Cycling The Stelvio on a Marmot Cycling Tour
I wrote a travel article about a Marmot Cycling Tour to the Dolomites and the Italian Alps. You can read the pdf of the cycling tour or the copy below.
Cycling in the Italian Alps
I had seen the photos of the infamous 48 hairpin bends zigzagging precipitously up the mountainside.
I had read the statistics: Gradients with a lung-busting average of eight per cent and as steep as a muscle-shredding 11 per cent for 24km.
And I knew, because I had watched the professionals riding the road pass during the Giro d’Italia race, that the summit at 2758m is often covered in snow.
But until I was a third of the way up the vertiginous road pass known as The Stelvio in the Italian Alps, I had no concept of how this climb would feel on a bicycle.
It was only when the clouds suddenly parted and I stared upwards, high above me, at the road coiling back and forth repeatedly that I truly understood the extent of the climb.
I glanced at my watch and worked out that I still had hours of climbing until I could finally get off my bike at the top.
By my calculations there was another 16km to ride and the height of Ben Nevis (1345m) to ascend by bike power alone.
I mumbled something similar to the rider, Ian, cycling next to me and he retorted: “Don’t think about it and don’t look up again. Just keep on pedalling.”
So I did. I looked down at my bike’s rear cassette to check I was in the easiest gear and I tried to think only of a kilometre at a time.
As each hairpin bend came I noted the decreasing numbers, now at 38, and tried not to worry that we were still a long way off the final one.
The Stelvio was the morning’s challenge during a week of cycling with Marmot Tours in the Italy.
It was the longest and highest col among a dozen other famous mountain passes.
Already our group of 20 riders had tackled classic climbs such as Ciampigotto, Zoncolan, Giau, Fedaia, Campolongo, Gardena and Valparola during an east to west traverse of the Dolomites.
The climbs had been tough, with many steep sections of road, but still manageable in an easy gear.
In any case, the views of majestic limestone peaks veering steeply upwards from lush green meadows offered superb rewards.
Many times I had gazed in awe at a fabulous vista and stopped to snap numerous photographs.
I had also stayed in several lovely hotels en route and enjoyed the company of other likeminded cyclists from the UK, Europe, Hong Kong, Canada and America.
And the cycling had been well supported by our drivers and guides, Tim and Pedro, who popped up at regular intervals during each day’s ride to offer food, water and encouraging words.
It had been the same so far on the Stelvio. I had already spotted both Marmot vans coming past and I could see one ahead parked in a layby giving out bananas and sports bars.
I had decided at the bottom of the road pass that I would not get off my bike until the summit.
When I saw Pedro ahead I shouted out for a gel. “Any gel, just something with tons of energy,” I called.
He kindly obliged with something that tasted horribly sweet but presumably offered a million much-needed calories.
I counted bend 33, then 32 and so it went on – and on.
Ahead I could spot the tiny figures of fellow riders climbing the final section of road.
It looked so ridiculously steep and still so far away.
When we could, because the gradient was a little easier, Ian and I chatted about the cycling, the fabulous views over other nearby mountains in Stelvio National Park and life in general.
We stopped talking when the road became so steep that we were out of breath.
Finally, we found ourselves counting down the 20s although by this point, and at such high altitude, the wind had strengthened and we faced steep climbs into headwind.
Switching back around another bend there was some light relief with a tailwind and then it was back into another stretch of headwind.
This continued repeatedly while my lungs labored and my legs screamed out in weariness.
I reflected on other statistic I’d spotted on sports tracking website, Strava. The fastest Strava time for The Stelvio is 1hour 20 minutes by Marco Z, while the female record is 1:36 minutes by Peluchine P.
This seemed unbelievable as my watch showed I had already been cycling for more than two hours and I was still in double figures for the hairpin bends.
Finally, we reached the 10th hairpin bend from the top. But a cruel twist of fate on the Stevio means the final bends are some of the steepest.
I worried I would not have enough gears and that my legs would give up after the strain of riding so far uphill.
My hamstring muscles threatened to cramp and my head felt dizzy.
But thanks to some encouraging words from Ian who was still at my side I managed to keep going.
And I can reveal that the feeling of finally arriving at the summit of Stelvio at almost 3000m above sea level is very sweet indeed.
With snow starting to fall I did a quick clothing change at the van – adding four extra layers and winter gloves – before heading off for the descent.
The road drops 1500m to the town of Bormio over 21kms and includes more hairpins and seven tunnels.
Jeremy Clarkson described the road on BBC’s Top Gear as “15 miles of Asphalt spaghetti draped on an Alp”.
In seemingly no time at all, our group of riders had all reached the hotel where we collected for a celebratory beer or two.
The next day or the trip included two more classic cols tour of Italy, with options to climb the Passo di Mortirolo and Passo di Gavia.
While some riders chose to do an easy day of flat, local cycling, others rode off from the hotel to climb Mortirolo only.
I wanted to round off the holiday on a high and completed both passes. It turned out that the final day of cycling took in a greater total ascent than Stelvio.
But that meant that there was more time for chatting to my fellow cyclists and greater opportunities for even more spectacular views.
I had been lured to this mountainous area of Italy by photos – and I can assure you that the camera does not lie.
Travel notes for Marmot Cycle Tour
Marmot Tours organise cycling holidays to the mountains of Italy, France, Spain and Tenerife. The holidays are for novices and experts.
I enjoyed the six-day Classic Cols of the Dolomites tour, with prices from £1420 with a single supplement of £300. This includes hotels on half-board basis, luggage transfer, full van support, two guides and airport transfers.
Travellers make their own arrangements for flights.