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Passo Spluga, the sublime ascent

by Stefano Tam

Leaving from Chiavenna (333m) as far as the Passo dello Spluga (2117 m), riding through hairpins bends as if bonded to the granite outcrops, on roads designed by genius Carlo Donegani in the frist half of the 19th c.

The climb to the Passo dello Spluga is an experience that every serious cyclist ought to tackle at least once. I&´ve been pedaling since I was a boy and now at the age of 30 I think I can say that I have a good number of Alpine goals under my belt. Or saddle perhaps. I have donned the jersey of the Italian national para-cycling squad, which has allowed me to travel widely throughout Europe. In short my efforts on the road in the saddle have meant I&´ve managed to see and do an awful lot.
And yet every time I set out on the climb from Bette - a mere appetizer for the slopes that will duly follow one after another all the way up Valle Spluga - I invariably experience a vague euphoria that I don&´t feel anywhere else. Maybe it&´s because this feels uniquely mine with its rare variety of landscapes that take you from the 330 metres of Chiavenna to the quasi-lunar environment of Montespluga. The stretch from Campodolcino to Pianazzo has to be my favourite: pedaling along the tapestry of hairpin bends all the way is pretty surreal. And then there is the starkness from Boffolora to the flat section which runs along the reservoir at Montespluga and the village itself. Sheer poetry. Clearly what makes the way up to the Spluga pass unique is the route itself, forever changing and transforming itself as testified in its rich history.
As for the sports side, below is a summary of the technical aspects of the ride, including altitudes, distances and things to look out for. A suggestion for anyone thinking of embarking on such an excursion: plan your departure from Chiavenna early in the morning. Not only will you avoid the heat (in summer it can be pretty intense), but you will also be able to appreciate some highly evocative panoramic perspectives, enhanced by particularly fine light. And also the possibility of sightings of roe and deer along the way. Happy pedaling to all!

The destination is one to be pinned to the chest like a medal, to be talked about together with the most famous of Alpine cycling. The Passo dello Spluga, at 2117 metres, is one of the most important passes in the Alpine arc, recognised since ancient times as a precious link between Italy and Central Europe. For lovers of two wheels it is also an extraordinary reference, made famous in more than one stage of the Giro d&´Italia.

Starting point, Chiavenna at 333 metres above sea level. Anyone arriving by car use the free car parking area in via Moro, close to the athletics track. The route is particularly demanding with very rare flat stretches and gradients of almost 9%. If you want to consider tackling it in stages, there are seven distinct sections.
First stage: San Giacomo Filippo (488 m), at 3 km from Chiavenna
Second stage: Gallivaggio (765 m), at 7 km from Chiavenna
Third stage: Campodolcino (1062 m), at 12 km from Chiavenna
Fourth stage: Pianazzo (1370 m), at 18 km from Chiavenna
Fifth stage: Boffalora (1791 m), at 22 km from Chiavenna
Sixth stage: Montespluga (1902 m), at 27 km from Chiavenna
Seventh stage: Passo dello Spluga (2117 m), at 31 km from Chiavenna
There are many phenomena that make the climb up to the Pass by bicycle unique. One above all perhaps is the stretch that connects Campodolcino to Pianazzo. The road was inaugurated in 1818, designed by the engineer Carlo Donegani. For more than a century it played a key role in the economic and commercial development of Northern Italy. In this section the road is a succession of very narrow hairpin bends, carved out of the sheer granite walls, through engineering work of extraordinary consequence. During the bike climb it&´s certainly worth taking at least one break to appreciate not just the panorama from a vertical perspective but also the magnitude and creative capacity of man to breathe life into this fine carriageway.

Many times in past issues we have told through texts and images the magnificence of the ultimate part of this particular itinerary, from Montespluga to the Pass. Today the area is highly popular with bicyclists of all types but also trekking enthusiasts, the latter for the most part occupied along the historic route of the Via Spluga. And it certainly has a particular effect taking on the final section of the SS 36 and to think that right here pilgrims and travellers have followed in each other&´s steps over the centuries as long ago as pre-Roman times. Illustrious figures amongst them, including Octavian Augustus (16-15 BC) through to Flavio Stilicone between 395 and 402. There is evidence confirming the passage of Federico Barbarossa, of Napoleon III, and Queen Victoria. And from the 16th century the Spluga carriageway became part of the focus on any number of writers, poets, painters, philosophers, musicians and scientists. We can mention Erasmus of Rotterdam, Ugo Foscolo, George Gordon Byron, Johannes Brahms, Friedrich Nietzsche, Giosuè Carducci, Italo Calvino, Arthur Conan Doyle, Albert Einstein. Each of them dedicated at least a consideration to this place. Many of which have been gathered together in Kurt Wanner&´s fine book "Spluga. Passo sublime" well worth a read. On your bike: Nowadays vast numbers set out on the conquest of the Passo Spluga, in the saddles of racing bikes, mountain bikes or pedal assisted models.
The technical development of our two-wheelers has made the route accessible to everyone whereas previously it was strictly reserved for the well-prepared athlete, requiring a lot of commitment for the toughest climbs. For anyone wishing to take up the challenge and enjoy a genuinely stimulating experience there are a number of places in Valchiavenna where bike rental is a possibility, including e-bikes. What&´s more, on many weekends in summertime the SS 36 is closed to cars along some of the most scenic sections, so the biker is free to climb up to the Pass in absolute safety without the harassment or noise of vehicles.
Stefano Tam, 30 years old, was an athlete with the Italian National Paracycling squad. Born in Villa di Chiavenna, he has practised MTB and cycling all his life. Today he runs Rock Bike in via A. Volta, 34, in Chiavenna which specialises in the sale of bicycles and accompanying support.

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