Passo dell Gavia
  Posted December 12th, 2014 by Zdenko  in Cycling | 2 comments


Words and Pictures by: Zdenko Kahlina

Climbing Italian Alps, Second day Friday, Friday July 20, 2007
A cyclist himself, Zdenko Kahlina (EMCC member) who lives in Edmonton (Canada) recently took his first cycling trip to Italy to climb some high mountains very often included in the Giro d’ Italia. He chronicled his experiences traveling with his bike and his buddies. He chose Bormio area in Italy (Lombardy) as his base. We should all do this… soon. Day 2: Climbing Passo dell Gavia (2,621 m)
Friday, July 20th was another clear, bright and promised a warm day. It was our second day in Grosio and today we had planned to climb Passo dell Gavia. Our legs still hurt from the previous day’s climbing to the top of Passo del Stelvio. Some one from the group said yesterday thinking of Stelvio: “There can’t be a more difficult climb in the world”, and I was thinking (but didn’t want to say it than) “wait until you see Gavia!” And I was right. 


Gavia is like Mt. Everest to cyclists. Some cyclists say, that the Gavia climb, although steep, has always been an “easy” climb because it is so scenic and so “civilized”. Its steepness is always balanced by easier sections that seem to come along just when you want them. Its warnings also seem more severe than the terrain suggests.

The Gavia is an important pass in the Giro d’Italia – for good reason. Champions have been crowned here. They also called it “Cima Coppi” (status awarded to the highest mountain in the Giro). Ivan Gotti attacked on the Gavia en route to victory in Milan. American Andy Hampsten etched his name in cycling history by defending his Maglia Rosa here as a punishing blizzard dumped snow on the harsh slopes of the Gavia. You can still see photos of Andy, pink jersey covered by an inch of snow, in the café-bar at the 2,621m summit. But if you plan to ride to the top, hope for better weather than the brave American had or there’s a good chance you’ll never reach the summit…
Just like yesterday, our plan was to get into the cars and drive from Grosio, over the top of the famous Mortirolo climb all the way to Ponte de Legno, small village on the main SS42 road. Once there we would unload the bikes and climb the Gavia from the eastern side.

At the breakfast atmosphere was good and it looked like everybody was ready for another day of climbing. We loaded the cars with the bikes and left our hotel parking lot at 9:00 AM.

Route with car: Grosio – Passo di Mortirolo – Svincolo – Monno -Stadolina – Vione – Temu – Ponte de Legno  (41 km).

We rode in our cars over the Mortirolo climb and through Ponte di Legno (1,258m), where the Passo Tonale (1,883m) heads south. The Passo di Mortirolo is a small road that doesn’t even appear on many maps. Technically it is the Passo di Foppa, the true Mortirolo pass being a rough crossing to the north-east – but all the road signs are for the Mortirolo. Mortirolo is a little turning on the right about 5 K out of Tirano on the Bormio road; very twisty and narrow road. Mortirolo is a vertical face with a summit concealed by clouds. It cannot easily be climbed by foot. It is definitely not a place for the weak. We were all glad that we didn’t decide to go over the Mortirolo with our bikes. Incredible climb..

Few kilometers before Ponte di Legno, we found a nice parking spot by the main road where we stopped our cars. It was again time to be serious and get ready for the bike ride. Around 10:30 we were ready for another day in the saddle and off we went up the hill to the Passo di Gavia (2,621m).

img_0947And off we went up the hill to the Passo di Gavia.

Cycling Route: Ponte de Legno – Pezzo – Passo del Gavia -  Bormio – Sondalo – Grosio  75 km

The climb begins slowly enough, but gains altitude quickly after Pezzo, where an array of signs warns that the road is narrow and twisty, that it lacks guard rails, that the surface may be frozen or blocked by avalanches, that one should proceed with caution and that chains are mandatory from September 1 to July 15. Well then! The gradient is quite easy in the first 5 kilometres, until they reach a bunch of buildings going under the name of Santa Apollonia (1500m asl). That’s where the “real” Gavia kicks off. That’s where the road gets narrow and the asphalt surface worse (but don’t whine about it, please. Until a couple decades ago, there was no asphalt either over much of the ascent!).

That’s where you can see that damn road sign telling you the gradient is somewhere around16% (and it’s going up to a maximum of 19% soon). And that’s where you may enjoy a magnificent landscape (you just entered the Stelvio National Park, after all).

100_5620The first 16% stretch on Passo di Gavia and very narrow road.

 After two harsh switchbacks in the alpine forest, the road gave me a brief look down into the valley. So it’s a tortuous and narrow road with little protection from going over the side. Just like yesterday, early on, Danijel set high pace up the mountain and he left us all behind. I followed Kreso who seemed to be the strongest, and than when he started to fade, I took off and went after Danijel.

The climb initially offers few glimpses of the valley below as the narrow road climbs through the trees. Part way up the climb and the road steepens from steep – ya gotta go deep. I found myself looking for more gear as I bogged and slogged in the 34X27. 


The road eases a little (say little…) as it emerges above the tree line. The view is spectacular – if you like hanging off the edge of suspension bridges. To the left is a HUUUUGE drop to the valley below. There are no fences here but lots of little wooden crosses serve as reminders of where the road has claimed its victims. I found myself hugging the right shoulder…

On a day we were there, there were lots of cyclists and bikers coming down on this side of the mountain. Traffic was intense and our support vehicles had lots of difficulties driving behind us. More than few times they had nowhere to go but to backup a little until they found wider road to allow oncoming traffic go thru.

