The ‘World’s Greatest Road’ Actually Sucks, Here Are Four Better Ones
Any road like Stelvio is amazing if you close it down. In reality, the Swiss side of Stelvio is crowded with RVs, buses, and people driving slowly. What’s also deceiving is the width. It’s so narrow. Sure, if you knew nobody was coming, you’d gun it. But you just don’t know that. And you don’t want to hit a bus at a million miles per hour or swerve off a cliff to avoid a car.
The hairpins on the Swiss side look incredible on film and from a distance, but driving them is repetitive and boring, even when you’re not in traffic. Hard right, hard left, hard right, hard left. It’s not flowing. It’s more of an engineering masterpiece than a great bit of driver’s road.
The Italian side of Stelvio redeems the boredom of the Swiss side. The scenery rocks. The road is still narrow, but you have faster corners that you can actually see around. It’s truly a hoot. It’s also perfect Cayman country. It’s a chance to push the bike, which has limits far higher than you’ll reach on a regular road.
The problem is that the road is still full painfully slow tourists checking out the views. You can’t get anything that resembles a clean run up or down the mountain unless you go at 6 AM on a weekday, and even then I doubt it’ll happen. You might string together three or four minutes of traffic free driving, but you’ll get caught again. And because the road is so narrow, you aren’t passing anyone.
If you leave the Italian side of Stelvio and head towards Switzerland, you’ll hit something called the Gotthard Pass. It’s a faster, wider road with even better scenery. It’s a test of braking and handling, which you find out when you see cars pulled over with brakes stinking like the dickens (technical term).
And at the top of the pass is a rest area with an old cobbled road, insane views, amazing lakes, and a man who serves you a bratwurst or a hamburger on a single piece of bread. It’s like a strange interpretation of heaven.
The downhill views off of Gotthard are incredible, and the way down the mountain has some hairpins, some fast turns, some straights, and some cows. It’s a melange of everything you want in a great driving road.
The base of the Gotthard Pass is also the start of the Furka Pass, which is, without a doubt, the scariest road I’ve ever driven on. The road up the mountain is unbelievable narrow. Like two Caterhams have a tough time squeezing by each other. And instead of a solid wall or guardrail, there are just these little concrete posts. I think they’re there to impale you before you fall of the cliff.
The real issue with the Furka Pass was the weather, not the road. Once you reach the top it widens out and becomes a lot of fun. But these mountains come with extreme weather, and we experienced some crazy shit on the pass.
Switzerland provided the wildest rain I’ve ever seen. Water flowed down the hill like a waterfall. Hail pelted down. Parking lots flooded. Bikers scrambled for cover. And after about 30 minutes of riding in it, it just stopped. Like God flipped a switch and said “ok, that’s enough.”
When you get through Furka, you come to a road called the Grimsel Pass. This is where things get really good. You’re no longer on the edge of a mountain where a small mistake will cost you your life. Instead, you’re on a road that was artfully drawn on the landscape. You can see the mountains, but you aren’t falling off of them.
As far as a being a road is concerned, the Grimsel Pass is amazing. Unlike the engineering exercise of Stelvio, Grimsel is roadwork art. And compared to the other three passes, it’s basically traffic free. And there are actual wide open bits to pass.
Top Gear called the Stelvio Pass the cherry on the top of the route. If anything, the Susten will make you forget Stelvio exists. You run up the hill from town through an alternating series of fast valleys and technical sharper hairpins and chicanes, all perfectly banked. I didn’t drift at all, but it’s perfect for it.