With a summit at 2,236 meters, the Passo Giau doesn’t earn a high ranking in the list of highest (paved) passes in Europe. However, with an average of 9.1%, the climb from Selva di Cadore is a tough one.
This ascent is that of the Maratona and from Selva di Cadore it’s just over 10 km long, with 922 meters of elevation (9.1%).
You may also add the extra kilometers and elevation gain to even get to Selva di Cadore, unless you come descending from the Staulanza – from Caprile, this is at least some 5 kilometers and 300+ meters of elevation…
The grades on the official climb fluctuate between 7+ and 10+, meaning that you will also meet stretches of 12 to 14%. Since there are no sections where you can “relax” and catch your breath, you’d do well to settle for a pace you can maintain during the whole climb.
As I quickly found out during my ascend in 2011, when I had “only” climbed the Valparola before it and the Falzarego – from Pocol – felt almost like a recovery after that.
And although there are a few nice hairpins in the climb, it didn’t make much of an impression for its beautiful views, even though the surroundings are overwhelming by nature in this area. The near 360 degree view at the summit was breathtaking…
The commonly marked as “easy” climb up the Giau, is the one starting in Pocol.
This ascent is even shorter with 8.6 kilometers and with 716 meters of elevation, the average grade is “only” 8.3%.
But, other than via the descent of the Falzarego, Pocol can only be reached from Cortina d’Ampezzo – the about 4 additional kilometers from there to Pocol come with an elevation of around 300 meters too.
Plus as usual, averages mean jack shit and also during this climb you will be presented with a maximum grade of 18%.
So, I did not experience this side to be that much easier. Obviously, this was also influenced by the circumstances under which I ascended it in 2015…
After the Tre Cime di Lavaredo – also starting from Cortina – had already all but demolished me, I climbed a completely deserted Giau in the freezing rain, with a brisk wind in the upper half as an added bonus.
During this trip, I could only guess at the views – low clouds and mist veiled a lot and only a couple of times did I get a glimpse of what it would / could look like under better weather conditions – obviously, I had no view to speak of at the summit.
Picture gallery on Google+ (the first picture is from 2011, when I climbed the ‘Selva’ side)
Another dreaded, steep climb: the Mortirolo (or Passo della Foppa) with a summit at 1,852 meters. It used to be the favorite mountain of Marco Pantani.
“If you want to die, this is where you go” – encouraging words, often found when reading reports about this climb…
However, I think the Mortirolo from Mazzo di Valtellina, labeled the most difficult, is not much worse than the Gerlitzen – sadly, the latter is hardly known to anyone, but I can assure you it’s as tough as the Mortirolo, especially the climb from Tschöran…
Described here are the three “most famous” alternatives, but there are quite a few ways to the top of the Mortirolo, many of which no more than goat paths and/or hiking trails.
This means that with a mountain bike, you have some more options to exhaust yourself. One alternative that is used in at least one gran fondo, is the one from Tovo with grades up to 26%…
I climbed the Mortirolo in 2011 from Mazzo and in 2015 from Monno – reports here (2011) and here (2015).
Mazzo di Valtellina
This most frequently traveled ascend is almost 12.5 km long from Mazzo, in which you’ll gain 1,300 meters – that’s an average of 10.4% and you may “look forward” to stretches of 18, 19, 20%…
However, this climb is rather constant in its steepness – the last kilometer is a little less intense, so you have the chance to recover a bit and look “fresh” when you take a picture / selfie at the summit.
It’s during this climb that you will pass the Pantani monument – it is located in turn 11, about four kilometers from the summit.
The summit is quite desolate – like the Zoncolan, there is nothing to do. But if you would like to raise a glass on your accomplishment or eat a snack, then ride on down towards Monno – about one kilometer past the summit, you will find the Albergo “Passo Mortirolo”…
Deemed a slightly easier alternative on the west flank, is the climb from Grosio, which is located just north of Mazzo.
This climb is 14.8 kilometers long, with an altimeter gain of 1,222 meters. I’ve seen this end twice as a downhill, never have I climbed it.
From what I was able to assess – as far as possible in a descend – this climb seems a lot more irregular, which also corresponds to what you can see on the profile card of CBB.
Despite the deceiving 8.3% average, many stretches are possibly even steeper than the ones found in the climb from Mazzo, but there are “easier” parts to recover a bit.
This climb joins the one from Mazzo at turn 8, some 3 kilometers before the summit…
From the (south) east you can tackle the Mortirolo from Edolo – this is the road towards the Tonale (Ponte di Legno) and the first couple of kilometers from Edolo until the Monno turn, can be used as a good warm up.
From there you need to overcome an 900 meter elevation gain in approximately 11.7 kilometers – relatively speaking, this may be considered easy.
And while I do not, I did find this climb considerably less difficult than the one from Mazzo. Which, depending on other factors, like weather, probably means it could still break you…
In particular the stretch from about two kilometers from the summit – starting just before San Giacomo – might make you swear: under shelter of the trees, you’ll grovel you’re way up as the grades rise to 16%…
A good indication of the steep nature of this part, is the fact that it has no less than 10 hairpins; numbering starts at 12 just outside Monno, about 7 kilometers down the road…
Coming up this end, you will pass the only tavern near the summit – about a kilometer before you arrive there, you’ll pass the Albergo.
