Grappa d’Italia 5: PEZ Vs. La Finestre

Saturday’s Giro Stage 20 to Sestriere was epic – as you should already know. But I experienced it first hand as we rode the final 100km of the stage – starting with the 20km climb of Sestriere and then onto the feared 2174m Colle delle Finestre. It was the ride of a lifetime, and a day like none other.

• Let’s get this party started. How ‘bout a nice warm-up climb of 20km? – it’s just to that ski station in the distance…

We planned to get an early start to leave lots of time for stops, and quashing Factor X (should it arise). Both Francis and I were still beat from our big day climbing Le Tanda and yesterday’s blistering hot TT in Torino, not to mention the extremely longs days that always include 2-3 hours of travel in a foreign land, and never getting to sleep before midnight.

The temp was already closing in on 30C when we climbed onto our bikes at 10:30 – about 1-1/2 hours later than we’d hoped. We drove part way up to Sestriere from our hotel, but encountered so much traffic that the 30km drive took us about an hour plus. The road was filled with cyclists and fans pedaling up the valley to Sestriere to see what was sure to be a stage of stages.

• There’s a huge fort that took 150 years to build, sitting atop a ridge just down the road from Sestriere.

To Sestriere We Go
We took it slow – the day was going to be long – with around 7500feet of climbing ahead. The valley around Sestriere is full of construction as they prepare for the 2006 winter Olympics. We made the top in time for lunch – then set off into the great unknown – which is never so bad when it starts with an awesome 20 minute descent…

• The descent off the top of Sestriere was a total blast. About 8-9% in spots, really fast sweeping turns, and no traffic. That was a very fine 12km – and especially cool to remember back to Chiappucci’s epic win in the Tour de France here in the early ‘90’s.

• The next stage of the ride was about 30-40 km down the valley behind Sestriere to the town of Susa. This long gradual descent would have been ideal to save the legs – except for the killer headwind. Thanks to Francis for doing all the work – but even sitting in took more effort than I’d expected. We passed by the town of Oulx (above) – complete with ancient fort and actual slate tile roofs… the wind had died down by this time, so it was tough to stop the descent to snap a few pics… But how could I not show you how cool this place is?

Pez In Pain – Just through the town of Susa the Finestre climb begins. We’re down to 503 meters altitude, and the steepest slopes are on the bottom – getting to around 12%. The heat was as intense as our efforts to climb out of this valley, and the breeze was gone. But soon we got into the forest and much welcomed shade.

Although the climb was steepest down here, the shade really helped, and we made sure to leave enough gas in the tank for later.

• After struggling through my only real bad patch of the day, I rewarded myself with a break at km 80. We’d climbed high out of the valley, but were still only about half way up the Finestre. Some locals told me I had only 4km to go, which I didn’t believe, but sure enough – in 4km, I found the final stop for food, and the start of the 8km dirt climb. I was so hot – I ordered a coke, a water, and a beer to wash down the panini, then it was onto my final ascent.

I could hear the TV helicopters in the distance, I was still 8km from the top, and the race was due through in about 90 minutes. On a regular day it should be no problem. But on this day, my problem was my weakening legs, sore feet, and butt.

• So I’m slogging my way up the Finsestre and I can hear the helicopters, but I’ve still got around 5km to the summit. I’m head-down and pedaling hard – when I come around this turn and a guy jumps out of the crowd and yells “hey Reechard!” I’m dumbfounded that someone actually knows my name out here, but even more out of breath. I look up and meet for the first time in person – Alessandro Federico – our PEZ-man who rode this climb a few weeks back. He speaks English with a Russian accent, even though he’s Italian… How cool is that? He told me that I’d break out of the trees in the next 500 meters, but the top was still a long way off.

And let me tell you that the actual distance of a meter is much longer at this altitude.

• Here’s Di Luca leading Simoni and Rujano through the same turn. Note the slight difference if pedaling style with me.

