Stelvio Bike Day (Stilfserjoch Radtag) on my Brompton

A few winters ago, I read about the Stelvio Bike Day, an annual event in August where the Alps’ second highest paved pass (the Stelvio pass, at 2,757m just 13m lower than the 2,770m Col de l’Iseran in France) is closed for motorized traffic. Usually extremely popular with motorcyclists, being able to ride such an alpine classic without noise and traffic around is a tempting opportunity for every cyclist.

Since it so happened that I could arrange for a long weekend in August – and encouraged by being in reasonably good shape after a multi-week cycling holiday during the summer – I decided to give it a go this year, for the 15th edition of the event.

Considering that packing my touring bike for air transport and hauling it around airports is a significant effort, the idea was born to take my Brompton folding bike instead. As a matter of fact, its lowest gear is lower than that of the big bike, so while it may sound a little strange at first, the six-gear Brompton (an M6R model, with the -12% lowered gearing option) is actually not a bad choice for the task. And it made getting myself to Germany and from Munich airport to the foot of the mountain in Northern Italy the night before very simple.

A compact bike in a compact car.
Image caption: A compact bike in a compact rental car.

The forecast had been rather promising for many days, but based on the mountain weather report the day before, Stelvio Bike Day 2015 would see the best weather possible, maybe even a little too good. Others had obviously noticed that as well, as organisers would later report a record-breaking 12,000 cyclists to have conquered the Stelvio.

Image caption: “Extraordinarily warm”, blue sky, sunshine, and no risk of rain or thunderstorms – this is a truly exceptional forecast for a cycling event in the Alps; just a few years ago the Stelvio Bike Day saw the peak closed due to fresh snow!

It was still well before sunrise as I woke up at the hotel in Sulden, 15km from the official base of the event in Prad. Driving down into the Venosta valley, the early bird cyclists were already on their way up the road to the pass.

Image caption: The first rays of sun hitting the Venosta valley in South Tyrol, as I am parking the car in Prad, at the foot of the Stelvio pass.

Once down in Prad, finding a parking spot was not an issue at all; quite a few people just crawled out from their camper vans. The town clearly has some experience with this event, and the arrangements are very good, from signage to the availability of services. Getting up early paid off, not just in terms of parking in walking distance from the town centre.

Image caption: Having taken the white Brompton (center front) out from the white rental car (front left), ready to conquer the white peak of the Stelvio pass (center back).

At 7.30am, the major influx of traffic just started and it was easy to find a seat at the breakfast table in the sun on the central square, where food and warm beverages were served by a bunch of joyful volunteers.

Image caption: “Breakfast party” at the centre square of Prad.

It was 8.15am as I set out to climb the 1,850m up the mountain (Prad is at 907m, the pass at 2,757m). The stream of cyclists had now intensified from the loose groups I encountered on the way in from Sulden, dozens of cyclists hitting the road every minute.

A good night’s rest, the fresh air in the valley and the energising atmosphere made for an easy start, raising the importance of constantly remembering to take it easy and always go a tad slower than one feels like – preserving energy is the most important virtue on an endeavour like this.

Image caption: Riding in the shade, with the mountains illuminated by the sun – the first 10 km have a slightly below-average incline of 4-7% and provide the perfect warm-up for the challenge ahead.
Image caption: Just after the Sulden intersection at Stilfs, the road passes through a half-open tunnel. Usually filled with the noise from motorcycles and sports cars, all that could be heard was the humming of bike tires and friendly chatter.

Up until the village of Gomagoi, the road runs in parallel to the Solda and Trafoi streams, which – thanks to the complete absence of any artificial noise – makes for a very pleasant aural experience. All you hear is the river, the bicycles around you and your own, deep and rythmic breath.

Despite repeated conversations with riders who were wondering whether such a “small bicycle” would be capable to reach the col, I soon realized that there were actually a wide range of interesting rides on the road. I saw quite a few special needs bicycles such as those propelled by hand. And during the obligatory roadside break at “Tornante 48” (1,360m), the first of the 48 numbered hairpin turns up to the top, I was even passed by a skater on roller skis while admiring a beautiful Italian-built folding bicycle which apparently did not have any gears at all.

This fellow was riding a Graziella (the Bolognese version of a folding bike), which...
Image caption: This fellow was riding a vintage Graziella (an Italian folding bike classic), which…
Image caption: …in contrast makes this little masterpiece of British engineering look like a mobility device from the future (picture taken at the village of Trafoi at 1,547m).

I later learned that there were even a few unicyclists and tandem riders on the Stelvio that day. A handful of fully loaded touring cyclists and some parents with child trailers also stood out from the mountain/road bike crowd.

Soon after the village of Trafoi (1,547m, after 11km and one third of the total ascent), two guards secured the official start of the road closed for motorized traffic. I got laughed at by them …in a friendly way. Even though it was still early, they’d probably already seen all kind of strange contraptions going up that road.

Image caption: Car traffic had already died down after the intersection to Sulden at the village of Stilfs, but from here on there officially were no combustion engines allowed.

