Giro d'Italia: The Independent rides up the Stelvio Pass - cycling's killer climb

As the Giro tackles the brutal climb, Simon Usborne takes on the snow and switchbacks – and soon realises what the fuss is about

Downpours, snowstorms, freezing fog and chest infections have already turned this year's Giro d'Italia into an epic tour of attrition, one of the toughest in the event's 104-year history. It proved too much for a sickly Sir Bradley Wiggins, our knight in shining Lycra, but - weather permitting - the greatest challenge will greet the survivors on the startline tomorrow. A mountainous stage 19 presents a course profile as jagged and hospitable as a shark's jaw. At its centre: one of the most fearsome, storied climbs in cycling.

The Stelvio Pass has elicited raptures from visitors as diverse as Charles Dickens and Jeremy Clarkson, who declared it the world's greatest road for driving. The pros who conquer it on two wheels, often deciding the fate of the Giro's maglia rosa, or pink jersey, ride into sporting legend. Those who flounder curse its every precipitous switchback and snowbound summit.

It was here, in 1953, when the Giro first climbed the Stelvio, that Fausto Coppi sealed his own legend by winning his fifth pink jersey. Coppi, whose stature is almost of Papal proportions in Italy, had trailed his Swiss rival, Hugo Koblet. But in a breathtaking display of might, the Italian attacked 11km from the summit of the Stelvio, breaking Koblet and riding on to victory. He said he felt as if he “was going to die” during the climb, now also named Cima Coppi in his honour.    

The joy of road cycling is such that any rider can pedal in the tracks of heroes. Few lovers of ballet may perform a pirouette badly at Covent Garden, nor may a Liverpool fan slot one home at Anfield. But anyone with a bicycle can ride up the Stelvio Pass. How hard could it be?

Sunshine makes the ski resort of Bormio feel warmer than the thermometer's two degrees. With two pairs of booties over my cycling shoes and a bag of layers on my back for later, I set off alongside Daniele, manager of the bike-friendly Hotel Funivia and a veteran of more than 100 Stelvio climbs. “I have a good relation with pain,” he tells me, unnecessarily.

The Stelvio's stats are scary enough. The crazed road winds up via 35 of the tightest hairpins in a single, unrelenting climb of 14 miles. It gains more than a vertical mile as it rears above Bormio to 2,757 metres, the second-highest paved pass in the Alps. Viewed from below, the road resembles a giant strand of spaghetti dropped from the heavens.

As we rise, passing through dark, dank tunnels carved out of the rock, we hear only our breathing and the faint rumble of rubber on road. Not long after we duck a barrier that keeps out cars when conditions are bad (Stirling Moss came a cropper here in 1990, veering off the road during a vintage rally) our surroundings turn from green to white. A head-sized rock tumbles on to the road in front of me. I steer round it, also dodging lumps of ice and the snow encroaching on to the asphalt.

The Stelvio is the work of Carlo Donegani, an engineer tasked with linking Lombardia, then part of Austria, with the rest of the Austrian Empire. It took 2,500 men five years to build the road, which extends for another 15 miles on the northern, even more dizzying, side of the pass. When it opened in the 1820s, Donegani was revered across the Empire, becoming known as progettista dell'impossibile, the “designer of the impossible”.

His masterpiece became an Italian landmark, as the writer Daniel Friebe describes in his book: Mountain High. When the literary translator F A Malleson visited later that century, he speculated that Charles Dickens may have been referring to the road in this passage from David Copperfield: “I had found sublimity and wonder in the dread heights and precipices, in the roaring torrents, and the wastes of ice and snow.”

Later the stage for war, it has become most famous since Coppi's victory as a theatre of cycling battles, earning a place alongside climbs such as Ventoux, Alpe d'Huez and Galibier. In 1961, it was Charly “Angel of the Mountains” Gaul whose Stelvio heroics lit up the Giro. Later that decade, before Marco Pantani's time, came the era of two more greats: Felice Gimondi and, best of all, the Belgian Eddy Merckx.

The day before my ride I had lunch (pasta, naturally) with Pietro Santini, founder of Santini Maglificio Sportivo, the renowned cycle clothing company that makes the pink jersey of the Giro itself. Santini, 71, is a lifelong friend of Gimondi's and has climbed the Stelvio since Coppi's era. He also remembers driving up the road in his wife's new car about 15 years ago. When an avalanche threatened to sweep him off the road, he steered into the bank. He survived but the car was a write-off.

I ask the Santinis, who have run the company since 1965, to put me in touch with Gimondi, now 70. What are his memories of the Stelvio? “It is one of those climbs that scares you the most,” he says. “Even if you feel good, it's difficult to control. It's long and raises so high you must beware of the lack of oxygen at the top.” He remembers traipsing through snow during the 1965 Giro, only jumping back on his bike when the road reappeared.

Climbs such as the Stelvio and conditions like those that frequently dog the Giro help elevate it above the more famous Tour de France. It's why, perversely, Wiggins was so desperate to win a 2,000-mile race he told The Independent he “despises”. “The Giro is much more about the sport,” he said. “It's just craziness and there's a part of that the riders really like.”

Climbs and suffering add drama, romance and unpredictability to the race. Michael Barry is a Canadian cyclist who has raced in five Giros. He rode alongside Wiggins with Team Sky in 2010. “There are harder climbs but iconic roads like the Stelvio make the Giro special because they conjure images of past champions, and the history of the sport,” he says from Toronto.

They have also helped express and shape Italy's identity. Herbie Sykes, a British writer based in Turin and author of Maglia Rosa: Triumph and tragedy of the Giro d'Italia, calls the Stelvio one of the “great theatres” of the Giro. He adds: “There is a great tradition in Italy of literature and poetry around cycling... and a profound understanding of what cycling has meant to the country... its peaks, troughs and struggles.”

The final stretch towards Stelvio presents the biggest struggle. Having eased slightly, the road rears up again for the savage switchbacks leading agonisingly towards the summit. I can see it but, with just one and a half miles to go, snow carpets the road ahead. It's too dangerous to go on and so, after 90 minutes of climbing, I pause to catch my breath. Before I descend, a thrilling, chilling experience (imagine a wind tunnel in a walk-in freezer) I pull on Santini's maglia rosa, potentially disappointing the Giro gods who only award it to the greats. But it's my small way of honouring a captivating climb and those of all standards who have pedalled up it. Thawing over coffee back in Bormio, I vow to return in warmer weather.

Santini runs an annual organised ride that finishes at the summit of the Stelvio. Find out more at: santinisms.it

News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'