I’ve just returned from Cortina in Italy, described on a promotional website for the region as the “Pearl of the Dolomites.” Why was I there? For the launch of a new road bike, but since it's embargoed until July, I thought I would share some photos from my two days of riding in the Veneto region of Italy and put forth a case for why it’s a must-ride destination, but in particular, focusing on the dramatic Passo Giau climb.
It’s really easy to get to Cortina, with regular and cheap flights from Gatwick airport and a short 1hr 45min flight time. Cortina hosted the Winter Olympics in 1956, and you drive past the imposing sky jump on the long drive up the valley from the Marco Polo airport in Venice. The areas reliance on the ski season and jet setters is evident, the town and roads are really quiet. There are very few people around.
Cortina might not be the most obvious destination at this time of year for a cycling break, a fact backed up by the lack of cyclists on the roads and most hotels being shut. Not many cyclists, then, but plenty of screaming motorbikes and howling Ferraris zooming up the mountain roads.
But if you watched this year’s Giro d’Italia, and paid particular attention to stage 14, you’ll have watched the racers tackle the mountain roads in this region, and one mountain in particular stood out, the Passo Giau.
The Passo Giau was one of the key climbs of that stage, the penultimate ascent in a 210km stage that started in Alpago and finished in Corvara. It’s a stunning climb, stunning in its intensity but hugely rewarding with incredible views accompanying your ride up to the summit, and a breathtaking view from the top, every direction you look in.
The mountains in this region have a distinctive spiky and craggy appearance on the horizon, set against a lush layer of conifer trees on the lower slopes, and snow higher up. And once you've mopped the sweat from your brow and cleaned your glasses, you're treated to a rip-roaring descent with a huge variety of turns that will satisfy speed demons and thrill-seekers.
I climbed Passo Giau from both sides, first starting in Cortina and approaching from the relatively easier east side via Pocol. It’s by no means a walk in the park, with a gradient that dips and rises constantly and makes finding a comfortable rhythm a tall order.
Ridden in the direction as raced by the Giro, it’s a much tougher task. Though not the longest at 10km, the road rises to 2,236m and it is steep all the way from the bottom, barely relenting as the densely wooded forest, which at first obscures the magnitude of the climb, eventually gives way to a barren summit.
In places, the gradient touches 12-15%, with an average gradient, according to Veloviewer, of 8.9%. That makes it a really difficult climb. I don’t mind admitting I was pretty much in my lowest gear all the way up, and many times I was craving for a lower gear than my 50x29 setup.
There are many hairpins on this side of the mountain, and they’re numbered which is useful, helping you to tick off them off as you pedal away. The hairpins don't really offer much respite from the gradient, in fact, there are very few moments where you can reduce the pressure on the pedals without coming to a standstill.
I managed the ascent in a very salty and sweaty 52 minutes, which I was quite pleased with. Until I uploaded my ride to Strava and realised that Joe Dombrowski has the KOM with a staggering time of 33 minutes! That’s a stark reminder of just how much faster the professionals ascend such brutal climbs.
I can highly recommend riding the Passo Giau, and doing as I did and riding it from both sides, which makes for a solid ride with over 2,000m of ascending - and two awesome descents. There’s a cafe at the top and, provided the sun is out, as it was for us, it’s warm enough to stop and enjoy a replenishing coffee and slice of cake. Make sure to take a moment to admire the view before you zip up your gilet for the thoroughly enjoyable descent back to the hotel.
It might not be as famous as the Stelvio or Mortirolo, but the Passo Giau is definitely a climb to add to your must-ride list. You could easily plan your own riding trip here, a long weekend would give you a good chance to explore the area, or you could enter the Maratona dles Dolomites gran fondo, which features the Passo Giau as one of its seven climbs.
David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes.