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Passo di Gavia

Its cycling history, statistics, photos and maps

Statistics | Passo di Gavia in cycling history | Photos | Map |

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Gavia Pass statistics:

The Gavia Pass, in northern Italy's Lombardy region, separates the provinces of Sondrio and Brescia. It is considered an Italian alpine pass.

Here are the numbers for the Gavia's south face which leaves Ponte di Legno and heads north ending up at Santa Catarina and then Bormio (see map at bottom of page). The north face, coming from Bormio is longer, but less steep. The south face is more commonly used in the Giro d'Italia.

Average gradient: 7.9%
Maximum gradient: 16%
Length: 17.3 km
Elevation at the start: 1,258 meters
Elevation at the crest: 2,621 meters (8,599 feet)
Elevation gain: 1363 meters

The Gavia Pass in cycling history

I rode the Gavia in 2002.

Story of the Giro d'Italia, volume 1

When the Giro d'Italia first ascended the Gavia in 1960, it was a dirt road. Charly Gaul won the stage. But behind him, the drama was intense as Gaston Nencini tried to use his wonderful descending skills to get down the muddy mountain far enough ahead of Jacques Anquetil to win the Giro. He couldn't do it. Anquetil was able to keep his lead by just 28 seconds.

In 1961 the Giro again scheduled the Gavia, but snow forced the organizers cancel the Gavia and use the Stelvio.

It was scheduled and then eliminated from the 1984 (under very strange circumstances) and 1989 (stage 16 was annulled because of bad weather) Giri.

The ascent in the 1988 Giro is the most famous. Under horrifically cold conditions Erik Breukink won the stage while Andy Hampsten, a few seconds behind, took the lead for good.

Other years the Giro d'Italia has climbed the Gavia Pass:

1996: stage 21, won by Ivan Gotti
1999: stage 21, won by Roberto Heras
2004: stage 18, won by Damiano Cunego
2006: stage 20, won by Ivan Basso
2008: stage 20, won by Emanuele Sella
2010: stage 20 (north face ascent), won by Johan Tschopp

The plans to ascend the Gavia and Stelvio passes in stage 19 of the 2013 Giro were cancelled after terrible weather made riding them too dangerous.

Anquetil and Nencini had to deal with a muddy, dangerous, narrow pass in 1960. When Andy Hampsten went up in 1988, the turns in the switchbacks were paved and by 2000, the pass was completely asphalted.

My memory is that the north face has no guard rails, a sobering thought since there are some very steep, sheer dropoffs. The south face has some steel-reinforced wooden guard rails.

Our mountains expert, Larry Theobald of CycleItalia, explains the climb:

We first saw this famous pass in 1995 with a group climbing from the Bormio side rather than the classic direction. Our ride began in Santa Caterina Valfurva so we mercifully avoided the horrible, straight-on climbing below, where you can easily descend at 50+ mph merely by tucking in and staying off the brakes. The paved switchbacks through the Stelvio National Park are tough from this side, but generally no worse than the Passo Stelvio. The shock for us back then was the descent, still unpaved in the straight sections, while the curves were asphalted.

We came back as CycleItalia in 1999, by this time the entire classic ascent had been paved, but you could still see a distinct junction between the old and new pavement. We noted the extremely narrow road, really just a single lane, making for an interesting project when/if you came across another vehicle. We’d get our chance to challenge the famous pass on two wheels in 2000, Heather finding it tough and COLD. Her most vivid memory was looking at an icicle hanging from a rocky outcrop on what was a bright, sunny day, and realizing it was not melting.

In 2001 road construction blocked our path, the workers even throwing rocks at us to discourage us from climbing any further, meaning we had to return to Bormio the same way, back over the Mortirolo! Uggh. Things were all fixed up by 2002, though we didn’t get another crack at riding it ourselves until 2006 since the size of our groups demanded two support vehicles. Heather got the chance again as yours truly took on the Passo Mortirolo earlier in our loop ride from Bormio. Finally, I got a chance to ride it in 2007 and again in 2009.

