Three days in the Alps with Eros, Part II
As Maria and Kevin had never cycled any high Alpine passes it was with great anticipation that we arrived at the base of the Gavia pass in Ponte di Legno after an easy three hour transfer in Eros’ van from Verona. The weather didn’t disappoint: Sunny blue skies in the upper 70’s, in other words a perfect day for riding. The route was simple: We would ascend the Gavia from Ponte di Legno (the route made famous by Andy Hampsten during the 1988 Giro) and descend into the ski town of Bormio where we would be staying for the next two nights.
The climb up the Gavia from Ponte di Legno begins innocently enough as it more or less gently ascends for the first four or five kilometers. After a winter of telling Kevin and Maria how tough the climbs were going to be you couldn’t blame them for feeling that I had perhaps oversold the difficulty rating of this classic. I kept getting a few “Is this the climb?” questions from them. Patience my friends. It’s coming.
And then boom. You round a big sweeping hairpin turn and any thoughts about the ease of the climb are completely erased as the road suddenly narrows from two lanes down to less than one and shoots straight up. And if that isn’t enough there are also all manners of warning signs and a red and white striped pole positioned to close off the pass during adverse weather conditions.
|There is no mistaking the start of the climb. UP.UP. UP.|
The Gavia is one of my favorite climbs anywhere: it’s challenging, incredibly scenic and features a road that is literally one lane in width the entire way up. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate introduction into the Alps than that climb.
|Steep narrow alpine roads with views that go on forever.|
My friend Kevin, all 128 pounds of him, a climbing ace and Ironman triathlete, quickly found his rhythm and took off spinning his way up belying the steepness of the grade. We weren’t ten minutes into the climb when Eros re-named Kevin “Marco” as in Marco Pantani (a friend of Eros’). It was a nickname that Kevin wore with pride for the rest of the trip sometimes with unintended humorous consequences. Kevin’s wife couldn’t understand why her husband was now “Marco” but better yet on those very few occasions that Kevin was riding behind us Eros would start in about how Pantani never “sucked my wheel” or that Pantani must be “sick today” causing Kevin to react and pull through to the front…but all in good fun.
|Formerly a dirt road the Gavia Pass now features a beautifully maintained road that resembles a bike path.|
We all had that “new bike” feeling with our Pinarellos and coupled with the spectacular scenery and the first day high of riding in the mountains found ourselves on good form and were able to ride in a tight group most of the way up.
|Blue skies, snow capped mountains, steep turns, this is the Gavia.|
|Old style “guardrails.” Notice the missing ones? Ouch!|
The climb continues upwards at a steady grade through green Alpine pastures. Make no mistake, it is steep but not leg breaking and as mentally challenging as we would find on the Mortirolo a few days later.
About five kilometers from the summit you encounter the sole tunnel on the climb that runs adjacent to the old road that hugs the side of a cliff and made famous in a photo of Jobst Brandt taken in the early 1970s.
|Jobst Brandt circa late 1960s.|
The old portion of the road still exits as does the railing and remains passable by foot but not by road bike as the road is far too rutted although a mountain bike could handle it.
The tunnel is an interesting affair. When I first rode it several years ago is was rough and absolutely pitch dark. It appears some concrete work has been done to modernize part of it and a galleria at the top end has been added to let in a little more natural light but it is still unlit and essentially pitch black inside. A light is necessary.
Something really interesting happens as you pass thru the tunnel. First, the darkness is disorienting. Second, the tunnel is pitched at a 9% grade. Both combine to make the thru passage a memorable experience. Third, when you reach the other side there is a dramatic change to the environment and to the difficulty of the climb. What was once minutes before lush alpine pastures and scenery is suddenly rock strewn, jagged and severe.
|Emerging from the tunnel and things get serious.|
The road surface begins to deteriorate no doubt due to the harshness of the winter elements and then it hits you, as you begin gasping for air due to the altitude that you are way up with still more work to do as the road dramatically pitches up for the last few kilometers through a series of cliff hanging tornante.
|The guardrail is there for a good reason. Going off the road is not an option.|
|Another feature of the Gavia: Old concrete markers mark the way – one kilometer to go.|
The last Tornante is met and the drama of the climb is replaced with an almost level grade for the last half kilometer – a perfect place to allow for a few minutes of recovery and reflection on the climb. So it was with no surprise that Maria began shedding a few tears and Kevin shaking his head in awe. Rides up iconic passes like the Gavia, especially your first time up, do that to you. (There would be more tears shed on the Stelvio and Mortirolo but for different reasons)
|The summit with Rifugio Bonetta in the background.|
One of the joys of riding in Italy is the strategic placement of a Rifugio (café) seemingly at the top of every great climb and the one on the Gavia Pass is no exception. There are a lot of interesting Giro photos inside including an homage to Andy Hampsten memorializing his 1988 snow bound passage.
|Wall of fame: Hampsten.|
After an espresso and a tart from the desert case we began the descent to Bormio. We plunged down the mountain and back into the forested section enjoying one hairpin turn after another. Soon we were passing through the village of Santa Catarina and then onto glass smooth roads. I was pleasantly surprised to see Kevin and Maria in full aero tucks pushing everything they had into the confidence inspiring 40 mph plus descent all the way into Bormio.
|Arrival at our hotel.|
We arrived at the Hotel Funivia – a property that caters to cyclists and the day just kept getting better. Eros had arranged a special meal served up at the hotel owners’ summer mountain hut – high in the pastures above Bormio for a meal of polenta and veal cooked over a wood stove.
|The Italian Alpine town of Bormio from the owner’s mountain property.|
Bormio is a charming town and makes a great base of operation for a few days of riding. The old section of Bormio is easily accessible by foot no matter where you stay. There are many boutiques for shopping and plenty of places to dine and relax. Known now for its’ thermal baths and ski slopes it turns out that the Romans summered there a few thousand years ago to enjoy the cooler Alpine temperatures.
|Bormio town center.|
After a late evening stroll through the old town Eros pulled us into a bar were we ended the night with a grappa as we each reflected on the day and then what was ahead – the Stelvio Pass.
Details: The climb up from Ponte di Legno to the top of the Gavia Pass (2621 meters) is just over 17 kilometers at an average grade of nearly 8%. The descent to Bormio is 25.5 kilometers.
Tomorrow: The Stelvio
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