Gavia, Italy: Same Route, Different Ride
Clif founder Gary Erickson has ridden Italy’s formidable Passo di Gavia more than 20 times over the last 31 years. And though he follows the same route each time he returns to Gavia, the ride itself is a constantly changing experience.
Everything but the Alps themselves is a variable. The weather. The light. The trail conditions. And the company along the way.
Because each time Gary returns to Gavia, he comes with new companions.
The 2017 Crew
This year, Mountain Bike Hall of Famer Hans Rey and World Cup alpine ski racer Stacey Cook joined Gary and his wife Kit for the ride, along with a few intrepid CLIF employees (who are also fellow cycling enthusiasts).
When he first laid eyes on the vertical climbs they’d be tackling, Hans said he had only two words for the view: “Wow!” and “Ouch.”
“I’m very familiar with the Gavia and Stelvio passes, but I’d never had the opportunity or the guts to tackle them on a bike. I had no idea if I even had it in me to climb these big passes,” Hans said. “I’m not necessarily known for my endurance or road biking, so this was a new cycling experience for me.”
For Stacey, cycling in Italy has always been a bullet on her bucket list—her 20 year bucket list—the one she’ll get to when she’s finished competing. But when the call came from Gary, she couldn’t say no.
“I spend a lot of time in Europe competing and training on snow, but I haven’t really done much exploring off the snow,” she said. “Bormio is an area I have skied often, but I honestly didn’t realize just how big of a biking area it is.
The first day Stacey arrived in Bormio, she joined a few others from the Clif team on a warm-up ride. The 18-mile ride turned out to be the biggest ride she had done yet in 2017.
“Knowing it was just the warm-up was a bit of an eye-opener of what we were in for,” Stacey recalled.
CLIF’s Director of Sports Marketing, Lisa Novak, got an eyeful of the route from a car, on her way in to Bormio. For a self-described “lapsed rider,” it was an intimidating sight.
“I was really afraid, actually. I thought, ‘Who would ride this?!’ In my wildest dreams, I would have never ridden those passes,” she recalled.
But that’s exactly why this Gavia trip was so special, according to Leah Hill, an avid cyclist and CLIF Sports Marketing Manager.
“Yeah, it looks intimidating to be there. But Gary had such belief in everybody on the team. It didn’t matter how fast or how slow we rode, he just knew the trip would be an amazing experience for everybody, whatever level of rider they were,” Leah explained.
Once the entire team was assembled in Bormio, they prepped for the ride with bike fittings—and a feast.
“The Italians are just the best hosts in the world,” Lisa exclaimed. “The spread was like Thanksgiving—meats, cheeses, breads, crackers, nuts, olives. Such incredible food. They’d pack us lunches, even!”
Well-fed and fitted, the CLIF crew clipped in on a fine Tuesday morning and headed out—and up.
Yeah, it looks intimidating to be there. But Gary had such belief in everybody on the team. It didn’t matter how fast or how slow we rode, he just knew the trip would be an amazing experience for everybody, whatever level of rider they were.
The Moment Is What Matters
The first time Gary rode Gavia back in 1986, he discovered the remarkable potential of the side road, the small paths, the trails less traveled.
These are the roads that lead to actual adventure. To the most exhilarating views. To unexpected connections with the people you meet along the way—people you’d never run into if you stayed on the widest, busiest, most obvious roads.
On rides like these, as Gary puts it, “The fun of getting there is getting there.” The destination is never the point, not really. It’s all about the journey, about the miles you conquer together, and the camaraderie that springs up along the way.
The beautiful simplicity of this experience has informed much of Gary’s—and CLIF’s—corporate philosophy. The present moment, the road itself, that’s what really matters.
It’s this kind of experience Gary wants to share with others. It’s why he keeps coming back to Gavia. And it’s why he keeps coming back on a bike.
“I’ve been riding bicycles for over 40 years, and for over 30 years professionally,” said Hans. “Bikes are the best way to explore the world and to forget about everything else and just focus on the moment and the task ahead.”
For Stacey, traveling by bike always reveals something unexpected.
