In the world of cycling, and indeed the 2019 Giro d’Italia, few mountain passes have an aura quite like the Gavia.
And when you talk about the Gavia Pass at the Giro, it is quite possibly in the same breath as the weather.
Who can forget the images of Andy Hampsten and co battling through a blizzard on the Gavia in the 1988 race? And, in 2013, when organisers were forced to bypass both the Gavia and Stelvio passes before eventually cancelling the stage.
This year’s Giro is no different. With the ascent of the Passo di Gavia still several days in the future, it already has tongues wagging.
With heavy snowfalls in the area in recent days, and with the climb penned in for May 28, there is a very real fear that the year’s first Grand Tour will be robbed of its most anticipated moment.
Video footage of teams of road workers from the provinces of Sondrio and Brescia clearing snow around the clock with bulldozers has been circulated all over the internet and – to the untrained eye – the prospects of a bicycle race look bleak.
It is difficult to see how the local authorities will clear the large mass of snow which, reportedly, is four metres deep in places. But one shouldn’t underestimate their sheer will to have the race go over their pride and joy – and where there is a will, there usually is a way.
Not only do the towns along the route pay good money to “host” the race, the exposure they receive for being part of the official Giro d’Italia route has a knock-on effect. One only has to visit a town like Bormio in summer to understand what the allure of these mountains means for the local economy.
This Alpine village, for example, is nestled in the valley between the Gavia and Stelvio and from morning to night social cyclists from all over the world are literally strewn over the mountain roads they were introduced to via some sort of coverage of the Giro.
For a remote town such as Bormio, which paradoxically makes a living from skiing in the winter, cycle tourism has become bread and butter stuff during the “off season” and losing the publicity associated with the Giro can be ill afforded.
Passes like the Gavia are usually closed to vehicles during winter and spring and, in these regions, only really become passable in the first week of June. The timing of the Giro – arguably at least a week too early – is therefore particularly risky and perhaps one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome.
It is commonplace for local authorities to start clearing snow – even by way of controlled avalanches – from the slopes of these mountains during April in anticipation of the cycling season, but they are always at the mercy of the weather gods.
But back to the Giro d’Italia and the probability of crossing the Gavia by bicycle on stage 16, which, according to race director Mauro Vegni, is about 60 per cent.
Those odds, especially so close to D-Day, do not inspire much confidence and one hopes it is his way of merely managing expectations around the world. A double crossing of the Mortirolo Pass, which follows the Gavia on the normal route, has also been rubbished by Vegni.
Even though the Mortirolo has three possible approaches, the distance between any two of these ascents just doesn’t make sense. And it could also have something to do with the Giro trying to keep its paying customers – the host towns – happy.
It is clear that everyone with a vested interest in seeing the stage get the green light is playing their part to make it happen the way it was intended – which is over a distance of 226km from Lovere to Ponte di Legno.
Including the ascent of the Gavia, which tops out at 2 618m above sea level as this year’s Cima Coppi, the total vertical climbing on the stage will be over 5 000m. Taking the altitude as well as the sheer amount of climbing into account, with the difficult Mortirolo coming at the back end, it is a queen stage of the highest quality.
Even the final 15km to the finish rises steadily at between three and four per cent.
Back in 2010, on which occasion they climbed the Gavia the day after the Mortirolo, it was the vicious slopes of the latter that allowed Italian Ivan Basso to wipe out a deficit of more than two minutes on GC en route to the maglia rosa and, a few days later, overall victory.
There are few mountains that have stories to tell quite like the Gavia and its distant cousins. If stage 16 of the Giro is snowed out, it will be like watching a movie where the lead character is killed off before the final scene.