It’s 27 degrees as we drive north up the valley from Lovere, north to – the Passo Di Gavia. It comes 90 kilometres into the 224 K stage, it’s just under 19 k long and rises from 1260 metres at Ponte Di Legno to 2618 metres at the summit – the highest point of this years Giro. The “Cima Coppi” prime is on offer at the top, awarded for the first rider to top the Giro’s highest point.
Whilst we’re on duty on the Gavia, our colleague and official Pez translator – “what does this mean, Al?” – Ale Federico will be stationed on the legendary Mortirolo. Between us we’re going to take you with us on what we hope will be another epic day in the mountains.
Whilst the Gavia is longer than the Mortirolo’s 13 kilometres, the latter’s average and maximum gradients are more severe, 8.2% to 10.3% and 16% to 18% respectively.
It doesn’t look like it’s going to snow, so Dave, get us to the Gavia, dude!
The Gavia may be 19 K but most of the route from around 15 K out is predominantly uphill, the Passo is the icing on the top of a very tough first three hours.
The ascent starts easily enough, just after Ponte Di Legno, there’s alpine meadow on the valley floor as a river, swollen by melt water foams and bubbles over the rocks.
It soon steepens though and one ramp follows another.
The hairpins start, the views go awesome – and then, it’s single lane and Dave has the Matiz in first gear.
There’ s nowhere to park, steep bankings to one side, ever more glorious views to the other flank.
There’s a never ending stream of cyclists grinding up, up, up.
There’s six K to go and it’s a little wider; it’s raining now and we have our fingers crossed it won’t snow. We’re just on the snow line and there are huge patches of the white stuff on the valley walls.
The cyclist’s breath is white in the cool, damp mountain air.
Into the tunnel and the organisation are shining a searchlight through to light the way.
A lot of the cyclists are walking, it’s just so steep, the clouds are below us now.
One kilometre and we pull in, we don’t want a parking drama at the top.
As is the case with most of these passes, the top is the top, no false flats – you get to the top when you finish climbing.
Ale calls; “I am at the bottom of the Mortirolo, and now I will begin to ride up!”
Despite the altitude and the cold, it’s party time and the revellers use the icy water flowing down the gutter as a fridge.
The Inn at the top of the Gavia is cosy and mobbed with hungry cyclists. On the walls are pictures of Hampsten in ’88 and framed Pantani jerseys.
Back outside, the cloud rolls in, we walk down the hill to get our spot for photos; “hey! Pez guys!” it’s Jan Tofte-Hansen from Denmark, a regular reader saying hello- he’s on his bike and riding the Gavia/ Mortirolo double today.
Another 50 yards; “are you Dave and Ed?” It’s another Pezzer, Richard Heer – he’s just ridden up the Passo, but doesn’t want us to take his picture; “low profile, please!”
The local forresters, who look after the mountains, the forrests and the wildlife want their picture taken – when the carabiniere add to the request, Pez has no choice!
The race is near and the cloud is thick, this will make photography difficult, and the mobile signal has gone.
The woman holding the bottles of warm tea for the LPR riders is Milena – the team press officer. She puts her cap on; it takes ages to get her hair just right, but this is Italia and style matters.
Team helpers wait patiently in the freezing drizzle, clutching capes, bottles and mussettes.
There’s the usual mix of cars and motor bikes, then unexpectedly, it’s 2007 Giro stage winner, Perez Cuapio (Navigare), wrestling with his cape and looking even darker skinned than usual against the snow.
A couple of minutes later, an Astana and one of Perez team mates, it’s hard to ID positively, the cloud is thick and the view finder makes it even harder. A Tinkoff, then Rujano – easy to spot, he’s so small, Charly Wegelius, but a motor bike blocks the shot. Charly never does anything without a reason; he’s there as a Pellizotti springboard – it’ll be later in the day before we that play is complete.
Five minutes pass and here comes the gruppo maglia rosa; again it’s hard to pick out individual riders, but Levi leads and Di Luca, Simoni, Bruz, Rodriguez, Bert are all there – maybe 40 riders.
Another couple of minutes, another big group, some are hurting bad.
There’s not really a gruppetto, more like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow – twos, threes, Millar, Baldato, Bradley, Visconti, Zabel, Cav, a Barloworld gets a bit of a tow of his team car, and eventually it’s the “fin corsa cicliste” van.
Cav is around quarter-of-an-hour down already, but he ‘s here to finish race and that’s within reach.
The descent is hairy with a capital H, sinuous and very badly surfaced, it’s a long way down, an opportunity to make up time, get a gruppetto together and to freeze – if you’re not wearing the right gear.
Ale is half way up the Mortirolo by the time we get a signal and warm up a little; it’s cloudy but sunny with him.
We pass a guy riding off the mountain with no saddle – ouch!
For us now, it’s the hotel to edit and send the pictures and maybe catch the finalй on TV; we’d never make the finish.
Ale is on the Mortirolo: “Contador’s domestique, Colom leads on his own, then there is the gruppo maglia rosa; all the capo are there, except Di Luca, he is dropped. In this Giro we have seen that his condition is not the best and I think he did too much yesterday. Now I will try to get to the finish.”
At the hotel, the receptionist is so gorgeous that I almost forget the Giro; “I work for three years in Dublin, I like the Scottish people who came to Ireland!”
Dave drags me up the stairs.
The wi-fi is fired up, the TV is on and we’re in business.
Ale makes the finish; “yes I have good pictures of the podium. For me Sella is the surprise of the race, to win three stages is excellent. I think it will be hard to beat Contador tomorrow, but we must watch Bruseghin, he is very fast in the time trials.”
Ale has to get on with sending his pictures, meanwhile Dave is tapping away at our laptop and firing those images across the Atlantic.
Maybe not the day we expected, joy for Sella, disappointment for Di Luca and relief for Contador.
The girl interviewing Bruss asks if he can pull back those two minutes on the flat tar into Milano tomorrow; “noooo!” his lips say, but in his mind he’ll have worked out that if Bert has a bad day and he has a ‘special’ day, well . . . .
Bert, Bruss or Ricco, Pez will be there.