Ken Roberts - - Bicycling
later this year
earlier in this year
northeast Italy high passes: West to East
Over the last few years I rode up and down lots of paved roads over high passes of northeast Italy, mostly riding single-day loop routes. I found lots of fun + pretty riding in the Dolomites (not a surprise) and other mountains, and I'd gladly do lots of it again. This year I finally connected it all into a continuous route, so I've ridden every kilometer west to east from the Bernina pass thru Bormio + Bolzano to Cortina d'Ampezzo + Misurina. Or think of it as from the Olympic ski resort of St Moritz to the Olympic ski resort of Cortina. And because I rode so much of it as loops, I've also covered a second route from east to west.
I'm glad I did it. Lots of very interesting and pretty sections. I hope I get to ride many of the sections again.
Good variety -- both spectacular mountains and spectacular valleys with apple orchards and vineyards.
Includes some of the most famous bicycling roads in the world - (those roads are also very popular with tourists on motorcycles and cars and buses).
Mountain views hold up well through late summer and fall - (unlike many other mountain roads which are spectacular in late spring before the snow melts, but much less so in late summer).
Road surfaces -- mostly very good.
Traffic -- The famous spectacular mountain sections are very popular with tourists on motorcycles and cars and large buses -- so if you can, try to ride outside high season (roughly July + August) and perhaps try to ride the most famous roads on non-weekend days, and start early in the morning. Some connector roads between the passes get lots of truck traffic -- I tried hard to design my main West-to-East route to minimize those high-traffic sections: The one that sticks out most for me is between Vigo di Fassa and Canazei (this could be avoided by taking a bus between Bozen / Bolzano and Canazei) -- see discussion below about "changes + concerns".
Below are notes about the things I most liked, and some things I'd want to change for next time.
This is different from most other reports about traversing high passes in Italy:
(a) It doesn't just give one route and declare victory. For most stages I explored at least two alternative routes on my bicycle (and sometimes more in a car) -- and I give reasons for each alternative. I explored roughly twice as many high passes as other bicycle tour riders crossing this region -- see map.
(b) I discuss larger strategy options and give reasons for preferring one alternative or another -- including reasons why somebody else might want to choose differently.
(c) I describe which particular stages were better or worse, and concerns about risks for some stages.
(d) I consider different directions of travel.
(e) I consider other ways of enjoying a high mountain road than simply traversing it from one end to the other. I also consider out-and-back rides and loop routes.
Stelvio:I think the biggest question for an east-west route thru the high passes is whether to include Stelvio / Stilfserjoch in the main route or as a side trip. I made it a side trip, for several reasons:
(a) It worked nicely as a side trip from Bormio.
(b) I don't like the road from Prad am Stilfserjoch (on the east side of Stelvio) to Meran: Too much vehicle traffic on sometimes curvy road which is not wide.
(c) I don't so much enjoy descending the 48 switchbacks on the east side. I do more enjoy descending the west side.
(d) I do like the traverse east from the south side of Gavia to the Adige river valley -- thru the apple orchards between the Tonale + Mendel passes -- or skipping Mendelpass and visiting the vineyards along the Weinstrasse going north from Mezzocorona thru Tramin to Kaltern
(e) I was happy to spend an extra night hanging around Bormio to fit in the side trip.
(f) It's a simple way to ride over both Gavia and Stelvio, instead of choosing between them. Gavia is the second highest paved-road pass in northeast Italy, it has a very different feel from Stelvio (wilder), and for USA visitors there's the famous story of Andy Hampsten winning a key stage of the Giro d'Italia race by riding over Gavia in a snowstorm.
If Stelvio is the main route, can do a side trip loop over Gavia by combining it with Passo Mortirolo. Doing the loop counter-clockwise takes both passes the hard way, especially if start the Mortirolo climb further west in Mazzo. Clockwise has generally less steep climbing. Or just climb Gavia up and back from Bormio (optionally include partway down the south side).
Jobst Brandt in his 2004 Tour of the Alps included both Stelvio and Gavia in his main route (with no side trip) but riding from Tirano over Passo Aprica to Edolo and Ponte di Legno, then north over Passo Gavia to Bormio, then east over Stelvio toward Meran. A more athletic approach is to substitute Passo Mortirolo for Aprica. The disadvantages I see to that are (b) + (c) + (d) above -- and that I found the section from Aprica and Edolo to Ponte di Legno not very interesting -- and that it misses crossing the higher passes thru Livigno (which however I did not find very interesting either).
