (around 13%) to the next hurdle: a spectacular stepladder of 14 switchbacks next to the majestic Braulio waterfall. The views are spectacular and you pass one of the romantically faded Casa Cantoniera buildings, where road workers used to live.
At the top of the ladder, you leave the narrow valley you’ve been climbing all this time and pass over into the stunning Plateau “Pian de Grembo” (see the photos in the Highlights section above). The road leads through Alpine meadows and when we were there the scene was perfected by early morning sunshine and jingling cow bells. On the way you’ll see the third of the Casa Cantoniera buildings – together with the moving WW1 monument (which also happens to be the point at which you’ve got 5.5km to go).
We found this the easiest part of the climb, so it’s time to catch your breath, take on some food and drink, enjoy the scenery and prepare yourself for the final push to the summit.
3. Tough last push: 16-20km
We found the last four kms the most demanding of the ascent, with average gradients over 8% and cold, rocky, windswept terrain that reflected our mood. By this time you’ll probably be feeling pretty tired and the cold will start to bite, so it’s a perfect storm of suffering that needs to be overcome!
If you take your eyes from the road, you can glimpse the buildings at the top of the Pass – the endpoint is in sight!
At the top of a short series of hairpins, you pass the turning for the Umbrail Pass. It’s next to a fabulously cracked and peeling old building and the Albergo Ristorante (which could serve as an emergency place to stop for a break if needed).
As you approach the summit, you can see a swarm of buildings on the horizon. It’s an odd sight on an otherwise unspoiled mountain (though that’s unlikely to be your foremost thought at this stage – and the buildings do have a potential benefit to you: they house coffee, pizza and hot dogs…)!
Bar at around the 12 kilometre mark, after the tunnels and near the waterfall.
Albergo Ristorant IV Cantoniera is a basic looking café (photo above) that was offering basic refuelling when we visited.
At the summit there’s a range of cafés, slightly gloomy-looking hotels and (assuming you’re not there super early) burger/sausage dog stands.
We rode the Stelvio from Bormio.
You can find out more about where we stayed, as well as other accommodation in Bormio and Prato in our Bormio/Stelvio bike hotel article.
If you’re interested in the Granfondo Stelvio Santini, you can read our guide to the event here.
In particular – remember your bike lights and wear something reflective to ensure the cars (and motorbikes) can see you in the tunnels. There are traffic lights so you should be ready to stop for these.
Check the forecast before you head out. And bring enough cold weather clothes for the summit and descent!
Have you climbed the Stelvio Pass?
We’d love to hear from you – comment below!
Don’t miss our other guides to rides in the area: see the related rides section below or check these: Stelvio (from Prato), Umbrail Pass loop, Bernina Pass loop, Mortirolo and Gavia loop and Cancano lake.
Check out our ultimate guide to cycling Bormio and other articles on Italy, below.
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