Up to the next switchback, and the race was getting closer – so I decided to watch it from there. About 15 minutes later the first riders appeared on the dirt road across the valley – too far away to identify, but the tension was building. Diluca, Simoni, and Rujano reached my spot just meters behind two others who were on the escape. The fans went nuts – here was Di Luca making his bid for Giro glory and driving the pace!

Running With The Pink Jersey
About a minute later (30 seconds, 5 minutes- who could tell with all the yelling, screaming, and running around?) Savoldelli came through. I had a poorly timed camera malfunction (so no pics of this), so I decided it was my time to get on TV – never waste an opportunity! I scoped a clear patch of corsa where I could run alongside the riders – but the road was so narrow, I was basically in the gutter. Then I made sure I was across the road from the tTV moto, so I’d be in the shot.

Di Luca leads Simoni and Rujano up the final 1km of the Finestre.

Through the switchback and around the bend came Savoldelli and I moved into position… waiting… waiting (seconds ticked by like minutes)… here come the cops – 2 motos, then Savoldelli and another rider just behind the TV moto – 20 meters, 10 meters – GO!!! They’re right beside me and I take off – running like a crazed cycling fan – the ones I’ve seen so many times on tv – yelling, screaming, and waving my arms like a blithering idiot. I’m wearing my mtb shoes so I have some grip, but the ground is uneven and rocky – one slip and I’d be down…!

Five seconds, ten seconds later it’s over – they pull away up the road and I think I’ve pulled something in my lower region that never gets used by a cyclist. I’m outta breath again and loving this day!

The Fans Love An Effort
After Savoldelli went through, I decided to continue my quest for the summit. The race was really broken up, with big gaps between riders, and I still was around 4km to go. So I hop on and start pedaling. I knew the race was still on and I was riding on the active race course, but there was a long wait before the next riders, and I was ready to pull off as soon as they appeared.

… and they flash by! These guys were flying up this climb.

So off I go after a Liberty rider – he was about 100 meters ahead, and obviously verrry tired, as I was able to keep pace with him for the next few hundred meters. I was also in a hurry to get to the top, so was going as hard as I could.

Soon I came around a bend and saw another switchback ahead – this time lined with fans on both sides. As I approached, someone started clapping, and I was happy to respond with a smile, a “grazie”, and a wave of my fist. This seemed to spark the crowd to life, who soon came alive in a wave of cheers, claps, laughter, and a few pushes!

The final switchbacks – still filling with tifosi.

A quick glance over my shoulder showed no signs of the next riders, so I pressed on to the next switchback. Sure enough – the crowd was soon cheering, and I was egging them on with hand signs, yells of my own, and a huge smile… How often does this happen…? It was too much fun to stop – but luckily for me, more riders soon appeared, and I found a much-needed excuse to pull over. I was outta breath and sweating bullets from the effort.

I was now in sight of the final switchbacks – about 2000 meters to go. The crowds were at their thickest, and I was ready for a final run of the tifosi gauntlet. Into the first turn of the last series and I hear it again: “Hello Richard!”

Out of the crowd jumps Pez-Man Nick O’Brien, in full Pez-Kit – with a huge grin on his face and a fine how-do-you-do! The second person I knew but had never met – and I meet ‘em by fluke on the Finestre… how cool is that?

Here comes the gruppetto – about 26 minutes later.

After a few minutes of chit-chat, along came the autobus – with Herr Zabel and Signor Petacchi driving. The cheers were just as loud for these guys as any rider. I called out to any riders I knew – Mike Barry managed a smile as sweat poured down his face, Antonio Cruz offered a vacant look, and Henk Vogels just didn’t (or couldn’t) respond.

• As soon as the last rider was through, the road clogged with fans. I made it one turn from the top before I was swallowed up by the mass and forced to walk the last few hundred meters over the top. Check out the switchbacks.

• Made it! Now where’s my bike…?

The descent down the Finestre was also a blast – very narrow one lane road, recently paved, with more wide sweeping turns. Even dodging thousands of other riders it was still okay…

• After an epic day – an authentic Italian pizza tastes especially “buonissimo”.

Ciao a domain!
– Pez