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Cycling's best climbs: Italy's Passo Giau

24 May 2021

With bad weather causing drastic route changes to Stage 16 of the 2021 Giro d'Italia, today's race will be all about just one climb, the Passo Giau.

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

The Passo Giau is not a climb to start from the bottom. I don’t mean that you should start halfway up, but rather that you should start some way from the base of the climb near Selva di Cadore. Give yourself a run at it. Warm the legs, open up the lungs. Don’t do what I did.

You see, for most of the climbs in this series, logistics mean that I simply set off at the base. Bang – straight into the gradient.

Almost like an intimidating first date: no preamble, no drink at the bar, just, ‘How many children do you envisage having and what’s your salary?’

On climbs such as the Tre Cime di Laveredo, this approach can make things uncomfortable at first, but then the gradient will ease a little to let you recover and regroup.

Sometimes, blissfully, the climb will even have a mild incline at the outset, perhaps wending a way through some meadows, such as on the Col d’Izoard.

This allows a chance to spin freely before the hard work begins, and if you’re lucky you even get some shade to shield you from the sun’s glare as you ascend.

None of this applies to the Giau. Unrelenting is probably the best description of this 9.5km climb in the Dolomites. And that’s not unrelenting at a manageable 6% or 7%, but rather unrelenting between 9% and 10%.

Alright, there is a very brief dip to just below 8%, but that’s not really a rest – it’s more a case of finding a slightly smoother piece of wall to bang your head against.

But there’s a reason the harder southern side of the Giau is the more famous: its setting is just so distractingly beautiful.

The turning off the SP251 onto the SP638 feels like the natural start to the climb, and instantly it’s picture-postcard stuff.

The Codalonga river runs next to and sometimes underneath the road as you begin the ascent. It’s not just a measly trickle, either – it has stunning miniature waterfalls along its course that make the water foam as it tumbles downwards.

Tall pine trees populate this lower landscape too, but not so densely as to obscure all views. In fact on a clear day you can see the distant peak of the Averau, a huge, pale loaf of rock standing proudly against the blue sky like a lone tooth in a mouth.

Climb by numbers

The climb’s 29 corners are numbered, which is depressing or encouraging depending on your state of mind and the sensations in your legs as you tick them off. What’s always motivating, though, is being able to see where you’ve been.

The tightly twisting nature of the Giau means you can look back down on the hairpins you’ve just ascended, rather than simply worry about what’s to come.

If it’s hot there’s also some respite in the form of the cool darkness of the avalanche tunnels. To me these are the best type of tunnels, as they offer a welcome drop in temperature but still let in natural light thanks to being open on one side, giving you a regular gallery of windows through which to frame mental snapshots of the mountain view as you ride.

Apart from the views, wondering for the umpteenth time if this really is my lowest gear and thinking about just how good it’s going to feel replacing the missing calories, I find the other common subject to mull over when climbing is the history of the climb I’m on.

I’d automatically taken the Giau for one of the bastions of Giro folklore, a climb that surely Binda, Bartali and Coppi all scaled on their way to a maglia rosa or three. But that’s not the case.

The Giau wasn’t included in the Giro until the race’s 56th edition in 1973, when Eddy Merckx won the fourth of his five titles, in so doing completing the first ever Vuelta/Giro double.

You can still watch the peloton grinding (the cadences do look remarkably slow by modern standards) up the climb in the wonderful, wistful Jorgen Leth film Stars And Watercarriers.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Giau wasn’t included again for another 16 years, although this might have something to do with the fact that it was only given a layer of tarmac for the first time in 1986.

The reason for it being left as gravel for so long is that, despite being a pass, the Giau isn’t actually the best way to traverse these mountains: if you want to travel southwest from Cortina d’Ampezzo the neighbouring, far less steep, Passo Falzarego is a more practical option.

Passo master

Of course, steep is generally considered good when it comes to bicycle races and so the Giau was back on the Grand Tour menu in 1989, when Laurent Fignon crossed it on his way to his sole Giro win.

The Professor would have a rather different experience when the Giau was included for a third time in 1992, the ponytailed Frenchman losing half an hour on the climb as he battled against the weather and hypoglycaemia.

It would be another 15 years before the Giau appeared again, in 2007, although it has popped up more regularly since then.

The Giau has yet to be bestowed with a summit finish, and when you hit the last couple of kilometres you’ll wonder why.

A big left-hand hairpin (number 24) about 1,800m from the top brings you conclusively into the grassy upland amphitheatre that cradles the summit, and you couldn’t wish for a more dramatic setting for a final, televised dash to a line.

As you round the bend and see the full majesty of Mount Nuvolau astride the ridge it spurs you on to tackle the final few bends that average over 10%.

And if the mountain is hidden from view by the weather there is always the incentive of food from the Berghotel on one side of the road or the possibility of a divine welcome on the other side in the beautiful little church of Giovanni Gualberto (patron saint of foresters, park rangers and parks).

In Vietnamese, Giàu means rich, and although there’s no real translation for the Italian, even without the accent, rich is a fitting description.

It might not be the longest or, as it turns out, the most historic climb you ever take on, but it packs so much scenery and altitude into its sub-10km length that it’s well worth the effort it takes to get to the top.

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