Culture

The Gavia celebrates 60 years as Giro d’Italia legend

As soon as stage 20 of the 1960 Giro attacked the Gavia, it became a climb of legend.

It’s hard to imagine the Giro d’Italia without the mythic Gavia Pass. And today, the Gavia celebrates its 60th birthday since it was first included in the 1960 Giro d’Italia. At the time, no one could predict that the 17-km-long climb with an 8 percent average gradient would enter the annals of sport. Sure, at 2,618-meter-altitude, its summit is high by Alpine standards. And the rugged gravel road that paved the way to the summit only rendered it more difficult. But there were a lot of dirt roads in the Alps back in the day. Nevertheless, legendary Giro d’Italia director Vincenzo Torriani was looking for a novel climb. And when he discovered the pass during an aerial recon, he thought there was real potential.

And almost as soon as stage 20 of the 1960 Giro attacked the Gavia, it became a climb of legend. As the penultimate stage of the Giro that year, it offered the final opportunity for anyone to shake Frenchman Jacques Anquetil out of the pink leader’s jersey. And 23-year-old Italian Imerio Massignan was set on trying. Massignan, a member of the distinctive Legnano team, attacked early and led the leaders over the climb. And with a two-minute gap, he was shaking up standings.

Photo: Tim De Waele (FILE)

“It was an unforgettable day!” Massignan remembers. “At the time, few of us knew anything about the Gavia, and we didn’t do any recon beforehand. Suddenly, I found myself in front of a mule track: there were gravel and stones on all sides, six-meter-high snow walls on one side and the cliff on the other”.

Massignan still remembers skirting along the rugged dirt road. He spotted a military vehicle that had crashed over the edge, attesting to the treacherous nature of the road. But Massignan was feeling like Fausto Coppi as he crested the summit and attacked the descent with dreams of capturing the Magia Rosa.

His own dreams suddenly turned to nightmares, however, as he flatted no less than three times before the finish into Bormio. Caught by legendary Luxembourg rider Charly Gaul, Massignan could only watch in tears as Gaul cruised across the line, as his third flat in the final 300 meters of the stage prevented him from even contesting the stage sprint.

But to this day Massignan, who finished fourth in the 1960 race, is proud to have been the first Giro rider to have crested Gavia. “I was born in a time full of stars: Gaul, Anquetil, Bahamontes, Nencini and Van Looy, to name a few. It might be the reason why I didn’t win many races,” Massignan recalls. “However, nobody will ever take away my record as the first cyclist on the Gavia!”

Ironically the Giro has only included the Gavia on nine occasions, But it is seemingly always a day to remember. No day, however, was as unforgettable as stage 14 of the 1988 Giro d’Italia, when Dantesque blizzard conditions transformed the stage into a day of surreal horror. It would be a day when race leader Franco Chioccioli literally froze off of his bicycle. And of course, it was a day when Andy Hampsten raced into the pink jersey on his way to becoming the first American to win the famed race.

Andy Hampsten on the Gavia in 1988. Photo: file

At the start, the riders were still very much racing into the unknown. After all, it was the first time that the Giro had tackled the Gavia since its initial ascent in 1960. And
few understood just how bad it would get before the summit.

But Hampsten and his 7-Eleven team came prepared. Hampsten knew at what point the road turned into gravel, something that played into his hands. And his team, understanding the severity of the conditions that awaited the riders at the summit, went out shopping in an effort to buy up all of the extra caps and gloves they could find to protect the riders.

“I went to the local ski shop and bought winter gloves for everybody the night before. I bought as many gloves as I could. We gave them to the riders that morning when they started,” team manager Jim Ochowicz told VeloNews in a 2017 feature. “My plan was to drive up ahead of the race to the top of the Gavia and then hand out bottles of hot tea and hats and jackets. We took off early, and it took forever to get up there because there were several avalanches on the way up. We drove up and at halfway the road turned to dirt, and it was like ‘Whoa, how are these guys going to get up this?’”

It’s the team meeting and [Mike] Neel (i.e. sports director) talks us into putting lanolin on our entire bodies, not just our legs, remembers Hampsten “It’s like we were preparing to swim in the English Channel.”

Andy Hampesten Gavia Pass 1988 Giro d'Italia

Andy Hampsten in white-out blizzard conditions, ascending the Gavia Pass in the 1988 Giro d’Italia. Photo: Pontedilegno Tonale

Despite the team’s calculations, the conditions near the summit were worse than anyone could imagine. “The conditions were very dangerous, life-threatening,” remembers Norwegian team member Dag-Otto Lauritzen. “I didn’t know if I was braking. I had to look at the brakes to make sure my fingers were working because I had no feeling in them anymore.”

But while everyone suffered that day, Hampsten was on fire. Cresting the summit in third place, the American raced towards the finish in Bormio and into the lead of the Giro d’Italia.

Many criticized the race organization for not canceling the stage. After all, stages in the Giro had been canceled for much less. But it remains one of the most epic stages in the race’s history and it forever etched the Gavia into the annals of the race, as well as the sport of cycling.

Sure the Giro has climbed the Stelvio and the Tre Cime di Lavaredo on many more occasions, but the Gavia is no less than of an icon for cycling aficionados.

And for those looking to have their own memories on this mythic climb, you can celebrate the legend of the Gavia without cars on July 26 and August 30, from 8:30 to 12:30. What better way to wish a happy anniversary to such a historic climb!