Mortirolo e Gavia — an Epic Day

Today is the last day of our trip.  It’s good to end a trip with a bang!

We have climbed most of the famous peaks of the Dolomites — Sella Gruppo, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Passo Giau, Passo Falzarego — and also the epic Passo Stelvio.  The only major summits we have missed are the Passo Gavia and Passo Mortirolo.

Turns out we are staying in Bormio today and it is possible to ride both Gavia and Mortirolo in one day.  The weather is nice — high 70s and few clouds in the sky.

Passo Gavia has long been known in Italy and in European cycling circles.  Passo Gavia entered the American cycling conciousness when a blizzard hit the 1988 Giro Italia and Andy Hampsten climbed this savage pass in deep snow and decimated the field, with the result that he became the first (and only) American winner of the Giro d’Italia.

Passo Gavia is famous because it is a big pass (>4000′ of climbing), has a high summit (2612m), is brutally steep, is a very narrow road, and formerly was mostly dirt.  Today it is entirely paved, but it is till an epic pass.

Surprisingly, the much lower (1852m) Passo Mortirolo is actually harder than the Gavia.  It is also a big ascent (4100′ of climbing).  While Passo Gavia is epic because it is steep, the Mortirolo is actually steeper.  Riding up the Mortirolo is like doing Tre Cime di Lavaredo twice in a row!  For those who don’t speak Italian, most Italian words mean something.  “Mort” means dead, “i” means and, and I believe “rolo” means roll over, wich essentially means that if you climb this, you will die and roll over.

So, our plan for the day was to ride down the valley, climb the Mortirolo, and then climb the Gavia.  It should be about 70 miles and over 10,000 feet of climbing.

We headed down the Valtinella and got a good view of the 1987 landslide.

Buried under this landslide is the town of San Antonio Morignone.  After a season of heavy rainfall, runoff loosened the mountain.  On 28 July 1987, during the middle of the day, the mountain came tumbling down.  Most of the residents were out of town at work and only two died.  Here is a memorial to the event.

After the landslide, the valley was obstructed.  A large lake formed above the landslide and roads were blocked.  When I first rode through the valley in October 1991, more than 4 years after the landslide, a huge earth moving operation was still under way.

This brings me to two important navigational tips about doing this ride:

  1. pick the right road
  2. find the entry to the Passo Mortirolo

If you don’t pick the right road you could find yourself riding through a miserable tunnel.  The auto tunnels, built in the early 1990s are closed to bicycles and are very long.  I made the mistake of riding through one of these tunnels in 2000 or 2002.  Although safe, it was miserable.  The tunnels go for miles.  The noise of the traffic is deafening.  Bicycles are not allowed in the tunnels, so the cars are annoyed and honk at you, making the tunnel louder and more miserable.

Study the map carefully.  There are 2 1/2 routes.  The autostrada is closed to bikes and has many tunnels.  The old highway is a good route.  It includes a few gallerias and 1 tunnel and has very little traffic.  Parts of the old road still exist.  The old road goes through the villages.  The best bike route is a combination of the new highway and the old village road.

Next challenge is finding the entry to Passo Mortirolo.  In the old days there were no signs.  Now there are signs, but pay attetion if you want to find the pass.  The key is to look for the town of Mazzo di Valtellina and head west.  Also, the Mortirolo is officially called Passo Foppa, so look for those signs.  If you miss the start of the Mortirolo, no big deal.  You can go further down the valley and do the much easier but still interesting Passo Aprica.

There are two routes up the Mortirolo.  The easy (not so steep) route starts from the charming cobbled town of Grosio.  The hard route (and the only one that counts) starts in Mazzo.

Here’s the sign at the start of the Mortirolo.

Another sign warns travelers of the dangers.  A quick summary:

  • grades up to 18%
  • very narrow, no turnarounds — in most places a car cannot pass a bicycle, heavens knows what would happen if two cars met each other
  • no 3-axle vehicles permitted

And here is a profile of the climb, showing

The Mortirolo wastes no time getting started.  The yellow zone is grades over 8%.  The red zone (most of the climb) is grades over 10%.  While there are only 3 km averaging 13-14%, we often see 16-20% on the grade meters of our bike computers.

To distract us from the pain in our legs, there is a pretty cool old castle right off the road near the bottom of the climb.  Steep hills are good places to protect yourself and your grain from invading armies and the Mortirolo is plenty steep.

