Colle della FINESTRE: The PEZ Preview
It’s been a spectacular week of climbing and bike racing across northern Italy, but thankfully the Giro has saved the best for last as the race tackles the truly epic Colle della Finestre as the final stage for glory for this year’s General classification battle. Alberto Contador has the race sewn up with 4:37 over second placed Fabio Aru, stage 20 is a long one at 200km, with a massive climb of 18km that starts at 15km to go. I first rode this climb in 2005, and it’s been on my list of Top Rides ever since.
To set some perspective here – the Colle delle Finestre has it all – 18.5km long, gaining 1694 meters to 2178m height, so length & height? Check.
The top 8km are on hard packed dirt road. It’s not too hard to ride on, nor is it really slippery, but it does take more work than pedalling on asphalt… and is obviously way cooler, in an epic ride sense.
The bottom 10km are a twisting series of switchbacks that climb through a forest from the valley floor at Susa. The grades are steepest in this bottom section – averaging about 9% and getting as high as 14%, but the worst part is the humidity, it hangs in the trees on a hot day like your neighbor’s stinky sweaty t-shirt. These are some hard kms, and at 10km they’re as long as a lot of the other rated climbs in the race.
The roads are narrow and it’s a mano-a-mano struggle to get to the top. Team-mates may join you for moral support only – there’s just not much else they can do.
The final 6km are another series of switchbacks that climb into an amazing natural amphitheater that crests the mountain through a saddle at the top. This is where the fans crowd the road as only rabid cycling fans could do. From here you can see the race approaching for 6-7km, another rarity in the sport.
Contador said after today’s stage: “Tomorrow the stage is really nice, with a very hard climb, perhaps harder than the climbs today. My job will be to withstand the attacks, and it might even be a day when I attack, you never know.”
Let’s Start This Top Ride
The 2005 Giro d’Italia was one of the best on record, as Paulo Savoldelli battled Gibo Simoni right to the end of the penultimate stage and the unpaved switchbacks of the 18km long Colle della Finestre. The 2015 Giro stage 20 corsa serves up the same final 55km that, riders willing, could decide the race.
I was on those slopes as Il Falco chased Simoni, who was being helped by a pre-disgraced Danilo DiLuca – and followed by the flea-like Jose Rujano. In spite the 1700 meters gained on the way up, it was Savoldelli’s descending prowess that closed the gap and secured his maglia rosa.
My trusty autista Francis and I set off on a 100km loop up & through the stage finish town of Sestriere, down the west side where Claudio Chiappucci had ignited riotous partisan crowds as he soloed to one of the all-time epic Tour de France stage wins in 1992, then followed the valley north to the town of Susa and the beginning of the Finestre climb. The big talk of the day was about the unpaved final 8km, but the heat that day was sweltering, and the lower 10km’s 9.2% grade slopes that matched the uppers were a true leg burner – for me anyway.
This one still ranks as one of my Top Rides and here’s a look back.
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 Tenda 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.
To Sestriere We Go
We take it slow – the day is 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 make 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 is 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 1992 when wall-to-wall fans a gauntlet of rock ‘n roll proportions.
The next part of the ride was about 30-40 km down the valley behind Sestriere towards 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 & below) – apparently ancient forts were all the rage here once, and the slate shingle business must have been booming. The wind had died down by this time, so it was tough to stop the descent to snap a few pics… But I knew you’d want to see this place.
• 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 14%. 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.
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 DiLuca 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 say. 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 TV moto, so I’d be in the shot.
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.
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!
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…
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.
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…
Needless to say we got caught up in the traffic jam as thousands of satisfied tifosi made their way back towards Pinerolo, Torino, and wherever home might be. It didn’t take us long to find a pizzeria to wait out the crowds, and celebrate the day with the kind of pie bets taken in Italy.
We can only hope 2015 serves up another classic battle, but even without the riders suffering like slaves for our collective entertainment, this ride is one to be done. I’ll admit, several thousand screaming Italians will make your own suffering somewhat more bearable, but for sure let us know how it goes for you.