Alps and Dolomites 2017, Day 3

Gavia Day!

Ian with Elaine and Andy. Oddly, the only one to have worn the pink jersey isn’t in the pink jersey…

Several years ago, the prospect of riding the Gavia with Andy Hampsten was one of the things that started this whole mess for me. After that first trip, the next two years skipped the Alps in favor of more Dolomite riding, which I absolutely loved. Even as I was sorry to miss some of those rides this year, I was pretty excited to go back to the Gavia.

This year I had a goal of riding the other side of the Gavia–you know, the side that the Giro went up in ’88 when Andy won. Spoiler–I didn’t. At least, not entirely.

Three reasons: I was still feeling the effort of the Umbrail from the day before; jet lag had hit me hard and I was pretty sleep-deprived; and my training before the trip was not enough to give me the reserves to overcome the previous two things.

Still, the day started off well enough. Despite sleepiness and fatigue, I was feeling alright, not pushing too hard, and enjoying the climb. I was even verging into the realm of feeling confident that I’d have a strong ascent to feel proud of.

Peekaboo view from the lower slopes of the Gavia

Wide open view from the upper slopes of the Gavia

Then, towards the top, when I was starting to feel hopeful (whoops!), I hit a steep part. About a mile that hovered around 12 or 13%. I’m pretty sure it was new. It’s definitely not possible that I erased that part from my memory. Must have been new.

This coincided with my blood sugar getting a little lower than is ideal–I was really ready to see Gerardo, the van, and a lovely spread of food… But instead, the road stayed stubbornly pitched up. I ended up huddling in my dark place for a while, very glad that I was riding alone.

But I made it, and all was well. The top of the Gavia is a great place–just being there in general, and even more so being there when Gerardo is working his magic, and the owners of the rifugio are enthusiastically greeting Andy. They watched him ride by in ’88, and they remain excited to see him bicycling up there.

Pro tip: the rifugio serves a very thick, very potent hot chocolate. It is a wonderful thing on a nice cold summer day.

Proof that I made it

And then was the moment of truth–who was going to go down the other side? I had to admit to myself that I was pretty cooked. Even if I could make it back up the other side, it wouldn’t be fun (or fun for anyone to be around me), and might not be the best way to set up the rest of the trip.

I was disappointed.

But I did ride down the other side as far as the new tunnel, which was built to replace a notoriously treacherous stretch of road. The old road still clings to the side of the mountain, now a minefield of jagged rocks more appropriate to mountain biking–or to walking along after dismounting your road bike, which is what a number of us did.

Between the boulder and the modern road gallery is a remnant of the old road. In the background, you can just make out the road zig-zagging up the mountain to the pass. It’s really steep.

Looking the other way down the old “road”

It was a quick 3 km ride down to the tunnel, but it sure took a while to come back up. I stopped partway to take a photo–more for the opportunity to rest my legs than for the photo… Even though I didn’t do the full descent and ascent of the other side, the little bit that I did certainly represented way more work that I had done the first trip!

Bundled up for the 2-mile descent to the tunnel–and I was still cold–vs partway back up the same stretch of road–and I was still overheating. Did I mention it was steep?

So that goal gets a partial checkmark, and sits out there tantalizingly, goading me along for this year. Because of course in 2018, 30-year anniversary of Andy’s win, the Cinghiale trip is returning to the Gavia.

For every photo I took, there were 100’s of amazing views that I did not stop to photograph. Clicking on this photo will take you to my Flickr where you can see some more Gavia pictures.

I had a blast on the descent, stopping for photos and just trying to appreciate the view and the experience as much as I could. It’s still a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming experience to get to ride these roads in Italy.

Day 3, Gavia (!!!): 35 miles, 5400 feet.


Dolomites and Alps, Day 6


Long version: Erm. Uhhh, excuse the all-caps outburst there. And to be fair, I only rode with him briefly as he worked his way from the back of the group to the front. The actual story of the day is I RODE UP THE GAVIA WITH ELAINE HAMPSTEN!!!! I had a blast riding with her, and it was a super-duper awesome time.