“I tend to see so much more detail on a bike, smell the smells, see the sights, be social,” she said. “You experience the journey rather than just get to the finish, which is a bit of a megaphone for life!”
The Struggle Is Real
Climbing thousands of feet up towering Alps, over precipitous passes whose names have the ring of legend—Stelvio, Umbrail, Mortirolo, Gavia—the CLIF team bonded, not just over the stunning scenery, but over the exertion of getting there.
“On the third day, I really struggled with the Umbrail pass,” Stacey recalled. “It was so relentless, and the timing of when we did that pass was tough. I had already reached a daily record on vertical climbing before we even started up Umbrail, so I was going into unknown territory physically, and the relentless nature of this pass started to get to me mentally.”
But the team was there, encouraging Stacey to conquer the climb. “I was so grateful for their company in my struggle!” she said. “Gary made a really tough itinerary even for avid and fit cyclists. I think almost everyone had a moment of struggle, but no one gave up, and that is really special.”
For Leah, the trip remains a source of inspiration, even weeks after returning home. “When you’re part of something deemed ‘extreme’ as far as elevation and miles ridden, everything else seems achievable,” she said.
Passo di Gavia
On the fourth and final day of the ride, the crew climbed the famous Mortirolo Pass, then began the ascent of the one they’d all been waiting for. Passo di Gavia—8,599 feet in elevation, with 15 hairpins and a tunnel, and an average gradient of 8%, but some sections as high as 16%.
“We had an amazingly clear, sunny, blue day,” Leah remembers, “perfection to see what Gary had brought everyone here to experience.”
Two-and-a-half miles from the top of the pass, the path ducks below a distinctive craggy outcropping—the one depicted on Clif Bar’s Nut Butter Filled packaging. The spot is significant for Gary, because it represents the philosophy that has shaped both his life and his company.
The Clif crew paused when they reached this point on the pass, taking a moment to take it all in.
“For Gary, anything is surmountable, but it can also be enjoyable, too, despite the fear factor, the intimidation, or the scale of the mountains,” said Lisa.
“It was such a joy, the way he set up the trip. It was so special for all of us to eat together, to drink espresso together, to stop and drink water from a fountain on the side of the road. It was all so communal.
“Somehow this trip, this ride, was an equalizer,” she said. “Maybe because of the mountains or the passes—it didn’t matter if you were the founder of Clif Bar or not, it just felt like we were all one unit. That doesn’t happen very often in your life.”
THE GAVIA ITINERARY
Day 1: A warm-up ride from Bormio along the valley of the Valtellina to test legs and bikes.
Total mileage: 18 miles | Elevation gain: 2000-3000 feet
Day 2: Rained out! Some of the team took a hike instead, while others chose to chill with mud masks at the local Roman baths.
Day 3: A big day climbing up and over the Passo dello Stelvio. It’s the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps. The ride from Bormio to the top of Passo dello Stelvio is an elevation gain of 5000 feet over 13.6 miles, then a descent down the 48 hairpin turns of the Stelvio, topped off with a climb back up by way of Passo Umbrail. There were definitely some tears and some “serious bonking,” as the Clif team tackled the climb, but there was also an overwhelming feeling of pride.
Total mileage: 62.5 miles | Elevation gain: 10,620 feet
Day 4: Another huge day climbing the famous Passo di Mortirolo (elevation 6,076 feet)—often featured as the penultimate climb before the finish in the Giro d’Italia. Sections of the trail were signed with the steepness of the section ahead: the average grade, the highest percent. For some on the team, it was great information. Others would have given the signage a middle finger, had it been easy to take a hand off the bars.
After descending Mortirolo, the team rode quickly through the valley floor with a low elevation gain to Ponte di Legno, then began climbing Passo di Gavia (elevation 8,599 feet), the 10th highest pass in the Alps. It was on this climb that the road narrowed, the views became incredibly expansive, and the team enjoyed a bluebird sky day for the final climb of the trip.
Total mileage: 64.4 miles | Elevation gain: 10,172 feet