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Classic climbs: Monte Grappa

In-depth
26 Mar 2019
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In the foothills of the Dolomites, Monte Grappa is a giant climb with a history of battles on the bike and bloodshed during two World Wars This article was originally published in issue 83 of Cyclist magazine

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

Make sure you give yourself time to pause at the top of Monte Grappa. Once you’ve got your breath back, pressed stop on your computer and had a swig from the remains of your water bottle, go for a walk.

The temptation might be to throw yourself into the descent before your muscles get cold, but don’t. Instead, follow the steps out of the car park and climb up a little further to the summit proper.

Why? Because this mountain and its history are much, much bigger than cycling.

That’s not to belittle the exploits of Merckx, Quintana et al, but it would be inappropriate to talk about their suffering on these slopes given the scenes of conflict that this mountain has witnessed.

Three major battles were fought here towards the end of the First World War. It was Italy’s resistance on the slopes of Monte Grappa that stopped the rampant Austrian army from sweeping down through the country.

Huge losses were suffered on both sides, and it’s well worth remembering this as you climb the slopes. Let your tyres tread lightly.

The road from Semonzo

Monte Grappa offers an array of different ways up its vast slopes, but the one we chose was from Semonzo. It runs from the southern side and neighbours the ‘classic’ route from Romano d’Ezzelino.

However, at 19km long this route is about 7km shorter and therefore much steeper, averaging 8.1% to the classic’s 5.9%.

 

It’s also the route used on Stage 14 of the 2010 Giro d’Italia (won by Vincenzo Nibali) and the 2014 Giro’s Stage 19 mountain time-trial.

The latter was won by Nairo Quintana, who took just 1hr 5min 37sec to reach the top from the centre of town. The climb begins by a church with the miniaturised architecture of a cathedral that’s been in a hot wash.

Next to it is a memorial to members of the Italian resistance in the two World Wars. I suggest you pay the latter more attention than I did, for it will gain greater significance by the summit.

Set off into the trees on the lower slopes and you’re straight into a regimented concentration of hairpins with 16 switchbacks crammed into about 6km. On the westerly hairpins the trees often recede, offering up views back across Semonzo and the Venetian Plain beyond.

 

Such is the steepness of the slope that by the first hairpin it feels like you’re looking down from a hot air balloon. A couple of hairpins later it feels like you’re viewing the tiny buildings from a light aircraft. After about 7km you emerge from the trees to some scattered houses, but you’re not out of the woods yet.

As you plunge back into the dense deciduous tunnel you’ll find that the gradient eases and even reverses briefly, letting your legs recover slightly as you rocket through a rock arch. Make the most of it, though, as it is a precursor to the hardest section of the climb, with 2km at more than 10%.

The trees gradually recede to your right as you climb the narrow but well-surfaced road, revealing attractive rolling pastures. Hairpin number 22 is a welcome sight as it means you’re nearly at the end of the hardest section.

A couple of hundred metres later you reach a crest and see the top of the mountain for the first time. It’s still some 5km away, but it’s nice to have a target. A brief plunge downhill through a couple of very fast, sweeping corners is so enjoyable that you’ll almost want to turn round and climb back up so that you can do them again.

You won’t though, because now you’re now in a beautiful little green bowl that you must climb out of before continuing on to the summit. These more open upper slopes in the final kilometres afford wonderful views (if the mist isn’t rolling in) and although the road feels remote there is a surprisingly manicured air to the mountain.

Soon the routes from Colmirano and Pederobba join the road, like tributaries flowing uphill into a tarmac river.

 

Then, as you reach a steep junction where you turn right, you might catch sight of a bronze sculpture by Murer down the slope. During the Second World War the anti-fascist partisans from this area took Monte Grappa as their base in 1943 after the fall of Mussolini.

But Nazi forces crushed them in 1944, either killing them in a brutal rout on the mountain or hanging them afterwards. The sculpture is a memorial to those partisans, including those mentioned on the memorial at the bottom of the climb.

Battles on the bike

The Giro has only had a summit finish here twice – in 1968 when the stage was won by Emilio Casalini, a domestique of Eddy Merckx, and the aforementioned 2014 mountain time-trial.

Every other time the race has passed along the ridge road just below the top without venturing onto the dead end stretch to the 1,775m peak, most recently during Stage 20 in 2017.

The final stretch to the summit is a nasty end for tired legs, rearing up for one final time to over 12%.

 

If it’s cold I can heartily recommend the hot chocolate in the cafe, Rifugio Bassano, at the top. A darker, richer cup of sweet restorative liquid it would be hard to find (and talking of drinks, the mountain’s name has nothing to do with the alcoholic one). But afterwards you should take that walk out of the car park, up the steps.

It leads to a huge, white stone structure, tiered like a compressed wedding cake. Finding something of this scale on top of a mountain is deeply impressive. It is not just a memorial to those who died on the mountain during the First World War, but an ossuary.

 

Bronze plaques denote the resting places of those whose bodies were identified and one famous one reads ‘Peter Pan’. The association with the boy who never grew up is heartbreakingly fitting.

All told, the bones of 22,910 Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers lie here, fewer than 3,000 of them with a name attached. To put that in context, Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in Flanders and indeed the world, holds 11,965 bodies.

It is sobering and yet the view is also spectacular. You can see the winding roads on the slopes below you and they are beautiful, but you don’t need a background in military tactics to also instantly appreciate why this mountain was so strategically important in the World Wars.

 

Some climbs stick in your memory for the aches the ascent imparts to your legs. Others remain memorable because of the views they offer up as you pedal. Some feel special because they’re scenes of fabled Grand Tour showdowns. And some, however much you love the sport, transcend anything to do with cycling.

Monte Grappa is one such place.