The only thing a cyclist in the mountains wants is to be surrounded by absolutely nothing. The battle between you and the mountain is everything. It’s a road of suffering, of cursing, but it’s also a battle that provides some of the fondest memories in retrospect—engraved on bad, winding roads where history becomes written. On these slopes, there’s nothing to do except ride, and virtually no cars around. And then, once at the top, you get to bomb down at high-speed and eat a huge plate of pasta. Does this sound like an attractive prospect? Then it must be time to travel to Mazzo de Valtellina. This small Italian village provides the starting point for just such a climb. The only drawback? The climb is 11.3km-long and has an average gradient of 10.9%.

Passo della Foppa

We are, of course, talking about the Passo della Foppa, a.k.a. the Passo Mortirolo. This pass is roughly the same length as the Alpe d’Huez, but on average 3% steeper—and don’t forget the sections which are steeper than 20%. But this climb is more than a name on a cycling bucket list; it’s a climb with many stories. And the history dates back to 1990, when the Giro d’Italia first included it on the race route.

Passo Mortirolo

The view from the “top” of the Passo Mortirolo. Photograph: Barry Kraakman.

Mortirolo: a famous farm track

So the Passo Mortirolo is a relatively new climb for cyclists. Up until 1990, it was nothing more than a dirt track for farmers, surfaced in grit and gravel. When the Giro d’Italia riders had to suffer a serious snow storm on the Passo Stelvio in 1988, the race route planners were instructed to look for an alternative climb. This resulted in the 1990 route’s ascent of the Passo della Foppa, which begins in the same valley as the Stelvio. Initially the riders climbed the Mortirolo on the west side, from Edolo, and descended towards Mazzo down the steepest side. This did not go well. The 33 hairpin bends combined with very steep gradients caused a lot of crashes. Since then the climb officially starts in Mazzo.

Mazzo di Valtellina

Once you start the climb from Mazzo it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that many cyclists coming in the opposite direction got into trouble coming down. Even before you reach the second kilometre post you are cycling up a wall with a 15% gradient. And the bad news is, this keeps going for around two thirds of the climb. The gradient percentage stays in double figures until the final couple of kilometres—this makes for a climbing experience unlike any other. Climbing the Mortirolo is a truly unforgettable experience. But you will only enjoy it in retrospect.

All the time while you are climbing this monster, it’s more like avoiding-keeling-over than actually cycling. And if you stop moving your legs? Then you will stop dead. And if you stop, remounting is virtually out of the question. Likewise, if you pull too hard on your handlebars, or sit too far back while climbing, you will also be punished. When climbing percentages of around 20%, your front wheel can also pick up a habit of coming off the ground—and that’s not exactly helpful or enjoyable.

The higher you go up the Mortirolo, the narrower it seems to get, as the trees get more and more dense—until you suddenly pass “Il Pirata” in turn 11. This statue honouring Marco Pantani has watched over all the cyclists fighting up the climb since 2006. And while the Pantani statue gives you an extra boost in the legs, the going also gets literally easier from that point on. And strangely enough at this point a gradient of 9% suddenly feels somewhat easy. Compared with the first part, at least.

A real challenge

In short: this is a climbers’ climb. These days a lot of bikes are fitted with a compact crankset with 50-34 sprockets on the front, usually coupled with a 11-28 cassette on the rear wheel. This means your lightest gear is 34-28. The lightweight riders among us will be able to get up the Mortirolo on that gear, but even Lance Armstrong had trouble using that ratio. He rode a training ride up Mortirolo, weaving past the cyclotourists, in 2004. He called it the “toughest climb” he had ever ridden, and he wished he had had a mountain bike with him. So if you are contemplating travelling to Mazzo for this climb, you would be well advised to pack a cassette that includes a 30 or even 32-tooth sprocket (check if your derailleur cage can handle it first). Or perhaps this video’s enough for now.

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