But still, it was Gavia day, and however you cut it, it was a red letter kind of day. Upon reflection, I think that wasn’t an all-caps outburst so much as a calm, deliberate description of the day.

In case you haven’t hung on every single word I have written, Andy’s win of the Giro and place in the cycling pantheon and in the bosom of Italy, come of course from his performance over his whole career. But they also come from one brutal day on the Gavia. It’s known as “the day the big men cried.” (Read Andy’s account here. Read a long Sports Illustrated account here. A shorter account by here. See Bob Roll put people into hysterics talking about it here.)

So riding the Gavia with Andy Hampsten is kinda a big deal.

I might have had some nerves associated with the day. It’s kinda a hard climb. And then you turn around and have to come down a technical descent, with some steep downhill corners on rough pavement. And after the previous day, I wouldn’t describe my legs as fresh. But hey, this is what I was here for, right? Or something?

Andy pulls out his Giro-tribute jersey for the Gavia day

Andy pulls out his Giro-tribute jersey for Gavia day

We had a brief pre-ride talk–not much in the way of direction to give, just take the road from in front of the hotel all the way up to the top–but Andy did go into some discussion of extra-credit options we would have once at the top.

"Just go this way straight up the road, the Passo Gavia will be right there, you can't miss it."

“Just go this way straight up the road, the Passo Gavia will be right there, you can’t miss it.”

And then we were off.

After a bit of sorting out, people going ahead, then falling back, or vice versa, I found myself alongside Elaine, and we seemed to be at the same pace. For the most part we chatted our way up the Gavia–though there were some sections that I had to save all my oxygen for bicycling. It was a really lovely climb, through a few towns, then it got into the trees, the road narrowed, and it felt like your own private bicycling road. The illusion was very occasionally shattered by a car or motorcycle, but only occasionally.

After a while, an obscenely chipper Andy caught up with us, boisterous and talkative. He apparently hadn’t noticed the 10% + grade that we were grinding up… After riding together for a while, he shot up ahead, quickly out of sight. I asked Elaine if she’s ever seen him sweat while riding a bicycle. She said no.


She also said that on Gavia day, it is his habit to start at the back of the group, and then cycle through the whole group, and get to the top first to greet everyone as they arrive. And I can only imagine how much fun it must be for him to be able to ride this road easily, recreationally, and not in blizzard conditions with the Giro d’Italia on the line… No wonder he was so disgustingly chipper!

Partway up I was shocked to see Ian–I never see him on a climb. He was taking pictures of me and Elaine as we went by, and later I found out that his knee was hurting, which is why he had stopped. But thinking he was just being a tourist, I blithely went by with Elaine.

I actually passed Ian on a climb!

I actually passed Ian on a climb!

Note the shorts, and sweat dampening my jersey. Also note the dampness of the road, and cloudy sky.

Note the shorts, and sweat dampening my jersey (click to embiggen). Also note the dampness of the road, and cloudy sky.

Towards the top we had a little adventure threading our way through a herd of cows who appeared not to have heard the phrase “share the road.” However the cows did not seem to be as productive as the sheep, and our bikes exited from the cow field as clean as they entered it (which in my case was not very–but at least it was merely dirt…)

Also towards the top, the temperature started dropping noticeably. What had been a humid warm day was becoming a humid cool day. Then the humid became wet. And then we got to the van!

There I completely changed clothes, into a long sleeve jersey, and 3/4 length wool tights–clothes that were warm and dry. Yay! And of course there was the usual gourmet spread that we were becoming accustomed to. Rides since the trip have been a bit of a let down–no one meeting me halfway through with food, fresh clothing, mechanical assistance, and good cheer…

Anyway–we were at the top of the Gavia, with Andy Hampsten!

