Joust of the Italian giants: Stelvio vs Finestre

Two extraordinary ascents in the Italian Alps, each unique in their character, but there can be only one winner

Passo dello Stelvio

The second highest pass in the Alps, with its summit lined with snow for pretty much 365 days of the year, there are few roads on the planet that match the Stelvio for sheer in-your-face drama.

It took the Austrian Empire five years to build, and before it hosted bike races, it had huge strategic importance when the border was still in flux. Its inaugural inclusion in the Giro d’Italia came in 1953 and fittingly it was the great Fausto Coppi who reached the summit first.

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Passo dello Stelvio (Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Since that day, the organisers have placed it on the route a further 12 times.

It is, however, always a gamble pitching mortal man against the power and unpredictability of Mother Nature at such high altitude.

In 1965, the stage was shortened by 800 metres due to an avalanche which resulted in riders carrying their bikes over piles of snow like Arctic adventurers.

In 1988 and 2013, the stage had to be cancelled altogether such were the conditions at the top, and in 2014, the rain and snow falling at over 2,700m had the riders near hypothermic as they reached the summit, having to be helped into their jackets. Regardless of this, the race will keep going back and so will thousands of tourists, because riding the Stelvio has to be on the bucket list of all cyclists.

Passo dello Stelvio vs Colle delle Finestre

Best tackled from Prato Allo Stelvio in the north, over its 25 jaw-dropping kilometres you’ll tackle 48 hairpin bends via some of the most impressive road building you’ll ever see.

Colle delle Finestre

Part mountain climb, part living museum, the Colle delle Finestre is more than just a mountain pass, it’s a monument to the early days of Grand Tour cycling.

Measuring 18.6km from base to summit, it’s the final eight that draw riders from far and wide as they have been left unpaved as a simple gravel track, just like all the grand passes once were.

From the moment the Giro organisers took the bold step to include it in the parcours of the race in 2005, it became an instant hit as it takes the theatre of a standard mountain pass and turns the drama up to 11.

The lower slopes, packed with a plethora of hairpins weaving through the forest, would be enough to make it a star alone, but it’s the unpaved part everyone really comes for, which is best ridden before or after the Giro has taken place as the heavy traffic compounds the fine grey dirt, making it a touch easier.

Chris Froome on stage 19 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia (Luca Bettini/AFP via Getty Images)

Built by the military to transport cannons, the gradient is even throughout and never too harsh, but when you hit the gravel it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

After just three visits from the Giro, it was already a classic when, in 2018, it became the scene for the most audacious attack by a rider in modern times. Languishing in fourth place, 3-22 behind the race leader Simon Yates, Chris Froome launched himself up the road on the Finestre’s gravel slopes to start a legendary 80km solo ride to victory, cementing his and the climb’s place in the annals of history.

Verdict

As much as the Stelvio is a total legend, for a cycling experience you will never forget, the win goes to the Finestre.