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Big Ride: Colle delle Finestre, Italy

In-depth
8 May 2019
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Words Pete Muir Photography Patrik Lundin

The perfect way to begin any ride is with a few kilometres of flat road to gently warm up the muscles, loosen the limbs and get the blood flowing in preparation for the harder sections to come. This is not that ride.

Within a few pedal strokes of leaving the carpark in the town of Susa, a sign points away from the main road towards the Colle delle Finestre, with the ominous adjunct that the summit is another 19km from this lowest point.

I’ve barely had time to secure my cleats in my pedals before the road tilts upwards and I slam the chain onto the small ring, where it will stay for the next couple of hours.

 A pre-ride perusal of the climb profile showed me that the gradient on the Finestre barely wavers for the whole of its length, hovering between 9% and 10% all the way. It’s the kind of climb that cycling commentators would describe as ‘attritional’.

Apparently it maxes out at 14%, but I’m uncertain as to where this moment of steepness arrives, so I try to adopt a mindset of determined acquiescence. It’s just going to hurt all the way up, so I might as well get on with it.

Neither my mind nor my body is really prepared for the onslaught to come, mainly because I’m a British rider based in the south of England. We just don’t have any 19km climbs to train on, and endless repeats of my local 1km leg-tester is no substitute for the constant gradients of the Alps.

To be more accurate, this is the Cottian Alps, tucked away in the top-left-hand corner of Italy, just over the border from France in the region of Piedmont, about 50km west of Turin. It’s an area of lush greenery and orderly vineyards, peppered with pretty farms and elegant towns.

The first section of our climb takes us past fields and stone farmhouses, winding its way through Meana di Susa where a large billboard celebrates the occasions the Giro d’Italia has blasted through the village.

Even at our gentle pace, it’s not long before we leave the buildings and agriculture behind and enter the dense forest that covers the lower slopes of the Colle delle Finestre.

Into the woods

Surrounded by trees on either side, it’s difficult to get any sense of the progress we’re making or where the road is heading. Every corner simply reveals another short stretch of tarmac leading inexorably upwards to another, strikingly similar corner.

To see it on a map, the road must look like a child has tried to obliterate the landscape with a pencil, scoring it back and forth with tight, sharp lines.

 
We are certainly gaining height quickly, but I can only see back as far as a couple of hairpins below, and I’m keen to find a break in the trees so I can assess how far we’ve come up from the valley we started in.

In the forest it’s eerily quiet. The only noise is the gentle buzz of rubber on tarmac and the sound of breathing. In truth, it’s the sound of my breathing.

Alongside me are Davide and Diego, two guides from the Piedmont Bike Hotel where I have been staying, and as yet they’re not displaying the same levels of effort as me. Davide has been instrumental in arranging our ride, and he chats away animatedly while I offer brief responses between gasps for air.

At least he has the decency to get out of the saddle when the gradient kicks up in the hairpins. Diego meanwhile remains seated and taps out a rhythm as metronomic as a Swiss watch.

Leading from the back

‘Diego is too quiet,’ Davide whispers to me. ‘I think he might be about to launch an attack.’ I glance back at Diego, who is doing that special trick of setting the pace while staying at the rear of the group (I’ve no idea how they do it, but I’ve noticed it’s a skill particular to good cycling guides).

He looks as calm and inscrutable as a statue. While I wrestle my bike up the slope, puffing and snorting like an asthmatic bull, Diego looks as though he is barely breathing at all.

For all I know, he does this climb so often that he has actually fallen asleep behind those dark glasses and is cycling by muscle memory alone.

Eventually, a large gap in the trees reveals a magnificent view down to the valley and across to a towering peak, which Davide informs me is the Roche Melon that guards the border with France.

I insist on stopping to take some photographs on my phone, although it is only a ruse. I’m really just thankful for an excuse to have a breather and let the throbbing in my quads die down for a moment.

