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Legends of the Giro: Gavia Big Ride

In-depth
28 May 2019
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Words Peter Stuart Photography George Marshall

Heavy snow means the famous slopes of the Gavia Pass have been axed from this year's Giro d'Italia. To make up for it, how about our Big Ride to this Italian giant.

For more information on next year's Giro course, click here.

If roads had memories, the Mortirolo Pass could tell you some stories about 1994. It was during that year’s Giro d’Italia that Italy’s favourite son, Marco Pantani, chased Miguel Indurain up its punishingly steep inclines. Pantani flew up the road, bridging to the Spaniard before dropping both him and race leader Evgeni Berzin to take the victory on the stage.

His was the fastest-ever ascent of the Mortirolo (although it would be beaten two years later by Ivan Gotti) and had the tifosi in a frenzy.

Even watching it today on a grainy YouTube video, his ability to dance up the 20% slopes is a unique spectacle, and explains why the Italian had such enigmatic appeal.

A stone statue of Pantani, accompanied by a poem, now sits near the summit and stares down at riders with a mischievous smile.

Today, on a fresh autumn morning, there are no epic battles to be fought on the Mortirolo – just us, grinding away on its vertiginous inclines.

With me is Chris, a friend from home, and we are accompanied by Daniele Schena, who owns Hotel Funivia in Bormio and is by all accounts a monster (and a gentleman) on the bike.

While we are all climbing at a fraction of Pantani’s speed, I truly believe we may be suffering as much as he did. We are still many kilometres short of his statue, hauling our bikes from side to side in a feeble attempt to keep upright.

Ahead of us is a long day with two gigantic climbs, including the Gavia Pass that will greet us immediately after we’ve tackled the Mortirolo.

My mind drifts back to a more carefree time when I was fresh-faced and relaxed, sipping an espresso – about an hour ago.

Fall and rise

The Mortirolo was supposedly discovered by the cycling world after the famous Giro of 1988, when a snow blizzard created a dramatic and treacherous ascent of the Gavia (more on that later).

The organisers found the Mortirolo as an alternative pass over the ridge of mountains for future years, should the same adverse weather strike.

We’re spared any such snowy drama as we set off from Bormio into a cool autumn morning. The sun is beaming, but our initial descent sees temperatures of around 6°C.

Although it’s cold, we enjoy a beautiful ride through the Valtellina valley, where distant snow-capped peaks lure us onwards. By the time we reach the town of Grosio, the chill has convinced us it’s time to grab a coffee and warm up.

Grosio is an historic town peppered with medieval buildings, with the ironically named Castello Nuovo dating back to the 14th century. We pull into a cafe and Daniele winces with embarrassment when I ask for a cappuccino.

He quickly corrects the barista: ‘Tre espresso!’ He tells me discreetly that it is 10am, and so already too late to order a coffee with any milk.

Aside from the Italian tradition, Daniele points out that I’m in violation of the Velominati Rules so often mentioned in this very magazine.

‘You know Rule #56? Espresso or macchiato only,’ he says. Beneath Daniele’s hotel is a cycling cafe plastered with tributes to The Rules, as well as dozens of World Champion or leaders jerseys given to him by top pros. Many of them ride here and know him well.

He reiterates how challenging the Mortirolo will be – Lance Armstrong described it as the hardest climb he’d ever done. Daniele doesn’t hesitate in berating me for bringing a standard chainset rather than a compact.

With a mixture of caffeine and anxiety in my system, it feels about time to jump back on the bike. From Grosio we have a 5km roll to the base of the Mortirolo at Mazzo di Valtellina, and as the mountain creeps ever closer I can make out the road cutting viciously into the steep green incline.

When we hit the first ramp of the 11.5km climb I stand up to meet the 15% gradient. I heave on the bars, only to realise that there won’t be respite enough to sit down again at this pace.

I slow down, sit down and jab at my Di2 button in search of a smaller gear, but I’ve long-since shifted into my easiest 39/28.

Pantani’s peak

There are four routes up the Mortirolo. We chose to start from Mazzo di Valtellina, but we could have begun the climb from Grosio for a shallower and longer ascent.

Equally, the climb can start from Edolo, where it lasts 17.2km at 7%. The other option is a similar ascent to ours, beginning from Tovo di Sant’Agata and with different opening kilometres, but every bit as steep.

The early slopes are covered with trees, which on a warmer day shields riders from the summer sun. On a day like this it means we can’t appreciate our elevation gain.

The road simply extends into a dark forest, with a certain sinister mystery. As we climb, I find myself rocking in the saddle so I can get enough leverage on the cranks to keep moving.

There aren’t many climbs where only 3km in I find myself wondering if I’ll make it to the fourth.

Daniele, for whom these roads are the local loop of choice, doesn’t seem to be finding it hard. In fact, he’s treating us to a rolling oral history of the area.

‘You see these old stone houses,’ he says pointing at the dilapidated structures that sit alongside the ascent. ‘These are old medieval farmhouses.

