The first time I heard of Stelvio Pass, I was indulging in what Sunday nights are made for: Having a beer and watching Top Gear.
I remember watching the story unfold and seeing Clarkson, Hammond, and May declare Stelvio Pass “the greatest driving road in the world.“
Later, of course, they changed their mind to the Transfăgărășan highway in Romania. But it didn’t matter – the seed had already been planted.
For me personally, it wasn’t even just the road. It was the scenery and the majesty of it all.
The Allure Of The Mighty Stelvio Pass
I just found it utterly, utterly beautiful and I was in awe of it. Even the thought of it was enough to give me butterflies.
But in 2008 when the programme was aired, I didn’t really have the money for all this touring malarkey.
I was in university and (of course) wracking up insurmountable debt for the privilege of being there.
But as the years rolled on, the thought of conquering Stelvio Pass on a motorcycle never left me.
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Eventually, the time came where I was settled in work and earning a half-decent wage. So I embarked on the preliminary planning of my trip to the Alps.
At the time, I used to ride with a local group. It wasn’t anything formal – just a few riding mates having a chat and riding bikes in some of the most beautiful parts of the UK.
Out of everyone though, I was always drawn to Ken.
He was a quiet Scottish guy from the rural parts of Dumfries & Galloway.
I never really knew what he did for a living before he retired. But you could tell that whatever it was, he’d done well from it.
He had nice cars and numerous top-spec BMW’s parked up in his garage. But he was never show-offy or boastful about the money he had.
In fact, he never referred to it at all.
On top of this, he was an excellent rider.
Considering he was well into his 60’s and riding a 270kg BMW 1200 RT, he threw it around country roads like it was a BMX.
He was someone I quietly admired and looked up to; both in terms of a rider and a person.
Stelvio Pass Was On!
It was during a chat with Ken that he told me he’d never ridden Stelvio Pass.
Running a business meant he never found the time to ride it. So whilst he was working, it became a bucket-list road for when he retired.
But when he did retire, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer – which meant he would probably never get to ride the mighty Stelvio Pass.
That was it.
I was going to the Alps and I was going to ride Stelvio Pass – if not for me, then for Ken.
So off I went.
It’s An Event!
I’ve been fortunate enough to ride Stelvio Pass a few times now.
And I think it’s the only road I’ve ridden that gives you that ‘fight or flight’ feeling when you approach it.
It’s almost like weighing up a worthy adversary. Stelvio Pass is intimidating yet simultaneously admirable.
As you ride past the sign to signal the start of the pass, you get that rush of blood to your brain that makes you feel like the challenge has begun.
And a challenge it is – because Stelvio will always fight back!
Stelvio Pass: An Overview
Known by various names, including Stelvio Pass, Passo dello Stelvio or Passo Stelvio, it’s the highest paved road in the eastern Alps – towering at a whopping 2,750 m.
It sits a mere 14m lower than the Col d’Iseran – the highest paved road in the Alps as a whole.
In terms of location, Stelvio Pass tentatively straddles the border of arguably two of the greatest countries in the world for riding a motorcycle – Switzerland and Italy.
Riding from north to south, you’ll start your ascent in Stilfs and finish in Bormio.
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Famed for its 75 hairpin turns, Stelvio is understandably a tense affair when you ride it.
Starting in the north, you’ll tackle 48 hairpins as you wind your way up one of the most distinguished roads in the Alps.
During the 30-mile ride, you’ll witness incredible views and a road that wraps and twists its way around the edge of a mountain.
And if the road doesn’t take your breath away metaphorically, then the altitude will do, literally.
Hairpin after hairpin, you’ll feel quite relieved to reach the summit for a well-earned rest.
And you’ll know you’re there thanks to the Bratwurst stands, cafes, hoards of parked bikes and crowds of excited people.
Coming Back Down
Unless you come from the area, those kinds of twists and turns on the way up are enough to tire out even the most seasoned of bikers.
So after you’ve filled your belly with Bratwurst and coffee, (and taken a few obligatory pictures), it’s time to come back down.
You can either come back down the way you came, or, you can continue the way you were going and head southwest into Bormio.
Coming down the other side provides you with a ride far less technical than the one you had going up.
Indeed, it’s still technically demanding. But the road back down is adorned with sweeping curves rather than littered with the challenging switchbacks you had coming up.
I’d go as far as to say that the ride down is actually more enjoyable than the ride up.
Stelvio Pass: The Overall Experience
Riding Stelvio Pass on a motorcycle is in a league of its own when it comes to touring.