My feeling about Gavia is that: If it's as great as Jobst and some other people say, than it's worth doing it in both directions, over and back from Bormio: climb the north side, partway down the south side, then climb back up and descend to Bormio. Or then it's worth it to make a side loop with both Mortirolo and Gavia.
Bernina:Another question is about starting by crossing the Bernina pass, since it's completely within Switzerland, not in Italy. My rationale is that
(a) riding thru Pontresina to Bernina has some of the most spectacular mountain views on the route;
(b) it's easy (and spectacular) to ride the train to St Moritz or Pontresina from Tirano (which is in Italy);
(c) Forcola di Livigno is high enough so it sort of deserves to be included a route of high passes, and Bernina is a much easier and more scenic way to reach it than climbing up to it directly from Tirano;
(d) riding between two famous Olympic ski resorts of St Moritz and Cortina d'Ampezzo sounds good to me; and
(e) Livigno on its own doesn't have sufficient mountain scenery to interest me in riding thru it without the Bernina.
If not starting from Bernina, then I guess the alternatives are (1) to start in Bormio; or (2) to start in Tirano and ride over Mortirolo (or Aprica) and Gavia to get to Bormio; or (3) start in Tirano and climb north over Forcola di Livigno to join the route given here -- but then you're so close to Bernina that you might as well climb up to that anyway.
Mortirolo:The northwest side of Passo Mortirolo from Mazzo di Valtellina is a justly famous "hard climb" of Europe (and I think it's also interesting and pretty, more so than Zoncolan). The East-to-West route below has a note about how to include it.
For the West-to-East route, a possible way to include Mortirolo would to start by crossing Bernina and descending all the way to Tirano, then go a ways east up Valtellina, then climb the north side of Mortirolo, descend the south side to near Edolo, then climb the south side of Gavia and north down to Bormio, then continue east over Stelvio to the Adige river valley. It doesn't fit so well with using Gavia + Tonale to go east to the Adige river valley. The other problem is that Mortirolo is lower than the Livigno passes which it would replace, but some riders might feel that the notorious steepness of Mortirolo outweighs the altitude deficiency.
A way to fit Mortirolo with a continuation east via Gavia + Tonale is to first climb from Tirano over Aprica down to Edolo, then climb the south side of Mortirolo and descend one of the north-side roads, then go east up Valtellina to Bormio. The problem is that the south side of Mortirolo mostly is not real steep, so the justification for choosing that over the higher Livigno passes goes away -- and most of the reason for interest in Mortirolo anyway. Also the distance over Aprica is significantly longer.
The other strategy for the mountains of northeast Italy is not to do a traverse at all: Rather spend 2-3 days with Bormio as a base (with priority to the Umbrail / Mustair / Stilfserjoch / Stelvio loop, and consider also counter-clockwise Bormio - Mazzo - Mortirolo - Ponte di Legno - Gavia - Bormio) and then several days riding around the Dolomites around Canazei + Corvara + Cortina.
But I do like visiting the apple orchards and vineyards, and the deep Adige river valley, in between those two mountain areas.
rides from Bormio-area "base camp":
rides around "base camp" near Canazei + Corvara + Cortina:
from Bernina + Livigno to Cortina + Misurina:
possible extension further east
highlights for West to East
changes + concerns for West to East
from Auronzo di Cadore + Cortina to Tirano
highlights for East to West
Some of the high points:
changes + concerns for East to West
If I were doing it again, I think I might try:
Since I rode most of the stages as loop routes, it makes sense for me to say which ones I liked:
Here's some that I'd gladly do again:
Here's some that I was glad to do once, but not in a big hurry to do again:
Here's some loops that I haven't done, but I'm sorta thinking I'd like to try:
The start that I know best is to visit the spectacular Passo del Bernina (in Switzerland) which is pretty close to the Forcola di Livigno pass (at the border into Italy). I rode across Bernina from north to south, then turned east and rode across the Forcola di Livigno to the town of Livigno, then across the Eira + Foscagno passes to Bormio.
Bernina + Forcola di Livigno can be reached either by riding north from Tirano, Italy thru Poschiavo, Switzerland -- which is a rather big climb. Or by a spectacular train ride from Tirano north to the Bernina pass -- and once I'd gone that far, I decided to continue on the train all the way to Pontresina, so I could enjoy the spectacular (but mostly not steep) climb up the north side of the Bernina pass - (see more discussion of my reasons for choosing this above under Route Strategy).
Another idea (for "athletic animals") would be start near Tirano, ride east up Valtellina to Mazzo, climb over Passo Mortirolo and descend south to Monno, then East moderately up to Ponte di Legno, then steeper north over Passo Gavia to Bormio. This allows crossing Stelvio west-to-east, and makes it possible to include all three Stelvio + Gavia + Mortirolo into the main route, without need for side trips.
