Passo Dello Spluga – The jewel in this year’s Giro d’Italia

It’s only my opinion but the Passo dello Spluga appearance in the Giro is long, long overdue. I’m not sure why the race hasn’t featured this beautiful climb before – maybe it’s too far off the beaten track on the border with Switzerland or maybe it just didn’t register on RCS’s radar until recently. Last year was its first inclusion in the Giro when they ran a trial ascent of the climb during the baby Giro – the under 23’s race. That was won by Tom Pidcock who romped away from the opposition on his way to the stage win and overall victory.

I visited the climb a few years ago when photographing imagery for the new Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs. I’d had a tip off from Mateo Cassina who owns Rouleur Magazine and Passoni Bikes that I should go and visit and photograph the climb, so I made a detour at the end of another trip to see for myself. It really is spectacular, especially from the Italian side.

Tomorrow’s stage in the Giro ascends the Passo dello Spluga from the opposite side starting in Switzerland and is the last major climb in the race. It’s a grand finale to what has been, a great race. Here we showcase the climb but from Italian side which, like all things Italian, is “bellissimo”.

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The view back down the valley towards Como

The ascent actually starts way down the valley near Lake Como but doesn’t officially start until the town of Chiavena. Here it climbs steadily past several small, picturesque towns, weaving its way up the valley for some 15km, past the lake at Pietra before it takes a sharp turn where the real climbing starts with a combination of insanely tight switchbacks and tunnels that come in quick succession.

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Some of the many tunnels and hairpins on the lower slopes

It’s hard to take in the view as trees line the route and you spend every 100m checking the hairpins for on-coming traffic. The best view is appreciated from the opposite side of the valley where you can track the road as it snakes all the way up to the hamlet of Pianazzo. This is the location for a spectacular waterfall – Cascata di Pianazzo which can only be seen from the opposite side of the valley.

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Cascata di Pianazzo waterfall

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The views open up as the trees give way to open pasture

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Another picture perfect tunnel

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The road and rugged landscape leading to the hydro dam at Stuetta

Past the Pianazzo, the gradients relax and the views open up for the next 6 km’s before the road reaches the town Stuetta and the large hydro dam that holds back the Lago di Montespluga reservoir. This staging post at 2000m feels like another world, barren and deserted, the sort of place that would make a good setting for a movie. There are numerous buildings and a church dotted around but little sign of life.

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The dam and view looking back south

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In late summer the water line of the reservoir is much lower leaving exposed rock

By the dam, the road levels out and tracks the reservoir in a large arc to the distant town of Montespluga which nestles at the base of the final part of the climb on the opposite side of the reservoir. During winter, cold winds whip down the mountain, freezing the surface of the lake. The houses in Montespluga huddle tightly together becoming cut off from both Italy and Switzerland during the winter months when the road is blocked by snow. They have learnt to be independent and self-sufficient during these months until the road opens up again.

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Low sun, late summer and the view across the reservoir to the dam

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Montespluga nestled at the base of the final ascent

The final few km’s ramp up to the border with Switzerland and you are greeted by  spectacular views north and a fine example of Swiss engineering. Here the perfectly asphalted road serpentines its way down towards Splügen in a series of 10 regimented hairpins. This side is much shorter at 8km but consequently, much steeper. It is this side the riders will have to climb in the Giro and the final categorised climb of this year’s race. Whether it provides the final launch pad for an attack by one of the GC contenders or not, it will still be a fitting end to race and cement the Passo dello Spluga as a Giro climb.

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