I take rather more pictures than are necessary, and waste some additional time finding imaginary things to adjust on my bike, but I can’t keep it up for long. Soon enough we are back on the climb, and Diego resumes his conjuring trick of dictating the pace from a few feet behind me.

Heroes of the Giro

A pair of motorcyclists comes buzzing past, and I realise that they are the first vehicles we have encountered in nearly an hour. In the silence of the woods I have slightly lost track of time and my surroundings.

A glance at my bike computer tells me I’m crawling along at a mere 10kmh, which makes me feel a little underwhelmed until I remember the Strava data I looked at the night before.

On perusing a segment from Susa to the summit of Colle delle Finestre, I noticed that only eight people had achieved it at an average speed greater than 10kmh.

 At the time I thought it must be a mistake, but as I grind up the unrelenting slope, I realise that it might be accurate after all – this is just not a climb that people race up. Unless you’re in the Giro d’Italia, of course.

Italy’s Grand Tour has visited these slopes on three occasions, the latest being in 2015 when Spain’s Mikel Landa managed to drop Alberto Contador on the climb to cross the summit at the head of the field.

At the time, Landa was riding for Astana and, despite being in a strong position to win the stage, he was ordered to wait for his team leader, Fabio Aru, who was fighting for overall GC victory.

As it happened, Aru went on to win the stage in Sestriere, but couldn’t put enough time into Contador, who stayed in pink all the way to the final podium.

Grand Tour pedigree

The first time the Giro came to the Finestre was in 2005, on Stage 19, when the first man over the summit was Italian dope fiend Danilo Di Luca (who was banned from the sport for life in 2013).

It would be another six years, in 2011, before the Giro returned. Then the summit leader was the Belarusian rider Vasil Kiryienka (then of Movistar, now of Team Sky), who soloed on to victory in Sestriere.

As he crossed the line, Kiryienka pointed his fingers to the sky to dedicate the win to teammate Xavier Tondo, who had died just a few days earlier in a freak accident where he was crushed by his own garage door.

I have vivid memories of watching those stages on TV – one of the reasons I was so keen to come and try this climb for myself.

When the Giro passes through, the sides of the mountain are covered by huge crowds, and the helicopter cameras show a natural cauldron packed with bodies and noise, with riders weaving through it on a road that looks like a strand of soggy spaghetti dropped on a plate.

Most of all, the excitement of a stage on the Colle delle Finestre is down to the road surface. Although the first 11km of the climb take place on pristine tarmac, the final 8km are on rough gravel.

The team cars kick up clouds of dust, and the riders have to pick their line carefully on the slippy, rocky surface, all while trying to avoid over-enthusiastic tifosi brandishing flags.

It’s a venue that makes for compelling racing and, as such, I feel a mixture of thrill and trepidation when we arrive at a signpost that marks the end of the smooth road and the beginning of the gravel.

My legs are already suffering from the relentless gradient, and now things are about to get even tougher.

Stone me

‘The gravel adds about 2% to the gradient,’ says Davide.

Not only does it feel harder to turn the pedals, I need to rethink the way I ride the bike. Standing up takes the weight off the rear wheel, which slips and skids on the loose surface, so I have to stay seated at all times, which increases the strain on my legs and back.

Also, the road is rutted and strewn with large stones, requiring extra concentration and the ability to maintain momentum by increasing power quickly, without getting out of the saddle or merely stamping on the pedals.

It’s a mental effort as well as a physical one, and my speed drops again while I try to calculate just how much I have left in my energy reserves and how long it will take to arrive at the summit.

I glance over at Diego, who is maintaining the exact same tempo as before, with the same impassive expression, floating over the gravel as if it weren’t there (damn him).

Eventually we emerge from the treeline and are greeted with expansive views back towards the snow-brushed mountains on the other side of the Susa Valley, and upwards towards the summit, which still seems a long way away.

