Daniel Friebe* writes that the Passo dello Stelvio is “arguably the purest, most exhilarating, most spellbinding mountain playground accessible to cyclists.”
We’d agree. Cycling Passo dello Stelvio is on most serious road cyclists' bucket list. It’s the star of the Giro d’Italia and it’s a ride you just have to experience for yourself.
Before our trip, we had lots of questions about riding the Stelvio Pass and we struggled to find answers to them. So, after our trip we decided to create this lengthy Q&A that hopefully covers everything you may have been wondering about cycling the Stelvio.
We hope it helps you plan your assault on this giant of the Giro!
Planning a trip to the Stelvio? Ridden the Stelvio? Ask questions or tell us your experience in the comments below.
*(in his book Mountain High)
1. Getting to the Stelvio
Where is the Stelvio Pass cycling route?
The Stelvio Pass is in the Italian Alps of northern Italy. It’s 200 km northeast of Milan and 350m northwest of Venice. The closest major city is Bolzano which is about 75 km to the east. The Pass is just 200 m from the Swiss border.
Many people refer to the Stelvio being in the Dolomites; that’s not the case. The Dolomites start around 70 km to the east of the Stelvio. They’ve got a very different look and feel to this area.
How do you get to the Stelvio?
It’s not easy (sorry). Bormio is about 200 km from Milan Linate and Milan Malpensa international airports - that’s around a 3 hour drive.
We visited on a trip of northern Italy, flying into Venice, riding the Dolomites, driving on to Bormio and then on to Lake Como.
Where does the Stelvio Pass start and finish?
The official name of the Stelvio Pass road is the SS38 and it connects Prato allo Stelvio (in the South Tyrol, northeast of the Pass) with Bormio (in the Sondrio region, southwest of the Pass).
Is there a Stelvio Pass map?
Here’s an extract from Google Maps that shows the location of the Stelvio Pass compared with Milan and the two towns the Pass connects: Bormio and Prato.
When does the Stelvio pass open?
The Stelvio Pass usually opens in the second half of May and closes at the start of November. However we would suggest June-September is a better bet (it’s also worth considering timing your visit with one of the Stelvio Pass bike days - the “when to go” section of our destination guide has more information).
It’s vital to check the weather before you set out (and the webcam Passo Stelvio is also handy). On four occasions the Stelvio’s appearance in the Giro has been cancelled due to snow, which can appear at any time of year. If you’re “lucky” and it’s “only” rain, at 2,750m you won’t feel lucky if you’re not in the right clothes.
Where’s the best place to stay to ride the Stelvio Pass?
We love Bormio! It’s a great little town that embraces its cycling heritage and the thousands of cyclists that stay here each year. You’ll find plenty of cycling friendly hotels plus bike hire and repair shops.
Check our Bormio guide for everything you need to know.
What’s the Stelvio’s proper name?
The Stelvio has lots of different names: Passo dello Stelvio in Italian, Stelvio Pass in English and Stilfserjoch in German. Do the French call it the Col de Stelvio? We’re not sure!
2. Cycling Passo dello Stelvio: what it's like
How tough is cycling the Stelvio?
A lot is written about the beauty of the Stelvio and, yes, it is beautiful. But don’t forget that it’s also one of the hardest climbs there is.
What makes it quite so difficult is not so much the length or the gradients (despite the fact these are super challenging!) - it’s the altitude. On the surface, altitude doesn’t sound particularly noteworthy, but it is!
Also bear in mind that after a couple of hours of climbing, you’ve still got to conquer the descent, which is technical and potentially dangerous whichever way you go. Your clothes will be damp with sweat and you’ll be tired. Always check the weather before you go as having to descend without the right kit will be unforgettable (in the worst sense).
Finally, if you're descending to Bormio remember there are tunnels. They're now lit but they're still narrow and when we rode them there were traffic lights (meaning you may need to come to an abrupt stop half way down the descent). More detail in our Stelvio: Bormio guide.
