A little side-trip into Switzerland during the Giro of 2011: the Umbrail Pass, which connects to the Stelvio (from Bormio) just after its summit. Report on that stage here.
At 2,501 meters it earns a top 10 spot in the list of highest paved passes in Europe and it is the highest paved pass in Switzerland.
With an average grade of 8.5% it’s far from easy, but it’s a nice, steady climb, with beautiful views and it is not too busy with motorized traffic.
The steepest part is actually right at the start, where, after a series of hairpins, you will be rewarded with stunning views of the Müstair valley with Santa Maria in it.
The two kilometer unpaved section in the middle was actually not too bad, especially if it did not rain – probably it was more difficult in the descent, like during the Dreiländergiro*. However, since a few years, the entire pass has been paved, so this problem does no longer exist…
Because of its open character, the wind may be an annoying factor in the upper part, were the road is fairly straight, almost “meandering” like a stream. Just past the summit, you’ll end up on the Stelvio – you can then climb the final, difficult, kilometers up to the summit of that (CBB), or descend to Bormio.
Note that including the remainder of the Stelvio will increase the overall average grade to a staggering 9.4% over the full distance of 14.6 kilometers…
A combination (loop) with the full length of the Stelvio – from either Prato or Bormio – is harder than it looks. From Bormio you would first climb the Stelvio, descend to Prato and then circle around via Sluderno to Santa Maria for the Umbrail – this is the most obvious option.
Counterclockwise from Prato, with the Stelvio first and the descent to Bormio is also possible, but getting to Santa Maria that way is much more challenging. You will first have to get over the Foscagno, take the bike-train through the tunnel Munt la Schera (now prohibited for cyclists) and then get over the Ofen pass.
Obviously, you could also just ascend the Stelvio from either side, descend the Umbrail to Santa Maria, turn round and get back up again 🙂
You see the pictures of the might Stelvio on the Internet – especially those from the Prato side of the climb – and you instantly feel the urge to get on your bicycle. With its 2,758 meters it’s second on the list of Europe’s highest passes – a few dead ends are higher, though they might not be cycle-able with a road bike, and I do not count the artificial loop around the Bonette (the Cime)…
Obviously, the Stelvio is included in a score of Gran Fondos, and you can also climb it on days when it’s closed to motorized traffic, like during the Mapei Day. The advantage of that is clear, but you will be sharing the road with thousands of other cyclists (or skaters, hand bikers, etc.).
Still, that is probably better than sharing it with motorized traffic – as with many of these famous passes, the Stelvio is a magnet to motorists and (wannabee) Formula 1 car drivers. It actually is frequently used as a test course for Ferrari, but when that happens, the road is closed to all other traffic…
Also when planning to climb the Stelvio, you’d do well to inform yourself about the weather conditions. I have experienced 30+ degrees in the valley on either side and close to zero degrees at the summit. It may even snow up there, any given day…
In 2008, I climbed up the Stelvio from this end for the first time – report on that trip here. In 2015 I had a round trip up both ends consequetivley – report here.
Starting from Prato, the Stelvio Pass has a length of roughly 25 km and an altitude gain of just over 1,800 meters. Both in 2008 and in 2015, I got on the bike at the Hotel Gasthof Stern in Prato.
The first eight kilometers to Trafoi are not too hard, although you’ll see – and feel – inclines of 10%.
Shortly before Trafoi you pass through the first 2 hairpins – these are just after the tunnel / gallery between Gomagoi and Trafoi.
There are 48 in total from this end – the next 2 you encounter when leaving Trafoi, at Hotel Bellavista.
After that, you’ll cycle quite some distance through a reasonably sheltered – tree covered – area, changing between slightly winding sections and series of hairpins.
This pretty much goes on until “tornante” 32, from where the next kilometers and hairpin sections have a more open character. From hairpin 24, just before hotel restaurant Franzenshöhe in nr. 22, you finally get to look at the view of the remaining hairpins, winding up (far) above you…
From that point onward, until you reach the summit, you are rewarded with ever more breathtaking views, for which the Stelvio is known so well.
Once you reach the usually very crowded summit, you are “treated” with the smell of bratwurst – Bruno’s hot dog and “wurstel” trolley is the first thing you encounter.
If you want to have some good food, ride on to Albergo Genziana, just past the shopping array…
Report on the 2011 trips here / Mapei Day here, Stelvio revisited 2015 here.
There was a reason we booked a hotel near Bormio in 2011: the Gavia, Mortirolo and the Stelvio are around the corner!
Obviously, the same excuse was used in 2015, when we rented an apartment in the area…
On paper, the ascent from the south may look less challenging than the one from the north side – just over 21 kilometers and just over 1,500 altimeters. But appearances are deceiving, because the percentages are almost equal and the last two, two and a half kilometers are demanding, devastating if the biting cold wind happens to be a strong head wind.
Also from Bormio, you can look forward to a beautiful climb, with similarly numbered hairpins, 40 in this case – number 40 you will find when you leave Bormio and see “BORMIO m 1225” on the wall.
The sign says 1256 s.l.m. because Bormio village is at 1225 and you have gained 31 meters up to that hairpin.
Passing Bagni di Bormio, you turn away from Bormio and when you’re some 6 kilometers and a couple more hairpins in, you reach the series of short tunnels.
Luckily, the bike lights and reflectors for these – some of them were pitch dark – are no longer necessary, because they are now (well) lit, albeit still narrow.
After you pass these tunnels, you’ll run into some short, stinging, sections of 14, 15%. However, you also have a stunning view on the most beautiful part of the climb, the series of 14 hairpins – 28 to 15 – snailing up along the rocks.
As you climb these, looking back will give you similar views to the ones found in the top half of the other side’s ascend.
After looking back one final time, you will be able to catch your breath a bit on the fairly straight and flatter passage towards the final part of the climb.
If you’re not faced with a head wind that is, because if you are, it’s not so much fun… Once you get past the chapel, you can already see the start of that “grand finale” in the distance.
Approaching the top of / split with the Umbrail, the grades go up to 10% again, but after that, it gets really tough when that becomes 12, 13, 14%. This last part of the climb seems to go on forever and if you do get a head wind here, you’ll be extremely happy once you finally reach the summit…
It was raining (again) this morning and C. tweeted he might have been hit by a truck overnight (or at least by a minivan). Not very good conditions to undertake more crazy climbing expeditions, like taking on both the Gavia and Stelvio in one ride…
But once again he couldn’t help himself and around 9:20 he and T. set course to Ponte di Legno. C. was hoping for a chance to tackle the Gavia from that side, since the 1st attempt on Wednesday failed…