Onwards and upwards

All I can do is keep pushing on the pedals and count off the corners to reassure myself that I am actually making progress. Occasionally a rugged 4x4 vehicle will trundle past, the owner keen to justify his need for low-ratio gears and off-road tyres.

The accompanying dust storm gives me another excuse to stop for a moment and catch my breath while I wait for the vehicle to move ahead and take its choking dust with it.

With about 2km to go, I can see the summit ridge clearly and the outline of tiny human figures standing at the edge, silhouetted by the blue sky, looking unnervingly like native warriors in a cowboy movie.

I resist the urge to push hard for the top, realising that it is still a good 10 minutes away and that I could easily blow up if I don’t pace myself.

When the final corner does eventually arrive, my energy levels magically restore themselves and I even manage a bit of a sprint to the top.

Some kind soul has seen fit to install a water fountain on the summit and I slide from my bike to gorge greedily on the cold, fresh liquid before letting my eyes feast on the views on both sides of the col.

Highs and lows

The descent from the Colle delle Finestre is a festival of swooping, swerving and occasionally even whooping.

We don’t have these in southern Britain either – 17km of perfect, car-free roads, where the straights allow for eye-watering speeds and the corners are carved as gracefully into the landscape as if they were calligraphy.

Thankfully the gravel is no longer with us – I wouldn’t fancy descending down the same route we climbed up – so I can switch into the big ring for the first time today and let gravity do all the hard work.

It feels like a matter of minutes before we’ve doubled our distance for the day, and Davide suggests it would be a good time to stop for a feed and some coffees in the village of Pragelato before tackling the next climb.

 
Ah yes, I’d rather forgotten about that. In my joy at having ticked off the mighty Colle delle Finestre, my brain has decided that all the hard work is done for the day, but there is still the small matter of the 10km ascent to Sestriere to take into account, as well as the remaining 56km of riding before we arrive back in Susa.

After a cheese and ham toastie the size of a mattress and an espresso the consistency of honey, I haul myself back onto my bike for the drag up to the ski town of Sestriere.

The road is less steep than the Finestre, but also lacks its charm, being wide and reasonably busy. No problem, I’ll just dig in and get it over with in as efficient a way as possible.

Unfortunately, the Finestre is still weighing heavily on my legs, as is the toastie, and I struggle to keep the pedals turning.

All in the mind

I’m eventually forced to give myself stern internal lectures and empty assurances, as though my legs were an uncooperative child – ‘Just one more kilometre and then you can stop for a rest, I promise!’

By the time we reach the top, my body has realised that I’ve been lying to it for the past half hour and is ready to go on strike, but at least now it can rest for real, and I reassure it that there really are no more climbs today.

Relaxing by the monument in the town square I look around at the ski resort, which is largely empty – it’s the middle of June, after all.

It’s a peculiar place, not least because of the monolithic ski jump that looks out of place in the middle of green fields, and the crumbling giant mascots left over from the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Apparently Sestriere is also home to Europe’s highest 18-hole golf course, but for me its name will always be famous as the place where a certain Lance Armstrong announced his arrival to the sporting world.

As we pass through the town and start our descent, I’m reminded of the sight of Armstrong riding the other way up these slopes. In the 1999 Tour de France, the Texan was wearing yellow after a dominant display in the time-trial, but everyone expected him to lose it again when the race hit the hills.

On Stage 9 the finish was in Sestriere, and with about 7km of the final climb to go, Armstrong broke from the bunch at a speed that was truly incredible, flying up the hill to take the stage, putting him six minutes clear and establishing himself as the new master of the sport.

Of course, we now know it was all a sham, but as I hunker on the drops for the final stretch to home, I can’t help feeling a slight thrill. Here I am, on the same roads as Armstrong, doing the same speeds as Armstrong.

The only difference is… he was going up the hill at the time.

The route


To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/55finestre.

