Often incorrectly referred to as being within the dolomite mountain range (it is in fact part of the Alps), the Passo Gavia is the ever so slightly smaller cousin of the mighty Stelvio Pass and may be climbed from either Bormio or Ponte Di Legno, if you are feeling really energetic you could climb both sides in the day for a 96km round trip, with approximately 3400m of climbing.
As a ride the Gavia is much quieter, only very slightly lower than the Stelvio (2650m compared to 2754m) and is a climb with a completely different character. By bicycle my first ever views of the high mountains were on the Col Du Galibier in 1989 and it's magnificence is etched into my mind as "first experiences" tend to be. It may just be that I was fortunate enough to have incredible weather, but the views just after the summit of the Gavia, as you begin the descent to Ponte Di Legno are the equal of (if not even more spectacular) than those from the Galibier summit. The sight of the magnificent lago nero, perched on the precipice of towering rock faces is something to which no photo could do justice, immense!
The climb from Bormio is the less difficult (so says the guide book) of the two and although longer has some periods of respite separated by very challenging sections of gradient that touch 14% in places. The first part is a series of 10% ramps punctuated by flat sections that make finding your rhythm a little difficult. The road continues like this until the beautiful village of Santa Caterina where you enter the tree cover, the road narrows and so begins a long challenging section of stunning road that twists and turns it's way up the side of the mountain. This is the most challenging part of this side of the Gavia and as you gain altitude the road begins to deteriorate. Ramps well above 10% are the norm here and thank goodness for the views as climbing on a road surface this bad might otherwise seem horrible. 4km from the summit you hit a flat open section of road, be warned, almost everyone thinks the climbing is done but a nasty section of 8% for around 1.5km still lies ahead. The summit is in fact very easy to spot (once you finally get there), you pass the gorgeous lago bianco and a few hundred metres later you are done, right outside the delightfully welcoming Refugio Bonetta. 25km at 6.8%, no mean feat.
Should you be brave (or silly) enough to continue on (tempting to head straight back to Bormio as the descent on that side is one of the best in Europe) and tackle the descent to Ponte Di Legno you will be blown away by the view that confronts you just after the 3rd hairpin from the top. There may not be a more spell-binding sight in the Alps than that of the mighty Lago Nero. It sits at around 2520m above sea level and is perched precariously on the side of a mountain, at it's far shoreline there appears to be a freefall to the valley floor some 1300m below, it is extraordinary!
As this post is mostly about the climb, I will skip the boring details (NOT) of this descent. Enough for me to say that I cannot remember the previous time I smiled, uninterrupted, for 30 minutes.
The road to the Gavia summit from Ponte Di Legno is etched into cycling folklore. It is the scene of Andy Hampstens epic ride to claim the 1988 Giro d'Italia on a day where blizzards cut the field to shreds and caused the abandonment of almost half the field. The day I climbed was the polar opposite, bright sunshine, almost no wind, the cycling gods seemed happy this day......sorry Andy.
At almost 18km, with an average gradient of 8.2%, the Gavia (from this side) is one of Italy's most feared climbs and more difficult (in my opinion) than the oft lauded Alpe d'Huez in France. The first 6km are very manageable (even with the Bormio climb in your legs) but I was not fooled. Even in a fatigue-induced haze, my maths was good enough to work out that if the average gradient was 8.2% and the first 6km were only 5.5%, I was in trouble. At about the 7km mark, trouble showed itself! It is here that you commence a section of wonderful contradiction, very steep ramps (up to 17%) - OUCH - on a magical VERY narrow road with a silky smooth surface and beautifully cambered hairpin bends - WOW!
The final 9km of the Gavia averages 9.7% and there is no escaping the fact that it is brutishly difficult. But despite this (and the fatigue I was feeling by this point), the charge you feel is a bit spiritual and progress seems more easily made than it should. I have no explanation for it, but climbing in the high mountains give one a tangible sense of extra power, if you are doubtful then try it, something is there and you will be thankful it is.
After the bends, the road hugs the giant rock face that forms one side of this most majestic valley. The views take you away, legs scream more quietly and you just lose yourself in the moment. This is the hardest part of the Gavia, but like I said, a climb of contradiction. Once you pass through the one tunnel on this side (it is dark, cold and steep in there) you are 3.5km at 10% from the top and this next section of road surface is the worst I have seen the the mountains of Europe. But it does not matter.
The final km is only at 5% and you can feel the refuge drawing you in quite quickly. And all of a sudden there it is. Stand by now, did I mention that the descent back down to Bormio is one of the most exhilarating in all of the Alps?
The Passo Gavia, once in Bormio, do it twice!
Brian Bubba Cooke
Exercise Physiologist, coach & cycling tragic for 30 years. Love the freedom, reward and sense of achievement that one can only experience in our amazing sport.