The Gavia is frequently included in the Giro d’Italia – as Cima Coppi if the Stelvio or Agnel are not in it too – and it is legendary for the stage victory of Erik Breukink in 1988 and the infamous ‘bus ride’ by Johan van der Velde during that same stage.
With an altitude of 2,621m, it’s ranked 5th in the list of highest paved passes in Europe, if the Galibier is ranked without the loop over the tunnel.
You would do well to inform yourself about the weather conditions, specifically higher up the mountain. Even with good weather in the valley, it’s not uncommon that the weather in the upper half of the climb is less comfortable – at the very least, it will almost always be chilly and windy.
Towards the end of all my ascends so far, I was forced to chance clothing and even then, I was glad I could get inside the refuge. However, it’s not unlikely that during July or August it may be a little more comfortable at the summit…
Climbing the Gavia is part of several Gran Fondos, riding a “round trip” including the Mortirolo. Clockwise from Bormio this means the Gavia first and then the Mortirolo from Monno; counterclockwise it involves the Mortirolo from Mazzo and then the Gavia from Ponte di Legno, arguably a much more difficult course.
I believe there’s also at least one Gran Fondo combining either loop with a finish on top of the Stelvio…
This climb of the Gavia is the more irregular and the longest: almost 26 kilometers and 1,400 altimeters. Steep, very steep, flat, sometimes even short descends – you can expect trouble if – like me – you cannot stand these changes…
To Santa Caterina Valfurva, the ascend is not too difficult – some steeper sections, but overall not that hard. From there the more interesting and beautiful part of the climb starts – some 13.5 kilometers, with almost 900 altimeters.
You’ll first go through a secluded stretch with a lot of cover from the trees and some beautiful views, especially from the hairpins. Around kilometer 18 you get one last chance to look down into the valley towards Valvurfa, after which the road runs around to the other side in a long turn
The final part towards the summit can be – just like the Stelvio from Bormio – a challenging effort, perhaps not as far as grades are concerned, but more so when it’s cold and you’re battling a stinging head wind.
Refugio Bonetta at the summit is always warm and cozy though…
Video from the Col Collective
If you then descend towards Ponte di Legno, be very careful. The road is in bad shape, it’s winding unpredictably, quite – and often scarily – narrow and the abyss to your right is shielded by little more than bricks (30 to 40 cm high) or a wooden railing…
And some 3 kilometers from the summit, you will go through an unlit tunnel / gallery – you will pass through it a lot faster than when climbing up (from) the other side, but it’s scary and you may want to use your bike lights nonetheless.
Ponte di Legno
From Ponte di Legno, the tougher climb of the Gavia awaits you – shorter than from Bormio, but with nearly 1,500 altimeters over a distance of some 17.5 kilometers, definitely more challenging.
You can use the first few kilometers to warm up, but from thereon you do not get a lot of easy stretches. By far the most difficult part is the passage through the woods, where the grades increase up to 16%.
But also after that – and certainly in the often cold and windy upper part – you hardly ever get the chance to catch your breath.
After some 14 kilometers, you cycle through an unlit tunnel / gallery of about 500 meters – it’s a lot better than the old degraded (and now all but vanished) old road, but at 9% it’ll take you some time to pass through it – I didn’t like it very much and you should use bike lights there, even if the road is not that busy…
The final 3 – 3,5 kilometers will offer you the best views – be careful enjoying those, because the road is narrow and the quality of the surface is (very) poor.
Video from the Col Collective
Pictures from my Giro d’Italia stage with both climbs on Google+