The Marmite pass
What is it about Stelvio that provokes such strong reactions? More than any other road I can think of, Italy’s highest pass polarises opinion - it’s the original Marmite mountain ride and people either love it or hate it... and I’m astonished at how many seem to hate it.
There’s no denying that Stelvio Pass is technically challenging and the number of hairpins makes hard to ride smoothly, especially in the steep sections when they come thick and fast - but there are plenty of tougher passes. Just get stuck into the Splugen pass north of Chiavenna, with hairpins in tunnels; or Les Lacettes de Montvernier, with a preposterous 17 hairpins in one narrow, bumpy mile; or the mind-bogglingly steep ascent to Alpe d’Huez.... Far more demanding, all of them - and there are plenty more.
Stelvio is a road with a changeable surface: lovely in some places; okay but not perfect for the most part; with some poor patches (usually under the trees on the Prato side). But so many of the greatest mountain roads have changeable surfaces - from Col d’Aubique in the Pyrenees to Col de l’Iseran in the French Alps... and don’t even mention Vrsic Pass in Slovenia, which has every kind of surface including cobbled hairpins.
One thing I like about Stelvio is that it’s so long it seems to change character several times. There are the steep and rocky high sections, the flowing Alpine meadows south of the turn for the Umbrail pass, the tight wooded climbs, the valley runs beside dancing rivers... Even the two sides of the pass even seem to be slightly different. You could almost see Stelvio not as one great road but as several really good ones joined together.
Okay, Stelvio is busy a lot of the time. But so is Austria’s Grossglockner, so are the big-name Dolomitic passes, so is the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees... Sometimes you have to queue to get a pic beside the monument on Cime de la Bonnette, France’s highest paved road. Hell, in August the mountains - especially the French ones - are chockablock with bikes, sports cars, camper vans and masochistic cyclists wheezing their way up the famous climbs on their annual holiday. Traffic is just part of the deal when you ride any famous pass.
My first time on the 1257m Stelvio was on a Saturday that happened to be Italian “Ride Stelvio day” and that was the busiest I’ve seen it - bikes everywhere. I got there around 11am (same time as everyone else, apparently). My ascent was a flurry of overtakes and patience-straining polite restraint, slowly following nervous riders round hairpins before unleashing my BMW K1300S on the corner exit to carry on at my pace. I still enjoyed it, but there’s no denying it wasn’t the kind of flowing ride that Alpine dreams are made of.
Next time I was luckier. It was a midweek afternoon at the end of September and Stelvio was quiet. Not many cyclists, bikes all apparently travelling at similar speeds - so not really bunching up. Even the bustle of shops and sausage stands at the top of the pass wasn’t too thronged with gormless humanity, standing in or walking across the road without looking. I got to Bormio, turned around and had an equally good run back to Prato.
After that, I was hooked and visited whenever there was the flimsiest pretext, even if it meant adding two or three hours onto the day’s ride to detour to Stelvio. In 2014 I managed three separate trips within two months. Every time I rode it was different (and, okay, it was a bit slippery and sketchy in the wet) but I found something positive on each visit. I still don’t think I’ve managed a “perfect” run over it, but it’s such a long pass that it hardly matters: a good run through any of the tight sections, stringing hairpins and straights seamlessly together, feels hugely satisfying.
I think the real problem with Stelvio is excessively high expectation. It lurks there in the Italian Alps, 48 hairpins on each side off the pass, being built up as some sort of mountain Mecca (ahem - yes, I’m guilty of building it up) where all your Alpine dreams can come true. This is unicorn syndrome: the idea sounds magical, but I’m pretty sure most bikers finding one would just shrug and say “It’s just a horse with stick on its head”. The reality can’t live up to the fantasy.
And Stelvio, for all the hype, is just a road - with its share of the drawbacks of any popular mountain road. As it’s long and technically demanding, it might not even be the kind of road you like - especially if you prefer more laid-back, flowing riding. But it is one of my favourite roads precisely because, for me, that toughness is part of the appeal.
Love it or hate it, Stelvio Pass is fabulously scenic, varied, challenging, rewarding... a great ride.
My tips for getting the best from Stelvio:
1. Stay close enough to ride it in the morning before it gets busy
2. If you can, ride it in both directions.
3. If there is slower traffic either be patient or stop to let a gap build up - maybe take the pic of you on Stelvio that will annoy your friends
4. At the top of the pass, take the side road to the Tibet cafe for the best views
5. Don’t build it up too much before you get there. It’s just a road and there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy others on your trip at least as much (possibly more).