Jobst Brandt in his 2004 Tour of the Alps descended from Bernina to Tirano, climbed over Aprica to Edolo, then climbed thru Ponte di Legno and over Gavia to Bormio. I think the advantage of this is that it allows both Stelvio + Gavia both to be included in the main route, while avoiding the strain of climbing Mortirolo. The disadvantage I feel is that the section across Aprica thru Edolo to Ponte di Legno isn't all that interesting.
start further west: A possible pass crossing further west might be Passo San Marco (south of Morbegno in Valtellina) -- but it's a long ways riding East from there to any real climbing to whatever would be the next pass on the route.
start further east: The other idea is to just start or finish in Bormio -- and so ignore Forcola di Livigno as a "high pass" for an east-west route, even though it's much higher than several other passes on the route.
Stelvio / Stilfserjoch side loop
Riding this loop rests on the assumption that Stelvio pass is not on the main west-east route - (instead the main route goes over Gavia). This assumption is highly arguable -- see discussion above under Route Strategy.
The loop starts from Bormio and climbs north and northeast toward Stelvio pass. Before reaching that pass it turns Left and instead goes over Passo Umbrail north into Switzerland, with a long descent (some on packed dirt) to Santa Maria Val Mustair. Then east down Val Mustair back into Italy, passes by Glurns / Glorenza and turns southeast to Prad / Prado, then the long climb southeast with 48 switchbacks up to Stilfserjoch / Stelvio pass, then down the west side (past Umbrail) back to Bormio.
The alternative for climbing Stilfserjoch / Stelvio pass would be to do it as an out-and-back tour from Bormio . . .
First climb north and northeast all the way to Stelvio pass. If that's enough for your desired achievement, than can just turn around and go back the same way down to Bormio (a worthy ride). But the east side is a more famous climb, so to experience that you need to ride down that side partway. My feeling is that it's sufficient to go down to Franzenshohe (2189m) -- then turn around and climb up the final 20 or 22 switchbacks, which are above treeline with views of snow-covered peaks -- about +600m of climbing. But it feel need to do more climbing in order to have the "experience", could continue on down to Ristorante Rocca (1861m) for about +900m of climbing, or perhaps all the way down to Trafoi (1547m) to climb 46 out of the 48 switchbacks for +1200m of climbing.
But then you've done almost as much work as riding the loop, but without the aesthetic of riding a loop -- and without having climbed the east side of Stelvio "from the very bottom".
Bormio :: Ponte di Legno
alternatives? The question of Gavia versus Stelvio is discussed above under Route Strategy. The only other alternative I know of is to climb over Mortirolo north-to-south. In it's favor is that its northwest side is a notorious very steep challenge - (though some riders might feel that's not a good thing if the purpose of their tour is to cover multiple pass crossings). In Gavia's favor is that: (a) it's much higher than Mortirolo; (b) has wider views, including some snowy peaks; (c) takes a much shorter distance between something near Stelvio to something near the Adige river valley and the main Dolomites around Canazei + Cortina. The idea of using Mortirolo to substitute for the Livigno passes (before arriving in Bormio) is discussed above under Route Strategy.
Straightforward route: From Bormio I climbed southeast to Santa Caterina Valfurva then south to Passo Gavia. The views of peaks were not as good as I'd have hoped, given the high elevation of Gavia (because Gavia is a ways away from the main Ortler-Cevedale peaks) -- but I was satisfied because it was the hardest long climb I'd done so far. I descended the south side, a lake and some big views down the valley -- very wild but not as spectacular or interesting as some others -- and that time bypassed the main center of Ponte di Legno (which other cyclists have done also). On a later trip I did ride into Ponte di Legno's center, which was kinda pretty, but I ran into more cobbled streets than I liked.
Sometime I'd like to ride the road up east from Santa Caterina Valfurva closer toward the main Ortles-Cevedale peaks -- to see if the mountain views are more dramatic there than from the Gavia road.
opposite direction? I hope someday to do it south-to-north. Climbing the south side might tend to have some unfavorable visibility curves (because much of the road runs along the east side of the valley), but in my experience there was little vehicle traffic on the Gavia road anyway.
Ponte di Legno :: Lago di Santa Giustina
alternatives? Once you've decided to go by Ponte di Legno, there's no reasonable alternative for connecting with the Adige river valley to the east.
I've ridden both ways over Passo Tonale between Ponte di Legno and Mele + down near Lago di Santo Giustina. Mostly stayed on the main road SS42, except I think I remember taking a side road thru Mele.
