Dolomites June 2009: Gavia, Mortirolo, Bernina, Julier & Albula


Day 11: Tue 16th June 2009

Ride: Gavia, Mortirolo, Bernina, Julier & Albula – 210 miles

After the previous day’s rest for Gaz, Pete, Taj and Bob we agreed on a group ride out to knock off the last of the top 10 highest passes in Europe – the Gavia, and then ride round over the Mortirolo, Bernina, Julier and Albula passes the back to Livigno. Mark decided to take a break as he’d been on the road for at least 8 to 10 hours every day for the last 10 days.


Gaz at the top of his namesake

We had the usual false start with Phil thinking Kyle had been left behind and so waiting for him at the first roundabout, unaware that there was an alternative route from the hotel to the pass out of Livigno. No bother thought Phil and he continued en route confident that he would bump into them at some point. The group rode over the Passo d’Eira and Passo di Foscagno and into Bormio ignoring the turn off to the Stelvio.

From the centre of Bormio the Passo di Gavia is well signposted. Firstly you have to put up with a windy bit through Valfurva but then you have a lovely 5 mile fast and flowing section up to Santa Caterina where the pass starts.


Phil’s HP2 Sport on the Gavia, just above Santa Catarina

The road surface, nearly all the way up, except for the last stretch, is not that good but don’t let that deter you. The initial section winds up through the trees with lovely views over to the left towards Pizzo Tresero, 3,594m.

Then it opens up and the road follows the side of the mountain before you reach a section just after a bridge over a mountain stream, which climbs further up the mountain, clinging to its side. As you turn the corner at the top you have a lovely view to your left up the valley and with the Corno dei Tre Signori, 3,359m, at its head.


Phil’s HP2 Sport on the Gavia, with the Corno dei Tre Signori to the left (L) and behind (R)

Just before the summit there’s a lake, which was still covered in ice and snow just before the refugio.


The lake near the top of the Gavia (L) and Taj’s Fireblade at the same point (R)

After a number of photo stops on the way up Phil arrived at the refugio to find the others having the coffee and fag break. They’d been there about 10 minutes.

The Gavia has been used many times in the Giro d’Italia and is sometimes designated the Cima Coppi, the highest point of the race. On the 5th June 1988 the race passed over the Gavia in a snowstorm – there are pictures in the refugio. Apart from the snow and the rain in those days a lot of the pass road was just dirt – no tarmac – so the conditions were terrible. It makes you appreciate just how hard the pro cyclists are. On that day in 1988 Andy Hampsten, the only American ever to win the Giro, took over the race leadership and went on to win it.


Cat Pete and Kyle at the top of the Gavia

After the break we set off down the southern ramp. This is relatively open at the top but as you get to the tree line the road is tight, steep and mostly single track with passing places. You are better off descending rather than ascending this ramp on a bike.


Mark’s Blackbird near the top of the Gavia’s southern ramp

We ran down to Ponte di Legno and then turned right on the S42. About 10 miles down the valley we took the turn signposted Monno and Passo di Mortirolo – or Passo di Foppi. We rode through Monno and a fairly gentle climb up to the pass summit. In fact we stopped just below it not realising that it was 100 metres round the next bend.


Almost at the top of the Mortirolo (L) and Cat refuelling (R)


(L-R) Pete, Phil, Cat, Gaz, Bobby, Kyle and Taj

On the way up we passed a number of cyclists who were coming down. We had yet to appreciate what they had gone through to get to the summit, assuming they had ascended from Mazzo on the northern side.


The actual top of the Mortirolo

Lance Armstrong described the Mortirolo – it’s only ever climbed from the north side in the Giro – as the hardest climb he had ever ridden. The ascent is 7.6 miles long and climbs 1,300m making an average grade of 10.5%. The steepest section is 18%. The road has umpteen hairpin bends most of which are tight, so it must be difficult for the cyclists to get any rhythm going. For the motorcyclist it means taking a lot of care, as the road is mostly single track. So it’s not a great riding road but if you like pro cycling it’s worth seeing.

At the bottom Phil got detached from the group – his Garmin said go right. The rest went left. After waiting for each other at junctions probably only a few hundred metres apart, Kyle decided to head up the pass for a bit just in case Phil had come off. As it was Phil was safely at the bottom.


Looking up the Mortirolo (L) and Pete and Kyle at the bottom of the Mortirolo (R)

After about 10 minutes Phil thought the best thing was to continue on the agreed route, which was west to Tirano then up the Bernina Pass to San Moritz before tackling the Julier and the Albula.

When he stopped at roadworks past Tirano he thought he was on the right track – the Stop-Go man – a chatty Swiss – asked about Phil’s bike, asked whether he was hot in his leathers – he was – told Phil that he had a Honda Shadow – how interesting – and then volunteered that 6 British bikers had been through 5 minutes before. Good thought Phil. I’m on track and just need to catch them up.

