Roads to Ride: Five Classic Italian Climbs


, by Max Leonard

The Passo di Stelvio. Photography by: Steve Pez

Looking for some inspiration to help you through winter training? Why not pit yourself against the most challenging and beautiful climbs the Italian Alps have to offer: put these passes on your summer hit list!

Passo di Stelvio

Where could we start other than the Passo di Stelvio? Located right on the border with Switzerland, its iconic hairpin bends have been tempting cyclists since 1953 when it first appeared in the Giro d’Italia (though it wasn’t paved for some years after that!).

An incredible feat of engineering, it was built between 1820 and 1825, when this region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as a safe passage between Vienna and Milan. Both sides average around 7 per cent, topping out at 2,757m (9,045 ft). In the final stages of the climb from Prato allo Stelvio, the famous switchbacks stack up to ascend an almost vertical valley wall to reach the pass. Climb it this way – all 48 hairpin bends – and it’s a monstrous 24.4km / 15.2 mi to the top. The KOM on this side is Australian pro Jai Hindley, who took the crown in 2020 on his way to second place at the Giro.

Hairpin bends aplenty (48 of them) on the Passo di Stelvio. Photography by: Migel

Meanwhile, the Bormio side, which is also over-endowed with crazy turns and beautiful sections of road, is ‘only’ 21km / 13 mi long!

Whichever way it’s tackled, as the highest paved pass in Italy, it is a popular choice for the Giro d’Italia and always delivers breathtaking racing. However, climbing this high in May is not guaranteed, and so it is often left out (at the last minute) due to weather conditions.

The Stelvio really has to be seen to be believed, and the cluster of hotels (there is year-round glacier skiing just above), restaurants, gift shops and bratwurst sellers at the pass only add to the experience and sense of occasion.

Passo di Gavia

Just next door to the Stelvio the 2,620m (8,596 ft-tall) Passo di Gavia offers a completely different experience. The classic climb from Ponte di Legno is 16km / 10 mi at 8%, gaining over 1,300m / 4,300 ft at an average gradient of 8.1%. However the average conceals some long sections in double digits as the tiny road winds through pine forests and clings to the side of the mountain.

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The Gavia was never much used except for logging and for access to a monastery near the top, so its narrow surface was not completely paved until the mid-1990s. That means that one of the most legendary exploits in the Giro d’Italia – Andy Hampsten’s ride through the snow in the 1988 Giro d’Italia – took place on gravel. Immortalised in incredible photographs, the young American wore ski gloves and toughed it out as a blizzard coated the roads, taking the pink jersey and becoming the first American to win the race. This KOM is now held by the American pro rider Joe Dombrowski, whose time has stood ever since he won a stage of the Baby Giro here as a 21-year-old in 2012.

At the top is a refuge that welcomes in cyclists for a warming cup of coffee or a meal. The descent on the other side is comparatively straightforward – but long.

Climb it from Bormio, however, and it’s 24.82km @ 5.6% – not so simple!

Colle delle Finestre

The Colle delle Finestre became legendary in 2018 when Team Sky’s Chris Froome went on an 80km (50 mi) solo attack during the Giro d’Italia, winning the stage by three minutes and distancing his main rival, Simon Yates, by over half an hour on the day. Froome would wear the pink leader’s jersey till the end of the race.

Before that, this former military road was more or less the preserve of overland motorcyclists and gravel fans: the last 8 km (5 mi) of the climb (total length 18.8km / 11.7 mi @ 9.1%), are unpaved.

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Previously, it had featured in the Giro three times before, debuting in 2005, and, with its natural amphitheatre for spectators and panoramic views, had always produced a spectacle. But nothing like Froome’s ride.

The Finestre is also the gateway to the Strada dell’Assietta, a stunning gravel ridge road that crosses several cols over 17km (11 mi), which rarely dips below 2,000m (6,500 ft), making it a must for any bikepacking trip to the Alps.

Chris Froome launched a solo attack on the Colle delle Finestre in the 2018 Giro d'Italia. Photography by: Mirko Macari

Monte Zoncolan

Unlike many of the classic cols in the French Alps, where the roads were engineered for transporting heavy military equipment and therefore rise at fairly civilised gradients, many mountain roads in Italy take a completely different approach: straight up.

Monte Zoncolan in the Friulian Alps, when climbed from Ovaro is 9.87km (9.87 mi) at a punishing average gradient of almost 12% – with a middle section of 2.5km (1.5 mi) where it doesn’t fall below 15%.

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In terms of climbs used in pro road races, perhaps the only comparable challenge is Spain’s El Alto di Angliru. The recently retired French pro Thibaut Pinot still holds the Zoncolan KOM that he won during the 2018 Giro.

“This climb is not for fun, but for the bucket list!” says one internet user. For more uphill sadism, see also the the Passo di Mortirolo.

Sella Ronda

This final pick may seem like cheating, but the Sella Ronda (or Sellaronda) – a loop around the Sella group of mountains in the Dolomites – deserves to be on this list. The route comprises four classic climbs and is usually undertaken in an anti-clockwise direction: starting in the town of Corvara (though there are obviously multiple starting points) you would thus take on the Passo Gardena (2,121m / 6,959 ft), Passo Sella (2,140m / 7,021 ft), Passo Pordoi (2,139m / 7,018 ft) and Passo Campolongo (1,875m / 6,152 ft) to descend right back around to the beginning.

In all, the Sella Ronda clocks up around 51km / 32 mi and 1,600m / 5,250 ft of climbing.

Aside from the incredibly beautiful scenery – green Alpine meadows giving way to sheer vertical faces of limestone rock typical of the Dolomites – the passes are also packed with Giro d’Italia history. It was on the Sella, for example, that Marco Pantani won in 1998 and wore the maglia rosa for the first time. And on the Pordoi, in 1940, the old master Gino Bartali had to throw snow in his young team-mate Fausto Coppi’s face, to help revive him when he was flagging on the steep ascent.

Every year the roads are closed for the Sellaronda Bike Day – in 2024, that’ll be in June and December – and, if cycling wasn’t enough, the Sella Ronda is also a popular ski loop, with lifts to help you enjoy it both clockwise and anti-clockwise!