St Gotthard Pass: Ultimate Cyclist’s Guide

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Switzerland’s St Gotthard Pass, one of the most legendary Alpine passes of them all, is located near the Italian border between the charming villages of Hospental and Airolo.

Steeped in history all the way back to the Romans, St. Gotthard Pass – sometimes referred to as the “old road” – remains true to its roots with the endless hairpin bends still surfaced with well-kept cobbles.

For cyclists, climbing St. Gotthard Pass is an extremely unique (and challenging) experience that you’re not likely to forget anytime soon.

But why has St. Gotthard Pass become such an iconic climb? And what’s the climb like to ride for cyclists?

In this article, we’ll give you a complete guide to ascending the “old road” on two wheels. We’ll be covering:

  • The Swiss Alps: One Of The Most Beautiful Destinations For Grimpeurs
  • A Guide To Cycling St. Gotthard Pass Switzerland

Let’s dive in!

St Gotthard Pass Switzerland: Title Image

The Swiss Alps: One Of The Most Beautiful Destinations For Grimpeurs

The Alps of Switzerland are renowned for their immense scale, pristine villages, lush green valleys, and lofty glacial peaks.

Often touted as some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, the Swiss Alps are world-famous for their views and natural beauty.

Many of the iconic Swiss climbs begin in charming villages, before traversing through the impossibly green valleys and alpine forests, and end in the rocky, barren, icy landscapes of the high Alps.

This change in scenery during a ride isn’t unique to Switzerland, of course, but some of the scenery you’re likely to see as you battle your way up an Alpine pass in Switzerland is extremely uniquely Swiss.

The climbs, scenery, food, outdoor activities, road maintenance, and minimal traffic make Switzerland an ideal destination for a cycling holiday, and there are many legendary climbs, like St. Gotthard Pass, that you can test out your climbing legs on.

The road of St Gotthard Pass is carved into the Swiss cliffs.

Often, however, the Swiss Alps are overlooked as a cycling destination, with ranges such as the French Alps, Pyrenees, and Italian Dolomites being favored over them.

The most likely explanation for this is that such mountain ranges and the climbs that they offer are seen to break cyclists yearly in the Grand Tours, inspiring the challenge within the keen amateur cyclist.

However, although Spain, France, and Italy are blessed with incredible scenery and the most iconic climbs in the cycling world, much of Europe has fantastic mountains and unbelievable views that aren’t quite as well-televised and so don’t attract the same crowds.

Switzerland is an excellent example of this. With the Tour de Suisse seldom watched by amateurs, it is frequently overlooked as a destination for a cycling trip.

However, the scenery, climbs, and everything else about a cycling trip in Switzerland can easily rival that of France, Italy, and Spain.

Additionally, Swiss engineering and restraint often result in slightly more gentle gradients and extremely well-kept roads; ideal for cyclists.

Comparing the cobbles of St. Gotthard Pass to Paris-Roubaix, for example, will make it clear the difference in funding for road maintenance between the countries (although, there’s definitely a charm to the terrifying, crumbling cobbles of the “Hell of the North”!).

There are many excellent climbs around St. Gotthard Pass, including the Furka Pass, made famous by the Bond film Goldfinger, as well as the Col du Sanetch, and the Nufenen Pass, to name a few.

In fact, the Furka Pass, Nufenen Pass, and St. Gotthard Pass can be tackled in a single (very tough) day in the saddle on this unforgettable 106 km route through the Swiss Alps.

So, if you’re looking for a cycling holiday to challenge yourself and take on some legendary climbs while seeing some of the best views in Europe, don’t sleep on the Swiss Alps!

Cobbled bridges and tunnels intertwine on St Gotthard Pass Switzerland.

A Guide To Cycling St. Gotthard Pass

With a total of 24 cobbled hairpins, high altitude, and plenty of elevation gain, the beauty of St. Gotthard Pass is matched by the difficulty.

On the other hand, the difficulty of the climb only serves to increase the sense of achievement you’ll be rewarded with for completing the best cobbled climb in the world! As long as you’re up for a challenge…

The climb also has an interesting history. It was first used as early as the 760s as a vital Alpine pass by the Holy Roman Empire in order to reach some of their most important territories.

In the 1800s, the climb was paved with cobbles and renamed to “ancienne route” or (“old road”), which remains a nickname for the pass to this day.

View near the foot of the Gotthard Pass in the 1800s.
View near the foot of the Gotthard Pass in the 1800s.

Know Before You Go

Just like any tough climb, it’s worth finding out a few things about St. Gotthard Pass before tackling it, rather than going in blind. Here is some key information to get you on your way.