With sustained grades of 16% or so, the Mortirolo has 32 switchbacks.  Here’s a view of one of them.

And here is a view of Ajax and Rudy gutting it out up one of the steeper sections.

Just after this spot, the grade eased up and Rudy asked me what my grade meter said.  “11%” I replied.  Rudy responded “Nice!” as he got back to the task of climbing.

Soon the grade got steeper and we were treated to a friendly reception from these gentlemen who were making hay.  Clapping and yelling “Forza! Forza!”, they were pleased to see us sweat and struggle.

Just after this, we saw a group of Italian cyclists descending, yelling “Strada Duro” (the road is hard) to us.  After another switchback we were treated to three young girls (about 10 years old) who cheered and yelled various other stuff at us in Italian.

Soon we reached the monument to Marco Pantani.

It was decorated with all sorts of items from cyclists and cycling clubs.  As an excuse to rest our weary legs, we posed by the monument to Italy’s most iconic climbing legend.

Eventually we reached the summit and posed by the sign.  At this point we had climbed 4800′.  The descent down the Valtellina included 700′ of climbing, most of which was the bypass around the buried village of San Antonio Morignone.  The Mortirolo was about 4100′ of climbing.

The descent of the Mortirolo was quite fun and we soon found ourselves in the hot and sweltering town of Monno.  From there, we had a long gentle climb up the Val d’Oglio to Ponte di Legno.

The climb of the Gavia begins in the village of Ponte di Legno, which means wooden bridge.  This town used to be a quaint cobbled old town, but now has a lot of new buildings to serve the local ski resorts.

From Ponte di Legno, the Gavia starts climbing right away.  Fortunately, we were able to find some freezing cold water.  The nearby river is called “Torrent Frigidolfo.”  Frigidolfo describes well the wonderful near freezing temperature of the water in our bottles.

Starting the climb, we get a nice view of the Adamello mounrain range and glacier to the south.

The road starts out very wide and well-paved.  Pretty soon, we get to the entry to the old road.  In older times, the road turned to dirt here.  Each time I have ridden the Gavia, there has been less and less dirt and more and more pavement.  Now, it is 100% paved, and the pavement is pretty good.

From here on, the road varies in width from 2.5 to 4.5 meters.  At its narrowest, it is dicey for a car to pass a bicycle.  In the old days, everybody drove Fiat Pandas.  Now, many of the cars are much wider, including some SUVs.  Egads!

The steepest grades are at the start of the old section.  Here a sign says 14%.  In the old days, the same sign said 16%.  Hmm, what changed?

We climb through the forest and zig-zag through several switchbacks.

As we exit the forest, we see the first evidence of the danger of this road.  In most places the drop off is extraordinarily steep and no trees or guardrails to stop the descent of a tumbling car.  A car the slips off the edge has virtually no chance of survival.  On mountain roads, I’ve always felt safer on my bicycle than in a car.

We then climb through a long traverse with very steep slopes to our left.  We see two small houses built as storm shelter for shepherds who work in these high elevations.

Finally we reach the infamous tunnel.  There is an old road that goes off to the left and a  tunnel dead ahead.

The tunnel poses a dilemma for cyclists.  The tunnel is long and very dark.  The old road was abandoned when the tunnel was built and is now covered with rockfall.

Here’s a view of the road surface of the old road.

So what choice did we make?  Rudy had a light so we went through the tunnel.  I’ve now climbed the Gavia 4 times (1991, 2000, 2002, 2011) and have twice tried the tunnel and twice tried the old road.  Although the old road is rugged and you risk breaking a wheel or slicing a tire, I recommend the old road.  If you are brave, you can ride it.  If not, walk it in your cleats.  Going through the tunnel, you miss one of the coolest experiences of the Gavia.

Here’s a view of the old road looking back from the top.

After, the tunnel, the road climbs up for a view of the beautiful Lago Nero which sits in a bowl just above a steep dropoff.

From here, you can look back on the entrance to the tunnel and the old road.

And finally, we make it to the top.  Here is the obligatory summit photo.