Some year-round snow on the north faces of the peaks, though it isn't as big + dramatic as what it must have been 30 years ago. Being there when there's some seasonal snow still around visible would help the views a lot.
Some fun descent sections on the upper section of the east side, but then it gets straighter and gentler lower down.
Vehicle traffic on SS42 main road felt mostly pretty managable on a mid-week day.
The valley east from Passo Tonale and pleasant and kinda interesting, but that kinda interesting perhaps goes on for a little too long -- but I'm pretty sure I like it better than riding between Prad am Stilfserjoch (by Stelvio pass) and Meran.
Lago Santa Giustina :: Kaltern + Bozen
Alternatives: See below in this section for the idea of just skipping the Mendel pass. For the idea of going directly from Stelvio to the Adige river valley instead of Gavia + Tonale, see discussion under Route Strategy.
I've ridden this both ways, across the top of Val di Non thru Fondo, and over the Mendel pass (Passo di Mendola). I love the close and far views of apple orchards (and of the Santa Giustina lake) in Val di Non, so I'd gladly ride that part again more times.
West-to-East: I just rode the main road SS48 from the by the lake thru Fondo to the Mendelpass, and down the other side into the Adige river valley. When the SS48 reached a T intersection with the main Weinstrasse road (between Kaltern + Eppan) I turned turned Right (south) and rode toward Kaltern. After not more than 0.5km I saw a sign for “Radroute”, turned Left (East) went down hill a ways on single-lane paved road, then reached a T junction with Kaltern - Bozen bike path / radweg -- the sign said Bozen 10 / Kaltern 1.
Bozen / Bolzano is a pretty bike-friendly city, with lots of bike routes and lots of bicyclists. Pleasant and pretty enough, though I'm not a fan of the cobbled streets in the city center.
East-to-West: Mostly on the main SS48 road, except in the Adige river valley connecting between Bozen and Kaltern: Riding together with Sharon, we took a more circuitous route, first south from Bozen on a bike path along the river. South past Kaltern, we turned west and road some roads I don't remember up to Tramin, then north on the main Weinstrasse road to Kaltern.
Another time we took our bike on the "Standseilbahn" lift to save the work of climbing from Kaltern up to the Mendel pass, so we could then enjoy the pretty descent thru the Val di Non.
I think getting more riding among the vineyards is a good thing for this route -- one way might be to do more riding on some of the roads west of the Adige river around Kaltern and Tramin - (because while riding on the Adige river bike path is easy, it doesn't go near many vineyards).
Another idea is to skip the Mendel pass and instead ride down to the bottom of the Mendel pass to Mezzocorona, then north along the west side of the Adige valley on the Weinstrasse road to Tramin + Kaltern.
Note that there is a "secret" single-lane car-free road between the bottom of Val di Non and Mezzocorona which bypassed the busy main street thru Mezzolombardo -- but it's tricky to find at its west end (my vague memory is something like that its west end starts from a high-traffic roundabout near Rocchetta where the two roads (that come thru the narrow bottom of Val di Non) merge.
A variation on this to also see more of the apple orchards: Instead of the obvious descent thru Cles, first ride north on the SS48 toward Fondo, then take another road (e.g. SS43d) south down the valley (perhaps thru Cavareno + Sanzeno) -- but I haven't checked that at all.
Bozen :: Canazei
How to connect on a bicycle between the Adige river valley and Canazei and the heart of the Dolomite mountains is not so obvious, but after exploring several alternatives I found one (or two) that I'm happy with.
The most direct route would be up the Eggental. The problem I have with that the road near the bottom climbs thru a long tunnel has been constructed recently, and it gets lots of vehicle traffic because it's a direct route and the new tunnel makes it easier to drive.
I took the bike path both ways between Bozen / Bolzano and Blumau / Prato Isarco.
On the west side of the Karer / Costalunga pass, for going west-to-east I climbed from Blumau up to Steinegg / Collepietra, and continued higher up the ridge (pleasant farm country with big views), then some downs and ups to the town of Welschnofel / Nova Levante, then joined the main Eggental road and climbed to Karer pass. Opposite direction: I'd be happy to ride this same route going east-to-west.
For going east-to-west, just below the pass I turned Right (north) for the Nigerpass, then descended roughly west thru Tiers in the obvious way to Blumau. Opposite direction? I'm not really happy to climb up this way, mainly because it starts on a high-traffic road up to the Kastelruth - Seiser Alm area, road is not wide and might have some questionable-visibility curves for riding in the uphill direction. Also there's some pretty steep climbing thru St Zyprian just above Tiers. And the views are not as good as thru Steinegg.
