One of the world's most difficult climbs, only in Italy it seems
Italy is full of beautiful roads for cycling and anyone who has seen recent vision of the Giro will also know that most of these roads include steep gradients. It seems that Italy is king of countries when it comes to suffering on a pushbike. There may (and almost certainly are) be harder climbs in Italy than the Mortirolo but this beastly road out of the Valtelina in the Italian Alps (NOT Dolomites) is the first of the "uber steep" climbs to be included in a grand tour. It is often celebrated as "Pantani's Climb", for it is here that Marco confirmed his arrival on the world stage. In 1994, Pantani left the best cyclists on earth in his wake (Indurain, Berzin and Ugrumov) as he put more than four minutes into his rivals and won the day in Aprica. Riding no less than a 39/22, Pantani made light of the vicious 18% ramps on his way to a record time that is beyond belief. It is also the road on which Alberto Contador stamped his authority on the Giro in 2015, a climb of legend that never fails to deliver drama.
The Mortirolo (known to most of the locals as the passo della foppa) is a small road that starts in the town of Mazzo in the Valtelina which is a delightful Valley that runs up from Tirano to the famous cycling town of Bormio. There are several roads up to the summit (all are hard) but the small road from Mazzo is the climb revered by cyclists the world over. The stats are impressive (11.9km @ 10.7%) but like all climbs, these numbers hide a lot of the pain. The Mortirolo has a 6km section that averages over 12% and several ramps of 100-300m that are at 18%. The road is narrow and has very few sections in which you may catch your breath, it is relentless.
Shaded and tree-lined most of the way, the road is also narrow, so riding in a straight line is your only choice. Every now and then the trees clear to stunning views of the valley and small stone farm-houses that look like they have been transplanted from the pages of a storybook. Eight kilometres in you reach the eerie Pantani memorial (fittingly erected on one of the steepest parts of the climb), almost everyone stops here (probably because they are stinging for a rest) to pay tribute to a man that still holds the cycling heart of a nation. It is mostly a sad place and a reminder to all of the "other side" of a dark era in our sport.
After the memorial, the gradient eases slightly and around 3km later, the trees clear to reveal delightful alpine pastures and the final glorious run to the top. Unlike most climbs in Europe, there is NO fanfare at the Mortirolo, almost fittingly it is just a small under-stated sign. In a way it needs nothing else, one's sense of the moment and of cycling folklore is more than enough. The Mortirolo summit is truly a special place.
On our recent trip we decided to avoid the dangers of the very steep descent back to Mazzo and took the (slightly) easier road down to Grosio. More open and visually stunning than the climb up, this is a fast, flowing descent with a friendlier surface, a heart-pumping 15km of cycling bliss and the perfect way to finish the "Mortirolo experience". This is a must-do climb for all cyclists, but before you go there, do some reading. Because this road is so significant in the world of cycling and the appreciation of its meaning enhances the experience and in some magical way, lessens the pain.
Enjoy the ride and stay safe out there.
Brian Bubba Cooke
Lifelong (almost) cyclist, exercise physiologist and above-all-else just love riding my bike. Been lucky enough to ride some of the world's most epic roads and now live on the beautiful Gold Coast, hidden gem of Australian cycling.