Stelvio Pass (Passo dello Stelvio): Ultimate Cyclist’s Guide

Photo of author
Written by
Last Updated:

The Passo dello Stelvio (“Stelvio Pass”) is one of the toughest and most famous sections of road in Europe.

The Stelvio Pass is a ruthless climb located in the Italian Dolomites, renowned for its relentless gradients, endless switchbacks, and stunning scenery.

The Dolomites are one of the most spectacular regions of the Alps, split between Austria and Northern Italy. They feature outstanding, well-maintained roads, winding up and around the iconic jagged mountain peaks.

The Stelvio Pass is one of the most infamous of these climbs, frequented by cyclists to test their climbing legs up a climb regularly seen in the Giro d’Italia.

But what makes the Passo dello Stelvio such a tough climb? And is it worth making the trip to the Dolomites to give it a go?

We’ll be covering:

  • The Italian Dolomites: A Cycling Mecca
  • Guide To Cycling The Stelvio Pass
  • The Stelvio Pass: Routes And The Surrounding Area

Let’s get started!

Stelvio Pass: Title Image

The Italian Dolomites: A Cycling Mecca

The Italian Dolomites form one of the world’s most famous regions for cyclists.

This could largely be attributed to the remarkable scenery, perfectly paved roads, and the dramatic stages of the Giro d’Italia hosted on the brutal slopes of the mountains every year.

The Dolomites take their name from the carbonate rock dolomite, which their sawtooth peaks are made of.

They are renowned for their lush green forested valleys and high, jagged limestone peaks that dramatically rise from the shrubbery. The UNESCO-protected scenery is a sight to behold, with the view at every switchback worthy of a computer desktop background.

The region’s roads and highways are extremely well-maintained, with near-perfect asphalt roads meandering even the highest of passes. They’re home to some of Italy’s most brutal climbs, including the Passo dello Stelvio, the Passo Giau, and the Passo Fedaia.

The incredible scenery, relentless climbs, and pristine roads all combine to make one of the world’s greatest cycling destinations.

The asphalt ribbon of road near the top of the Stelvio Pass.

Guide To Cycling the Stelvio Pass

Know Before you go

There are lots of different questions you may have before packing your bags and setting off to take on the jewel of the Giro. Here are a few of the considerations you should make before you get pedaling.

The altitude

The very first thing you should know about the Passo dello Stelvio: the altitude is a real challenge.

There are lots of things that contribute towards the climb’s infamous difficulty: the steep gradients, the length, the crazy amount of switchbacks, but most of all, the altitude.

It is the second-highest pass in the whole of the Alps, with the summit perched above the surrounding mountains at an eye-watering 2758 m.

To a seasoned hiker or mountaineer, this might not sound like too much, but for an avid cyclist, it’s a different story. You need to inhale far more oxygen when cycling than when walking, especially when going uphill, due to the intensity of the exercise.

Therefore, the altitude really takes a toll on many riders. The inability to take in enough oxygen can grind your ride to a halt if you attempt to take the pass too aggressively. So, the first time you ride the Stelvio Pass, take it easy!

A foggy hairpin on the Stelvio Pass.

Route Options

There are actually three different ascents of the Passo dello Stelvio, all leading towards the same summit. These options depart from different towns: Prato allo Stelvio, Bormio, or Santa Maria in Switzerland.

The most iconic of these by far departs from the town of Prato. This ascent is where you’ll find the iconic viewpoint looking over the endless switchbacks haphazardly carved into the mountainside.

It is also the most challenging, with 48 switchbacks to tackle to steep gradients of the mountain. If you have time for just one ascent of the Stelvio Pass, this is the one to go for.

However, if you’re in the area for a little while, it’s worth giving it a go from Bormio. Still, with a dizzying 40 switchbacks, it’s no walk in the park, and you’ll be treated to equally beautiful (though less famous) views of the mountains.

The route up from Santa Maria is much less ridden. The road is, of course, still beautiful, but fewer people choose to come up this side instead of the Prato side. It joins up with the Bormio route for the final 3 km, the toughest section of the climb.

A hairpin on the Stelvio Pass with a view of snow-capped mountains.

Best time to tackle the Stelvio pass

The Stelvio Pass is very much a summer outing.

In fact, the conditions are so bad in winter that neither cars nor bikes are permitted to ride up the pass between November and May.

If you’re keen to avoid icy roads and volatile weather, it’s best to visit in June-September.

Even during this time, the weather is definitely not something to rely on. The extreme altitude results in very unpredictable conditions, so it’s worth staying at least a few days to allow for the variation in weather conditions for the perfect ascent.

The best time of day to attempt the Stelvio Pass is early morning on a weekday.

This is because, during the summer months, the pass is not only frequented by cyclists but also by cars and motorbikes looking to enjoy the sweeping views of the surrounding landscape.

This will likely be the coldest time of day, however, so make sure you bring lots of layers, full-finger gloves, and all your other necessary gear.

