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Colle delle Finestre: A giant of the Giro d'Italia

29 Oct 2020

Famed for its 8km of gravel towards the summit, the Finestre in northwest Italy provides a memorable challenge

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

Theoretically you get the worst part out of the way first. As you head from the large town of Susa to the small neighbouring village of Meana di Susa, the road ramps up to a gradient of 14%, a figure that it will not reach again over the remaining 18km to the summit of the Colle delle Finestre.

Practically, however – and I’m sorry to break this to you – the need to get out of the saddle in the second kilometre is unlikely to be the effort that you look back on as causing the most discomfort.

For one, it’s entirely likely that at this early stage of the climb you will be being cajoled by coffee or even powered by pizza, because Susa, approximately 50km west of Turin, is a fine place to grab a bite to eat before embarking on the ascent (Miro and Bella Napoli on Piazza Trento come recommended).

Then there is the fact that you may well be slightly distracted from any early discomfort by the challenge of navigating through the narrow streets of Meana di Susa. Signs point the way, but sometimes only with the sort of clarity that requires additional local knowledge.

Everything, however, should settle down when you enter the woods. As the houses recede and the trees take over you’re able to find a gear, get comfortable on the saddle and, hopefully, begin tapping out a sustainable pace with the pedals.

Although the gradient is steep, averaging around 10% for this first half, it is at least consistent as this was built as a military road. But, because it was built at a time when that meant horses and not tanks, it’s also narrow, and the dense green tunnel created by the leaves means that it can be quite disorientating, particularly when the hairpins begin in earnest.

Into the woods

The Finestre might be best known for its rougher-surfaced second half, but in isolation the initial tarmac section is pretty extraordinary too. About 5km into the climb there’s one of the most incredibly intense concentrations of switchbacks on any climb anywhere.

The road accordions up the side of the mountain, packing 29 hairpins into just over 3km and 300m of altitude gain. There’s only about 50m of straight road between some of the corners and it was here on Stage 19 that Simon Yates’s grip on the 2018 Giro d’Italia began to loosen.

With Team Sky drilling it on the front, it must have been punishing for the British Michelton-Scott rider knowing how much further there was to go on the climb, let alone the stage, when he was dropped.

What’s more, the continual hairpins combined with the narrow road would have exaggerated the natural concertina effect on the peloton, with those swinging at the back (like Yates in the maglia rosa) worst off.

There are three relatively straight kilometres between the top of this dizzying section and the end of the tarmac. And as you emerge from the hairpins you get the first real idea of altitude gained as there are gaps between the trees to your left, like windows (or finestre in Italian) allowing you to look out onto the Susa valley from whence you’ve climbed.

Just before you hit the gravel you’ll see a white building on the right and a wooden sign on the left. Then in an instant the sound from your tyres will change and the chain will begin to rattle. There is no gradual increase in hostilities – it’s just a clear cut line. One minute you’re on tarmac, the next you’re not.

Rough and tumble

The actual severity of the surface that you’re on will depend greatly on conditions on the day. The best time to visit would seem to be during a nice dry period in the lead up to the Giro passing through.

Looking back at the footage from that astounding day in 2018 you can see that by the time Sky’s last pacemaker teammate (Kenny Elissonde) peeled off the front, Froome was already over two and a half minutes ahead of Yates, who was only just transitioning from sealed to unsealed surface.

However, the footage also shows that the ground that both riders experienced that day was relatively smooth, compacted, almost polished and swept clear of loose stones. This was not the case when Cyclist rode it…

Depending on the number of vehicles that have been using it, the road can get quite chopped up. Throw in some rain and things get even worse.

It wasn’t impassable by any means when we rode the climb, but the liberal scattering of stones across the road, the sandy ruts on the hairpins and the washboard-like surface on the entry and exit of corners (caused by cars and trucks braking heavily and repeatedly) made the going tough on a standard Specialized Tarmac wearing 26mm tyres.

Although the gradient on this second half averages a slightly milder 9%, the energy-sapping surface, the extra balance required to constantly adjust your line to avoid rocks and the accumulated fatigue can certainly make it feel steeper than advertised.

It’s also mentally demanding having to constantly focus on picking the right line, although at times this is like choosing a lane in queueing traffic on the motorway – you always think the other lane is the faster one.

Initially the trees – mostly pines here – persist on either side, but gradually they diminish in number and the views on a sunny day are spectacular as you climb up through a valley.

The weather can of course set a different, more misty, muted and monochromatic sort of mood. Yet this can feel appropriate because when the Giro first came here in 2005 the Italian television directors got so excited by the dramatic, ‘timeless’ scenes on the climb that they turned the pictures black and white.

Top don’t stop

Whether the hardest part is at the start is debatable, but with its final flurry of gravelly hairpins there’s no question that the climb saves the best part till last. Danilo di Luca was first over the summit that day in 2005 and at the top there is a slightly odd stone relief of the man to commemorate his achievement.

Although relatively high at 2,176m according to the signs (or 2,178m according to Wikipedia, 2,188m according to my Wahoo), it’s a small summit, certainly not big enough to host a stage finish.

Three out of the four times the Giro peloton has been over the Finestre the riders have carried on down the narrow (thankfully tarmac) descent and up to the ski resort of Sestriere.

The odd one out is 2018 when Froome went all the way to Monte Jafferau for a historic win, three minutes ahead of his nearest rival and all but sealing his third Grand Tour in a row (and possibly his last ever).

The Finestre has without question produced some memorable moments in the few races it has hosted, despite never featuring as the final climb. And while it doesn’t lie that far from major French climbs such as the Izoard, Iseran and Galibier, it is nonetheless very Italian in nature and there’s a quiet remoteness to it that’s exacerbated by the gravel section.

Its history is one of a climb that seems to bewitch all that tackle it, and even climbing it on a fairly grim day is a magical experience that will make you vow to return.