They used to keep the cattle in the stables below the home to generate heat,’ he says. Chris valiantly grunts in response between deep gulps of air, while I stare fixedly at my stem and struggle to keep traction on the back wheel.

The Mortirolo is a cruel climb. Indeed even its name has a morbid subtext – morte in Italian means death.

In the first 5km, stretches of 12% and higher are unrelenting, with each kilometre marked by a sign showing the average as well as the maximum. Several kilometres average 14%, with spikes of close to 20% for hundreds of metres.

Chris and I enter a silent treaty not to push on any harder than we need to in order not to topple over, while Daniele continues his slightly intimidating, albeit fascinating, tour of the local history.

We leave the forest for a moment and emerge onto a wide open face of the mountainside, revealing views of the intricate maze of villages on the opposite side of the valley.

The town of Grosio, where we stopped for coffee, now seems an awfully long way away.

We arrive at a corner that’s signposted to inform us that there are 11 more hairpins, and as we round it we are greeted by Pantani’s stone monument.

I take this as the perfect excuse to stop for a breather.

Next to his statue sits an inscription, which reads, ‘A voi Ciclista! Chiedo solo un piccolo gesto, un piccolo saluto, un piccolo pensiero.’

It means, ‘To you Cyclist! I ask only a small gesture, a small greeting, a little thought.’

As we stand, another rider overtakes us. He’s an Italian who lifts himself from a red-faced effort to look at the monument and nod. ‘Pantani!’ he mutters as he passes.

After the statue, the climb becomes a little easier – possibly because we’ve been imbued with the spirit of the legendary climber, but mostly because the gradient is significantly easier.

The climb continues to pull at our heartstrings, and live up to its grisly name when we see ‘Ciao Michele’ imprinted on the road, in tribute to the sadly departed Michele Scarponi. Daniele says he knew him well.

The final hairpins boast back-to-back 16% ramps, and after the last of them I decide to collect my final shreds of energy for a sprint for the summit.

Partly it’s simply to get the climb over with, and partly to redeem my feeble speeds on the lower slopes.

Quite remarkably, Daniele seems to not even notice, and rolls alongside me continuing to use one hand to point out and describe surrounding oddities. Chris takes up the challenge and pips me to the summit.

‘That’s another Rule,’ Daniele smiles, in appreciation of our sprinting efforts. While I feel as though we did the ascent at a respectable pace, my time of 70 minutes seems rather pitiful compared to Pantani’s 42 minute 40 second ascent in 1994.

Once we reach the summit, the road adds insult to injury by flattening out and robbing us of a view of the valley below. There will be plenty of views ahead, though, as a grander and more famous climb awaits us.

The great Gavia

The descent from the Mortirolo to Monno is steep and a little nerve-wracking. Daniele shoots down like a gliding bird, while Chris and I try to stay in sight of his rear wheel.

By the time we reach the town of Monno, the road flattens out only momentarily before we’re climbing again.

The Gavia Pass proper begins at Ponte di Legno, but the ascent begins all the way back in Edolo, and offers 40km of uninterrupted incline.

The Gavia is not much like the Mortirolo but is more similar to its close neighbour the Stelvio, winding through forest and latterly onto a bare mountaintop moonscape.

However both of today’s climbs do share very similar elevations, with the Gavia Pass rising 1,363m to the Mortirolo’s 1,278m. The extra 4km of distance does at least make the Gavia a much kinder incline, although it isn’t without its unique challenges.

We’re straight into a 9% ramp out of the town, which to be honest feels virtually flat compared to the road up the Mortirolo.

After about 20 minutes we reach a set of widely spaced hairpins, with each corner offering a more scenic view of snow capped mountains than the last.

The Gavia has a colourful history in pro cycling, and specifically in the Giro. In 1988 it hosted one of the race’s most dramatic encounters, as Andy Hampsten won his now famous Giro victory in a snowstorm of epic proportions.

Hampsten entered the stage in fifth place, riding for Team 7-Eleven. His directeur sportif, Gianni Motta, allegedly told him that the Italians had no idea how tough the ascent would be, and so he was to empty himself on the climb to make his bid for victory. And that he did.

Freezing rain turned to snow halfway up the Gavia, and Hampsten launched an attack that left race leader Franco Chioccioli and the peloton in sludgy snow-covered roads that brought the race convoy to a stop. It won Hampsten the maglia rosa, and effectively the Giro.

Tunnel vision

We’re nearing the halfway point, and the wide smooth highway has given way to a cracked single-lane track, which ramps up to 10% for 3km.

It makes for a punishing 15 minutes, but the clear view of the road ahead makes it oddly more bearable than the Mortirolo this morning.

The trees begin to disappear, giving way to barren stone and moss. We’re at around 2,300m now, 500m higher than the summit of the Mortirolo, and we’re staring at a hole in the mountain – a long tunnel that will take us most of the way to the top.

