Thursday, May 12, 2022

Following Fausto Coppi

The Stelvio Pass in northern Italy is the second-highest paved mountain pass in the Alps climbing 6,140 feet in the 15 miles from Prato allo Stelvio to it's summit.

Fausto Coppi on the Stelvio in 1953

It is August 2019 and I am there to ride in the tracks of one of my heroes, Fausto Coppi. It was on the Stelvio in 1953 that the legendary Italian cyclist made one of his most famous attacks. He dropped the race leader, Hugo Koblet, by three and a half minutes on the climb to steal the maglia rosa and secure his fifth Giro d'Italia victory. Now, the highest peak in the Giro is always known as the "Cima Coppi".

Each year on the last Saturday of August the Stelvio National Park closes the pass to all traffic except bicycles. This is Stelvio Day, when 12,000 cyclists descend on Prato allo Stelvio to climb the Stelvio then descend the Umbrail Pass in Switzerland to the alpine village of Santa Maria on their way back to the Prato.

Passing an alpine village.

We are staying in Santa Maria and it is from there I start my morning with the easy 13 mile gradual descent to kilometer zero in Prato. Then the fun starts. 
Climbing the wall

The first 5 miles are the easiest, with an average gradient of around 5% but this changes when I get to the first hairpin bend #48 - what the? I thought Alpe d'Huez was tough with 21 corners. Oh well 47 to go and from here on up it'll be a steady 8% with some steep bits in the turns.

Looking back down the pass.

It's going to be a long climb at 8% so I shift into my lowest gear 34/32 early and ride steadily with those around me. No heroics. We count down the corners as they go by, there is a water station, I stop from time to time to munch on Clif bars and take pictures. The weather is perfect and the scenery is magnificent. On the big climbs I always wear my SLBC club jersey - the one with "It's just a hill get over it" printed on the back pocket. As usual it is good a conversation starter and brings a certain amount of humor to the climb.

Looking ahead you can see the summit from here.

Four hours after leaving Prato and 6000 feet of climbing later I have passed corner #1 and shortly after find myself in a bicycle traffic jam as the summit is blocked by riders trying to get their picture taken under the summit sign. I pass on the picture and make my way around them on foot. It is cool at the top and will be cold on the descent, I buy a t-shirt and put it on under my jacket, buy a coffee and take some pictures. Time now to ride through the old customs post into Switzerland and down the Umbrail Pass, remarkable for its lack of roadside barriers, back to our hotel in Santa Maria. 

Cima Coppi - the summit.
It is Sunday morning after breakfast and as we leave the hotel we hear the singing of the Swiss Alpenhorns in the mountains. We look around but they are not to be seen, only heard. A magical ending to the weekend.

A little history: The Stelvio Pass was already in use in Roman times by merchants trading goods between Switzerland and the Duchy of Milan. In the early 1800s the Italian province of Lombardy which included Milan had become a part of the Austrian Empire and the road over the pass was built by the Austrians to defend Lombardy and increase trade between Milan and Vienna.  Completed in 1825 it took 2,000 workers 5 years and up until the Great War it was kept open in the winter by an army of shovelers so stagecoaches could pass.

A plowed out Stelvio Pass for the 1973 Giro d'Italia

Currently the pass may be closed by snow as early as October until late May which is why it is not always included in the Giro d'Italia as an alternative stage must always be planned. 

For route information click here:

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