Passo dello Stelvio

The Greatest of All the Icons


This is the most mythical place on the map of the Italian Grand Tour, where the overwhelming power of nature and the perfect design of the road have become one, defying the laws of physics. Its hairpin bends built on stone foundations above the picturesque Trafoi, after almost 200 years, still amaze and take your breath away. It is a complete climb, not done for the sake of the moment, but experienced from the first to the last kilometre. The Passo dello Stelvio is a snow-covered roof and the greatest icon of the Giro d’Italia, and perhaps of road cycling as a whole.


Passo dello Stelvio (also: Stilfser Joch, 2758 m) is a high pass in the Italian Eastern Alps, linking Bormio, in Valtellina, with Ponte di Stelvio. Despite its imposing height, it is a distinct hollow in the south-eastern ridge from which the majestic Ortler (3905 m), Gran Zebrú (3851 m) and Monte Cevedale (3769 m) rise. The road leading to it is the fifth highest in Europe in terms of altitude, taking into account only the paved roads, and if we limit the list to the passes themselves, the Stelvio is in second place, beaten only by the Col de l’Iseran (2764 m).

The Passo dello Stelvio has played an important role in the history of mankind since the Bronze Age and has been a critical point in the redrawing of maps, as it is one of the few convenient passages in the highest parts of the Alps. Today, as part of the border between Lombardy and Trentino-Alto Adige, the pass is entirely in Italy, but the territory of neighbouring Switzerland is only 200 metres away – the road via the Umbrailpass (2501 m) ends very close to the summit. The changing fortunes and heterogeneous origins of these countries are constantly reminded by the region’s distinctive alternative names in German – in the case of Passo dello Stelvio, it is Stilfser Joch.

The Climb

It is generally agreed that the Passo dello Stelvio connects the famous ski resort of Bormio in the south-west with Ponte di Stelvio in the north-east, but there are actually three routes to the top of the pass. The most difficult, most famous and most used route of the Giro d’Italia is the east side (sometimes called the north side) that goes from Ponte di Stelvio to Bormio (24.3 km, avg. 7.4%, max. 9.2%). It is the one to be admired in the most iconic photographs of the hairpin bends that are so characteristic of this climb, of which there are about 60 on the almost 25 kilometre route to the summit. The last 48, starting from the picturesque village of Trafoi, are numbered, which depending on the day’s form can be both a convenience and a kind of mental abuse. This is the route that every road cycling and Giro d’Italia enthusiast should choose, as it is the only one that fully captures the character of this mythical ascent. It shows that the overwhelming power of nature and the engineering perfection of the road, which have become one there against the known laws of physics, make the Passo dello Stelvio a complete climb. A climb that is not conquered for the sake of a few moments but lived from the first to the last kilometre.

If crossing the summit is part of a wider plan, it is important to remember to prepare properly for the descent to Bormio. The altitude and the associated low temperatures are particularly hard on the pass, so extra layers of clothing will be necessary.


The position of the Passo dello Stelvio on the physical map of the Old Continent has remained more or less unchanged since the end of the Alpine orogeny, but the migration of national borders as a result of the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries has cyclically influenced the role of this pass.

Archaeological research suggests that the Stelvio Pass was used to cross the Alps as early as the Bronze Age, but from a cycling point of view – although nobody could have known it at the time – the decisive moment came with the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), which gave Lombardy to Austria-Hungary as compensation. The wealthy province proved to be a highly coveted morsel, and it was necessary to increase control over the region by improving transport routes, so a new road was immediately commissioned to cross the Stelvio. This was built between 1820 and 1825 and the engineer Carlo Donegani, who was responsible for both the design and the supervision of the work, did such a good job that today you can visit a museum at the top of the mountain that bears his name. It is hard to deny, however, that the best testimony to the timelessness of Donegani’s work remains the stone hairpin bends above picturesque Trafoi, which, after almost 200 years, still amaze and take your breath away.

The Passo dello Stelvio climb did not appear on the route of the Giro d’Italia until 1953, when it turned the race’s general classification upside down. It was then that Fausto Coppi attacked Hugo Koblet 11 kilometres from the summit, depriving the Swiss rider, famous for his impeccable style, of his triumph in the event and allowing Italy to breathe a sigh of relief. The Campionissimo was back. In honour of the Italian’s achievement, a monument was erected and, 5 years after his unexpected death (1965), the Cima Coppi prize was created, awarded to the first rider to reach the summit of the highest mountain in each edition of the Italian grand tour. This summit is the Passo dello Stelvio itself whenever it appears on the route of the race. The greatest icon of the Giro d’Italia and perhaps of road cycling as a whole.

Interesting Facts

  • The Passo dello Stelvio appears relatively rarely on the Giro d’Italia route – only thirteen times up to 2024, including four times as a stage finish. The reason for this is the snow at this altitude, which often doesn’t completely melt until July.
  • The Passo dello Stelvio (2758 m) is the highest pass climbed in the Giro d’Italia; only the Colle dell’Agnello (2744 m) and the neighbouring Passo di Gavia (2621 m) reach a similar height.
  • The first rider to receive the Cima Coppi award at the top of the Stelvio was Graziano Battistini (1965).
  • The motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson called the Stelvio road the greatest road in the world to drive by car. He later retracted his statement and gave the title to Romania’s Transfogaras Road.


Location: Italy, Alps
Beginning of the climb: Bormio
Length: 24,3 km
Average gradient: 7,4%
Max gradient: 9,2%
Elevation: 1533 m
Height: 2758 m a.s.l.

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