We roll into it, and in the darkness the sound of heavy breathing echoes against the stone walls. I swear I can almost make out the faint noise of a heartbeat.

Beyond the tunnel, we can see the first of the Gavia’s two mythical lakes. Lago Nero and Lago Bianco carry the legend of two ill-fated lovers, a shepherd and an orphan girl, who were cursed by an evil uncle.

The uncle enlisted the help of the devil, who chased the lovers to the top of the Gavia Pass. To escape the devil, the shepherd and orphan girl turned into lakes, now impervious to the devil’s powers, although separated by the Gavia’s peak.

A kilometre at 10% pulls us up above Lago Nero, which quickly disappears from view behind us, and then we’re at the summit, tapping towards the Rifugio Bonetta mountain cabin.

It would be a good place for a coffee, if it were open, but with the temperatures beginning to drop in the early evening, we decide not to linger here long.

On the other side of the summit we’re introduced to Lago Nero’s ill-fated lover, the Lago Bianco, glittering purple and orange in the evening light. With a 22km descent to come, we calculate that we have about as many minutes to get down before it’s pitch black.

Fortunately the descent from the Gavia is nothing like the Mortirolo. Sweeping bends and clear views ahead allow us to stay off the brakes and flow downhill. The road is empty and our only interruption comes after about 8km when we reach a closed barrier.

Daniele explains there are roadworks ahead. Lifting our bikes over the barrier, I give him a pained look as I shiver, to which he says with a smile, ‘I believe that’s another Rule. Number five, if I’m not mistaken.’

Our chilly and dramatic descent seems only fitting after a day of cycling mythology. It was on this very descent that Hampsten won the Giro.

The stage leader Johan van der Velde had only a cotton cap for warmth and became so cold that in a confused state he dismounted his bike and began to walk down the incline.

Hampsten swept past and went on to win the stage and the leader’s pink jersey.

When the lights of Bormio come into view, I feel glad to know that we won’t suffer a similar fate. We pull into Daniele’s cafe and open a beer to rinse the battery acid from our legs.

As we relax, I think back to Pantani’s statue and wonder if his myth will endure as long as Lago Nero and Bianca. Perhaps many years from now, guides will tell of the playful, petrified spirit of cycling who mocks hapless English climbers with weak legs and cursed gear ratios.

 


Double jeopardy

Follow Cyclist’s route up two mythical beasts of the Giro 

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/74gavia. Beginning in Bormio, descend the SS38 south toward Grosio.

At the town of Mazzo di Valtellina, come off the main road and follow signs for the Mortirolo Pass. Climb the Mortirolo (good luck) and descend directly over the pass down to Monno.

Here, turn left onto the SS42 towards Ponte di Legno, turning off the main road just after Pontagna to cut through Ponte de Legno. Continue onto the SP29, which is the Gavia Pass, over the summit and back down into Bormio.

 

The rider’s ride

Factor O2 Dura-Ace Di2, £7,750, factorbikes.com

I was under no illusions about the challenges of taking on these two peaks back-to-back, and I wanted a true climber’s bike. The Factor O2 was ideal, with a 740g frame and a super-light build kit headed by Shimano Dura-Ace Di2.

Sure enough, the bike that is Romain Bardet’s weapon of choice for the Grand Tours is a natural climber, with a stiff rear end that preserves the power efficiency that’s so vital while climbing.

I can’t say that I thank Factor for supplying me with a standard chainset (53/39) that made me plunge deep into the red, but to the bike’s credit it never seemed to wince beneath me.

Descending was accurate and predictable, and on pristine Italian roads the O2’s stiffness was perfectly pitched to give a feel for the road without disturbing the smoothness of the ride.

I’ve heard complaints that the one-piece bar/stem generates a little flex at the front, and if you wrench the bars up and down that’s true. But even during my biggest exertions I didn’t get the sense this really affected overall rigidity.

 

How we did it

Travel

We flew to Milan Malpensa and drove the three-hour stretch to Bormio. Public bus links are available but a car really is a must in this part of Italy.

Milan Bergamo airport is considerably closer geographically, but takes about as long to drive to. Daniele Schena of Hotel Funivia can also arrange transfers for guests.

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at the excellent Hotel Funivia (hotelfunivia.it). Owner Daniele Schena is a fanatical cyclist, who can recall any one of the Velominati Rules on command and has built a cycling-themed cafe below his hotel.

That’s accompanied by a workshop and a fleet of Pinarello Dogma rental bikes. Prices start at around £90 per night.

Thanks

Many thanks to Silvia Pasolini of the Bici Amore Mio cycling group for helping us arrange our trip. Bici Amore Mio (biciamoremio.it) has cycling hotels positioned all over Italy, and offers numerous multi-day packages.

A huge thank you to Daniele for accommodation and ride support, and thanks also to his mechanic, Paolo, who managed to fix my Di2 after I carelessly tore through a cable.