Greatest climbs on Earth

by Nenad Rodic 11/06

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Bormio, a small town in northern Italy near Swiss border, has been a center stage of Giro d' Italia for years. Surrounding mountains are a place where the great bike race is decided. Needless to say, the climbs around Bormio are among some of the toughest climbs road cycling races ever go over. I went to Bormio on A few occasions and each time I had great time. In spite of how difficult these climbs are, and how much pain they cause, one cannot but enjoy hours upon hours of beauty, mystique and history they offer.

- Bormio

Bormio is situated in the north end of Valtellina valley, some two hours from Milano to the south and Bolzano to the east (see map). The town is a well known ski center as well as a cycling holy place equal in its importance in the world of professional cycling to L'Alpe D'Huez in the alps or Tourmalet in the Pyrenees. Bormio is accessible from the south via S38 Strada dello Stelvio, from the south-east via SS300 over the Gavia pass, from the north S38 over Stelvio pass, and from the west from Livigno over Foscagno pass. Of all these routes, the southern approach is the only one recommended for driving. All other routes are great for bicycles and motorcycles, but too slow and narrow for cars.

There are several notable climbs around Bormio. Either Gavia or Stelvio are on the Giro's route every year. Mortirolo's quickly becoming a crowd favorite and is used more and more in the Tour of Italy in order to make the race as difficult as possible. Bormio 2000 was the finish climb of the penultimate stage of the 2004 Giro. It climbs from downtown Bormio (1250 m), to the top of Bormio ski resort at 2000 m. The road keeps going all the way to 3000 m, to the top of Cima Bianca, but is not paved passed 2000 m elevation. To the west of Bormio is the Foscagno pass on a road to Livigno. It's a long (almost 20 km) 7 % gradient climb. The road is great but somewhat busy, since many people visit Livigno, a tax free zone, to shop. Of all these climbs Stelvio, Gavia and Mortirolo stand out in a class of their own. back to top

Bormio images »

-STELVIO

Passo dello Stelvio is possibly the most historic of all climbs ever used in pro cycling, a giant in every sense (length, elevation gain, gradient and the elevation at the top). Like most climbs Stelvio has two sides. The classic approach is from the east (Bolzano side). This side features an unprecedented 42 switchbacks and 1900 m of elevation gain. Only Le Mont Ventoux in France comes close to this number. Stelvio, however, does not start at sea level, hence the highest paved alpine pass at 2750 m. Eastern approach is around 25 km long at 7 % average gradient. These stats make Stelvio a beyond-category climb.

The southern approach that starts from Bormio is slightly shorter at 22 km, but equally as steep at 7 % average gradient, and the scenery, which might be expected of one of the largest national parks in Italy, is astonishing. With excellent pavement, the road is generally well engineered with well banked turns and steady gradients (steep but steady). The road is closed from November thorough June, unless Giro d' Italia goes over it in late May. This is also the best time to ride Stelvio. If you're lucky enough to ride Stelvio on a sunny day, while it's still closed for cars (late May) you can have the whole road to yourself. Make sure to carry extra clothes for the descent since the top of Stelvio is a glacier and under the snow year round. back to top

Stelvio Images »

stelvio map, click to enlarge
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-GAVIA

Passo di Gavia is perhaps the most challenging climb of all. It is an extremely difficult climb, with a combination of length, average gradients, maximum gradient and elevation gain not matched by any other climb in Europe. I'd say that both sides are equally tough, but the Bormio side is easier to descend, hence the classic approach from Ponte di Legno (south). Both sides of Passo di Gavia are 17 km long with an average gradient of 8.1 %. Elevation gain is some 1400 m, with the top just over 2700 m above the sea level. Giro d'Italia always comes from the south. The reason for this is simple; the north side is much safer to descend and the south side is somewhat more difficult due to extreme gradients in excess of 16 %. Last five kilometers of both sides average between nine and ten percent gradient.

This, added to the elevation of over 2000 m and the overall length of the climb, makes Gavia an extremely difficult mountain to go over. Just like Stelvio, Gavia pass is closed from October through June. Road surface is very good. This road has no importance whatsoever, and is maintained only for the bike race. You will not see many cars on this road, but motorcycles are a common sight. If you decide to climb Gavia, make sure you have extra clothes for the descend. The top is a Glacier and the temperature at this elevation is fairly low even in the middle of the summer. Scenery is breathtaking and descending down to Santa Caterina Valfurva and Bormio is extremely fun, well worth the pain of going up.
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Gavia images »

Gavia pass
Click to enlarge

-MORTIROLO

Also known as Passo di Foppa, Mortirolo is arguably the toughest climb used in any professional bike race. The foot of the climb is some 20 km south of Bormio on route S38. I do not know, or have any reasonable explanation for how this road came to be. This road connects two small towns, Mazzo di Valtellina on route S38 and Mono on route S42. This is truly a cycling route. Cars are seldom seen on this road, and if you do see one, it is most likely that it belongs to someone local living on the slopes of Mortirolo. The west side of Mortirolo is a very narrow, twisty and extremely steep road. The average gradient of this 12.8 km climb is 10.8 %. Maximum gradient is at almost 20 % and the middle 6 km hold the gradient at over 12%. Elevation gain is considerable (1320 m), considering how relatively short this climb is. The only thing that makes this climb manageable is the low altitude (top is at 1850 m). To my knowledge this climb was first used in the Giro in 1994, when Marco Pantani won the stage over Miguel Indurain by more than two minute. Since then, Mortirolo has been a stage of many great duels, including Basso-Simoni battle in the 2006 Giro.

Since Pantani died in March 2004, stages of the Giro that go over Mortirolo feature a special prize to the first man at the top of the pass, Cima Pantani. There is also Marco Pantani memorial some 8 km up the climb. The east side toward Mono is a very technical but manageable descent. The road is a little wider than on the west side and turns are well banked. There are no cliffs and dangerous precipices to fall off of. Scenery is nicer than that of the west side (mainly forest), and the whole descent is exhilarating. Once in Mono, one can go east toward Ponte di Legno and over Gavia to Bormio, or west over Aprica pass to Tirano or Sondrio. This pass is a must do if you're ever in this region. I suggest you bring a compact crank set with the gear ratio of 34/26 or regular cranks with 39/29 gear ratio. After you do Mortirolo, all other climbs will seem like nothing.
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Mortirolo images »

Mortirolo
Click to enlarge