The Stelvio pass was designed by engineer Carlo Donegani who spent a whole year planning his masterpiece before work actually began in 1820. It took five years and 2500 people to complete the task to link the former Austrian province of Lombardy (now Italy) with the rest of Austria. What he built is regarded by many as the greatest road in the world and one that is now inextricably linked with cycling. It made its inaugural Giro appearance in 1953, 128 years after construction and first over the peak that day was the legendary Fausto Coppi on his way to winning the race overall.
The pass is now a regular on the route and has also been used as a summit finish but inserting it into the parcour is always a risk. Standing at 2,756 metres means that while the rest of the surrounding mountains can be bathed in sunshine the Stelvio can be closed to snow even in August, so be prepared.
- From Prato allo Stelvio -
Sitting at the base of the Stelvio, with the knowledge of what lies ahead is daunting for any rider whether they are someone about to ride their first mountain or a seasoned World Tour professional. The key is to break it down into parts and just enjoy the journey because it really does not get much better. With 48, yes 48 hairpins this magnificent road ambles upwards though the valley in a pretty much straight line for the first 12 kilometres and it’s then the bends start with a vengeance. For the next seven kilometres you zig zag up through the forest until around bend 24 you break free of the trees and for the first time catch sight of what lays ahead.
There are few more terrifying sights for a cyclist than those last six kilometres carved into the mountain side before you, heading vertically upwards to the sky. There’s no turning back though, take a deep breath and get stuck into maybe the greatest theater you will ever ride through.
Points of interest
The Pass was built because Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph I wanted a way from Vienna to Milan and until 1959 remained open year-around with workers who lived in houses distributed on the road keeping it clean.
The Pass usually opens in the second half of May and closes again at the start of November however it can still be covered by snow in June and Giro stages over it have had to be canceled many times.
When the Giro d’Italia organiser first used the pass in 1953 Fausto Coppi dropped race leader Hugo Koblet, took the pink jersey in Bormio, and went on to win the race the next day in Milan.
The Stelvio National Park is the largest in the Italian Alps and it has been protecting the Ortles-Cevedale massif since 1935, as well as some minor chains that flank it.
Carlo Donegani Museum
If you want to find out more about the road’s history you can visit the Museo Storico Carlo Donegani which stands at the summit between numerous bars and gift shops.
“The Passo dello Stelvio is arguably the purest, most exhilarating, most spellbinding mountain playground accessible to cyclists.”
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