From the town of Susa, about 50km west of Turin, head southeast on the SP24 for a short distance before turning right onto the SP172 at a sign for the Colle delle Finestre.

Follow this road upwards for the next 19km to the summit. Dive down the other side (possibly stopping at Il Baretto in Pragelato for a coffee) and follow the SP23R up the 10km climb to Sestriere.

Go straight through the town and descend to Cesana Torinese, then follow signs for Torino to get onto the SS24 that will take you all the way back to Susa.

The rider’s ride

Scott Addict 10, £3,499, scott-sports.com

At a time when every new bike that comes out seems to have vast, angular tubes, with hydraulic discs and integrated aero cockpits, the Addict looks quaintly traditional.

Its silhouette reveals slender, gently tapering round tubes, making it look elegant and refined next to some of the more boxy modern offerings.

It also eschews any fiddly components, opting for a standard seat clamp, headset and brakes – all of which I was thankful for on this trip.

The bike is easy to set up and adjust, and during my time on it there were no clicks, grinds or creaks, leaving me to simply enjoy the ride (the smooth efficiency of the Shimano Dura-Ace groupset helped a lot).

And what a ride it is. The Addict is exceptionally light, which is just what I needed on the steep slopes of the Finestre, yet those skinny tubes proved to be remarkably stiff, meaning that there was very little wasted energy as I hauled on the bars and stamped on the pedals.

It’s certainly the perfect companion for anyone heading into the hills, and yet its real revelation came on the descents and flatter sections of the route. The handling is reassuringly stable, with no jitteriness for such a light bike, and despite its fairly aggressive racing geometry I found it to be a comfortable ride for a long day out.

For 2017 the bike will be updated with the new Dura-Ace 9100 groupset, and a disc brake version is on the way too. Should I discover a few grand stuffed down the back of the sofa, I’d be seriously tempted to spend it on an Addict 10.

The rider’s kit

Le Col HC jersey and bibs

The mix of dark blue and fluoro yellow is a winner. It says sophisticated-yet-funky, understated-yet-bold, British-yet-Continental. It also helps that the fabrics and cut are a touch above most cycling kit.
Jersey £150, bibs £180, lecol.net

Continental GP4000S II 25mm tyres

The only change I made to the Scott Addict set-up was to fit a set of tyres well suited to the gravel of the Colle delle Finestre. These GP4000s never missed a beat and instill a great amount of trust.
£49.95 each, i-ride.co.uk

Cyclist bidon

This high-precision hydration system uses the latest NASA technology to… oh, for goodness sake, it’s just a water bottle, but it’s got the Cyclist logo printed on the side so it’s the only water bottle worth having.
£12, cyclist.co.uk/store

How we got there

Travel

Cyclist flew to Turin with British Airways. Expect to pay between £100-£200 return, which is slightly pricier than other budget airlines, but works out cheaper thanks to the fact that a bike bag can be included in the price.

Easyjet and Ryanair charge £70 and £120 respectively to carry a bike bag.

Accomodation

We stayed at the Lo Scoiattolo, otherwise known as the Piedmont Bike Hotel, on the outskirts of Turin.

As the name suggests, the hotel is superbly set up for cycle tourists, with a large lock-up-cum-workshop for storing bikes, professional ride guides on hand, and top-end Pinarello bikes for hire.

It’s one of a group of five cycle-friendly hotels throughout Italy, with others based near Verona, Rome, Bormio and Cesenatico. Packages start from around £250 for three days.

Go to piedmontbikehotel.com for more details, and try biciamoremio.it for info on riding holidays at the other hotels.

Thanks

Our trip wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Davide Cerchio, bike manager for the Piedmont Bike Hotel, and guide Diego Donadae, who both helped nurse Cyclist up the slopes of the Finestre.

Thanks also to senior guide Sergio Chiavazza, who drove the car for our photographer with saint-like patience, and Gianni Marsaglia, owner of the Piedmont Bike Hotel, for his advice and hospitality.