Passo di Stelvio
A legendary climb. Looming large, literally, in our grand tour the Stelvio is steeped in hyperbole.
Distance: (Bormio-Stelvio) 21.64km
As a barely functioning cycling illiterate, the specifics of individual heroism, battles won and lost on its flanks, the great names humbled, or lauded, by their performances are a fog of half remembered names and snatched moments of TV footage. What lingers, and has always beckoned, is the mountain. The Stelvio is a mountain pass made from dreams. A Disneyesque portrayal of what a road up an Alpine mountain should look like. Steep granite walls flanking a tortuous road that clings so close to the edge it gets scared and has to tunnel into the rock to avoid its own desire to jump. The mountain offers some of the most iconic images of mans endeavour to overcome nature. Carlo Donegani built the road in the 1820´s to link Bormio with Trafoi for empirical protection and trade. A huge feat of civil engineering by a man who loved the mountains. The road winds endlessly up, countless hairpins (actually, they´re numbered!) desperately trying to ease the gradient. The Trafoi hairpins are a wonder to behold and just beckon to be ridden. The ascent from Bormio is regarded by some as the tougher of the ascent options, but less munificent in its beauty. Thats a bit like comparing Claudia Cardinale with Sophia Loren.
We left Bormio in bright sun and brighter spirits. The DS´s "troubles" seemed over, and a good day up the mountains lay ahead. The road climbs from the off, no roll out or warm up, just the "up". Traffic was heavy and noisy and streams of panniered motor bikes flooded up and down the road. It seems that being blessed by Clarkson as the best driving road in europe has managed to attract too many hydrocarbon huggers. Not that many its chaos, but enough to interrupt and detract from the contemplation and serenity that these mountains bring.
The road from Bormio is defined by long stretches of steep incline, then a few hairpins to ramp up the height gain, then more longer stretches of climbing. The route offers little chance to hide on broad switchbacks. You cling to the steep valley sides, with the sounds of the rushing river far below echoing up the valley walls. The vertical granite wall opposite you adding to the slight sense of claustrophobia.
As you near bend 32 you get the first glimpse of whats to come. I stopped in stunned admiration. The valley broadened out to reveal a huge wall of scree and debris in the distance. Eons of erosion had created a massive embankment that Donegani had decided to build a road up. The road ahead clung to the valley wall and then wound its way up this daunting cliff face. As you near the almost vertical wall, you begin to see how the road uses the full width of the wall and caps each end with a hairpin that takes you up a "floor" to the next level. These bends were broad and forgiving, allowing respite as you prepare for the lunge to the next bend. Reaching the summit is mixed emotion. A great feeling to look back at where you've come from, only to realise that you're only half way.
The severity lessens a little after the hairpins as you enter the high lush meadows above the "wall". The river to our right allowed us to fill our bottles with ice cold mountain water and we headed for the summit. I´m not sure if it was psychological, but even the diary cows here seemed clean, smelled "alpine fresh" and were quite good looking in a non-zoophilic way!
Switzerland juts into Italy around here, the road veering off left to the border control station and the Umbrail Pass, or right and to the heady heights of the Stelvio. At 2,500m this is the highest road in Switzerland, as you look high and to your right, you see the cluster of Ski chalets and hotels some 250m above you which marks the heights of the Passo di Stelvio. From here the road starts to give you some attitude, as well as altitude. The short steep sections from here twist and turn toward the summit, Oxygen is depleted, legs are tired, and the road has saved its steepest toughest section till last. These last few kilometres hurt, alot. It wasn't helped by some tossers from some Porsche owners club cutting corners and screeching around the hairpins. Very enjoyable for them, very annoying for me.
The summit was again, a mixed bag of emotions. Absolutely stunning views over the Alps, the Trafoi bends squirming down the valley, the euphoria of achievement... Only to be tempered by the tacky gift shops, sausage stands, and moustachioed leather clad bikers.
A great, classic climb of iconic stature, however, for me, the Disneyesque has become reality, the cheap tourist attractions, the smell of bratwurst and sauerkraut, petrol fumes... These places should be protected, not exploited, maybe whats missing is any sympathy with the environment, rather than just building shops to earn a few quid.