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The last true Gran Fondo: La Fausto Coppi sportive is a ride like few others

Mark Cohen
4 Jul 2019

A sportive that's very much raced, not ridden. Photos: Laura Atzeni

La Via Roma in Cuneo, a city in northwestern Italy has, for 32 years, played host to one of the most impassioned tributes to cycling in Europe. Each year the Piazza Galimberti - a massive square connecting the historic and more modern city centre - is feted by industry and route organisers. There is a fervent mythologising of il Campionissimo that’s unmissable.

This year’s running was particularly eventful as it marked the 100th anniversary of Fausto Coppi’s birth. To celebrate, the Museo Civico - a converted, frescoed church turned gallery - is exhibiting video, jerseys, bikes and memorabilia from his life - a stunning tribute to one of the area’s favourite sons. Riders in this year’s race sported blue and white jerseys, akin to the Bianchi kit Coppi made famous, only with less wool.

In so many ways, Piedmont parallels the Italy celebrated in cycling folklore. The roads are predominantly narrow and steep; save for the fact they are 'paved,' they appear unchanged since Coppi himself raced on them. Land surrounding the city is farmed, roots from which Coppi emerged and turned pro by the time he was 20.

Like so many Italian gran fondos, this one’s raced, not ridden. There are no hotels or ski resorts on the climbs, nor are there restaurants to grab coffee.

Several roads are cracked and in bad condition. The gradients are punishing and relentless and the descents - if unfamiliar with them - challenging. In every town on the route, people shout forza, offer water, a wheel or anything else. There are so many parallels between rider and region, it’s obvious why organisers call it one of the last true events of its kind anywhere.

'This is one of the toughest races in Europe,' says Davide Lauro, race organiser for La Fausto Coppi. 'The route features incomparable, unknown roads. It’s one of the last true fondos because of the spirit here - true cycling - something many similar races in Italy have lost.'

Officine Mattio owner and CEO Giovanni Monge Roffarello characterises it similarly, calling La Fausto the biggest event in la provincia granda.

'Colle Fauniera is undoubtedly one of the hardest climbs in the world, and it’s good to see people from 37 countries and five continents come and experience the local roads.'

The route

The route starts and finishes in Cuneo and goes for about 40km before climbing to Valmala (1380m) - a winding 900m ascent offering several spectacular views before a long descent and easy roller over Colletta Rossana and to the start of Piatta Soprana - a short and punchy climb up to 1136m.

It then descends to Pradleves and the start of the 22km climb to Colle Fauniera (2484m), the penultimate climb of La Fausto Coppi.

This is an ascent like few others in Europe that was first featured in the Giro d'Italia in 1999. It is relentless, brutally steep and sustained at an average of 7.5 percent, with many long leg-draining sections well above double digits.

Transitioning from lower canyon and rock walls on either ride of the road to an arid alpine landscape as you near the finish, it could be the best climb in Italy you’ve never heard of, sharing little in common with the classics in the high Alps or Dolomites.

A statue of Marco Pantani waits at the top, a tribute to another of Italy’s great champions and a symbol of the importance cycling has played in Piedmont.

Like you need it, the route finishes with an almost 30 kilometre descent before the final ascent up Madonna del Colletto (1304m) and final kilometers into Cuneo. Compared to the climbs that came before it, at 8.2 percent average, it goes quick.

What to expect

The roads on the La Fausto Coppi are mostly closed and all of them quiet. Barely a car in sight. There are plenty of spigots on the side the road for water on Colle Fauniera (sometimes called the Colle dei Morti, or the 'pass of the dead' - which better describes the feeling ascending it), La Piatta Soprana (1136m) and Valmala (1380m).

Bring your climbing legs for all of them. This is a tribute to true suffering.

Three kilometers from the start, there’s a turn for the medio (111km, 2510m) and gran (177km, 4125m) fondo routes. Unfortunate that it comes so early as it doesn’t provide much time to try the legs before deciding which way to turn, but there it is.

Despite being billed as a fondo, La Fausto is better described as an amateur road race. It’s full-gas from the start; several professional riders participated in this year’s edition. If riding hard till the finish, consider paying the charity donation of about £100 to get a spot in the front. You’ll be better positioned in the roll out.

There are food stations at the top of each climb with all the nutella, toast and hazelnut biscuits you can stomach. Plenty of sports drinks and water, too. Bring your own gels, though. Enervit Sport, the food sponsor, doesn’t offer much by way of nutrition on the roadside.

Riders handle their own mechanicals, another nod to a time when professional races went hard, were hard and were often dominated by a powerful Italian from Castellania.

For travel, Genoa and Turin are probably the closest international airports. As far as completing La Fausto Coppi goes, it is undoubtedly an experience like few other one-day cycling events.

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