It’s late afternoon and we’ve been pedalling since early morning. Fatigue is beginning to set in. We’re three quarters of the way up now, the road is steep, and despite being almost 1,500 metres above sea level, it’s quite hot for June.
On the cassette, there’s only one gear left to lighten the load and the time has come to use it. Our legs are empty, our water bottles nearly finished too. We’re riding up the Sengio switchbacks in the Spluga Valley, near Madesimo, one of the most fascinating roads in the Alps. Only a few days ago, the Giro d'Italia peloton headed up these same hairpin bends in the race’s decisive stage. Today, we are the only ones on bikes, immersed in the silence.
After a whole day in the saddle, there are still a few uphill kilometres to go until we arrive at our hut on the Andossi Plateau. Cycling around here is like that: unless you stick to the shoreline of the Montespluga lake, every road either goes up or down. It’s a paradise for climbers. We ride in and out of the tunnels, enjoying their coolness, the panorama and the dizzying void that lies just beyond the guardrail. Is this a road? Or an applied engineering exercise? A playground for cycling? All three, probably.
The Spluga Pass isn’t as famous or popular as many other great neighbouring climbs, but it’s a real gem. The landscape is full of delicate colours: trees and meadows with leaves of all shades of green, greyish rocks, tunnels black as night, blue skies and dizzying waterfalls. But the most astounding feature is the road.
Monuments are everywhere in Italy, in every city, every town square. Some, such as Michelangelo's Pietà or Donatello's David, can only be admired from a distance, from beneath a pedestal looking upwards, always just out of reach. The Strada del Sengio, on the other hand, designed by Carlo Donegani (keep that name in mind) is a monument to engineering genius on which you can ride. Cycling up these hairpin bends, passing in and out of the rocks, is pure enjoyment.
The steep and rugged route up leads to Pianazzo, not far from the Madesimo-Spluga Pass junction. In the final stretch beyond the tree line, at the top, the road is totally exposed, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on which lovers of ski mountaineering are still busy with spring excursions. In fact, we did one the day before our ride, to Piz Tambó, at 3,279 metres. That might be why our legs feel so heavy.
The road is a real spectacle. From the bottom of the valley, it looks like an impassable obstacle. Towards the top, the rocks form a terrace, shaped by glaciers. The hamlet of Pianazzo sits here, the waters of the Scalcoggia river plummeting 180 metres into the void off it. Back in 1834, it was the disastrous flood of another nearby river, the Liro, that convinced the aforementioned Carlo Donegani to take this road out of the valley in favour of a more daring layout of tunnels and overhangs that climbs more than 300 metres in less than five kilometres.
For millennia, the Spluga Pass had been the main axis in north-south communications, between the Po Valley and the centre of Europe. The history of this path through the valley begins with the earliest hunters of the Mesolithic era, in 6,000 BC. In medieval times, the old Roman roads served as routes of religious pilgrimage to the first Christian monasteries and sanctuaries. In those days, there were two passes used to get to Milan from southern Switzerland: the Spluga and the Septimer.
In 1714, a new route was found for the Spluga road, through the Cardinello gorge, but it soon proved unsuitable for increasingly intense commercial traffic. The track was precarious, cut into the fragile, crumbly rock and supported by high stone walls on the overhanging side.
Napoleon's army brought an end to Grison control in 1797, returning the region to the Kingdom of Italy. At that point, a reliable passage through the Alps was essential to guarantee commercial and military transport. Wide, accessible roads were needed, not the narrow mule paths that had been content to follow the contours of the landscape, but rather feats of engineering that would overcome the rough, uneven terrain. And it is at this point that Carlo Donegani, the genius of high-mountain road building, comes into play.
A young man at the time, Donegani oversaw construction of the new commercial road between 1818 and 1823, along a completely new route, the one on which we lovers of cycling ride today.
The Swiss wanted the road to be at least three metres wide but Donegani committed to making it on average five metres wide, except for certain areas where it was necessary to carve directly into the rock. The huge undertaking was completed in just three years thanks to the efforts of 220 masons, 60 miners, 22 carpenters and an unknown quantity of stonecutters.
In addition to Donegani's genius, the new road ushered in a sea change in road construction. Whereas alpine routes had previously followed the landscape, they suddenly became great works of engineering. We stopped thinking of a road as something in conflict with nature and started to imagine it as an architectural construction, capable of overcoming obstacles such as streams, cliffs or steep gradients. It is with this in mind that the Spluga’s elevated hairpin bends, tunnels and long parallel straights that work together to overcome large differences in height, were first imagined.