In a post Giro interview with Rouleur magazine in 2007, Brian Smith said of the descent to Bormio: “It was the most horrible descent I’ve ever done. I was never one to get scared on a descent. But coming down the Stelvio that day, with my hands freezing, having to close one eye for the tunnels, and then hope for the best once you were inside, is something I’ll never forget. I was petrified.”
Take Brian’s advice: this is a mountain that shouldn’t be attempted unless you’re used to cycling in the mountains and have trained for it.
How long is the Stelvio Pass?
We calculate it as around 20km from Bormio and 25km from Prato.
Are there kilometre markers?
Yes there are - on both climbs.
The bends are numbered backwards, with the highest number at the top of the Pass, so you know how many bends there are to the top.
How many hairpins are there on the Stelvio?
Other than its height, the Stelvio's other big talking-point is the number of hairpins. The Passo di Stelvio from Prato has 48 hairpins. From Bormio, it’s less clear and depends on what you count as a hairpin. The number seems to range from 27 to 40, depending on who you ask or what you read.
We meant to count ourselves (to provide a definitive answer of course!) but managed to lose count halfway up when more important considerations took over (like breathing…).
What are the Stelvio Pass gradients like?
We calculate an average gradient of 8% from Prato and 7% from Bormio. As you’ll appreciate, averages mask the fact that the gradients aren’t perfectly even the whole way up!
What altitude is the Stelvio?
It is the second highest paved mountain pass in the Alps (the first is the Col de l’Iseran). Different sources put the summit at different heights, ranging from 2755m to 2757m or even 2760m. However, 2,758m is what it says on the sign at the top, so we’ll go with that.
How long should you allow?
Climbing the Stelvio by bike takes around 75-90 minutes in the Giro.
So a 90 minute ascent for a mere mortal will be going some - two or three hours is more realistic.
At the time of writing, the Stelvio Pass cycling record on Strava is
3. Cycling Passo dello Stelvio:
Which way up the Stelvio Pass road is best?
There are three ways up the Stelvio: from Prato allo Stelvio, from Bormio and from Santa Maria/the Umbrail Pass in Switzerland.
Only got time for one ascent? The most iconic climb is the ascent from Prato. This is the side with the much-photographed 48 hairpins. The valley is rocky, snow-capped and dramatic but be prepared for those endless, repetitive switchbacks! Get full details of the Prato climb, here.
Got the time and inclination for two ascents? Try the Bormio climb too, it’s varied and spectacular albeit very different from the Prato side (just beware the tunnels).
There’s not too much to pick between the two in terms of length and gradient; the Prato side is marginally longer and steeper on average, but the Bormio side spices things up with a gentle section 5km from the top and 12% for most of the last two kilometres...
If you’re based in Bormio, the ride to do is the iconic loop from Bormio up to the Pass, down to the Umbrail Pass, through Switzerland and then up the Stelvio again from Prato. A big day out! Get all the details on that in this Umbrail Pass loop guide.
The third climb up from Santa Maria in Switzerland is a much less ridden side. If you’re staying in Bormio and only doing one Stelvio day, you'd either have to ride all three climbs in one day (ouch) or do the Santa Maria side instead of the ride up from Prato. This route up from Santa Maria joins the route up from Bormio at around 3km to go (i.e. at the toughest bit!).
What’s the best time of day to go?
We’d suggest early in the morning and ideally midweek.
That’s because during the summer months it’s not just cyclists that love to challenge themselves here, it’s a playground for motorbikers too - more below.
Is there much traffic on the Stelvio?
The short answer is yes, you’ll find lots of people driving the Stelvio Pass.
A road this windy and well-surfaced is paradise for motorcyclists and drivers as well as cyclists. To top it off, in 2008 Top Gear voted the Stelvio Pass the best driving road in the world - so it’s no hidden gem.
The valley can echo to the roar of motorbikers ripping around the hairpins. If you go first thing, less of them are out of bed.
What’s the summit like?
Not very nice. After all the splendid natural beauty of the ride up, arriving at the summit of the Stelvio is a bit of a surprise. There are loads of trinket/souvenir shops, seedy cafes and faded hotels.