After leaving the valley and stream of the first third behind, the second third of the ascent runs through a light forest along the side of the mountain. Most of the time, the turns only come into sight shortly before and the occasional view of the opposite mountains are the only indication of actual vertical progress (apart from heart rate and sweat, obviously). You just take it one stretch at a time.

Image caption: The hairpin turns both visualize well the constant incline of the road – around 7% on average, and 14% at the steepest points. There is not a single metre of downhill or flat terrain between Prad and the peak.
Image caption: Some cycling websites describe this part as a dull stretch, but in this brilliant weather, even just riding long straight uphills in a forest make for a great ride.
Image caption: At times, it was hard to decide where to look. The fascinating crowd of cyclists, the peaceful forest around or the majestic Ortler massif which came back into sight every few turns.

Finally, at turn 31 (remember: this is a count-down!) I reached the first of two support stations. Locals were handing out free apples and the fire department had parked a big tank with “aqua potabile”, which given the high temperatures was met with high demand.

Image caption: High demand for water and a logistical challenge with so many cyclists trying to park their rides. Good for those who were with somebody, to hold the bike.

It was a bit of a crowd scene, so I actually moved on a few hundred meters to have my own snack break – now with refilled water bottles – at the roadside. This also had the benefit that I could pick a spot in the shade.

Image caption: Occasional views down on several stretches of the road made for an almost mesmerizing sight. So many cyclists zig-zagging up the mountain.
Image caption: The landscape at this height is just absolutely stunning! And stopping to take a photo is always a good excuse for a little break.

Normally, going up a mountain this high, temperatures keep dropping. But with the sun at full steam and not a single cloud in the sky, it actually got warmer and warmer. I had long dropped the thermal shirt from under my jersey, but a sweaty exercise it remained. And the trees were getting more and more sparse.

People took their breaks wherever they needed one or felt like enjoying the landscape for a moment. Apart from the more sportive participants who pushed longer stretches at higher cadence, this made for a funny “group experience”. No matter how many or how long breaks I took, I always ended up meeting the same people again. Now, obviously there is no way to remember everybody, but previous small talk, a particular bicycle or attire, or other particuliarities helped to recognize people – after all for most of the time there was not much more to do than slowly inch up the road, one pedal stroke at a time.

Image caption: A first view towards the iconic upper third of the Stelvio pass.

I decided to take a longer break by the Hotel Franzenshöhe at 2,188m, just around the tree line. Not so much because I needed recovery, but just because it seemed a convenient place to find a nice spot to sit and just take in the atmosphere. And with 2/3 of the height done, this is a good moment to reward oneself. Unforgettable: the impressive view up all the way to the pass – quite literally a postcard view.

Image caption: Crowd scene at the hotel and its terrace. But overall, there was always just the right amount of people around and the atmosphere was anyways totally stress-free.
Image caption: Giving man and machine a little break; time to take in the landscape and some delicious cake baked and sold by a local association raising funds for the victims of a farm fire down in the valley. In the background, the remaining 570m of ascent with its 21 turns and the buildings on the saddle of the pass.

I had a nice conversation with a young couple from Northern Germany as we shared the shade of a building to just sit and look at the neverending queue of cyclists inching up the pass in what most likely is the best weather such event could possibly see.

Image caption: The two last turns before Franzenshöhe (numbers 24 and 23), and there was even a small service station carrying out emergency repairs on the go. This is actually one of my favourite photos of the day – summarizing the whole awesomeness of this masterpiece of civil engineering that is the Stelvio pass.

The longer I looked at it – down the slope and up – the more surreal this whole event made me feel. Not just the insane luck with the weather and the positive surprise about my own fitness and the Brompton’s suitability for this endeavour, but just seeing that thousands of people had made their way here to enjoy what must be one of the greatest cycling events I can think of.

Moving on, the goal was now almost constantly in sight. With no more trees around, it was easy to see how far I had come from Franzenshöhe and how far I’d still have to go. Not to mention the now unobstructed view on the Ortler massif – what an awesomely beautiful landscape.

Image caption: How far have I come? A view down from the side of the road gives a very precise answer (Hotel Franzenshöhe afar in the centre of the image). And the snow-covered peak of the Ortler in the background reminds just how high up we are here.
Image caption: A closer look back shows that the flow of cyclists continues uninterrupted also behind me. At the lower right end: the fire department’s second water truck at turn 14.

The air gets thinner as you climb a mountain, and while altitude sickness should not be a major concern (even though it is commonly observed from 2,400m up), I did develop a bit of a headache – usually a first indication of being affected by the reduced amout of oxygen in combination with physical exercise. I made sure to remain well hydrated and, just to be on the safe side, popped a 200mg Ibuprofen to reduce the symptoms. It is well possible the headache may have just come from the neck muscles, this being quite an extraordinary exercise.

Photo by, used with permission
Image caption: I had not planned to purchase any of the commercial event photos, but this shot is just too hilarious! Photo by, published with permission.

