Hello!, this will be the first article in our SFIDA Cycling blog. It wasn’t easy to decide what to write about on this milestone moment.
Finally, as most of us are in love with the big mountain passes I opted to start a series with the title: “riding on thin air”. Here we will describe some of the highest climbs you can conquer in Europe.
The names of Passo dello Stelvio, Col du Galibier, Col de la Bonette, Grossgloeckner…are all evocative of epic cycling, besides being the witness of some amazing racing, they can be ridden by aficionados like you and me. Any of those climbs should be on your list!
The main intention is to get a general overview on climbs that go well over the tree line, on thin air.
We must start our list with the Passo dello Stelvio 2,757m. This is the climb that has captivated the imagination of thousands of cyclist. Is not the highest but definitely one of the most well known big climbs, the two sides: from Prato and Bormio have seen the Giro d’Italia passing through a good number of times since the first official climb during the Giro in 1953.
Fausto Coppi, it could not be other, was the first professional cyclist to ride through the summit of the Stelvio during the Stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia on the first of June 1953. Starting in Bolzano and ending in Bormio, the 125km stage win gave him also his fifth and last Giro. Only 1:29 minutes ahead of Hugo Koblet from Switzerland, another great rider of that time.
On that Giro d’Italia, Josep Vidal Porcar from the Spain-Fiorelli team finished 67th in the GC, 2 hours 38 minutes from Fausto Coppi.
Josep Vidal was a friend of my father back in my hometown near Barcelona, I was lucky enough to meet him and to listen to the amazing stories of his participation in the Giros and Tours de France in the 50s. But this is a story for another article…
Back to the Stelvio, the Prato side is probably the one you want to do in your first visit, 25km long and with 48 switchbacks (tornanti), most of them concentrated in the last 17km. I always find this side a bit monotonous on the first kilometres until you reach the tornante 48 sign, from here the fun starts with continuous hairpins and amazing landscape on your left side. At one point, leaving the tree line behind, you see the top, it looks like it is very far and still about 20 tornanti to go…in no time you are in 5,4,3,2,1….
Reaching the summit from any side is definitely one of the most memorable moments a cyclist can feel. Seeing the tornante 1 sign means you are very close to personal glory.
Once at the top, don’t forget to enjoy a well-deserved bratwurst, a few food stands serve this local delicacy! also you can buy Stelvio related souvenirs at a couple of shops.
On our last trip there last year, John and Oscar, two of our ride leaders plus Adam and Andrew, a couple of the clients of the group, conquered the triplo: to climb on the same day the Prato and Bormio sides plus the Passo Umbrail from Santa Maria in Switzerland! 4,500m+ of elevation in 125 kilometres. Well done boys!
The Bormio side is a bit shorter, with 21 kilometres and around 40 tornanti, still it is a long way to the top. Climbing from here there are a few points of interest, first, there are a series of tunnels, with a different width that makes this part quite amusing, luckily the narrowest one had traffic lights installed recently. Most of the tunnels were resurfaced and had lights installed before the 100th Giro d’Italia went up and down this side in 2017. It wasn’t too much fun to find a bus halfway through a dark and narrow tunnel in the past!!
Later on, we find reminiscents of the old road, with a few tornanti besides the new road, looking at them you can imagine how was riding there some time ago.
Also at this point, you find one of the old Casa Cantoniera buildings, now abandoned, these houses were used in the past to keep road maintenance staff and equipment. You can see many of them when riding in Italy, scattered along the main roads, their unique Rosso Pompeiano (Pompeian pink) colour is fading away now, witnessing tourist driving or cycling by.
One of the last points of interest is the Sacrario Militare dello Stelvio, build in honour of the fallen soldiers during the Great War, it is the highest monument of this kind in Italy. Opposite you find the Oratorio San Ranieri, build in 1830.
From here to the top you will find another Casa Cantoniera at the crossing with the road that will take you to Switzerland descending via the Passo Umbrail. After that is just three kilometres to the top.
Descending: both sides are great, long descents. I personally prefer the Bormio side, mainly because that means that we are arriving at this nice town in the Italian Alps and as usual we stay at one of our favourite hotels of the year, Baita dei Pini (www.baitadeipini.com), where the Dei Cas family and their staff treat us and our clients with excellent service…and the food is to die for.