Riding a motorcycle in the Alps is one of the most thrilling experiences you can have on two wheels. Names like Furka, Stelvio and Grossglockner are steeped in motorcycling folklore, luring us to their silky-smooth twists and turns each year.
Many of us collect Alpine passes like we collected football stickers as kids, proudly listing the exotic names of the roads we’ve conquered to anyone who will listen. But with that passion comes division. Which Alpine passes are unmissable and which should be given the cold shoulder on your next adventure is a matter for hot debate. For every lover of the Stelvio Pass’ challenging switchbacks, there seems to be a hater of its questionable road surface and popularity with tourists and Top Gear presenters.
The only way to properly judge theses roads is to ride them yourself, but with so many to choose from, this often isn’t possible on a single trip.
With that in mind, we put our heads together, argued, pleaded and eventually agreed on ABR magazine’s top 10 mountain passes in the Alps (in no particular order). We hope the list helps you navigate this spectacular corner of the world next time you’re lucky enough to ride there.
Grimsel Pass, Switzerland
The Grimsel Pass is one of three mountain roads located in close proximity to each other, along with the Furka and Susten passes. Together they offer an absolutely thrilling day of riding.
Rising 2,164m above sea level, the Grimsel Pass is an adrenalin-fuelled ride affording spectacular views if you can tear your eyes off the road.
Snowfall often leads to the Grimsel Pass closing between October and May. It’s always a good idea to check weather conditions on any Alpine pass before you ride.
The Furka Pass is perhaps the best known road on the three-pass ride thanks to its appearance in the James Bond film Goldfinger. It rises as high as 2,400m above sea level and offers a technically challenging but exhilarating ride. Blind turns, sharp bends and gradients of up to 11% will work your tyres hard and demand you have your wits about you at all times.
The Furka Pass often shuts due to snowfall and rock avalanches, so it’s best to check before you ride.
Our final road on the three-pass ride, the Susten Pass, stretches from the Reuss Valley at the foot of Gotthard Mountain, to the Hasli Valley in Bernese Oberland and Wassen Village in Canton Uri. It twists, turns and switchbacks up to an elevation of 2,264m above sea level providing yet more scintillating riding.
Heavy snowfall leads to the road being closed for much of November to January. At other times it is open daily between 8am and 6pm.
Stelvio Pass, Italy
The mighty Stelvio Pass has become a household name since it featured on an episode of Top Gear which labelled it the greatest driving road in the world. This accolade also led to notoriety and has sparked a swarm of online detractors who revel in telling you what an awful road it really is. The truth is, while the Stelvio isn’t perfect (or even the best) mountain pass in the Alps, it is still an exhilarating ride and a marvel of engineering.
Rising 1,871m from the start to its highest point (which sits at an altitude of 2,757m), the Stelvio Pass is the second highest mountain road in the Alps. France’s Col de l’Iseran is the highest, incase you were wondering, topping out at 2,770m.
Splügen Pass, Switzerland/Italy
The Splügen Pass is a favourite of ours here at ABR. If you approach from the Swiss side you’ll get to experience a superb climb up a series of 10 hairpin turns tightly wound together like a coiled spring. It borders on the ridiculous but is enormous fun and leads you towards the 2,115m crest of this brilliant road.
Once over the border, you descend into Italy along tight twists and turns and through balconies cut into the mountain side. Take in the views of the steep-sided valley below and enjoy this marvellous mountain road.
Sella Ronda, Italy
Four passes make up the magnificent 34-mile route known as the Sella Ronda – the Sella Pass, Campolongo Pass, Pordoi Pass and Gardena Pass. If you can tear your eyes away from the awe-inspiring rock faces of the Italian Dolomites, you’ll be treated to a breathtaking ride that will leave you feeling smug you made it this far east in the Alps.
The Dolomites in general provide a setting for motorcycle touring at its very best, making it one of our favourite places to ride in Europe.
Col de Tende
When we dream of Alpine passes our minds tend to conjure images of silky-smooth roads wiggling their way up imposing mountain sides. However, the Col de Tende is a spectacular ride for those who like adventures of the unpaved variety. The building of a tunnel through the mountain means the road is no longer in regular use, so us bikers get it pretty much all to ourselves.
Although unpaved, the Col de Tende is an easy ride that won’t trouble an adventure bike, even one loaded down with luggage and a pillion. For those looking to test their riding skills further, there are plenty of old military roads to explore in the area.
The Grossglockner High Alpine Road is one of the finest motorcycling roads we have ever ridden, but you’ll have to pay 26.50 Euros for the privilege of using it. Believe us when we say it is worth every cent.
With 36 hairpins and an ascent of over 2,500m, it is one of the most exciting roads in Europe and it can’t help but put a smile on your face. The scenery in this part of Austria is spectacular so make sure you pull over and soak up the views of snow-capped peaks and Alpine meadows. After all, you do want to get your money’s worth.
San Bernadino Pass, Switzerland
Fast curving bends on smoothly paved roads get you into a rhythm as you make a swift ascent of the San Bernardino Pass. At 2,065m above sea level, you’ll enjoy magnificent views of the valley below. Once at the village of San Bernardino, ensure you turn off on the old route rather than continuing on the A13. You’ll be rewarded with a collection of thrilling turns to ride, including a series of 17 hairpins.
Maloja Pass, Switzerland
If carving your way through Alpine forest up a spectacular mountainside tickles your fancy then put the Maloja Pass on your bucket list. The beautifully curving road wiggles its way up to the ski resort of St Moritz. Don’t let the almost childlike quality of the twisting road in the photo above fool you into thinking this is an easy ride.
The road climbs steeply requiring every ounce of concentration to negotiate a series of tight hairpin turns, leading to an elevation of 1,815m. It’s probably the maddest pass in the Alps, but it’s a huge amount of fun.
Top 10 mountain passes in the Alps
We hope this list provides plenty of inspiration for your next European motorcycle adventure. If you’ve ridden a mountain pass in the Alps that you think deserves to be in the top 10, please do let us know in the comments section below. And if you are lucky enough to ride any of the these magnificent roads this year, please do share your photos with us.