The Bernina from the southern – Tirano – end is a great road to ride. As a major north-to-south artery it is wide and pretty well surfaced. There is obviously more traffic on it but there are lots of opportunities to get past. It tightens towards the summit before the turn to Livigno to the right and then opens up at the summit as described in the previous day’s report. Once past the summit and over to your left you have a good view of the glacier which runs down from Piz Bernina, 4,049m.

The road bypasses Pontresina and then you turn left through San Moritz to Silvaplana. At Silvaplana you can carry straight on towards Chiavenna and go over the Maloja pass but Phil turned right to towards Tiefencastel for the Julier Pass. A few gentle hairpins take you up from Silvaplana and onto the valley floor where you have a nice fast road up to the summit. It’s only about 5 miles from Silvaplana to the summit, with the road climbing about 480 metres.


On the Julier’s southern ramp looking down towards Silverplana (L) and the top of the Julier (R)

Once over the top two sets of hairpins take you down about 485 metres over the next 6 miles to Bivio – none of them are tight as again this is a major artery with a lot of traffic. From Bivio the road runs down past Lago di Marmorera – in fact a reservoir but it’s still very pretty – and down a tight section into Mulegns.


Lago di Marmorarer at the bottom of the Julier

Phil had been following a group of 6 or so German bikers who weren’t, at least in his opinion, riding very well but who were definitely holding him up. Luckily the next stretch down to Rona was straight and fast and he got past. The road was then fast and flowing all the way to Tiefencastel. Unfortunately the absence of anyone else in the group meant that the opportunity to take an inappropriate photo of the sign denoting the village of Cunter was missed.

Just before you reach Tiefencastel you can turn right at the roundabout to get to the Albula Pass. The road initially follows the valley floor with the railway always close by. And a golf course on your right as you approach Filisur. The road then starts to climb and after about a mile you can see the road fixed to the edge of a cliff by a gorge well above you. Two hairpins take you up to this feat of road engineering. It’s narrow now so it must have been just single track before they upgraded the road.


The Albula before Burgun

A little further on you pass through Bergun and the road continues to climb but the road gets narrower, tighter and the surface isn’t as good. It’s still OK though. The railway can’t climb as steeply so the rail engineers overcome this by having the line climb in loops inside the mountain. A couple of miles up from Bergun you see a series of tunnels and viaducts, which must take the line up a few hundred feet in no distance at all. As you pass Preda you exit the tree line and the road opens up. Becoming quite fast and then you’re at the summit.


The middle viaduct on the Albula (L) and the top of the Abula (R)

The road down is fast and open. There are few tight bends and it was a pleasure to ride down – it would also be a pleasure to ride up this section – to the base of the pass at La Punt Chamues.


On the way down the Albula

Phil then turned right to complete the loop back towards Pontresina. Mindful of the comments about the type of road the day before he took it easy and wasn’t surprised to see the Swiss Police writing a ticket for a car driver who had obviously been a bit too enthusiastic with his right foot.

Taking the Bernina southwards again he took the Forcola di Livigno back to base at Hotel Cervo to find that the rest of the group had been on the beer for at least 2 hours.


Restaurant Bivio, Livigno

Mark, it turned out had decided to go for a ride and had also ridden the Gavia and Bernina. The others rather than heading for Tirano and the Bernina had inadvertently gone the opposite way to that intended and had ridden back to Bormio up a road none of them were that impressed with – it seemed that most of the time they were in a tunnel rather than out in the open.

Anyway as this was the final night on tour the usual session commenced down at the restaurant Bivio.

However, we did manage to agree on an 8.00am start the following morning for the final run back to the airport at Brescia.

Click to read the Dolomites tour summary report Click to read the Bewdley to Etreaupont report for Sat 6th June Click to read the Etreaupont to Belfort report for Sun 7th June Click to read the Belfort to Andermatt report for Mon 8th June Click to read the Swiss Alpine Passes report for Tue 9th June Click to read the Brescia (Montechiari) to Arabba & Andermatt to Arabba reports for Wed 10th June Click to read the Grossglockner Hoch Tor report for Thur 11th June Click to read the 18 Passes in a Day report for Fri 12th June Click to read the Sella Massif report for Sat 13th June Click to read the Arabba to Livigno via Timmels Joch & via Stelvio report for Sun 14th June Click to read the Stelvio, Umbrail, Ofen & Bernina & Ofen, Umbrail & Stelvio reports for Mon 15th June Click to read the Gavia, Mortirolo, Bernina, Julier & Albula report for Tue 16th June Click to read the Livigno to Brescia (Montechiari) report for Wed 17th June Click to see all the photos taken during the tour

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