You see the pictures of the might Stelvio on the Internet – especially those from the Prato side of the climb – and you instantly feel the urge to get on your bicycle. With its 2,758 meters it’s second on the list of Europe’s highest passes – a few dead ends are higher, though they might not be cycle-able with a road bike, and I do not count the artificial loop around the Bonette (the Cime)…
Obviously, the Stelvio is included in a score of Gran Fondos, and you can also climb it on days when it’s closed to motorized traffic, like during the Mapei Day. The advantage of that is clear, but you will be sharing the road with thousands of other cyclists (or skaters, hand bikers, etc.).
Still, that is probably better than sharing it with motorized traffic – as with many of these famous passes, the Stelvio is a magnet to motorists and (wannabee) Formula 1 car drivers. It actually is frequently used as a test course for Ferrari, but when that happens, the road is closed to all other traffic…
Also when planning to climb the Stelvio, you’d do well to inform yourself about the weather conditions. I have experienced 30+ degrees in the valley on either side and close to zero degrees at the summit. It may even snow up there, any given day…
In 2008, I climbed up the Stelvio from this end for the first time – report on that trip here. In 2015 I had a round trip up both ends consequetivley – report here.
Starting from Prato, the Stelvio Pass has a length of roughly 25 km and an altitude gain of just over 1,800 meters. Both in 2008 and in 2015, I got on the bike at the Hotel Gasthof Stern in Prato.
The first eight kilometers to Trafoi are not too hard, although you’ll see – and feel – inclines of 10%.
Shortly before Trafoi you pass through the first 2 hairpins – these are just after the tunnel / gallery between Gomagoi and Trafoi.
There are 48 in total from this end – the next 2 you encounter when leaving Trafoi, at Hotel Bellavista.
After that, you’ll cycle quite some distance through a reasonably sheltered – tree covered – area, changing between slightly winding sections and series of hairpins.
This pretty much goes on until “tornante” 32, from where the next kilometers and hairpin sections have a more open character. From hairpin 24, just before hotel restaurant Franzenshöhe in nr. 22, you finally get to look at the view of the remaining hairpins, winding up (far) above you…
From that point onward, until you reach the summit, you are rewarded with ever more breathtaking views, for which the Stelvio is known so well.
Once you reach the usually very crowded summit, you are “treated” with the smell of bratwurst – Bruno’s hot dog and “wurstel” trolley is the first thing you encounter.
If you want to have some good food, ride on to Albergo Genziana, just past the shopping array…
Report on the 2011 trips here / Mapei Day here, Stelvio revisited 2015 here.
There was a reason we booked a hotel near Bormio in 2011: the Gavia, Mortirolo and the Stelvio are around the corner!
Obviously, the same excuse was used in 2015, when we rented an apartment in the area…
On paper, the ascent from the south may look less challenging than the one from the north side – just over 21 kilometers and just over 1,500 altimeters. But appearances are deceiving, because the percentages are almost equal and the last two, two and a half kilometers are demanding, devastating if the biting cold wind happens to be a strong head wind.
Also from Bormio, you can look forward to a beautiful climb, with similarly numbered hairpins, 40 in this case – number 40 you will find when you leave Bormio and see “BORMIO m 1225” on the wall.
The sign says 1256 s.l.m. because Bormio village is at 1225 and you have gained 31 meters up to that hairpin.
Passing Bagni di Bormio, you turn away from Bormio and when you’re some 6 kilometers and a couple more hairpins in, you reach the series of short tunnels.
Luckily, the bike lights and reflectors for these – some of them were pitch dark – are no longer necessary, because they are now (well) lit, albeit still narrow.
After you pass these tunnels, you’ll run into some short, stinging, sections of 14, 15%. However, you also have a stunning view on the most beautiful part of the climb, the series of 14 hairpins – 28 to 15 – snailing up along the rocks.
As you climb these, looking back will give you similar views to the ones found in the top half of the other side’s ascend.
After looking back one final time, you will be able to catch your breath a bit on the fairly straight and flatter passage towards the final part of the climb.
If you’re not faced with a head wind that is, because if you are, it’s not so much fun… Once you get past the chapel, you can already see the start of that “grand finale” in the distance.
Approaching the top of / split with the Umbrail, the grades go up to 10% again, but after that, it gets really tough when that becomes 12, 13, 14%. This last part of the climb seems to go on forever and if you do get a head wind here, you’ll be extremely happy once you finally reach the summit…
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…
Report from 2011’s trip up this end here. Report of stage 9 from 2015’s Giro, when I climbed both sides consecutively here.
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…
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
Report of my 2011 trip up this side here. Report of stage 9 from 2015’s Giro, when I climbed both sides consecutively, here.
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.
As I strained a muscle in my back while preparing the transfer, I was afraid I might have to spend a couple of days in the passenger’s seat of the car.
Tempting as that actually sounded at the time, I was not really amused – as I have built up some experience since my crashes in 2012 and 2013, I started taking NSAID’s and applied ice packs / heat patches.
However, I knew that the “transfer stage” to Bormio was a no go – apart from the inability to walk or stand straight, the only chance I had that I was going to be able to cycle again the next week, was to rest and (try to) relax.
So, no Mendola, Palade or Val Martello, just enjoying the views from within the car. The ride was actually enjoyable and not very eventful. We had a long(er) lunch stop in Silandro, where I had originally planned our base camp for part two.
Paula then knocked me out and put me blindfolded in the back of the car, as we were about to pass the Stelvio.
By the time we arrived in Valdisotto, I was pleased again with the apartment and the surroundings, albeit not as stunning as in Corvara.
We went shopping and had a beer and a good laugh on a terrace under a pleasant sun. It looks like I will live to climb another day – we’ll see tomorrow…