We overheard someone describing it as “like a wet day in Merthyr Tydfil” (sorry anyone that lives in Merthyr, but it was foggy and raining...).
It’s also a surprise to come across skiers mingling with cyclists - a testament to the likely weather you’ll encounter up here! The glacier is open to skiers from May to November.
Is there anywhere to get drinks/food?
What kit do you need to ride the Stelvio?
The key items of clothing to remember are long-fingered gloves, arm warmers, leg warmers and a jacket for the summit and descent (you may need more than this if the weather forecast is bad).
Also bring bike lights - and all the other usual stuff!
Where’s the best place to get a photo of the Stelvio Pass?
If you’re looking to get “that” photo of the Stelvio (the one of the hairpins tumbling down the mountain), it’s of the north-east side looking towards Prato. At the summit, head up the road by the Hotel Passo Stelvio towards the Albergo Ristorante Tibet and you’ll get a superb view of the hairpins flowing away down the long valley.
Are there any official Stelvio Pass photographers?
Yes, FotoStelvio.com stations their photographers at various corners of the road. You can then log on to their site, find your photo (these are organised by month, date and time) and buy it.
Are there any cycling events on the Stelvio?
Are there any other good rides near the Stelvio?
Yes! Don't just do the Stelvio and leave; you'd be missing out on some of the world's best mountain riding!
For something easier, try the climb to Cancano lake.
Our guide to cycling the Stelvio region has full details.
4. History of the Stelvio
Why is there a road here?
The Stelvio Pass was built between 1820 and 1825 to connect Lombardy (which was newly part of Austria) with the Tyrol, providing a route from Vienna to Milan.
It was built by a renowned engineer, Carlo Donegani, who spent a whole year planning the road before work commenced. It took 2,500 people five years to complete.
Until the beginning of the 20th Century, the road was open all-year around but it is now closed during winter.
If you want to find out more about the road’s history, there’s a museum about it at the summit.
What’s the monument on the Bormio side?
Today the Stelvio Pass sits in Italy, with the Swiss border barely a few kilometres away to the North.
However, before the end of World War 1, the Pass formed the border between Austria and Italy. As a result, it was of huge strategic importance at that time and a number of fierce battles were fought here, in the ice and snow.
The monument contains the remains of 64 Italian soldiers who died here in the War.
What’s the Stelvio’s connection with the Giro d’Italia?
Despite having only appeared 12 times in the Giro (1953-2018), the Stelvio and the Giro d’Italia are inextricably linked.
The Stelvio first appeared in the race in 1953, 128 years after the road was built. It immediately made the news: on the climb from Prato, Fausto Coppi attacked. He descended to Bormio putting 4 minutes 23 into second placed Koblet. It gave him the stage and the overall win in Milan the next day (his fifth and final). In Maglia Rosa, Herbie Sykes reports the words of Defilippis: “I’d never seen anything like it. He disappeared into the distance like a motorbike.” The events set a rich precedent for future displays of courage and drama that form part of the mountain’s mythology.
The summit has been used as a stage finish four times (in 1965, 1972, 1975 and 2012).
The ascent of the Stelvio Pass has been cancelled four times due to bad weather (1967, 1984, 1988 and 2013).
Cima Coppi is the title given to the Giro’s highest point each year. When the Stelvio features, it inevitably gets the title.
5. Any other random facts?!
Why, yes. Stelvio DOP is a cheese commonly found in Italian supermarkets!
Also food related - don’t miss the delicious local dish of pizzoccheri - squares of wholemeal pasta. The bresaola, cured beef that’s very finely sliced, is also yummy. Great food to fill up on after a day out riding the Pass!
- Don't miss our ride guides to the Stelvio (from Bormio) and Stelvio (from Prato) - plus our Stelvio two sides loop and Gavia and Mortirolo loop.
- Check out our ultimate guide to cycling the Stelvio region, which is packed full of free information on rides, accommodation, when to go and more!
Have you ridden the Stelvio?
Are you planning to ride it? Share your stories below!
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