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Classic climb: Passo Gavia

In-depth
22 Apr 2021
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Beautiful yet daunting, the Gavia secured its notoriety on one brutal day at the Giro d’Italia in 1988

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

Wild. That’s the one word I’d use to sum up the Passo Gavia in northern Italy. Wild because of the sense that nature doesn’t really want a road up there, and wild because of that photo of Andy Hampsten in the snow. It really is the best word.

And yet, if you set out from Ponte di Legno expecting that word to define the whole 17km climb, you’d be rather perplexed after the first kilometre. In fact after 6km of wide, smooth road that has only risen at an average of 6% you might be thinking of another word. Tame.

Then, like Clark Kent removing his specs, the whole character of the road changes. One moment you’re on a hairpin with airy views of mountains and a white line down the middle of the tarmac, the next you’re on a road that’s single track with trees shutting out the light like you’ve entered a narrow tunnel. The abruptness of the metamorphosis is akin to the gravel suddenly appearing on the Colle delle Finestre.

From this point onwards you are forced to concentrate harder, initially because the road is so slender that it feels like even the briefest moment’s inattention could see you teeter over an edge.

If you encounter a car it can be a squeeze to fit both vehicles side by side, and as you pass one another the sliver of asphalt that you’re left with can feel as precarious as riding on a set of rollers on first acquaintance.

After 2km and four hairpins on this confined corridor the trees recede and although the road doesn’t gain any more breadth, there’s a sense of relief as the views open out around you and the light returns. It’s like curtains being drawn back on the ultimate picture window at the end of a hallway. Unless it’s snowing…

 

The day the big men cried

In 1988, Stage 14 of the Giro d’Italia was 120km long, which in those days seemed remarkably short for a mountain stage. But there was nothing meagre about it. The Gavia had first been a part of the Giro in 1960, but stages that included this climatically capricious pass had subsequently been cancelled in 1961 and 1984.

Many argued that it should be struck from the route in 1988 too but race director Vincenzo Torriani seemed to be of the opinion that the show must go on and if the riders suffer, well, that merely adds to the spectacle.

And while ‘suffer’ is horribly overused these days in the context of cycling, in this case it is an entirely appropriate verb. The most famous photo from the day shows US rider Hampsten with snow covering his hair and shoulders, big Oakley sunglasses looking more like ski goggles than ever as he battles up the freezing climb.

Look more closely and you’ll see that he was actually quite well prepared, with thick gloves and yellow lenses in the glasses. In other photos he has a woolly hat on (likely bought along with the gloves that morning by his 7-Eleven team, who made a dash for a ski shop when warned of the weather) and long sleeves under the thick wool Castelli blue jersey that he was thankful for wearing as leader of the combined classification.

By comparison, photos of the rider first to the top, Johan van der Velde, show the Dutchman with no gloves and bare arms. He could only look more inappropriately attired if he was pushing the pedals in flip-flops.

It’s perhaps no wonder that on the descent to Bormio, Hampsten (along with the winner of the stage, Erik Breukink, and many others) would pass Van der Velde, who actually walked back up the mountain at one point in search of anything warming. He eventually finished 47 minutes down.

Hampsten gained enough time on his rivals to slip on the maglia rosa, which he would wear all the way to Milan. But although he won the race overall, he is remembered more for his ride on Stage 14 – ‘The Day the Big Men Cried’ as La Gazzetta dello Sport christened it.

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The dark and the light

Thankfully most of us have more choice when it comes to picking a day to ride the Gavia, and if you choose well you’ll enjoy some wonderful vistas. Most of the time you’ll be looking ahead, of course, but there are some spectacular opportunities to look over the vertiginous verges back down onto the road below.

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After a flurry of hairpins the road runs relatively straight for about 3.5km but it still seems tiny, teetering like a little ledge high up on the right-hand side of the huge valley. Even if you don’t have a fear of heights, the fact you are over 2,100m high by this point may well start to take its toll on your cardiovascular system.

And then there’s the tunnel with just over 3km to go. Although there are lights inside it still feels oppressively dark and a rear light is a good idea for peace of mind. And while it’s only 500m in length it seems to last an eternity thanks to a gradient of over 9%.

 

It’s worth persevering through the darkness though because the final few kilometres to the summit are some of the most beautiful of the climb. The road is rough (although it was just dirt in 1988) and the landscape raw but there’s an untamed ruggedness that makes it feel almost timeless.

The Lago Nero appears off to the side of the road. It’s one half of a pair, the other being the Lago Bianco just beyond the summit. Legends vary but essentially they are said to represent two young lovers separated by evil.

A trio of hairpins hacked into the rock make for a steep and spectacular final flourish with precarious views back down the road you’ve just climbed. Then you turn your back on the Valle delle Messi and enter a more mellow bowl. Over the last 600m a long right-hand curve delivers you relatively gently to the liberally stickered sign at the summit.

At the top, an exceedingly good hot chocolate awaits you in the Rifugio Bonetta if you’re in need of your cockles warming. If, however, you still want more exercise you can trot up onto a ridge nearby where there is a statue of the Madonna delle Vette, the cyclists’ protector and patron saint.

Two other frozen faces stare out over the climb. One is a slightly cartoonish visage of Fausto Coppi, which might seem slightly odd as Il Campionissimo died before the climb was ever included in the Giro, however the climb has been the site of the Cima Coppi, or highest point of the Giro, seven times.

The other bust is of Torriani, the suave, chain-smoking Giro race director who first brought the Gavia into the race in 1960 and then sealed the climb’s place in history with his decision to run that stage over here on 5th June 1988.

It would be his last Giro in charge. A wild decision. A wild climb.

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