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5 Iconic Road Cycling Climbs in Italy

Written by Bethany McAtee on 19th October, 2020

Italy is one of nature’s masterpieces. In the Dolomites you could be tearing down thrilling descents in the most spectacular of landscapes whilst in the high Alps, the 48 switch backs of the legendary Stelvio can be coupled with a trip to the glistening shores of Lake Como or Lake Garda, to experience La Dolce Vita. Put simply, nothing stirs the soul quite like Italy. We have put together our 5 iconic Italian climbs for you to salivate over.

1. Passo Stelvio 

The Passo Stelvio is simply legendary and is immortalised in the the black and white grainy photos of Coppi and the peloton summiting the mountain in the 50s. Whether you’re climbing from Prato or Bormio, you will be summiting the second highest paved road in the Alps, gazing at white peaks all around you. 

The season to ride the Stelvio is short because if its height and your window is between May and September when the pass opens. There’s rarely a day during those months where the iconic switchbacks aren’t peppered with cycling jerseys. Those who push through the pain of 20km at 7% from Bormio are rewarded with epic views overlooking the 27 switchbacks but the famous photos you may have seen of the Stelvio are from the Prato side. The ride takes in an epic 48 switchbacks over 24km, ramping up to 10 per cent in places, but never falling below 6%.

A regular star of the Giro d’Italia, the Stelvio is number 1 in our book. Fancy riding it? Then check it out here.

the passo stelvio climb in northern italy popular with cyclists because of switchbacks

2. Passo Giau

Possibly the most spectacular mountain pass, the Passo Giau’s lure can tempt any keen road cyclist. Even just viewing a photo of the dramatic switchbacks conjures a sense of dogged determination to reach the summit. From Selva di Cadore in the South you’ll discover 29 hairpin bends, a thicker treeline and a harder climb. Alternatively, you can ride it from Pocol in the North where you will experience less hairpins and a slightly more open climb. Importantly, there is no let up on this side. They only possible respite are the small wooden bridges that span 50m or so across the river. 

If the Passo Giau is on your bucket list, there is no better place to ride it than on the Maratona Dles Dolomites. Now in it’s 34th year, the sportive is one of the most sought after on the calendar. The Maratona features Passo Giau as the 6th climb out of 7 and it’s brutal. Turning left after a lovely 30km descent, the Giau doesn’t ease you in and instead sends you straight up a ramp into the climb. It kicks up an average 9.3% gradient for 9.9km and offers virtually no hiding place. However, the beautiful landscape is as good a motivator as any. The jagged peaks and expansive views acts as a reminder of why us cyclists choose to rise to the challenge in the first place. Find out how to ride the Maratona here.

the passo giau cycling route in northern italy

3. Madonna del Ghissalo

The Madonna del Ghisallo is mythical and offers a window to the soul of cycling. Travel to Lake Como and you’ll find perched atop a mountain the chapel that bears its name. The climb is unremarkable in terms of statistics. It’s 10km at about 4.5% but it’s tough going until the false summit levels the climbing stats out. You don’t go for the climb though, you ride for what’s on top and if Italy stirs the soul, then the Madonna del Ghisallo is at its epicentre.

The chapel holds a vast array of cycling memorabilia, including bikes, jerseys and a flame in memory of cyclists who’ve passed. Notably, Fabio Casartelli’s bike, distorted due to a fatal crash in the 1995 Tour de France, hangs on the wall. Even those who aren’t religious feel a sense of awe at being amongst the memories of great cycling champions.

The best way to experience the climb and visit the chapel is to spend some time in Lake Como and ride the truly awe inspiring surroundings. Find out more here.

madonna del ghissalo chapel near lake como in northern italy

4. Passo Mortirolo

If you are feeling up to the challenge, the Mortirolo offers double digit gradients and along with the Stelvio and Gavia are the bucket list climbs of the Italian Alps. You can combine the Mortirolo with these two other behemoths if you’ve got the legs, for a truly epic day on the bike.

Our favourite ascent of the Mortirolo is from Mazzo. The climb never dips below 8% average gradient and averages 11%. The climb is pretty relentless but you will pass cycling royalty as you come up to the Marco Pantani memorial, before the road picks up the road from Grosio. From here, the climb settles down and you will summit with views over Alpine pastures. The descent takes you towards beautiful meadows before a gentle climb to Pezzo. From here you have 17km averaging 7.5% to the top of the Gavia climb, before a long descent all the way back into Bormio. Ride this on our Stelvio & Mortirolo Cycling Holiday.

road cycling climbs in italy, 5 Iconic Road Cycling Climbs in Italy

5.  The Gavia

Immerse yourself in cycling history when you ride the Passo Gavia, one of the best climbs in Italy.  The route was first used in the Giro in 1960 and it has become a staple of riders looking for the best climbs in Italy, ever since. There are two ways to reach the top of the climb.  You can start from either Bormio or Ponte de Lego, the latter being the more challenging climb with a steeper gradient which reaches as high as 16% in some parts.  We prefer the climb from Bormio which is nearly 25km long  and a good option if you are also climbing Stelvio and Mortirolo which is a mammoth day in the saddle. Like the Stelvio and Mortirolo, the unpredictability of the weather means you should be prepared for all cycling conditions. Ride this on our Stelvio and Mortirolo weekender.

Want to have a go at tackling one of the incredible road cycling climbs in Italy? Give us a call on 02071571519 or email [email protected] for more information. We organise tailored cycling holidays that can include accommodation, bike hire, GPX routes/guiding, and airport transfers.