A road is a stretch of identifiable, demarcated, shared space that creates a link between human settlements. It allows the passage of people, goods, information and culture, but it can also be something even more sophisticated and precious. After all, it is not just a place of transit. It is the result of human thought, an effort to read and understand the chaotic, wild nature of the surrounding environment and overcome it with the rationality of mathematics and geometry.
After all, the hairpin bend is not a natural line of passage, but rather, the result of evolved thought. Even riding these bends by bike, the back and forth required to overcome the elevation, is a sort of leap of faith. Maybe it’s precisely that abandonment of logic that we enjoy.
In addition to the Spluga Pass, Carlo Donegani also left us the Passo dello Stelvio, constructed between 1822 and 1825. His work showed us that great engineering can, and in fact must, respect the surrounding environment and fit into it without distorting or modifying it profoundly. In this sense, he can be considered a pioneer of both sustainability and architectural integration.
Cycling through this valley, you’re constantly experiencing the sensation of travelling, a sense of departure, but also arrival. Coming to Madesimo by bicycle along the Sengio, which is closed to car traffic on summer weekends, or sitting in the shade of a road inspector’s house, means enjoying a simple pleasure: that of pedalling on an ancient road which is a space for meeting, union, joy. In terms of mobility, have you ever heard of anything more futuristic and revolutionary? And this was something built 200 years ago. Mille grazie, Carlo Donegani.
The two sides of the Spluga
On the hairpin bends of the Spluga Pass, first on the Swiss side and then the stretch of the Sengio from Campodolcino to Alpe di Motta, Damiano Caruso seized his first ever Grand Tour podium with a great leap of faith. Millions of fans around the world tuned in to see images of this truly unmissable climb on stage 20 of the 2021 Giro d’Italia. It was the first time that many had heard about the Spluga, an ascent that has always been a little bit out of the way, compared to Italy’s better-known cycling destinations, such as Bormio or the Dolomites. After seeing that footage, many will have promised themselves that they’ll ride it the next time they’re in Italy.
The classic climb starts in Chiavenna and is 36 kilometres long, gaining 1,742 metres in altitude, while from Splügen and the Swiss side, it’s much shorter, just nine kilometres. A good day out would be to combine the two climbs, with the ascent of Starleggia, above Campodolcino, where you’ll find incredible views of the Spluga Valley and the Sengio stretch.
Or you could pedal up from Campodolcino to Alpe di Motta, the very last climb of this year’s Giro. Another option would be to start from Chiavenna, climb and descend the Spluga Pass in the direction of Viamala and Thusis, followed by the Albula Pass, the Julier Pass and the Maloja Pass, in a clockwise direction, returning to Chiavenna. All in all, a classic ride of 165km and 3,750 metres of climbing, surely giving some unforgettable cycling memories.
The old rules are no more: the lines between tarmac and off-road riding have blurred, and the Passoni Cicloprato is a case in point. The Cicloprato, handcrafted in Passoni’s workshop near Milan, brings traditional road bike building expertise with the latest titanium technology to deliver a bike that promises to do it all. And do it all very well in the process.
At the heart of the Cicloprato is an ultra-stiff oversized 44mm bi-oval downtube. Created from the highest quality Grade 9 titanium, and matched to 35mm top and seat tubes, the frame’s chunky tubes converge at an oversized PF30 bottom bracket shell. This wide, rigid platform ensures the Cicloprato has the efficient power transfer Passoni is renowned for. At the same time, though, the frame delivers excellent comfort when the terrain becomes more challenging — aided by the wide and supple Vittoria Terreno Wet 38mm tyres.
It felt at home on the highest road climbs of the Alps, but equally in its element on the most demanding gravel trails. The Cicloprato can be built for electronic or mechanical cables, and ours was perfectly complemented by a Campagnolo Ekar 13-speed groupset, which had the ideal range for the terrain we took on. If you happen to have a true adventure in your sights, it can also be made with additional luggage mounts on the top tube, alongside supplementary fixings for an extra water bottle on the underside of the downtube.
As the old saying goes, a titanium bike is a partner for life. But with disc brakes, 650B wheels compatibility and all the tyre clearance we could dream of, this Passoni is also virtually futureproof. So for our part, we’d be happy to settle down in a little house in the country with the Cicloprato.