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La Fausto Coppi : Sportive

Josh Cunningham
11 Jun 2015

From foothills to high passes, La Fausto Coppi sportive reveals what may be to come in The Tour.

The name Fausto Coppi conjures many images in the minds of cyclists: the lithe figure with his aquiline nose and graceful pedalling style; the gravel-strewn roads of  post-War Italy; the rivalry with Gino Bartali. It was a black and white era of thin steel bikes, toe clips and tubular tyres wrapped around shoulders. It was a time of regeneration for both Europe and the sport of cycling, and Coppi dominated the latter so completely that  he earned the nickname Il Campionissimo  – the champion of champions. With such a reputation, any sportive that  calls itself La Fausto Coppi has got a lot to live up to. Thankfully, as I discover throughout the seven hours, 177km and 4,125m of vertical ascent that pass under my wheels on this  testing event, the name is entirely justified.

Getting prepped

I arrive in the town of Cuneo in Coppi’s native Piedmont region just prior to Saturday’s opening ‘Nations Ceremony’. This preliminary event, typical of European sportives, is held in the race village the day before the ride. It’s a chance to sign on and size up the riders I’ll be sharing the road with tomorrow. Judging by the tangle of bronzed, sinewy legs that are wandering around the marquees, I get the feeling that very few of them are planning a leisurely day in the saddle.

La Fausto Coppi Climb- Geoff Waugh

Once I’ve negotiated registration, I head off to locate the bike I’m hiring for the ride. I find my way to local bike shop Cicli Pepino, and soon discover that its owner, Michele Pepino, is a seven-time winner of La Fausto Coppi. Pipped by the professional Francesco Moser in the inaugural 1987 edition, he went on to take the spoils in almost every other year until 1996,  and so while he’s taking it upon himself to adjust my saddle height I try to extract some advice about what awaits me in the morning.

‘These are four different climbs,’ he relays to me via two separate translators, while gesturing at the ominous spikes on my route profile map. He points to the major climbs – the Santuario di Valmala, Piatta Soprana, the mighty Colle Fauniera and the Madonna del Colletto – and tells me, ‘You have to ride them differently. Especially the Fauniera, you must take it easy.  In Italy we say piano.’ Only the Italians, I think to myself, could use such a elegant word to describe the act of riding slowly, as though riding with grace is something strictly reserved for them, for Coppi. But Michele cuts my musings short. ‘The descents too. Be careful – they are very technical,’ he says with concern, patting the air in front of him with an outstretched palm. ‘Piano, piano, piano.’

The dawning sun reflects brightly off Cuneo’s polished stone streets in the morning. More  than 2,000 starters cram eagerly behind the inflatable gantry, each with the same La Fausto Coppi jersey, chatting in the cool morning air. An empty pink-blue sky expands high above  the central square, bridging the gap between  the starting pen in which we’re waiting and  the snow-capped Maritime Alps, just visible over terracotta roofs.

Coppi himself took one of his most famous wins after a stage depart from Cuneo in the 1949 Giro d’Italia, where he proceeded to gain nearly 12 minutes on his compatriot and arch-rival Gino Bartali on stage 17. It was an effort across the French-bordering High Alps that won him the final maglia rosa that year, and no doubt added a log to the fire of their notoriously inflammatory relationship. For me, it’s a more nonchalant start, and I leave the fringes of Cuneo amid the wheels of the last big group that forms. I peer over my shoulder at the rising peaks as we make our way northwards through Piedmont vineyards to Costigliole Saluzzo, before following the directions for Francia  and the infamous Colle dell’Agnello pass. 

Virgin territory

La Fausto Coppi Santa Maria- Geoff Waugh

The start of the Santuario di Valmala climb, which shoots left off of the Agnello, comes  52km into the ride and provides a brutish induction to the many vertical metres that are to be gained today. Steep ramps are interspersed with sections of mild reprieve (‘falsopiano’ roads, as the locals call them) making a rhythm hard to come by, and a temptation to delve into the red all too easy. Once a stronghold of the Knights Templar, and later a site of multiple sightings of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the Valmala climb is lined with Mother Mary statuettes carved into the rock walls above. They watch unflinchingly as I struggle past each hairpin.

As the 1,380m summit comes into view, along with the sanctuary itself, I wonder whether the miraculous apparitions may have just been the result of delirium striking the people who hiked up here. I’m not quite hallucinating yet, but climb number one hasn’t been easy. I catch a glimpse of the imposing 3,841m Monte Viso behind me as I turn the final bend, but I soon disappear into the Pian Pietro forest as the road inverts and I begin to negotiate downwards through the trees – my fingers hovering tentatively over the brakes in light  of Michele’s foreboding words.

The hundred-strong groups that earlier rolled out of Cuneo have by this point begun their gradual disintegration, and I sweep around the final few hairpins in the company of just four other riders. We swap turns on the flat, looking out across the encroaching flatland to the walls of rock beyond. The mid-morning haze still shrouds the lower slopes, while the remnants  of winter snow dusts their tops. Soon enough  we reach the town of Dronero and the start  of the second climb.