The Altitude

One of the first things you need to consider about St. Gotthard Pass is the altitude. Although the maximum altitude of 2081 m may not sound like a lot to an avid mountaineer, when you’re climbing on a bike, your body requires far more oxygen than when walking.

This is because you are simply using your muscles more aggressively, since, in essence, you are going up significantly faster, yet technically lugging more weight when you include the bike itself.

So, your muscles require a faster flux of oxygenated blood than for walking, which means your heart and respiratory system will be working harder.

When the concentration of oxygen in the air is even lower, which, at 2000+ m it is already 25% lower than at sea level, they need to work even harder to provide oxygenated blood to your overworked muscles.

In other words, on a bike, you’re simply far more likely to experience symptoms of altitude sickness at a lower elevation.

Many people will be fine, except for noticing that they’re getting out of breath a little more easily. However, if you notice any symptoms such as headache, nausea, or feeling faint, then it’s worth taking it more easily.

If such symptoms continue to progress to a point where you feel very uncomfortable, descend the way you came immediately.

It’s always better to exercise caution when dealing with altitude rather than risking it and feeling terrible.

View of the cobbles on St Gotthard Pass Switzerland.

The Cobbles

The second thing to note about St. Gotthard Pass is the cobbles. Yes, they are impossibly well-kept, but regardless, the vertical vibrations of cobbles will always provide additional resistance to your motion.

So, be prepared for it to feel a little harder than a climb of a similar profile that is smooth asphalt.

The Best Time To Climb St. Gotthard Pass

As you might expect in the Swiss Alps, riding St. Gotthard Pass is fairly limited to summer activity.

In fact, the snow and ice conditions render the road too dangerous even for motor vehicles outside of the summer months, so it’s actually only open from June to October.

However, on a bike, it’s probably still worth limiting your climb to between July and September to ensure that you don’t encounter any ice at all (ice is extremely dangerous on a long descent!).

Of course, just like at any high altitude, the weather conditions will be extremely volatile. Even if the sky is completely clear when you begin, that can change in an instant, so it’s worth making sure you’ve got layers with you to keep you warm on the descent!

St. Gotthard Pass Climb In Detail

There are actually two different options for climbing St. Gotthard Pass; northern and southern. The northern route starts in Hospental and ends in Airolo, and the southern route is reversed.

However, by far the most common for cyclists is to take the southern route starting in Airolo since, although it’s a little more elevation gain, it means that you’re tackling the cobbles while climbing rather than descending.

Climb Profile

  • Climb Category: HC
  • Distance: 11.8 km
  • Average gradient: 7.6%
  • Maximum gradient: 13.1%
  • Elevation gain: 897 m
  • Min elevation: 1,186 m
  • Max elevation: 2,081 m
  • KOM: 35:04
  • QOM: 46:45

Some tough stats in the profile regardless, but it’s important to remember that these are made even more challenging by the cobbles and the altitude.

Expect the St. Gotthard Pass to take around 1-2 hours depending on fitness level.

The Climb In Detail

In order to reach the town of Airolo, you can choose to either stay in the village or take the train to Airolo where you can grab some snacks and refreshments before going on your way.

From Airolo, you’ll follow the road for 6 km and 14 hairpins on the asphalted lower section at an average of around 6.8%, until the climb proper and the unique selling point of St. Gotthard pass begins with the cobbles.

From here, you’ll snake your way up around a further 24(!) cobbled hairpins. Beginning with a few smaller hairpins around a dramatic canyon with steep walls, the first few actually contain a few of the short steeper ramps.

After the first few smaller ones, there are three longer hairpins, each of which is nearly a kilometer with the hairpin itself in the middle.

At this point is where you can first start to realize the full majesty of the snaking road through the green valley, framed by the snow-capped peaks behind.

View of the hairpins of St Gotthard Pass Switzerland.

After the longer hairpins, you’re nearly there! You’ll now be confronted with the remaining 11 (much, much smaller and shallower) hairpins where you’ll gain even more elevation and the view will get more and more special.

The final section is a relatively flat (3-6%) straight section of just under a kilometer, but before taking this on, take a little break to snap some photos of the road and valley behind you, the view from this point is the best on the ride.

With the photo-op taken, you can continue along the easy final 800 m where you’ll reach the summit!

Congrats! You have now completed St. Gotthard Pass. Take a moment to congratulate yourself for riding what is a doubtlessly challenging climb.

Now you have the paved descent to Hospental. Although the road is, of course, still beautiful, it’s not quite as special and unique as the south side.

From the town of Hospental, the more courageous riders can try their hand at the legendary Furka Pass instantaneously afterward (but remember to grab something to eat in Hospental!), or you can simply revel in your achievement of bagging the St. Gotthard Pass.

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.

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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.

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