And then, faster than anticipated as the distances between the turns get shorter as one approaches the peak, “Tornante 1”, the final turn, was in sight. A sign wishes farewell from South Tyrol, as the pass marks the border to the next Italian province, Sondrio.

Image caption: You are now leaving South Tyrol, at the peak entering Sondrio. The final turn and the long stretch to the saddle of the pass.
One last view back at the Ortler before heading over the saddle of the pass.
Image caption: One last view back at the Ortler before heading over the saddle of the pass.

It was good to take a breath at the last turn. A few hundred meters later (as a special service, a distance countdown is painted on the asphalt every 100m), I entered a crowd scene of cyclists celebrating their achievement, queueing for sausages and drinks, buying souvenirs and taking the obligatory photos.

Riding up the Stelvio pass from Prad had taken me 5.5h, including all breaks, which makes for a rather moderate 4.5km/h average. Or 330m/h in vertical direction, which means climbing my own body height every 20 seconds for over five hours. Needless to say I was, beyond pretty exhausted, deeply impressed by the Brompton’s performance. And my own, if you allow!

Despite the amount of people, the atmosphere was again most relaxed and joyful. Personally, I was pretty amused that not just one but three Italians independently approached me within a few minutes, looking at the bike, then at me, saying some friendly (Italian) words of appreciation and then shaking my hand. Considering the fact that I had seen many road bikes with less suitable gearing than my ride, I replied in German that they probably had a harder time than I did, but I guess it’s just the appearance of my “clown bike” with its 16″ wheels that fascinates people. And there is nothing wrong with that – I’m always happy when my Brompton entertains others.

Image caption: The tourist market at the peak of the pass, crowds of cyclists rightfully proud of their achievement, and once again the 3,905m high peak of the Ortler overlooking it all.

Frankly, after the great workout in the nature, the circus on the top did not appeal to me all that much. I had my photo taken by the iconic “Stelvio” sign (plastered with stickers, so the text is actually not readable), ate a snack in the shade and engaged in a brief conversation with a friendly Swiss couple riding a device called the Elliptigo – a crosstrainer on wheels which in its quirkyness made my ride appear much more normal again.

During my break, I started to mentally prepare for what I anticipated to be the most difficult part of the trip: riding down 1,800m while controlling my speed with rim brakes on 16″ wheels. These tiny wheels (the rim circumfence is about half that of a road bike) tend to heat up fast – and on 8-14% declines, an exploding tube would definitively be a ticket to the hospital. A rescue helicopter was on stand by for the event, but I had no intend to return to the foot of the mountain but on my own two wheels.

As I started rolling towards the Umbrail pass, the recommended and generally opted-for route back down via Switzerland, my strategy was to combine a braking technique of short, hard deceleration followed by no braking until necessary, with regular breaks to cool the rims. Which was a bit annoying at first – with everybody else speeding down on their “big” bikes – but soon turned out to be just a wonderful way of enjoying the landscape without constantly just looking at the road.

Image caption: Different landscape on this side of the mountain; view back up to the pass from just behind the Swiss border.

The environment of this side of the mountain is a little different, and for sure deserves to not just being raced through. And even with my slow approach, getting down the mountain took well less than an hour in total.

Image caption: These are the moments where you really wish to have disc brakes!
Image caption: The route also featured some less steep stretches, where the Brompton reached up to 55km/h – big fun!

My stop-and-go strategy provided opportunities for more random interactions, such as with the two Italian guys who insisted to take a photo with me. Evenly hilarious was the guy who decided to check his disk brakes’ temperature and almost burnt his fingers! (Lesson learnt: Thou shalt not touch your brake surface when racing down the Stelvio!)

Image caption: Since this year, even the last few hundred metres of gravel have been replaced with shiny and smooth asphalt.

I took my time, enjoyed the fruit of my hard labour the hours before, and eventually arrived safely down in the Swiss valley, where staff guided all cyclists onto the route back to the Italian border. From here on, it was just joyful riding on roads, with the only tiny uphill waiting on the last three kilometres before Prad.

Image caption: Once back in the valley, just follow the signs…
Image caption: …back to Italy.

Personally, I would have appreciated another opportunity to refill my water bottles, but given the otherwise flawless organisation of the event, this was a minor issue. There was a big party going on in Prad, with live music and a beer garden.

Overall, a mindblowing experience that I warmheartedly recommend any cyclist to add to their bucket list. Your next chance is on 27 August 2016 and despite the sound of it, I believe it is very much doable for everybody with reasonable fitness and a bit of stubbornness.

From Prad in the upper right clockwise up to the saddle of the pass and back via Switzerland - a 65km loop with 25km of very hard work, follwed by 40km of almost no work at all...

And if you happen to own a Brompton – don’t be shy to consider it as your ride for conquering the Stelvio. At least with the -12% 6-gear setup, I deem it more than suitable for crossing an alpine mountain pass. (And it had been done before!)

  • Dayna:

    What an awesome ride! I'd heard about the Stelvio, and seems a couple of pics, but your post has really brought it to life. Congratulations on a fabulous ride and great photos! Thanks for sharing ?


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