Passo dello Stelvio may be the best known stage of the Giro d'Italia, and for roadies it’s the crown jewel of climbs in the Italian Alps. Today we rode the ninth stage from the 2010 Giro Donne, Livigno to Stelvio, finishing with the classic climb and descent.
A few weeks ago, during the 2012 Giro d'Italia, Thomas DeGendt, a Belgian riding for the Vacansoleil team, executed a bold breakaway solo on the Stelvio16.5 from the top of the climb. He held his lead to the top of the mountain to win the stage, pulling himself from eighth to fourth place overall.
It's the climb we'd been looking forward to—even if we were a little bit scared of it.
To reach Passo dello Stelvio from Livigno we started switchbacking directly outside of town. After fixing the first flat of the trip, we climbed through a cool and shady fir forest across Foscagno pass. We pedalled hard through a series of dark tunnels, hammering at full throttle on jarringly broken pavement—not by choice; it was Rob the videographer's request.
When you ride from retina-searing sun into deep shadow, it’s a few seconds before your eyes adjust to the dark, then you're back out in the sun, and your eyes have to readjust all over again. The tunnels tested our mettle: one of the fastest girls almost hit the bricks—literally—as she couldn’t see either the inside wall of the tunnel as it curved or the loose rock scattered over the road.
After staging shots on a bucolic side road we flew the 13 kilometers down the mountain to Bormio through steep and sometimes blind switchbacks in a tight pack. We weren't at the base of the Stelvio for very long. We started to climb again, up the 22.5 kilometer 37-switchback hill, five cyclists out of several hundred that would summit that day.
It was still early so the course wasn’t unbearably crowded. Serene stretches of fairly well-maintained road wound around the foot of the mountain, past patches of blooming phlox, with sweeping views of the valley separating Switzerland and Italy.
With legs pumping the biggest gears we cold manage, trying to keep our breath rhythmic not rushed, we spread out and regrouped through the climb, passing a handful of fully-loaded cycle tourists, a man who was biking the Stelvio on a special crankset because he only had use of one leg, and a dozen riders—all men—from all over the world in full team kits on high-end road bikes.
The last five kilometers we climbed through patches of snow, breaking out onto the summit into a carnival-like atmosphere.
At the summit, more than 100 cyclists in full kits skirted around even more motorcycles, sportscars, and a handful of backcountry skiers. Hot dog vendors, stalls selling stuffed animals and Giro de Italia memorabilia accounted for the rest of the crowded stretch of road. There were about five other women cyclists at the top.
After dropping five turns down the backside for the camera, we climbed back to the summit, and then zipped back down the way we came.
The descent was technical, with sharp switchbacks. Tunnels that were insignificant on the climb had the potential to be rim benders on the descent. Deep potholes, the occasional road-soaking waterfall we could see but not hear, loose gravel and high-speed cars and motorcycles that would pass aggressively all added to the excitement on the way down.
At the end of the 37 switchbacks, my hands were tingling, but I forgot about it when Italian Michele Scarponi, 2010 winner of the Giro d'Italia, passed me at the bottom. He was heading up the Stelvio for his second lap of the day.
Today's stats: 50 miles, 7,523 feet of climbing, 86 degrees F.
Tomrrow we head south to ride the Giro Donne stages between Venice and Naples.