100_5616The steepest section of Gavia.. 19%! It is smart to have 34 x 27 here!

 Ahead and up was a massive snowfield. You can just make out a small ribbon of road winding off in the distance. It’s enough to make you turn back so you look down and suffer like a pig, sweat dripping off your chin like a prune in a Finnish sauna in the near freezing temperatures. The rugged beauty is deceptive – the mountain refuggio far below serves as a reminder that this is no OLN adventure – this is you, a bike, some wooden crosses and the cycling gods.

 p1040097Danijel set the pace for a long time..

 Just a few km’s before the top and there is a lonnnng galleria – an avalanche tunnel with no lights. With your pupils welded shut from the alpine rays reflecting off the snow for the past hour, passing through the lengthy tunnel is a journey through the dark side… this was THE most difficult part of this climb.

100_3691With the help from an unknown Lampre rider, I was ahead as Danijel finally couldn’t follow any more..

 I don’t have much experience with tunnels, so this was new stuff. It wasn’t overly long, but it climbed the whole way through, and at about the middle of it, there was only a tiny speck of light to be seen at the end of it. The light always seemed to recede further and further away, at one point I looked down and I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t see my hands or my legs. It was the eeriest feeling, but like everything on the climb, it was wonderful. I don’t even know how to describe the feeling, it felt like I wasn’t attached to a body anymore, yeah, I know, funny how that works when you can’t see your own body. Seriously, it just felt so incredibly weird, almost like flying.

p1040105A little help from the car makes a difference..

 Above tree line the climb became truly spectacular as rays of sun broke through the clouds and lit up the mountain side. But the top of the mountain was hidden by clouds, and we covered the last couple of kilometers enveloped by milky whiteness and some very cold wind. Some of us barely “hanging” (see previous picture!).

Soon after you are out of the tunnel …you get a warm welcome by another part of the ascent at a 15-16% gradient., and it was around here that I saw his name. Pantani’s name was still painted in the road, it looked almost ancient. The road had chipped away in certain places, but it was still there, the yellow letters with the big P, it was still there.   


p1040126A happy face at the end..

 And finally I could see the top of the mountain. The top of the Gavia cuts through a saddle in the mountains, and we could all feel that cold wind coming down the mountain. I made it to the top in 1 hour and 32 minutes (16 Km). This time discribes the mountain, better than I can..

p1040132Passo di Gavia – bella, dura, magnifico!!!

We spent some time at the Rifugio Bonetta on the summit, warming ourselves with beer (!) and admiring the many cycling photos on the walls. Most other cyclists grab a quick espresso, a photo and emerge into a sudden blizzard. There is no Club Med atop the Passo di Gavia. It’s hammer time.

We looked at the photos of Andy – his story of courage immortalized on these high peaks. You see the tifosi handing out newspapers to the suffering riders – shivering in the storm as they seek faith and courage for the bone-chilling descent. We were all impressed with the photo of a Croatian cyclist Vladimir Miholjevic who was first on Gavia in 2004 Giro d’ Italia. These are all the legends of the Gavia.

100_5657Brothers at the top of Gavia, getting ready for the downhill ride to Bormio..

 We descended under light clouds with great visibility along the high valley where the glacier covered peaks of the Ortler, Gran Zebru, and neighbors showed off their fresh snow. The descent was cold but exhilarating, and as we dropped below the cloud cover we caught a beautiful sunset over Valfurva.

You can wear out a pair of break blocks descending this midway thriller so bring some spares – it’s worth it!!! After Santa Caterina (1,780m), we rolled down the long swift straight sections against a light breeze and stopped in warm Bormio.

We arrived in Bormio at dusk after a long and very fast descent, with peaks above 85Km/h. Now it was time to look for a good food in a nice restaurant. We almost settled for sandwiches in a bar Capriccio, when little Ivan Lojen said:”I am not eating this s**t!”. Because we always listen our kids, we searched some more and finally found a decent place where we had a real food and a good lunch.

Back To Reality
The whole way up both the mountains, I just felt like I was riding in the paths of the great ones, and just thinking about how they followed the same path just made an already perfect climb that much more special. Pantani’s name just seems like it belongs on those great climbs. That man climbing was just as someone described it: flying.

It was beautiful and special. It was one of those times that you know you’ll never forget and that it was so perfectly amazing in some fundamental way, and yet I can’t wholly explain why.  
Am I overreacting a bit? You might think so. Am I exaggerating? You might think so. But the last two days were just one of those perfect days when every piece of the big puzzle just sort of fits together and perfection ensues. I know I can’t ride the Gavia every day, but I can take that ethereal feeling of perfect peace with me. I know I will, and I will dream about it for the rest of my life. If you truly love to ride your bike, there is no way humanly possible that you could ride the Gavia and not finish your day feeling completely refreshed, almost new.
And after spending two beautiful days of shameless indulgence it was time to check back into reality. We continued our vacation with the trip to Croatia, visiting the island of Losinj. There we were to meet more buddies and cycling enthusiasts who could hardly wait for our arrival to hear the stories, while drinking cold beer on the hotel terrace. But this is a story for some other time.  

Have a good and healthy season.

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2 comments to “Passo dell Gavia”

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