Travellers’ tales: The Stelvio Pass

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The Stelvio Pass’s average gradient is about 7%
For his 70th birthday, Cycling UK member Ian Smith wanted a challenge. He picked the second-highest paved mountain pass in the Alps

“This might be your last milestone birthday,” my wife Dianne said before my 70th. “What have you always wanted to do?”

I thought for a while, then said that I wanted to cycle up the Stelvio, the famous mountain pass in Italy. Within half an hour she’d found a company that would do a bespoke trip.

The Stelvio Pass is a climb that deserves its reputation. It’s 21.5km long, rising from 1,225m at Bormio to 2,765m at top. The average gradient is around 7%, the steepest sections 14%. Where I live in the Scottish Borders the climbs are short and not steep.

The climb up to Bowden Loch from the Melrose side is just over 7% but is less than a 10th as long as the Stelvio. I’d need to ride it a lot. So I did: 113 times between late January and early June.

By the time I was in Bormio with my hire bike that summer, I felt ready. Setting off from the pretty spa town, it was steady climbing to begin with. The Alps looked spectacular in the morning sunshine. Soon other cyclists started overtaking me; I was happy plodding away at my own pace.

The tunnels section was next but they all had traffic lights and were all lit. Then there was a long section with a steeper gradient. This part was relatively straight so it was easy to see the next part, a series of 14 hairpin bends, seemingly climbing into the sky.

The easiest part of the climb was followed by the hardest. But by then I could see the buildings at the top of the pass. The end was in sight. I was going to do it.

At the pass there was a cold wind. I pulled on my rain jacket and set off downhill. I’ve never used disc brakes before but, my goodness, they made the descent so easy on the hands.

It took 2 hours 45 minutes to go up and 35 minutes to come down. It would have been quicker but there was much more traffic by then, so I had to limit my speed – the only disappointment of the day. An hour after I arrived back at the hotel, there was a spectacular thunderstorm.

A man with glasses, a white cycling helmet and white beard is in front of a sign reading 'Passo Dello Stelvio. Alt 2758 m'. The handlebar of his bike can just be seen
Success! Ian celebrates completing the 21.5km climb

A tale to tell

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