I got my most recent crack at the monster in 2011. Similar to the Passo Stelvio, you can break this climb into three parts—the first one is the extremely narrow road through the forested section starting at a collection of signs that seem to say “I’d turn back if I were you” and suggest you have snow tires even in the summer. There are ramps of 14% on this part, making you wonder how the heck guys like Andy Hampsten could get up this in a driving rainstorm back when it was dirt? Old photos show a narrow, muddy road for the racers of the Giro and today it’s just as narrow and just as lacking of guardrails, though the now asphalt surface is in reasonable condition, especially on the lower slopes.

The second part begins as you rise above the tree line, where it feels as if you get a slight break in the gradient. One thing is for sure, it cools off dramatically and you get to see a long way up the valley, though at this point (unlike the Stelvio) you cannot see where the summit is.

The third part begins after the tunnel, but first you have to get through! It used to be virtually unlit, making for some vertigo as you reached the point where the light at both ends becomes a tiny point. I once found myself very close to the wall on the LEFT side of the road when the lights of a car illuminated things a bit! One of our clients spent half-an-hour in here one day after removing his expensive sunglasses, only to drop them. He was NOT going to leave them there, so searched for them in the brief moments things were illuminated by the lights of passing cars or motorcycles. Thankfully, these days the lights are much better, though it still can be a spooky experience.

As you exit the tunnel, you start to feel the worst is over, but it’s not. The road surface gets sketchy with some gravel and potholes and the grade seems to steepen once again…and you still can’t see the top. Only in the last few kilometers do you finally curve to the right and see the Rifugio Bonetta at the summit. 

At 2618 meters (over 8000 feet) of elevation and with an exposed summit, it’s COLD up here, even in mid-July, so most put on all the clothing they have and quickly head down or enter the rifugio for something hot to drink. The descent is challenging to say the least, Author Herbie Sykes describes it as “horribly steep, badly paved and full of craters, it’s a racing cyclist’s worst nightmare…the plunge, a hideous, terrifying lottery made worse by the impossibility of generation of body heat…” get the picture? One or two small rises on your way to Bormio will remind you of the efforts you’ve made, but you know it’s nothing compared to the epic challenge faced by Gastone Nencini in 1960 or Franco Chioccioli in 1988.

But even with all that, I’d ride it again in a heartbeat!

Gavia Pass Photos:

Andy Hampsten n the 1988 Giro ascending the Gavia Pass

Andy Hampsten ascending the Gavia Pass in the 1988 Giro d'Italia.

Franco Chioccioli in the 1988 Giro d'Italia on the Gavia Pass

Still the 1988 Giro d'Italia: Further back and chasing Hampsten, Franco Chioccioli, the maglia rosa, has only a pair of arm warmers to fend of the bitter cold.

Damiano Cunego wins stage 18 of the 2004 Giro d'Italia.

From the 2004 Giro d'Italia: Damiano Cunego wins at the Bormio 2000 ski station in stage 18 after going over the Tonale and Gavia passes.

The leaders ascend the Gavia in the 2010 Giro d'Italia

The leaders ascend the Gavia in stage 20 of the Giro d'Italia. Ivan Basso can be seen near the front in his pink jersey.

The bunch ascends the gavia pass in 2010

Another shot from 2010's Gavia ascent.

Lake at top of the Gavia Pass.

The lake at the top of the Gavia Pass.

Gavia Pass warning signs

Larry Theobald calls this the "I'd turn back if I were you" sign which sits at the bottom of the pass where the road gets narrow.

Gavia road marker

Gavia Pass road marker. So far, on seven kilometers ridden, lots more to go...

Gavia gradient sign

Someone seems to have thought the Gavia got a lot steeper than 14%.

Larry Theobald of CycleItalia ascending the Gavia's south face.

Larry Theobald of CycleItalia ascending the Gavia's south face.


Map of the Stelvio Pass

Map of the Stelvio and Gavia passes.

Map of the Gavia Pass

Gavia Pass map. The Stelvio begins north of Bormio. Just east of Ponte di Legno is the Tonale Pass. Aprica is west of Edolo.

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