Just under a year ago I was in Italy with a brand new bike. One day I wrote this:
“Today we should have ridden the Stelvio Pass, but poor weather at Bolzano, low cloud and rain put paid to that idea. In addition I have come to the conclusion that Baby Harls just ain’t the girl for that type of road, she’s too heavy and her long wheelbase makes it “interesting” on the tight hairpins. What she is good at though is “mile munching” and today she did that just fine. ”
A few days later we crested the Col de Lombarde and rode the Cime de la Bonette, the highest paved through road in Europe. Was I wrong a few days previously? Yes, totally!
Since then there’s been a beast gnawing at my back and it’s name is Stelvio.
In the past year there hasn’t been a week when I haven’t studied the map of that bloody Pass, or read articles about it, or watched videos of people riding it’s famous hairpins. I wasn’t obsessed, it was eating at me and mocking me from a distance. It seemed that Stelvio believed that it had beaten me, it’s reputation had scared me away and it had wormed into my psyche.
You see I believe that mountains have something, call it character, call it soul; I’ve felt it many times. Sometimes it’s as if it doesn’t want you there. In my beloved Welsh mountains Aran Fawddwy stands out like that, perhaps it’s because it has claimed so many lives, but it definitely never wants you on its slopes; mountains, like the sea, demand respect.
What Stelvio hadn’t realised was that I’m a Celt, we understand and feel these things and we don’t take crap from anyone or anything.
All that time I was plotting my revenge, looking for the moment when I would return and conquer.
Today I woke early in Livigno. There had been rain overnight, the ground was soaking with large puddles everywhere and the cloud still hugged the mountains like gossamer strands caressing the silent peaks. A slow steady breakfast was on the cards, followed by a gentle stroll through the awakening streets.
By ten o’clock, things were looking up and the sun had begun to break through. Time to move, Stelvio – I’m coming to get you!
From Livigno the only road to Bormio and today’s target is the S301. At the Passo di Foscagno there’s a customs post, which is a bit strange as we are still in Italy, but it’s all due to the duty-free status of Livigno. I have to say that however laid back the Italians are, they do love a good bit of bureaucracy and this customs post took the biscuit! There was a poor chap in front of me who was made to unpack his car and another who was given a right grilling! When it came to my turn, I’m afraid I tired of the game pretty quickly – “just how many cigarettes and bottles of alcohol do you think I can carry on a motorbike?” I demanded of the official. He shrugged his shoulders and backed off when I told him that he was welcome to search through my dirty washing. “Grazie, buongiorno ,” was all I got, with a thumbs up and a jerk of the wrist indicating I was free to go!
Stelvio, I’m coming for you!
I dropped the bags off at my hotel in Bormio, I wanted the least top weight on Baby as possible, she’s heavy enough empty! Leaving the hotel, we turned left took a deep breath and hit the road.
Passo dello Stelvio at 2757 m / 9045 ft above sea level is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps and the second highest in the whole of the Alps being just a tad below Col de Bonette in France. I’ve ridden Bonette on both Harls and Baby, so this upstart needed taming.
The climb and the hairpins start as soon as you leave Bormio. There are 75 in total, split roughly 50/50 between each side, this was going to be hard work! Throw into the mix various tunnels and Avalanche shelters, all dripping with water and having questionable road surfaces, life was getting very interesting.
The great thing about a Harley Davidson is the low-end grunt you get from the engine, there’s torque aplenty even below 2000 revs, so we stayed in second or third gears and just kept plugging at it. Just after a flight of 14 hairpins and about 7/8ths of the way up there is a road that bears off to the Umbrail Pass, right on the Swiss Border; well it would have been rude to ignore it, so hello again Switzerland! The customs post was, predictably, deserted!
Returning to Italy and a further half-dozen bends took us to the summit…
Oh dear, what a disappointment!
I love the peace that you normally find on a high mountain summit, maybe a small refuge or café, but this was something else! Every kind of small shop and stall selling any sort of Stelvio branded rubbish that you can imagine! It was all so tacky!
Stevio Pass? Over-used, over-publicised, over-rated!
Ok, so I did buy a pin badge, a patch and a bratwurst… which makes me a hypocrite, but I’m not the first in my family at that!
With perfect timing Mrs Dookes telephoned me whilst I was at the top, which was nice. She’s not a hypocrite incidentally!Then it was time to escape and trundle back down the seemingly never-ending hill, for me going down is always harder that the uphill stretch. Downhill you are always riding the brake and keeping the speed in check, going up gravity helps with that!
Anyway, after a few “moments” we made it to Bormio and being a sucker for punishment I turned left for the Gavia Pass.
At 2621 metres, Passo di Gavia is right up there with the big ones. Unlike Stelvio it’s wild country, unspoilt by commerce and hordes of people. True there’s a cafe and a rundown refuge at the top, but there’s also silence, still tranquility.
The road up was in a terrible state, but with only eight true hairpins I could relax a bit more than earlier. Where Stelvio was a battle, this was almost a pilgrimage back to real mountain roads. On top of that, the scenery was amazing!
Baby and I trundled back to Bormio happy in a job well done. The beast had been laid to rest and now it was time to move on.
I’ve ridden all bar one of the top twenty paved passes in Europe and goodness knows how many others, maybe one day I’ll count them. For now, I’m going to ride a couple more tomorrow then a few old friends next week, after that if you see me heading for a mountain pass on a motorbike….just shoot me!
“So stand as one defiant – yes, and let your voices swell.
Stare that beastie in the face and really give him hell.”
Catch you later.
I, too, feel better at climbing than descending. Climbing feels like I’m going faster than I really am, but while descending, I’m going faster than i should be! Stelvio is beautiful. Did any cyclists blast by you on the way down? (-:
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No kamikaze cyclists on this visit, strangely most seemed to be loading into minibuses at the top rather that riding down!
Another funny thing is that I find I’m better at left hand hairpins than right handed ones, now I really can’t explain that!
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Wow! These are some seriously twisty roads… looks fun to drive though 🙂
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Fun, but hard, hard work!
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