You’ll notice that I am holding my front wheel separately from my bike.  My wheel starting making terrible noises on the descent of the Mortirolo.  The noises continued while I was climbing the Gavia.  The wheel would barely turn by hand.  Shortly after I exited the tunnel, 2-3 km from the top, my wheel failed.  It went massively out of true.  All the spokes were tight, but it made horrid noises.  At the top, thinking I had a broken axle, I tried to diagnose it.  The hub had failed.  Various metal bits were broken, ball bearings were missing, and there was huge play in the hub.

While we were trying to figure out what to do, we headed inside to the Rifugio, where we noticed three really cool things.

First, they have a collection of posters of the Gavia from the Giro d’Italia.

Next, they have an excellent selection of Gavia souveneirs.  Here’s Rudy with a jersey he purchased.  Soon you’ll see him showing off his fine threads on the roads of Marin.

Finally, there is a framed front page of a 1954 newspaper highlighting an accident on the Gavia when an Army truck carrying 18 soldiers feel off the road.  All perished.

Now it’s time to descend back to Bormio.

Back to the situation with my front wheel.  It’s not fixable.  I tried.  Out of concern for my own safety, I decide to skip one of the best descents of my life.  I did this descent the three other times I did the Gavia and it was phenomenal.

I’m sure I could have hitched a ride if I needed but Ajax drove the car back from Bormio to get me.  Viewing the descent from the car, I was reminded what a staggeringly cool descent it is.  The descent is basically broken into three sections:

  1. a high traverse above treeline with rough roads, severe dropoffs, and some incredible views,
  2. a switchbacked descent through the forest to Santa Caterina Valfurva,
  3. a remarkable straight descent into Bormio where the road looks flat but is actually fairly steep and you fly like the wind feeling like a Giro star.

Near the top, there is a beautiful view of the Ortler glacier to the east.  Remarkably, this is a finger of the same glacier we saw on the Stelvio.  Yes, the Stelvio is a long way away.  Looking at the map, I realize the Ortler is huge and from the Stelvio or the Gavia we see only a glimpse of the edge of the glacier.

Despite missing a glorious descent, this was one of the best rides of my life.  I felt strong at the top of the Gavia and greatly enjoyed the scenery and riding challenge.

Ride Statistics:

  • Distance: 57 miles (total ride was 73 miles, I missed 16 miles of descending)
  • Total climbing: 10,134′
  • Passes: Passo Mortirolo (1852m), Passo Gavia (2621m)

About bikealps

avid cyclist and photographer
This entry was posted in bicycle touring, travel. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Mortirolo e Gavia — an Epic Day

  1. I want to do this exact trip next year. Where do I send my money?

  2. Pingback: 2012 Giro d’Italia — Best Ever? | bikealps

  3. Very nice photos! I’m myself enthusiastic cyclist and have a blog about my rides so I came across this article when searching for ideas on cycling-photography-on-a-move.

    If i may i’d like to ask some questions about your photographing technique.

    1. Which camera do you use? I currently have Nikon d80 with 35 mm prime lens which i carry in a handle-bar bag, but when on a racing bike (where a bag doesn’t look cool :)) I would like to have something compact instead – something that can fit in the back pocket of the cycling jersey… G15, G1X or smth even smaller.

    2. Do you stop to take photos or you make them on move? (some pictures of yours are very dynamic in nature, that is exactly what im trying (hopelessly) to make myself). I typically dont want to stop to take a photo, especially in the middle of the exciting climb or while racing. This brings me to some doubts about choosing a right compact. Shall i go for larger sensor of G1X (comes with extra-size and weight) or G15 is more than enough. Or even smaller compact?

    Thanks in advance, Maksym

    • bikealps says:

      Hi Maksym,

      I use 2 cameras — a Nikon D3 and a Canon G10. The Canon G10 fits in my jersey pocket nicely, but it just isn’t as clear. It has 15 Mpixels, but the sensor is small so the photos can be grainy and just aren’t as sharp. TRhe D3 is a wonderful camera but it is big and heavy. When I am fit and don’t mind carrying the backpack, i usually carry the D3 with a 16-35 f4 and a 70-200 f2.8 lens.

      For the mountains, I really like having an ultra-wide angle, so the 16-35 lens is great. With the Canon G10, I use the stitch mode and Photoshop to make panoramas. Photoshop does a much better job of stitching than the Canon software.

      A G1X would be a great choice. The larger sensor would really improve clarity and grain. Yes, believe it or not, I see a lot of grain in my G10 shots up close and they make the photos look a little muddy.


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