It’s a long way to the top, but you gotta rock ‘n roll…
Our story begins…
I was kicking back in the Ligurian coastal town of Rapallo, (situated just down the road from the Giros’ 2004 partenza in Genoa), waiting for the Giro to arrive. Richard Virenque, in exile from France, had just re-launched his career with a stage victory for Polti. After the Giro passed, I reluctantly peeled myself off my beach chair and headed north for a Dolomitian date with destiny. I hunkered down in a pensione at the base of Madonna di Campiglio where the fore-boding Dolomiti block passage to Austria.
The clock towers in the chapels tolled ominously as I began to climb over il Madonna di Campiglio (14km to 1522 meters), its alpine meadows marking the entry to the steely jagged peaks of the Dolomites. The ski station at the top was closed and an eerie feeling beset me as I began the descent towards the Passo del Tonale and my ultimate destiny – the mighty Passo di Gavia.
After descending a lifetime I headed up the valley road toward Passo del Tonale (20km to 1883 meters high), dwarfed by towering peaks on either side of the S42. With il Madonna already in my legs, the Tonale was no great joy, the road relentlessly winding up its unforgiving slopes. I crested the Tonale, the ski lifts closed and just a few one-percenters left tempting fate with their colourful but flimsy para-gliders. With this piece of dirty business behind me, I plummeted down the Tonale until I joined the raging mountain stream alongside the road to heaven and hell.
The Gavia is an important pass in the Giro d’Italia – for good reason. Champions have been crowned here. Ivan Gotti attacked on the Gavia en route to victory in Milan. American Andy Hampsten etched his name in cycling history by defending his Maglia Rosa here as a punishing blizzard dumped snow on the harsh slopes of the Gavia. You can still see photos of Andy, pink jersey covered by an inch of snow, in the cafй-bar at the 2,621m summit. But if you plan to ride to the top, hope for better weather than the brave American had or there’s a good chance you’ll never reach the summit…
Switching back…. And forth…and back again…
The base of the Gavia was blocked by a barricade due to avalanche risk. It was May. I rode around the barrier and the Gavia rose sharply right from the base. After two harsh switchbacks in the alpine forest, the road gave me a brief look down into the valley. This was not the first time I would get vertigo as I peered over the edge of the goat path that masquerades as a road up this rugged climb. “Welcome to Italy” I thought, “home of the Gyro”. These climbs were built to humble any Tour de France snob fresh off the gentle slopes of the Tourmalet. Ride them once and you’ll know why Simoni slyly taunts Armstrong to ride the Giro. This ain’t no disco, no CBGB’s – this ain’t no foolin around!
The climb initially offers few glimpses of the valley below as the narrow road climbs through the trees. Part way up the climb and the road steepens from steep – ya gotta go deep. I found myself looking for more gear as I bogged and slogged in the 39X23. The harsh pitch here, road overhung by boreal forest, is where Gotti launched his winning attack, his adversaries trapped behind the grinding peloton as it lugged its way up the narrow goat path.
The road eases a little (say little…) as it emerges above the tree line. The view is spectacular – if you like hanging off the edge of suspension bridges. To the left is a HUUUUGE drop to the valley below. There are no fences here but lots of little wooden crosses serve as reminders of where the road has claimed its victims. I found myself hugging the right shoulder… Ahead and up is a massive snowfield. You can just make out a small ribbon of road winding off in the distance. It’s enough to make you turn back so you look down and suffer like a pig, sweat dripping off your chin like a prune in a Finnish sauna in the near freezing temperatures. The rugged beauty is deceptive – the mountain refuggio far below serves as a reminder that this is no OLN adventure – this is you, a bike, some wooden crosses and the cycling gods.
The road is soon covered by water as the massive snow banks lining the road buckle beneath the mountain sun. Just a few km’s before the top and there is a lonnnng galleria – an avalanche tunnel with no lights. With your pupils welded shut from the alpine rays reflecting off the snow for the past hour, passing through the lengthy tunnel is a journey through the dark side. But look Gandolf – it’s light again and the ring is near! The summit rewards your penance with a view from the rooftop of Europe.
The view of Heaven’s doorstep.
It’s Spectacular!!! The snow banks are tall as a house and the sun melts your heart. You can go in the cafй-bar and see the photos of Andy – his story of courage immortalized on these high peaks. You see the tifosi handing out newspapers to the suffering riders – shivering in the storm as they seek faith and courage for the bone-chilling descent. These are the legends of the Gavia.
You grab a quick espresso, a photo and emerge into a sudden blizzard. There is no Club Med atop the Passo di Gavia. It’s hammer time. You can wear out a pair of break blocks descending this midway thriller so bring some spares – it’s worth it!!! Even the Valentino Rossi wannabees (and there are lots of them plying these roads on their highly tuned cafй-racers) can’t keep up with a pair of Corsa CX’s, stickin the turns as a Campy 53X11 powers la bella bici. A la casa – vai ciclista, vai!!!
Passo di Gavia – bella, dura, magnifico!!!