The Dolomites are spectacular, and if you love to ride your bike in the mountains, this area is cycling paradise. Amateur and professional events have made Passo Giau famous. The Giro has visited the climb on numerous occasions and the annual sportive, the Maratona dles Dolomites includes the Giau within its 138 km route.
We discovered the climb 12 years ago, and always return to the challenge of the Giau’s gradients, when visiting the Dolomites. For our 2018 trip, Emma and I were stopping in Arabba, a village located part way up the Passo Pordoi. It is a great, central location, placed close to many of the Passos in this area.
Since arriving, the temperatures had been relatively cool. Today was different, as the early morning air was already warm, and a vivid blue sky contrasted with the surrounding Dolomite peaks. For me, this is where the excitement begins, as some of the ingredients for a fantastic day on the bikes, were already in place.
Choosing the hydration, food and equipment comes next. We both like to use a mix of energy bars and gels, with a hypotonic (electrolyte) drink in one bottle, and energy drink in the other. It’s important to keep your energy levels high when tackling a climb such as the Giau.
The Jersey Short Sleeve L1 Pinstripe and Baselayer 1 by Q36.5 are a combination that both Emma and I favour when riding in warmer temperatures. They manage the build up of heat, and any cooling from the wind or from descending, so effectively, helping to ensure maximum comfort. This all serves to increase the enjoyment when the terrain is challenging. I chose the Salopette Dottore bib shorts for this ride, which provide optimum comfort when riding for several hours in the mountains.
With the preparation done, we were ready to ride. The Giau is approximately 33 km from from our base in Arabba. This allows us enough time to warm up, whilst enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery in the Dolomites.
On leaving the village, the ride leads us along the side of a deep valley. In the distance, the huge rock faces contrast against the green of the vegetation below. Behind us is the Pordoi, its height allows winter snow to linger within its shaded gullies. I love to cycle along this stretch of road, the views bring a smile, and every time we ride it, we are compelled to stop, admire, and take another photo.
We soon reach the end of the valley, a sign indicates our options: you can bear left for Passo Falzarego, but for our ride we must turn right onto the SR203 in the direction of Alleghe. We descend, heading deeper into the valley below, not forgetting to glimpse through the trees at the snow capped Marmolada, and the villages which cling to the steep sides of the valley.
The momentum of the descent, and then a left turn, take us through the picturesque Colle Santa Lucia and we quickly reach the beginning of Passo Giau. We are greeted by the sound of a river, and the steep ramp which marks the beginning of our ascent.
Our bikes are geared for the mountains, and I am glad of this when tackling the early stages of this consistently challenging climb. The gradient is mainly between 7% and 10% but exceeds this at times. Thankfully the switchbacks are generally of shallower gradient, and they create a few moments of respite and the opportunity to take a sip from the drinks bottle.
The steep lower slopes of the road are tree clad, and the front wheel quite readily becomes a point of focus. I occasionally remind myself to look up and around, as it would be easy to miss the rock formations above, and the valley behind us, which offer hints of the landscape and the beauty of the Giau’s upper slopes and summit.
It is a week day, and the ascent is relatively quiet, compared to the weekend, but we still see riders either heading up or down, prompting ìCiao!î or a friendly wave.
The first tunnel soon comes into view, and its presence gives an indication of the progress I am making. The tunnel is short, the interior is bright, and the shallower gradient of this section enables a brief recovery. Easing the tension from my legs, and allowing the heart rate to drop a few beats is something I really appreciate, as the gradient generally remains steep for the next few kilometes.
A second tunnel follows shortly after. The feel of the slightly cooler environment last moments, before I am back in daylight. The elevation begins to influence the surroundings, and the trees edging the road gradually fade away, and flowers and small shrubs take their place.
As any shade disappears, the heat and brightness of the sun intensifies how it feels to climb. The heat combined with the potential to see Dolomite peaks and the valley below, heighten the experience of being in the mountains. For me, these are the moments that create a natural high, and they form a huge part of what I love about cycling.
The switchbacks occur frequently, each one altering my gaze from mountain side to open expanse. The routine is broken by the next tunnel. This one is longer than the others, but openings along its left side allow natural light to enter, making the passage through quite an easy proposition.
Passing the Rifugio Fedare is a landmark which indicates a slight ease in the gradient. At this point, there are times when I am able to shift further down through the gears, and enjoy gaining more momentum between each turn in the road.
The open mountain side is grass covered, enhanced by patches of bright flowers, its rounded profile topped by rocky spires. Below these, huge boulders and outcrops break up the greenery. As the climb continues, I can now see the high mountains, their upper reaches are either bare rock or snow capped. It is a truly spectacular sight.
The switchbacks of the ascent are numbered, accumulating in twenty nine before the summit. As the number on each turn reaches the mid twenties, my emotions are torn between the desire to reach the summit, but not wanting my time on the Giau to end. This prompts me to admire the landscape, whilst I am encouraged on by the sight of the Rifugio, which is where the height gain will end.
The top of the Giau is a beautiful and popular place, and as I reach this point my pace eases, and I enjoy the views ahead, sharing the ambience with the other cyclists, motorcyclists and hikers alike. Having relaxed a moment, my attention turns to Emma, who I expect will arrive soon, so I head back to a point where I can take a photo, to preserve a memory.
It is rare that Emma does not have a summit smile when she reaches the top of a climb, so I always try to make sure I am there, waiting at that point. It is now time to sit and enjoy the dramatic backdrop and take a drink at the Rifugio. We both love the hot chocolate that they serve; it is thick and sweet, and helps replenish the energy we have used on the way up.
From here, there are options to descend to Pocol, and then return to Arabba by ascending the Passo Falzarego. However, on this day we retraced our route, enjoying the descent of the Giau, back through the pretty area of Colle Santa Lucia, gradually ascending to the valley road, heading back towards Arabba and the Pordoi.
If you visit the Dolomites, I hope these words and images will encourage you to experience the beauty and the challenge of Passo Giau.