A night view of the Stelvio Pass with the road lit by headlights.

The Stelvio Pass Climb in detail

Here, we’ll focus on the most frequented side of the climb, from Prato allo Stelvio.

Climb Profile

This is one of the most challenging climbs in Europe.

Some of the stats can be pretty terrifying, but if you’re up for a challenge, don’t let these put you off! It will just be an even greater achievement to reach the top.

Here are some of the key stats:

  • Category: HC (beyond category)
  • Distance: 24.5 km
  • Average gradient: 7.5%
  • Maximum gradient: 34.2%
  • Number of Hairpins: 48
  • Elevation gain: 2057 m
  • Max elevation: 2758 m
  • KOM: 1:11:00
  • QOM: 1:32:49

Although these K/QOMs are alarmingly fast, most relatively fit amateur cyclists can expect the climb to take between 90 minutes and three hours.

A road sign warning of avalanches on the Stelvio Pass.

The Climb

The first 10 km is a nice, gradual introduction to the climb.

Traversing a lush green valley with a fairly consistent gradient between 5-7%, it’s no walk in the park, but it should certainly be seen as more of a warm-up for what’s to come. Enjoy this section, and take it easy!

The climb proper commences from the small village of Trafoi. From here onwards, there is very little respite as you’ll wind your way around the remaining 46 hairpin bends in just 14 km.

The first couple of hairpins from here are much less tight before hitting seven consecutive extremely tight bends.

During most of the climb, the hairpins are the flattest sections, so it’s good practice to take them as wide as possible and increase your cadence in preparation for the next straight section.

Snow-covered Stelvio Pass in winter.

Once you reach Hairpin 22 (numbered from the top down), you’ll find a small hotel with a cafe and restaurant with a great view.

If you’re looking for somewhere to stop, this is the last clear opportunity to do so since the road narrows, and there aren’t any more cafes.

From here onwards, you’ll be able to see the summit and, by extension, the brutal final 7 km and the famous final hairpins that will lead you there. Push through! You’re almost there.

The gradient from here doesn’t dip below 8%, and although the max gradient is rated at a terrifying 34.2%, this is an extremely short section, and the majority of the climb is below 10%.

The final 500 m can be tricky due to all the parked cars. The available road space is very narrow, so the traffic can build up somewhat. But once you’ve got past it, congratulations! You’ve reached the summit; reward yourself with a snack and a coffee!

You now have two options for the descent: Santa Maria or Bormio. A windproof jacket is essential, as the speeds are high and the air is chilly at such an altitude!

A road in a valley in the Dolomites.

Stelvio Pass: Routes and Surrounding Area

It would be unfortunate to make the journey all the way here and not enjoy the remarkable surrounding area and the other famous climbs.

Many choose to give the Stelvio Pass another go from the Bormio side. If you’re based in Bormio, there’s a famous circuit called the Umbrail-Stelvio Loop that will allow you to experience the two best ascents in a single ride and even descend the third!

From Bormio, you’ll make your way up to the pass and back towards Santa Maria in Switzerland. From here, you’ll make your way around the valley to Prato and back up the Stelvio on the most famous route. Not an easy ride at all!

But while you’re in the Dolomites, there are plenty of other routes to try out. If you have your own transport, then you can tour around the region and take on the most challenging climbs, one after another.

Some of the best ones to have a crack at are the Tre Cime di Lavaredo Climb, one of the most iconic sites in the Dolomites, the Passo Falzarego, and the beyond-category Passo Giau.

Wherever you go on your trip to cycle the Stelvio Pass, you’ll have a fantastic time zooming around the perfect asphalt descents and struggling up the brutal climbs amongst some of the best scenery Italy has to offer!

Enjoyed this Stelvio Pass guide? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

Terms of Use

This cycling route guide, including any maps, GPS, or other navigational information, is provided for informational purposes only. By using this guide and cycling this route, you accept all responsibility and risk associated with your participation.

Before cycling, you should assess your own fitness level and ability to handle the physical demands of the route. It is your responsibility to review current local weather conditions and road closures, as well as any public or private land use restrictions and rules, and comply with them during your ride, and to ensure you carry proper safety and navigational equipment. Always follow "Leave No Trace" principles to ensure you leave your surroundings as you found them.

The information contained in this guide is not guaranteed to be accurate, and the author makes no representations or warranties about the completeness, reliability, suitability, or availability of the information provided. The author and any contributors to this guide are not liable for any injuries, damages, or losses that may occur during your ride or as a result of using this guide, including but not limited to personal injury, property damage, or other harm.

By using this guide, you acknowledge and agree to release and hold harmless the author, BikeTips, Broadsea Media LTD., and any contributors to this guide from any and all claims or damages arising out of your use of the information provided. This guide is not a substitute for your own due diligence, and you should always exercise caution and make informed decisions when cycling.

Photo of author
Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.