The highest climbs of Europe #8 - Passo Gavia

Thursday 11 June 2020 by Frank Jansen

There's ambiguity about the height of the pass. There isn't about its beauty. Experts say the Passo Gavia is perhaps the most beautiful climb in the world. A true pearl with a legendary history in cycling.

Passo Gavia

Picture 1: (Adobe Stock): north side,  view on  the Ortler (left) and Gran Zebrù (middle), the highest mountains in the area

Passo Gavia

Country: Italy
Height: 2652 meters


The Passo Gavia lies in Lombardia. Milan is the capital of this region. This area is Italy's most important region for Italy from an economic standpoint. Tourism is also booming, because of the presence of large lakes like Lake Garda, Lake Como, the Lake of Lugano and the Lago Maggiore. Livigno is het area's most popular ski resort. It's also a popular place for pro's for altitude training. Lombardia is a great area for cycling, and Il Lombardia race is one of the 5 monuments in pro cycling. Next to the Gavia, one can find many big names such as the Stelvio, Mortirolo, Umbrail, San Marco, Foscagno en de Eira. But that's this the tip of the iceberg. Visit CyclingCols to find more.

The height

There's some debate about the mountain's height. Is it 2621 or 2651 meters? We did some research, read our follow-up article. The one and only correct height of the Passo Gavia is 2621 meters. We're shooting ourselves in the foot here, since we'd promised we would also use the altitude on the col sign. That sign says 2652 meters, which means the Gavia is 2 places too high in the in the ranks. Well, there are worse things in life.

The south side

The climb can be reached from two sides: from Ponte di Legno (south) and Bormio (north). The south side is highly recommendable. It's not only more challenging, the views and surroundings are also much nicer. This climb is a true adventure. Starting from Ponte di Legno, the roads becomes very narrow quite rapidly. Cars can hardly overtake, which stays like that all the way to the summit. There's a never-ending view on the Italian Alpes. It compensates for the sheer pain your legs will feel because of the mediocre tarmac combined with 10% gradients. Some 3 kilometres before the top, there's a dark tunnel. Through a series of switchbacks, you'll eventually reach the top. Col connaisseur Michiel van Lonkhuyzen (Cyclingcols), thinks this is the most epic climb in the world.

The north side

From Bormio, the climb is less spectaculair. The first half goes to the ski village of Santa Caterina over a wide road. From there, the roads becomes narrower and the views significantly improve. Cycling here is awesome. High peaks all around, enjoyment all around. The last few km's are false flat, which give you the opportunity to look around. Early in the season, snow walls are quite common here, especially after harsh winters.

Cycling history

Although every cycling fan knows the Gavia, it was only included in the Giro twelve times, two of which two were cancelled. On June the 5th 1988, one of the most legendary events in pro cycling happened here. It's hard to find words to describe what happened. At the time, the road was party unpaved, and it was snowing heavily. Johan van der Velde was the first rider who passed the summit, wearing just a summer outfit. He missed his soigneur, who was waiting with dry clothes. A few kilometres later, seriously hypothermic he had to stop and get into a car, so did many other riders. It look as though Hampsten would win, but shortly the before the finish line, he was overtaken by Breuking got his most beautiful win in his career. Hampsten did however take the pink jersey, which he would keep the entire Giro. Van der Velde and the other riders were dropped right before the finish, nearly an hour after the winner. He was however awarded the L'uomo di Gavia (the man of the Gavia). If you never seen the incredible footage, here's the legendary video.

Gran fondo's

Gran Fondo Gavia e Mortirolo


Passo GaviaPasso Gavia north

Passo GaviaPasso Gavia south

Routes and tours

As said, the Gavia can be climbed from two sides: from Ponte di Legno (south) and from Bormio (north). There's however a great alternative: the famous Mortirolo-Gavia tour. The Mortirolo is one of Europe's hardest climbs, one that should be on your palmares for sure. In our version, we've taken the classic climb from Mazzo. It's also possible to ride from Tiolo, which is a little easier. And if you're looking for a next level challenge, take the route from Tovo: a crazy climb with gradients up to 27%. No matter how you climb the Mortirolo, the Gavia is always ridden from Ponte di Legno. 


Click on the images to download the routes.

The highest climbs in Europe, the list

8 Passo Gavia
Italy 2632
9 Col du Galibier
France 2632
10 Colle del Nivolet
Italy 2632
11 Grossglockner
Austria 2571
12 Timmelsjoch /
Passo Rombo
13 Pass Umbrail Switzerland
14 Colle delle Fauniera /
Colle dei Morti 
Italy 2481
15 Nufenenpass /
Passo della Novena
Switzerland 2477
16 Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard /
Colle del Gran San Bernardo
17 Furkapass Switzerland 2436
18 Roque de los Muchachos Spain 2426
19 Hochwurtenspeicher Austria 2421
20 Col du Granon France 2413


Passo Gavia

Picture 2 (Michiel van Lonkhuizen - CyclingCols): south side, start  from Ponte di Legno.

Passo Gavia

Picture 3 (Adobe Stock): south side half way. View on the valley.

Passo Gavia

Picture 4 (Michiel van Lonkhuizen - CyclingCols): south side, one of many switchbacks.

Passo Gavia

Picture 5 (Michiel van Lonkhuizen - CyclingCols): south side, mediocre road quality.

Passo Gavia

Picture 6 (Michiel van Lonkhuizen - CyclingCols): south side,  the last hairpin before the summit.

Passo Gavia

Picture 7 (Adobe Stock)south side, lovely view on the straight end before the last serie of switchbacks.

Passo Gavia

Picture 8 (Michiel van Lonkhuizen - CyclingCols): south side, view on the summit.

Passo Gavia

Picture 9 (Wikimedia Commons Frisia Orientalis): north side.

Passo Gavia

Picture 10 (Wikimedia Commons Frisia Orientalis): north side.

Passo Gavia

Picture 11 (Marc Eikens):  Height, 2652 meter, according to the sign.

Passo Gavia

Picture 12 (Marc Eikens): The data.

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