In between the modern road to Tiers and the modern road to Steinegg is supposed to be another road, the "old road" up to Tiers, but I didn't check that at all.
On the east side of Passo Costalunga / Karerpass, I rode the same obvious road in both directions. It gets substantial vehicle traffic, but I found it managable. Some nice views (though not the greatest around).
between Vigo di Fassa and Canazei is the main road of Val di Fassa. Substantial vehicle traffic including a sizable number of trucks and buses. Many sections not wide, some with eroded pavement near the edges. But visibility was mostly OK, so I found it managable even though I wouldn't want to do it very often. I felt much better riding it southwest generally downhill.
Canazei :: Corvara :: Cortina
Through this area is the "densest" collection of well-paved spectacular mountain roads in the Europe or North America.
Cortina :: Misurina + Auronzo
Lots of spectacular rocks + mountains in this area, with lots of great options for hiking and climbing. Not so many choices for well-paved roads. That's OK -- the ones we've got are plenty good enough.
The question is which road to include in the main route between Cortina d'Ampezzo and Auronzo di Cadore: around the north side of Monte Cristallo thru Schluderbach / Carbonin, or around the south side over Passo Tre Croci. Both are spectacular and interesting -- whichever one I'd choose, I'd also want to make a side trip from the "bivio Misurina" junction to see part of the other one.
For lots of riders, the answer is to make the start or finish of the whole tour in Cortina, and ride both sides as a loop route from there.
An easy side trip out-and-back from the north side is to ride north from Schluderbach / Carbonin a ways (toward Toblach), at least to the Duerrensee lake (Lago di Landro) -- because there is a great view south from it to the north face of Monte Cristallo. A little further north on the road toward Toblach is view east to the Drei Zinnen / Tre Cimes di Lavaredo.
A much harder and bigger side trip out-and-back, very spectacular is to ride the very steep private toll road up to Rifugio Auronzo mountain hut. The road that far was well-paved and well-designed. From there a dirt road goes under the south face of the famous Tre Cimes di Lavaredo rock towers to the Rifugio Lavaredo hut / restaurant. From there can hike north over the Paterno / Paternsattel pass to the best view of the Tre Cimes / Drei Zinnen. And go back the same way. (Sharon and I did that in September 2008, except that we drove up the road in a car, instead of riding it on a bicycle.) It starts from must north of lake Misurina, so although it's along the Schluderbach north route, it can easily reached from the Tre Croci south route.
Riding between the "bivio Misurina" junction (of the north and south routes) and Auronzo di Cadore is straightforward on the main road. Auronzo is next to a pretty blue lake.
further east . . . Comeglians :: Sutrio
I also rode over another pair of east-west passes, but much farther east than Auronzo or Cortina. My main purpose was to ride up the west side of Monte Zoncolan from Ovaro + Liariis, which the evidence I've seen indicates that it's the steepest climb over 1000 vertical meters in Europe or North America on a well-paved public road that connects to other public roads on both ends.
It was indeed the steepest big climb I've ever done -- seemed like long sections over 14% grade, though I very much doubt it has sections sustained at 19-20% grade (as some sources claim) - (see discussion, with too much detail). But I didn't find it that interesting or with such good views (until some higher up). Overall as a big + very steep climb I liked Passo Mortirolo from Mazzo better for views and interesing riding (even though it was a bit less steep) -- and Mortirolo is much closer to several other interesting climbs I know.
Then I descended the east side to Sutrio, found some food outside the town out along the main road. Then climbed west over Ravascletto to Comeglians and south back to Ovaro -- mostly pleasant and not much vehicle traffic, with some fun sections on the descent.
Since I'm not sure if my overall route is ever going to extend that far east, I'm not going to think now about which of the two passes is better to include in such a route.
08oct posted to news:rec.bicycles.rides
I just discovered this English-language website dedicated to the love of bicycling in the Veneto region in northeast Italy.
Lots of photos and stories about local riders, bicycling events, cute little details, favorite places (really there's much more to riding in Veneto than the Dolomites). I've long thought that Veneto has the best bicycling in Italy, but it is a great surprise to find someone who loved it so much that they created a website to show how wonderful it is.
(The story which most struck me so far was about a local cyclist who climbed Stelvio on a bicycle with no handlebars or brakes -- and also rode back down again, thru the 48 switchbacks.)
What it does not have is touring routes, but there's other sites for that, once the vision is received.
Oddly, the author of the website got started bicycling about 100 km from where Sharon and I live now.
more . . .
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