Day 55 - Stelvio

Tuesday 19th August 2014 

Stelvio is considered the premier 'must do' pass for bikers in the Alps so I'll say now that personally I don't like it at all. There is just too much traffic and many of the hairpins are just too tight for comfort.

But this is Clive's first go at it and it has to be done.

We set out early to try and beat the rush and long before 9am we are riding up the north-eastern approach. As we get to the tricky bit there is a long line of cars in front, headed up by a small coach. I'm lucky and get past them all on one of the few straight stretches.
Mick and Clive behind that damned bus

Mick and Clive are not so lucky. That coach driver should not have been allowed anywhere near this pass. I stop near the top to take a few photographs but as I gaze down the others are nowhere to be seen.

It's a full 15 minutes before they appear down below. The bus is making a three point turn on every tornante and the traffic is backed up completely.
Why I don't like Stelvio

By the time the other guys finally arrive they are not happy. There are 48 hairpins up this side of Stelvio and the bus has inched round, reversed then driven forward again on most of them.
The guys finally make it

Much of the road has been resurfaced since I was last here and many tournanti have been broadened out. I read somewhere that there is a proposal to put a toll on Stelvio and the improvements may be part of this scheme. But for now it's still free and still a pain!

The weather is worsening and by the time we arrive at the summit with its gift shops and cafés, it has started to rain. We have coffee and filled croissants in one restaurant that has a log fire burning to ward of the chill. It is 4C.

The road at the top is being fenced off. There is a cycling event taking place today and 700 bicycles will be climbing up from Bormio.

Bormio town square
On the run down we pass a great many of them sweating and labouring up the steep slopes and generally making a nuisance of themselves. One competitor has only one leg. He has a fixed wheel and is standing straight and bouncing up and down like he's on a pogo stick. Riding up Stelvio with one leg! Fair play to you mate.

By the time we arrive in Bormio it is raining hard and the mountains are all wrapped in cloud. The original plan was to ride back up and take the Umbrail Pass road back down from near the summit to the Mustair Valley in Switzerland.

We stop for coffee in the town square and review our options. The lowest way back from here is north over the Passo di Foscagno to Livigno and along the lake to the long tunnel that bores through into Switzerland. It exits onto the Ofen Pass road that we rode yesterday.
On Foscagno Pass

At over 2200 metres the Foscagno is not so low really, just a lot lower than Stelvio.

The rain is clearing from the west when we get to the summit of the Foscagno Pass and start the long wind down into Livigno.

Livigno is a very strange place, a tax-free zone all alone in it's own valley on the border with Switzerland. It had grown like crazy over the last few decades but there is an impermanence about the place. Wooden sheds rather than solidly built structures gives it a feel of a wild-west shanty town.

Huge signs dominate the sides of the buildings. WHISKY, CIGARETTES, PERFUME they shout out. Every building is a tax-free shop, hotel or restaurant. Where do the people live?

We stop for a lunch of bruschetta and coffee. It's very good value. The petrol here is the cheapest we have found anywhere so far on this trip, €1.15 per litre. That's 92 pence.
Lake Livigno

To compensate the Swiss have built a 3km tunnel from the north end of the Livigno lake under the mountains to the start of the Ofen Pass. They charge €10 for its use. That will put a dent in your tax-free savings  you cheapskates, it says.

The tunnel is very trippy. It is dead straight, cut through living rock, and has an arc of small white lights hooping overhead every 30 metres or so. It's like engaging warp drive in Star Trek, it's just a bit unnerving.

By the time we have climbed back up to the top of Ofen the sky is clearing and there is plenty of blue in every direction.

Clive and Mick decide they have had enough and choose to ride back to the hotel for a scented bath with floating candles and a glass or two of spritzer.
The wonderful Umbrail Trail

But I'm damned if I am going to ride past the foot of one of the best passes in the Alps, 1000 miles from home, and not ride it.

So I turn south up the Umbrail Pass. The last time I rode this pass there was an unpaved section half way up, about 2 or 3 kilometres in length. This put off a lot of traffic and the pass was always empty. Now it is all tarmac and Is just a fantastic road to ride.

The summit is 2,503 metres high and here the road passes through a small border post into Italy before joining the main Bormio-Stelvio road a few hundred metres below the Stelvio summit.
Some people should banned from wearing lycra

On the way up I rode through a layer of cloud on the Umbrail hairpins to emerge into bright sunshine at the top.

As usual the top of Stelvio is heaving. At least the bike race has now come and gone and the barriers and checkpoint tables have been removed.

I muse about the best way back down. The valley to the east, the most iconic side, is thick with cloud. But hey, who knows when I will be back here again. So here we go.

I am soon in thick cloud, can barely see 10 metres ahead but fortunately there is no traffic at all. I swing on down the 48 tournanti all alone with my thoughts.
A bit misty on the Stelvio descent

Below the 2000 metre mark I ride down out of the clouds and continue on with dry roads and wonderful views.

There is a small side road about halfway down which winds up to the ski resort of Sünden, about 7 kilometres above. I've never been up there so I turn right and climb up a small valley.

It's a lovely road, all new tarmac and broad sweeping curves and hairpins. An overfull mountain stream crashes down a series of ledges from the heights like an escalator.
Getting brighter

Sünden is not much to look at. One of those Alpine resorts that will no doubt look lovely in the snows of winter. I order a coffee in a small cafe/library before turning back and completing the Stelvio run back to the hotel.
The road to Sünden

The others are bathed dressed and are busy applying their makeup. We head to the restaurant for another crack at the Hauspizza. We've learned that when you find a great dish you stick with it. Like Alpine Pass roads alternatives often disappoint. 


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