Situated in that confusing bit of the world where you’re never quite sure if you’re in Switzerland or Italy, known more commonly as ‘the Alps’, is the Passo San Gottardo or St Gotthard’s Pass.
This magnificent mountain road has plenty to make it memorable, not least the fact that big chunks of it are covered in cobbles.
From the southern approach via the town of Airolo, the climb is 14km with an average gradient of 6.8%. Then there are a dizzying number of other approaches, which include 50km ascents that rise steadily from the valley floors to the south, south-west and north-west. Take your pick – but ensure you don’t miss the definitive section from Airolo.
So, about those cobbles. Reputedly put there to give horses and other livestock a better chance of finding firm footing as they laboured up the mountain, the small-ish granite cobbles are arranged in sections where the road is steepest. It won’t surprise you to learn that what’s good for horses isn’t terribly useful for cyclists – with the cobbled sections only serving to sap and demoralise the intrepid rider. Couple that with a staggering 38 switchbacks and you have a road that is guaranteed to leave its mark on your subconscious, one way or another.
The St Gotthard pass has featured in the Tour de Suisse more than any other climb, with almost 40 appearances in the race’s 85-year history. It was last used in 2015 as the opening climb in a mountainous stage eventually won – somewhat improbably – by Peter Sagan.
Also in the same neighbourhood are famous names like the Furka Pass and Grimselpass, making it well worth spending a few days in this part of the world. The Haute Route amateur stage race has visited the area in the past, but there are also plenty of other non-competitive tours on offer.