La Fausto Coppi Climb- Geoff Waugh

Dronero passes quickly in a flurry of tight cobbled streets, dimly lit archways and sporadic groups of clapping locals. Intricately painted friezes flash by on the glowing terracotta walls, the Piedmont coat of arms is seen dangling on  a flag overhead, and when a turreted bridge comes into view further downstream, I feel  as if I’m passing through a Dan Brown novel. Ramping out of the suburbs, the Piatta Soprana climb is a steadier effort than the Valmala, with great views of the surrounding hillsides, bursting with so much vegetation that they almost look tropical. But with a crumbling road surface and riders beginning to zig-zag across the road, it’s also indicative of what’s to come. Another tricky descent ensues before eventually, after 100km of riding, both  my attention and pedals can begin to be turned on the mighty Colle Fauniera.

 Mountain crescendo

At almost 23km in length and topping out at 2,480m, this climb is both the longest and highest (being the 15th highest paved road in Europe) I will have ever traversed, by bike or otherwise. It dwarfs its counterparts today almost by a factor of two. I remember Michele’s words once more – treat each climb differently – and resolve to treat this one as a true Alpine test. Like so many ascents it begins in a forested river valley, that of the Grana, with the gentle gradients and sheltered enclosures that are so often to blame for episodes of premature acceleration, and the resulting leg combustions when the real climbing begins. Having been forewarned, I let the group around me disappear up the road as I click up a few sprockets and tell myself to ride piano.

The road clings to the side of the rocky gulley and begins to twist back and forth as it picks its way out of the trees to the village of Castelmagno, home to the cheese of the same name. A peeling advert for the formaggio is painted on a few half-hung wooden doors. The ramps get a little fiercer heading out of Castelmagno – up to 14% – and as my speed slows to one that allows flies to circle in a humiliating buzz around my head, I begin to suffer from a predicament that’s been niggling me. I’ve had stomach cramps since before the first climb, no doubt due to my three-espresso breakfast, and as a result have neglected to eat enough. Pushing hard on the pedals at least diverts the pain from my stomach, but I’m running dangerously low on fuel and I peer longingly upwards to the mid-way feed station at Santuario di San Magno.

La Fausto Coppi Food- Geoff Waugh

On arrival, I take my fill of bread, dried fruit, hams and cheeses – not Castelmagno, I might add – and remount. Once out of the trees, the landscape opens up into wide basins of green, penned in by a rough border of scree. The serenity is broken only by the gentle clanging of cowbells. At one point I’m forced to dismount as a weathered farmer shoos his herd from one side of the road to the other, and I can’t help but feel as if I’m riding through scenes that have changed little since those that Coppi witnessed. As the hairpins continue upwards into the cloud, I notice a direct correlation between the altitude, my legs and the road surface; as the former increases, the latter two deteriorate. Above 2,000m the road has been reduced to a crumbling asphalt strip no wider than an armspan as it creeps along the northern wall of the valley. It was first paved in 1992 and I’m inclined to think the Italian highways agency hasn’t visited since.

The Giro d’Italia has traversed the Fauniera pass only once, on stage 14 in 1999. Paolo Salvodelli was the eventual winner of the stage, but the undying hero of the tifosi, Marco Pantani, took pink that day, and it’s his statue that stands proud at the top. I have to wonder how a pass that’s featured in the Giro only once has come to gain such renown that it has a cyclist’s statue on its summit. I ask the rider on my shoulder, and he stares at me for a second before saying, ‘The Giro came here. If the Giro visits a climb, then it is famous. Even only once.’

As I draw level with the Pantani statue I reach the high point of the day at 2,480m. Through the ruckus of the feed station I notice a sign highlighting the Fauniera’s alternate title: Colle dei Morti – ‘Hill of the dead’ – in recognition of a bloody 17th century Franco-Spanish-Piedmontese battle, and consider the name’s ongoing relevance for those at its mercy today. But if the 23km ascent is the drainer of life, the equally lengthy descent is a tonic as it sweeps down the adjacent Stura di Demonte valley. The technical switchbacks, freefalling straights and wandering livestock leave little room for error. Its narrowness only exaggerates the speed, and it will punish those who let their eyes linger on the surrounding beauty a little too long. 

Cracking then whip

La Fausto Coppi Group- Geoff Waugh

Now riding solo, I follow a combination of pointing marshals and the exploded remains of what were once groups of riders towards the finish. The route follows that of the 1999 Giro: down the Fauniera and along the valley floor, before delivering the final crack of the whip in the shape of the Madonna del Colletto. Compared to the Fauniera it’s a mere blip, but my tired legs are complaining about this 1,310m barrier to home.

Once over the hill, I ride through the Giro stage-finishing town of Borgo San Dalmazzo  and on to Cuneo along fast, meandering  roads, with my hands now resting on the drops in my eagerness to finish. A group of eight or so riders shuttles past, accompanied by the incessant beeping of a moto-policeman’s horn, and I latch onto their wheels. Calculating eyes glance over my face and legs – they are worried that I might want to race them for 500th-and-whatever place. I leave them to it, but nonetheless enjoy the free ride down a tree-lined boulevard to the finish in the square, the memory of departing it under a dawning sky seven hours ago now alarmingly distant. I coast over the finish line and fight my way through the melee to return my bike to Michele. ‘How was it?’ he asks as I sit puffing on my top tube. I squeeze into my mouth the last remaining drops of water in my bidon, shrug my shoulders, and lie through a broad smile: ‘Piano’. 

Thanks

The fluidity of our trip was in large part down to Luis Rendon of High Cadence Cycling Tours (highcadencecyclingtours.com), which arranges trips to cycling events across Italy, and saw to
it that our trip passed without a hitch. Many thanks to Michele Pepino of Cicli Pepino for the hire of the bike and the invaluable advice. Visit good-bikes.net for more info

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