Ian limped in a bit later, his knee really bothering him in the cold, but he still had enough left to jump in on some photos.

I had a great time riding up the Gavia with Elaine! And now we're cold!

I had a great time riding up the Gavia with Elaine! And now we’re cold!

Have I mentioned that we went up the Gavia with Andy Hampsten?

Have I mentioned that we went up the Gavia with Andy Hampsten?

The rifugio was a welcome refuge indeed. Warmth. Espresso. I sort of had to pee, but upon hearing that the bathroom was like an icebox, I decided that actually, I was doing just fine. Though not the merchandising madhouse that the Stelvio was, there were a number of souvenirs for sale, and I wear my Gavia jacket with pride. The people running the place greeted Andy warmly–I think that the proprietors might have been there watching when he summited in 1988.

Up on the wall at the rifugio, memorable Gavia moments. Click to embiggen to see the awful conditions that Andy rode through.

Up on the wall at the rifugio, memorable Gavia moments. Click to embiggen to see the awful conditions that Andy rode through.

It was now decision time: roll back down to the hotel, or descend the other side of the pass, ascend in the direction that Andy raced the Giro, and then descend to the hotel.

I decided to go back to the hotel. I was already nervous about descending the rough, broken pavement that we had ascended, and I was even more so as the weather appeared to be trending from sprinkles to a rainstorm. I didn’t want to be at my limit, exhausted, perhaps shivering, and dealing with a technical AND wet descent.

At the time, it was the right decision. But now I know that the descent was not nearly as challenging as I had worried it might be, and so knowing what I do now, I would probably go for the extra credit. But I’m glad that on the entire trip, aside from a few moments on the Passo Fedaia (which I solved by getting off my bike), I never felt like I was putting myself in a situation where I was over my head, or taking undue risks. I felt very challenged on the trip–but never unsafe.

Like I say, the descent really wasn’t all I had scared myself into thinking it would be. I took it really slow on the top, partly because the pavement was rough, often damp or outright wet, and I was worried about traction and braking effectiveness. It was also warmer to go slow than descend like a rocket. But I gained confidence, the pavement improved, and it got warmer, so I started to let it fly a bit. My ride data shows that in one 6-mile stretch, I didn’t pedal at all… Whee!!!! It still makes me nervous, but descending mountains is so unbelievably fun. Especially when you have earned every inch of the descent.

And the shower at the hotel was pretty amazing too.

The people who went on down the other side of the Gavia had a pretty neat personal Giro d’Italia highlights tour. But they also returned in a drenching rainstorm. We watched them come in as others of us relaxed with beer in the hotel… Missing out on the extra credit was really not too bad of a decision.

Before dinner, Andy gathered us around and told the story of *that day* on the Gavia. It was pretty similar to the accounts I linked to above–but being there in person, watching his body language, and hearing his vocal inflections as he relived the experience, was really special.

One of the things he mentioned was that it was a good thing he didn’t know where the team hotel was, otherwise he might have gone straight to it instead of crossing the finish line. He was consumed with thoughts of a hot bath or shower, but instead had to go through all the ceremonies associated with becoming the race leader (what a hardship!). And when he got to the hotel… Lukewarm water. And tiny uncomfortable cots that were billed as beds.

The upside to this, as he was shivering away in his cot, was anticipating dinner. Apparently the hotels along the Giro route could be hit or miss as regards showers, beds, and food–but they never missed all three. So given the miserableness of the first two, the team figured that dinner ought to be pretty amazing. And they were right.

One of the regional specialties is a hearty buckwheat pasta dish called pizzoccheri, and the team emerged into the dining room to be greeted with essentially troughs of delicious food, notably including pizzoccheri. Andy swears that the dish’s delicious heartiness recovered them after the brutal day, and saved the Giro for the team.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), pizzoccheri was one of the featured dishes at the hotel. I had it more than one night, and it was as fabulous as advertised.

It was a short day for me: only 31 miles and 5,700 feet of elevation gain. Only!