Stelvio Pass: breathtaking meets awesome

Route 28 leads out of Davos and heads east, twisting wonderfully through the mountains. The sky this Wednesday morning in late June was crystal clear, the air cool, the sun shining down. We followed the road to Zernez before cutting south to Livignio so that we could approach the Stelvio pass from the south.

I’d seen photos of the Stelvio – I’m sure we all have – just like the one of the northern pass on this page, but had no idea which was the best way to ride it: south to north or vice versa. We needed to get close to Florence that evening to stay on schedule, and riding south to north would allow us to join the autostrada not long after the pass and put some miles under our wheels, so that was the route we took.

Long before we got to the southern approach, the road became very interesting and quite challenging, especially two-up on a Honda Valkyrie loaded with 60 lbs of luggage. It was a Wednesday before the peak holiday season, but there were a lot of bikes on the road. We passed a two-up Harley that was making heavy weather of the twisties, but mostly we kept an eye out for well-ridden KTMs, Ducati Monsters and the like. I couldn’t have kept up with them if I’d wanted to.


The Valkyrie acquitted itself really well, feeling stable and very agile despite its load. The fun seemed endless, and I found myself moving around the machine to get the best out of it. Then the road started to climb – seriously climb! The turns became tighter until they were perfect 180-degree hairpins, demanding first gear every time.

Peter is the perfect pillion passenger, her presence totally neutral at all times. She reckons she had the most fun that day, being free to revel in the views while still enjoying the corners and the acceleration up the next straight.

Peter the perfect pillion enjoys a warming cup of coffee at the summit

I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard at riding in my life, and I doubt I’ve ever enjoyed myself more. It demanded total concentration: while the apexes of the turns were protected by barriers, there were sections before the turns where there was nothing to prevent you disappearing over the edge and plunging hundreds of feet to almost-certain death. That focuses the mind.

The great thing with a well-designed heavy tourer or cruiser/tourer is that the best of them shed a lot of their weight once they are moving. But on some of the slowest hairpins, you are barely moving at the apex, and the weight seems to come flowing back. (I confess that I put down a foot just once for extra stability, and was pleased to see several riders having to do the same on smaller, lighter bikes.) Another problem is that there’s a moment in the turn when you have no idea what you’re going to meet coming the other way, so you’re using all your peripheral vision.

IMG_7417 (2)
Looking back down on the gentler part of the southern ascent

Happily, traffic down the mountain wasn’t too heavy, but you have to be wary because almost everybody is giving it their all, uphill or down. We saw countless sports cars taking part in some alpine rally: four Ferraris almost nose to tail, BMW coupes, Mercs, more Ferraris. Snow lay by the roadside and the mountain tops, the sky was crystal clear with fluffy white clouds, the air chilled, and suddenly we were at the summit, 2,757 metres (9,045 feet) above sea level.

The village at the summit turned out to be a busy meeting place for bikers and cyclists, drinking coffee in roadside cafes and comparing notes.


Bikers, both motorised and pedal-powered, take a break at the summit

There were registration plates from France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, the UK, the Netherlands: tourers, cruisers, sports bikes, adventure bikes, café racers, street bikes and superbikes. The owner of a matte-black Rocket III admired the Valkyrie, and I admired his ability to wrestle such a huge and heavy beast up and down those corners.

Okay, so I liked this K1200!
This Buell X12R would be a cool tool for riding the Stelvio
We owned one of these for five years, and I wouldn’t have wanted to ride the Stelvio pass on it; gorgeous cruiser, though. His friend had a matte-black version

While I took some photos trying to capture the atmosphere, Peter had spotted the ultimate vista: the view of the road that stretched out below us, just like in all the famous pictures. It was spellbinding. We started down the northern pass, staying in the lower gears to preserve the brakes. Part-way down, we spotted an enterprising commercial photographer sitting in a chair at one hairpin and taking photos of each bike as they came down the hill. His website address was painted on the car parked next to him!

We had to stop at one hairpin to accommodate a tour bus that looked like it needed the entire road to make the turn, and it did. The only other hairy moment was meeting a camper van on a hairpin as it overtook a cyclist, between them leaving us the width of the Valkyrie’s handlebars and maybe two more inches!

We were half way down when I felt the rear brake pedal go spongy, then travel way more than it normally does, then travel forever and provide no retardation whatsoever. I’d been using it judiciously to steady the bike in corners, but the severity of the road and the sheer mass of bike, riders and luggage took their toll. I decided not to share this information with Peter for her own peace of mind and we managed to get the rest of the way down on engine braking and front brake alone. Phew! Next time I tried it, the brake had cooled down and was working flawlessly once more.

A typical hairpin, snapped from the pillion, on the northern descent

It was a hugely memorable ride. There are better biking roads, if you like fast, sweeping bends and the flip-flop sensation of left-right-left swinging. The Stelvio is just different: more challenging, requiring more energy, greater concentration, and the ability to soak up awesome vistas while focusing on the road, fingers and toes working away relentlessly.

It was so utterly engaging and the Valkyrie so composed that at no time did I wish I’d been on a different bike. It was only afterwards, reflecting on the experience, that I wondered what it would have been like on, say, a Yamaha 350 of yore, a Ducati Monster, a KTM Duke or a Yamaha MT-09 – something relatively light and very chuckable.

But there were guys there that day on every machine under the sun, including aforementioned Rocket IIIs, Moto Guzzis and even a couple of Gold Wings.  The Stelvio pass: if you get a chance, ride it!


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