The Passo Mortirolo is one of the hardest cycling climbs there is. It’s around 11.5km and averages nearly 11% to the 1,852m summit. The maximum gradient is 18%.
The Mortirolo is not historically important, its profile is irregular and the scenery is not particularly attractive. It’s the sort of climb that’s friends with the Zoncolans and Anglirus of this world.
As Mark Canvendish said after the 2008 Giro d’Italia: “It’s the hardest climb I’ve ever done. It’s savage, f**king savage – unbelievably steep and it just goes on and on. If you asked me for two words to sum it up I’d say “steep” and “long”. Actually, make that three words: “long”, “steep” and “sick”.”
Not one for the faint-hearted.
All metrics in this article are approximate.
Passo Mortirolo: highlights
We loved the quiet humbleness of the Mortirolo climb.
The Marco Pantani memorial was also touching.
But the best thing was making it to the summit; we found the climb pretty brutal due to the forest and lack of scenery to divert the mind!
1. The start
Given its legendary status, the start of the Mortirolo climb is one of the least auspicious we’ve ever come across. The road twists through the functional town of Mazzo di Valtellina on roads so narrow you wonder how the whole Giro caravan manages to squeeze through.
Luckily the Mortirolo cycling route is quite well signposted, as riding through town is a bit of a maze.
2. What it’s like
The inauspicious start really sets the tone for the rest of the ride. The road started life as a goat track, and it’s not that much wider now (though you’ll be relieved to hear it’s significantly smoother!).
You get glimpses back over the Valtellina valley, but otherwise it’s pretty much 11km of interminable 10+% gradients on a narrow single lane road that winds through dense, airless woodland. Every so often, the woodland falls away and the road breaks into open pasture – this delivers some sort of relief, even though the gradients don’t ease off at these points!
While the climb’s average is 10.9% this is no finely engineered Swiss road – gradients are irregular and zoom around from 8% up to the mid teens in places. While some roads (even the Stelvio!) you can pick a gear and grind up, the Mortirolo often requires out of the saddle efforts to keep momentum. There’s a reason not everyone that cycles the Stelvio cycles the Passo di Mortirolo…
When we rode it, the road surface was patched and bore traces of graffiti from the Giro earlier that year. It was also dead quiet – as mentioned, far fewer cyclists but also much less traffic. Unlike the Stelvio which was built as a main transport route, the Mortirolo feels like a forgotten country road to nowhere in particular. Technically it’s a short-cut between two valleys but the valleys meet soon after this road, so cars tend to take the longer route around.
The only two landmarks of real note on the climb are San Matteo Church about 4km from the start and the memorial to Pantani on bend 11 at about 8km before the summit. The memorial was erected in 2006 by the Italian Professional Riders Association and is a simple metal sculpture set high on a stone wall embankment. It shows Pantani racing up the Mortirolo, so appropriate since it was here, in 1994, that his legend was born (more on that below).
3. The summit
In the final three kilometres the gradients finally dip below double digits and in the final kilometre the road breaks free of woodland into open pasture.
The summit is unremarkable. There’s a sign and reasonable views before you’re on your way down to Monno.
Read our Mortirolo and Gavia loop guide for info on the technical descent to Monno.
We’d suggest refreshments in Mazzo or, if you’re doing the Mortirolo-Gavia loop, in Monno after you’ve climbed the Mortirolo.
We’ve seen references to the Agirturismo al Castagneto at the 2km point, but we didn’t spot it! Possibly too focused on the pain in our legs?!
There are no buildings on the summit itself, though there were two portaloos(!) and a sign for Rifugio Antonioli offering rooms and food/drinks; the sign said it was just a couple of hundred metres away.
Just below the summit, on the way down to Monno we sped past an establishment with tables outside. Google maps shows it’s Albergo Passo Mortirolo and we imagine they may be able to offer refreshments. We were going too fast to stop and check (sorry)!
We based ourselves in Bormio and stayed at a bike-friendly hotel there.
You can get more details about our experience of the hotel (and others in town) in this article on where to stay to ride the Stelvio.
If you’re thinking about gearing for Mortirolo, you’ll certainly want a compact chainset, something like a 34×28 or even a 34×32. Given how tough the Mortirolo profile is, you won’t regret it!
It’s a good idea to check the Mortirolo Pass weather before setting out. You can see a Mortirolo webcam here.
The Granfondo Gavia Mortirolo takes place in June on three routes, a long, medium and short route. It’s also worth checking out the Mortirolo bike days, when the climb is closed to motorised traffic. In 2018, the bike day was on 7 and 27 July and 31 August.
The Mortirolo’s other name is Passo della Foppa. Certainly not so fearsome sounding as the Mortirolo – with morte meaning death in Italian! In Mountain High, Daniel Friebe explains that this name comes from “the mass cull of pagan insurgents by Charles the Great’s army in 773″.
Lucho Herrera described the Mortirolo as the “Queen climb of Europe” and in 2004 Lance Armstrong said it was the hardest climb he’d ever ridden.
The Mortirolo record from Mazzo is 42.40 – set by Ivan Gotti in 1996 (need we say more).
There are markers on each bend (1 is the top).
Have you ridden Italy’s Mortirolo?
We’d love to hear from you – comment below or drop us a line.
Don’t miss our other ride guides on this region: see the related rides section above and our guides to the Gavia and Mortirolo and Gavia loop guide. Also our guides to Stelvio (from Bormio), Stelvio (from Prato), Umbrail Pass loop, Bernina Pass loop and Cancano Lakes.
Check out our ultimate guide to cycling the Stelvio region and other articles, below.
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