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Contributed by Steve Holmes
The magnificent and legendary passes of the Giro d’Italia
While the the cycling world (PEZ included) gets ready to turn its full gaze to Belgium this weekend, we figured this was as good of a time as any to deflect that attention for just a moment to pretty much one of the only reasons not to chant Belgium right now: the Gavia. Steve Holmes had a particularly memorable ascent of one of the most cherished climbs in cycling. Read on!
The magnificent and legendary passes of the Giro d’Italia muster passion, strength, and fear in all who endeavor to ride them. Each has their history, their geography, their weather, their scenery, their nuances even. Each is different, so remarkably different, yet they are all pathways to the sky which we all, as cyclists, strive to reach. One of these passes, the Gavia, is one steeped in history and legend, particularly among those American afficionados who fondly remember Andy Hampsten’s daring and epic ascent (and descent) in a snowstorm to secure his victory in 1988’s Giro.
So, how lucky I was to “enjoy” almost identical weather conditions when I was in northern Italy riding with some good friends while training for an upcoming stage race in Spain! On a gloriously sunny Wednesday in September, we had tackled the Stelvio from both sides, and had stayed in the town of Bormio, which is right at the base of the Stelvio.
Bormio is the ideal base for training in this part of the Italian Alps.
As luck (and geography) would have it, Bormio is at the northern end of an incredible valley soaked in cycling history. At the very top of the valley, to the north-east, lies the Stelvio and the border to Switzerland. But the massive range to the east as you approach holds two monsters — the Mortirolo, and the Gavia, both of which were on the route for the Thursday ride.
The views down into the valley from the Mortirolo are simply breathtaking, and give a frightening sense of just how steep and severe the climb is, given the altitude gained from the valley floor in a handful of kilometers.
I had picked up a cold and sore throat from my plane journey, and so I offered to drive support for the other guys as they headed south from Bormio along crisp, cold but beautiful valley roads through Valdisotto, Sondalo, and finally Grosotto, where the dreaded Mortirolo began. That, however, is another story for another time… The weather was perfect and clear at this point, the descent fast and furious, and a steady ride along the valley road on the other side from Monno put us in Ponte di Legno, with the Gavia looming into view behind the town. I parked up, got the bike out, suited up, and joined the others for espresso before we tackled what I came here for — the Passo di Gavia.
The view on the descent of the Mortirolo to Monno.
In statistical terms, the Gavia doesn’t seem that imposing. 17.3km in length (from the Ponte di Legno side—you can also climb from the Bormio side, but the route and scenery are so very different), with an average gradient of 7.9%, pitches up to 16%, and a final summit of 2621m (8,599 ft). Reasonable figures, but the climb is deceiving. After all, this is what makes it legendary.
Rolling out of the town center of Ponte di Legno, we crossed the wooden bridge across the raging Legno river (the town name literally means Bridge on the Legno), and turned left onto the Via Statale Passo Gavia.
Sunshine at the base, but the sky above the Gavia predicts a different story…
The road ran alongside the river for a kilometer or so, dropping down initially, but then gently climbing along a smooth surface with fields to the side, and an easy 4-5% grade. After a couple of kilometers, a few switchbacks wound their way around the side of the village of Pezzo, and then the road pitched up between 7% and 10% with those classic and somewhat ominous stone walls to the side of you. This was the Gavia I had seen in pictures before. This is what I came to climb.
Wide and gently curving roads, with steep stone walls to the side, define the lower kilometers of the climb.
About 5km in, the road flattens as you pass the town sign for Sant’ Apollonia, at 1584m altitude. At this point, I had decided to ride away alone to enjoy this climb quietly, humbly, and with respect. And I hadn’t ridden the Mortirolo like the others, so I had some energy in the legs! Just as you exit the town, the “official” Passo di Gavia sign greets you, and within a hundred meters or so, the switchbacks began in earnest. The first two turns were smooth and the gradient continued easily at around 8%, with a wide road and the stone wall to the side. Ironically, I saw a rather interesting graffiti slogan at this point. Ricco, in pink? I think not…
The variation—and history—of the graffiti on classic climbs is always interesting.
Then, a sharp left switchback and the road suddenly halved in width, and seemingly doubled in pitch. The road surface was like silk here, and the turns came in quick succession just a few hundred meters apart, stacked upon each other as the altitude rose quickly. Some of the corners here were 14-16%, but the smooth road and perfectly angled turns made the accelerations smooth and the pace high. What was noticeable was the deafening silence in the trees either side of the narrow road. It was easy to feel I was the only person on this entire mountain at times, which was exhilarating.
And suddenly, the true Gavia appeared. Half the width, silky smooth, surrounded by trees, and 180° switchbacks stacking up in quick succession. Tough but beautiful!
From the corners of these turns, the view back down the valley towards Sant’Apollonia and Ponte di Legno gave a good idea of the distance and height already gained. It also showed clearly the snowline on the other mountain ranges in the distance, with the cloud cover building above them.
