Stelvio Pass


I will claim ignorance. As a cycling fan, I am embarrassed. Or I should be embarrassed. I knew nothing about the famous Stelvio Pass.

Caitlyn and Sonya in Prato

It was just a few weeks ago during the Giro d’Italia that the Stelvio pass made cycling news for days. The weather was so bad that the Giro either did or did not tell the teams that the descent would be neutralized for safety. The leaders flew down it, everyone else went reasonably and lost chunks of time.

Trek Travel bikes ready to go in Prato

Today, we would climb the famed passo Stelvio. And I knew nothing about it. Perhaps that was a good thing.

Trek Travel Guide, James Shanahan

We left the hotel in Moena by shuttle and drove a couple of hours to Prato. Once there, we offloaded at a hotel by an intersection of the roads. I sure hope Trek Travel had permission because we took over all the restrooms for changing. (I’m sure they did.)

Post Hirsch, Posta Cervo Prato where our climb started

We rolled out at an intersection and I went first this time. I had no intention of being first up the climb and within one hundred meters I pulled over as my spokes were hitting the speed sensor on the fork. Everyone rolled past me as I readjusted the sensor and then rode tempo to catch onto the back of the group, but only after also adjusting the bike pump which was being hit by the crank. (This was a Trek Travel bike with a bike pump – not mine.)

Lowest slopes of the Stelvio

The first four kilometers were flat or trending up at one or two percent. Once at the base of the pass, the road turned up into a beautiful forest with no idea of what lies ahead. It was warm and I was sweating pretty heavily.

Hotel on the lower slopes of the passo Gavia

Having been last I caught up with and rode with Caitlin Steele and Colin Giffney. I have ridden with them quite a bit this week. We chatted without hardly noticing the steepness of the road in the forest. When we went by the Trek Travel guides they were astounded that we were chatting away. We were supposed to be out of breath.

L-R: Caitlin, Colin, Barry
Credit: Trek Travel

Colin and Caitlyn stopped at a planned water/rest stop and I rode ahead, passing Bud Hoffacker and Anne Marie Redmond and then caught Chris and Jim Ashton. I’ve ridden with Chris and Jim quite a bit this week as well.

Stopped to smell (photograph) the flowers

Near the top of the forest one sees the first sign – Tornanti 48. That is turn or switchback number 48. Only 47 to go. It would be another kilometer before the next turn. The switchbacks on the lower section are much farther apart than near the top. On one turn we were in our lane, the outermost part of a left-hand bend, when a tour bus coming down the mountain was also trying to navigate the turn. The driver went as far wide as he could, either not seeing us or not caring. We stepped off our bikes and into the dirt and grass to let the bus pass.

Looking across the valley

Eventually we left the forest and could see nothing but road and hairpin curves ahead. I tried not to look for the summit but could not help it. It was so beautiful. Amidst the quiet of solitude of the forest was a constant din of motorcycles’ engines. This is a beautiful tourist road for everyone and sports cars and motorcycles use it too.


Jim and I started using the switchback numbers to talk about what we were doing and where we were living at that age. So 48 years ago I was ___ years old and was living ___. It made the time go by real fast. We were joined for a while by James Shanahan, our Trek Travel guide, and Chris and he rode about 50 meters ahead while Jim and I talked.

Chris and Jim Ashton

Nearing the top we watched two snow plows coming down the road. This morning the road up here was snow-covered. But with our two-hour shuttle followed by a two-hour climb, the road was clear although still wet in a lot of places.

Looking back at the road up Stelvio

At Turn 3 James stayed behind watching for other riders coming up the road. Chris, Jim, and I rode ahead until Turn 1 when I pulled over and made 10 or 12 beautifully packed snowballs. The snow was the perfect consistency for this purpose. I lofted one down two switchbacks below and it landed near James’ feet. Then another. And another. He looked up and thought I was trying to throw snowballs all around him. I wasn’t. I was trying to hit him but my throws sucked.

Jim, Barry, and James
(Source: Paid photo)

One more switchback and I reached the top. It was cold although the Trek Travel van was parked just before the summit and it seemed to be 10 degrees (5.5 C) warmer on this side than at the top or going over the other side.

At the top.
Credit: ? – Someone had my camera and a finger in the way

Lunch was on our own at the top. Although there were two restaurants that offered warm seating inside, James recommended “Richard,” an Austrian who sets up a grill and cooks bratwurst. That was good enough for me.

Richard’s Bratwurst

There were a couple of shops and I found a Passo Stelvio jersey although the hotel had a nicer version that I would have preferred. We did not linger long at the summit as we were starting to get cold.

Haven ridden up the pass with Chris and Jim, we descended together. On this side there were tunnels. Were we warned by James and Sonja? We surely must have been. What to expect could have been best expressed by a former pro.

“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.’” (Source:

The tunnels would mess with my Garmin’s satellite connection for a while as we zipped in and out. It made for a weird elevation profile, obviously incorrect.

Barry at the top of Stelvio

Both Chris and Jim were excellent descenders and I fell in behind Chris’ line. We were flying as we entered a tunnel. It was dark and featured a sharp right-hander followed by a left hand curve at the exit. The eyes did not adjust from bright snow-covered mountains to the dark inside the tunnel (with sunglasses on) instantly.

Looking at the descent towards Bormio

I followed Chris’ flashing rear light as we went wide in the turn. It was wet in the tunnel with snow melt. Chris went wide so I did too. As he recovered and went back to the right side of the road I was still over the center line when a car, with no lights, appeared in front of me. I touched the rear brakes and my biked fishtailed right in front of the car. I adjusted and brought the bike back under control and missed a head on collision by six inches or so. We did not enter a tunnel with speed after that. Chris apologized profusely.

Jim and Chris Ashton (Photo: Trek Travel)

There are a number of switchbacks on the Bormio side of the mountain as well although not 48 of them (I think there are 40). One of them, as I would discover later, passed within 10 meters of Switzerland and there is a road at another switchback that goes to Switzerland (Umbrail Pass). The border there was about 100 meters away.

Stelvio Summit

We didn’t know to stop to visit Switzerland but for me it was a moot point as I will be in Switzerland later in the week. We followed the road to Bormio then checked into our hotel for the night.

Just down from Stelvio Pass on the Bormio side

Stelvio Pass is the highest paved pass in Italy. It is a classic climb that, quite frankly, wasn’t that hard, just very long. Of course, I wasn’t racing. But at no point did I think of it as too hard or had to fight myself to keep going. I doubt I get to ride this again but I would love to. It is a great one.

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