It’s iconic, frightening, exhilarating, challenging, dangerous, and rewarding – all at the same time. And all in equal measures.
Yet if I were to be completely honest, I’ve had way better times riding other passes elsewhere in the Alps.
But that’s less to do with Stelvio Pass itself and more to do with the people that cover every square inch of it.
If you look at images on Google of Stelvio Pass, you’ll see this stunning empty road that’s draped off the edge of a mountain.
I hate to be the dream-wrecker here, but it really is NOT like that.
Whilst experiencing Stelvio Pass on a motorcycle, you can expect to see hundreds of other bikers. And then there’s the cars, bicycles, and even bloody tourist buses.
I know this doesn’t sound that bad.
But if you start your ascent and get stuck behind one of the road-clogging vehicles on the way up, then I’m afraid that’s your ride over with. Because you ain’t getting past them until you summit.
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People On The Road
Don’t be surpised if you come across people on the road side.
On a few of the switchbacks, there are tiny little lay-by’s – barely big enough to accomodate a single, small car.
But people will squeeze into them to get the obligatory selfie.
You’ll also see bikers squashing themselves into these stopping places in an attempt to get their bike in a position where they can get the ultimate Instagram shot of their bike with Stelvio in the background.
Prepare For Near Misses
At some point during your experience, you will have a near miss.
Well, you will have multiple near misses whilst negotiating your way up and down the pass.
There’s a strange feeling of ‘every man for himself’, and people fighting for position on a road that simply isn’t wide enough to accommodate everybody.
You WILL meet an oncoming vehicle head-on as you round a hairpin.
The last time I rode up Stelvio, I encountered a motorcycle club of cruisers, a tourist bus, a few ‘knob head’ bikers (you know the kind), and a random pedestrian – all of them in my lane as I rounded the notoriously tight switchbacks.
And on the way back down, I was stuck behind a family in a red Peugeot estate (driven by Grandad) with a canoe strapped to the roof all the way into Italy.
It’s A Taxing Climb
If memory serves, the speed limit on Stelvio Pass is 60 kph (around 36 mph.)
Now I know that seems slow for an iconic mountain pass, but the hairpins are so severe that even on a clear road, you would struggle to hit that speed.
Add all the traffic in the mix and you spend your entire time switching between first and second gear.
It’s a climb which is not only physically taxing, but taxing on your bike, too.
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Avoid Peak Times
Don’t go on a weekend. And don’t go in the middle of the day.
If you can, plan your trip so you’re riding the pass on a week day. And if possible, try to arrange accommodation around the bottom of the pass.
Set your alarm clock nice and early so you can be at the bottom of the pass as the sun comes up.
Once it’s bright enough to have full visibility, fill your boots before the tourist buses pile in and ruin it.
Be Careful Of Cambers
When going down hill, the cambers have a nasty habit of drawing you into the hairpins too early.
And if this happens, you’ll find yourself having to drop down some pretty hefty curbs!
You’ll see cars bottoming out on your visit. And you’ll be lucky if you escape without it happening to you, too.
If you’re on an adventure bike, you should be okay.
But be careful if you’re on a sports bike. If you fixate on those apex curbs, it’ll only be a matter of time before you end up riding over one.
Speaking of which, you will probably have to use a lot more of the road to get round those hairpins if you’re riding a sports bike.
Observations are crucial here as your margin of error is very slim.
Be sure to look if anything is about to come round the hairpin in the opposite direction – because if you swing out to get round, it could all end in tears.
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Treat Stelvio Pass With Respect
Accidents do happen on Stelvio. You only have to do a search on YouTube to see countless crashes and mishaps.
The bends can be slippery, the corners are tight, and there are people absolutely everywhere.
Unfortunately, you are not immune to the hazards of Stelvio. Pipe down and approach this pass with an air of defensiveness.
This is one of those roads that can quite easily catch you out, so don’t get to the start with a mentality of attacking it.
The pass is better than you. So treat it with respect and it will respect you in return.
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So Is Stelvio Pass Worth Riding?
Although if I’m being honest, I’ve ridden it now so I’m really in no rush to ride it again.
The first time I rode it, I got there with all these expectations. I’d waited a long time to ride it and then when I got there, it was tarnished by traffic and tourists.
It took me way longer than I thought to reach the summit. And even when I got there, the cafes and stalls were so jam packed that I came back down almost immediately.
The key to riding Stelvio is to be fortunate enough to ride it when it’s clear!
If you ever find yourself in a position where you get to have it all to yourself, then your mission is complete.
Tick it off the bucket list, and never return – because you won’t get such good luck twice in a row!