Looking back down the valley, Ponte di Legno is far away very quickly…
The same was happening towards the top of the Gavia, and this suddenly became apparent 10km in, 7km from the summit, as I was cruising around the immaculate switchbacks and noticed snow starting to fall…
And seemingly within a few minutes, the clear view to the valley far below was suddenly filled with ever-thickening clouds and falling snow. I was amazed at just how fast the weather changed. It was sunny as we had left town just 10km beforehand… Deceptive, I believe was the word I used earlier?
The narrow road clings to the edge of the mountain, the weather closing in…
As the road continued to climb at a steady 7-9% for another 2km, with the narrow strip of smooth road surface seemingly clinging to the edge of the steep valley by the skin of its teeth, it became a race. Not against time per se, or even against my training friends, but against weather. As I forged onwards, in the valley to my left the cloud became thicker and was moving in the same direction, like it was eating the mountainside and there would be nothing left by the top.
I kept the pace, cadence, and power high, pumping the blood and keeping warm and focused—the temperature difference between Ponte di Legno and this part of the climb was striking, and with altitude still to gain, it could only get colder. If only I could beat the weather to the summit…
Within minutes, the change in the weather was incredible. Thick billowing clouds swirling with snowflakes, slowly hiding the peaks in the distance.
It was a race — me getting to the summit before this weather did!
14.5km into the climb, and the road surface suddenly began to deteriorate—gone was the smooth, modern, high-climbing-speed-inducing-tarmac. I can’t say I was surprised, given the apparent fickleness and aggression of the weather on this mountain. But it was more than rideable, and I was still turning over the 39×25 at a good clip. And then the famous Gavia tunnel was straight ahead. Now I’ve ridden through many a tunnel in Italy, the Stelvio’s included, and while most can be described as dark, or wet, or perhaps even scary, this one matched all these descriptions, and then some. Some 500 meters in length, no lights, no window-holes cut in the rock surface to the side, and with an angled turn about 100 meters from the upper end which rendered the entire tunnel into solid blackness. I’ve not asked the other guys how they felt riding into here, but I have never experienced anything like it. Riding into sheer and utter blackness with no sense of direction and, literally, no end in sight (with the end being arounda corner), I slowed down, pedaled easily, and just waited for either arm or leg to brush the side wall and hope I could stop in time.
It seemed like an eternity before a slight change to grey signaled a curve in the tunnel towards the other end, and I accelerated out of it as fast as I could. (As a side note, thankfully on the way down, the light from the top opening gets you to the gentle right curve, and after that you can see the open bottom end of the tunnel from 500 meters away. But I certainly wouldn’t want to flat in that tunnel…)
Once out of the tunnel, the landscape was suddenly barren, raw, battered. Epic.
After this, the real epic and somewhat imposing grandeur of the Gavia presented itself. The trees and greenery had gone—it was like the tunnel was a gateway to a completely different mountain! Through the snow falling sideways across the battered and broken road, barren brown and grey rocks with scattered moss and grassy patches was visible, giving an eerie and incredibly desolate feel to the approaching summit just 2km away.
Stopping on one of the switchbacks about 2km from the summit, the view back down the climb is breathtaking. The tunnel can be seen clinging to the road in the distance. The cold at this point was starting to bite. The snow was still falling sideways (I have video of it, I had to), as the final tight switchbacks presented themselves. These were the turns where the epic images of the Gavia were taken—of Hampsten in thick snow, of Merckx and Coppi forging ahead to victory (the Gavia is often the Cima Coppi—the highest point—in the Giro). And it is where I took my favorite two images of the climb.
The steep rocks sides closing in, the snow falling sideways.
My favorite image and memory of this epic climb…
The desolate and eerie feeling of the barren summit is so very apparent in this picture, and it stirred me on to accelerate harder and push faster through the final 1.5km to the summit—where the few buildings stood out against the bleak sky, knowing the end was near.
The refuge at the summit still seems far away, but the last km was a big-ring push…
Just over the summit is the small lake featured in some of the most breathtaking and emotional photography of the Gavia, with its religious statue superimposed against the freezing water and jagged summit behind. The temperature here was -1°c, and thankfully the Refugio Bonetta was open and serving hot coffee.
A couple of hundred meters past the summit, it looked so peaceful and serene. Incredible, given what was going on over the other side…
A few pictures outside by the sign (complete with icicles), and I was ready for the descent back down to Ponte di Legno to get the car, as the others bundled up and headed straight over and down to Bormio as fast as possible (their full loop of Bormio—Mortirolo—Gavia—Bormio was incredible, and I give kudos to my friend Pete for riding the entire day in his Rapha special edition Hampsten pink Giro jersey, true class).
Icicles may be hanging off the right side of the sign’s hanging roof, but it was more than worth it!
Then I had the enjoyment of driving over this epic monster, realizing as the car struggled and complained with the turns, the snow, the cold, just what an achievement climbing a prestigious and historically important mountain is, personally, emotionally, and even spiritually, for any cyclist. The weather can change, your lungs and legs may burn as the cold angry mountain tries to break your spirit. But you are a cyclist, at one with the mountain. Ride the Gavia at some point in your life—those 17.3km will humble you. Enough said.