Monday, October 25, 2010

First Hand Report: Colle delle Finestre

My thanks to Larry Theobald, owner of CycledItalia, for his first hand report of the Colle delle Finestre. The 2011 Giro d'Italia will use the Colle delle Finestre on the penultimate, 20th, stage on May 28th. It will be an agonizing 242 km stage with it's start in Verbania and arrival at Sestriere. The riders will face the formidable Colle delle Finestre with its 18 km, 45 switchbacks, and slopes of more than 12% (9.2% average). The last 8 km are gravel. CycleItalia will also be riding the Colle delle Finistre again in 2011 as part of their Legendary Climbs West tour. Larry's report:

"At CycleItalia, we’ve always been inspired by Giro d’Italia routes as we search for interesting itineraries to delight and challenge our clients. We’d heard Colle delle Finestre stories for years, but until it was included in the Giro route in ’05 we’d looked elsewhere, largely because those stories involved unpaved portions of the climb and descent near the top.

In ‘05 we saw the climb enter the “epic” category via dramatic TV images with Danilo DiLuca first to the top. We knew then we had to offer our clients the chance to experience this instantly legendary climb, especially after we saw that the descent is now PAVED!

Late in the summer of 2006 we loaded up our van and drove to the town of Susa with two goals. We wanted to judge the condition of the road to ensure our van could make it over the top. If not, sending our clients up would be impossible, as close-by support is of paramount importance to us. And we wanted to find out how rideable the surface would be on a bicycle. We knew the road had been freshly rolled smooth for La Corsa Rosa 2005, but we wouldn’t arrive with guests until July of 2007.

As we started the climb from Susa we made our first discovery – just how steep, narrow and twisty the paved section is! More than one switchback corner forced us to back the van up to make it around. We negotiated most of the ascent in our van’s lowest gear. Once beyond the pavement a different adventure began: It was hard to getting the van going again if we stopped for any reason.

Soon it was time to get out a bike and test the surface for cycling. We used our usual road bikes shod with Vittoria Corsa open tubular tires, our favorites. Riding the loose and rock-strewn surface, we realized that with a bit of care, climbing was not much more difficult on this surface than on pavement, even though the grade continued at more-or-less the same steepness. We completed the climb with both van and bike along. We felt we had a great experience to offer our guests in 2007.

The big day arrived. The plan was for our small cycling group to depart in advance of the van; it would wait at the end of the paved section, giving our cyclists a good head-start. We wanted to avoid the risk of driving back down the steep, unpaved section to rescue anyone with a flat tire, etc. Unlike the racers in 2005, we departed from Susa after breakfast. We were onto the climb almost instantly without the 140+ kilometer “warm-up” ride from Savigliano, including a climb to Sestriere. Our plan was to do this epic climb with legs as fresh as possible, then follow the Giro route to Sestriere and back to Susa, making a 95 km (58 mile) loop with 2692 meters (8641 ft) of climbing! That’s enough for one day, especially as most of us had climbed the Col de l’Iseran and Moncenisio the day before.

It was already warm that July morning, making the shade on the paved section through the forest welcome. The grade averaged over 9% with steeper pitches of 12%. All of us rode in our lowest gear (most in 30 X 26 or 34 X 29) from the start. As I climbed my mind filled with doubts (even though I’d been here before, we’d only driven this paved portion) and thoughts of “if it’s THIS tough on the paved part, what can we expect once we hit the dirt?” At that point you can’t see much above through the foliage. You have only the TV images to recall the challenge, or a vague memory as in my case.

Your cyclometer and the CycleItalia RideGuide tell you the pavement ends eleven kms after you left Susa with eight more kms to climb on the “strada sterrata.” The last few switchbacks on the pavement open up to a panoramic view of the Susa valley but all you can think of at that point is “how much harder can this climb get?” A pause at pavement’s end for a drink of cool spring water and some encouragement (and maybe some sugar cookies?) from the CycleItalia van gives you a chance to gather your thoughts and remaining strength for the rest of your challenge.

The straight stretch of “road” as you enter the unpaved section is remarkably smooth and easy to pedal, letting you shift up a cog or two from your lowest gear. The switchbacks start soon enough and the average grade of over 9% returns, meaning you shift back to that (thankfully) lowest gear. You must pick your line carefully as the surface is strewn with sharp rocks with some ruts thrown in. You realize that rounding the curves on the outer edge is even more important than on pavement, as you can avoid many of these obstacles.
At this point you begin to imagine RACING up this climb with screaming Giro “tifosi” on both sides of the road, many who’ve hiked up or camped out here for days waiting for you to ride past. You’ll probably not be riding no-hands as Danilo DiLuca did while unwrapping a panino , but instead you’ll choose your line carefully. You’ll occasionally glance upwards to check your progress on the climb. As you pass farmhouses you’ll wonder how challenging it is to drive a tiny 4 X 4 Fiat Panda up and down this “road” to haul provisions in (or to haul the cheese you make out) of this remote location during summer.

You might recall black and white images of Coppi or Bartali, riding a bike with just a few gears, not the 20+ of your modern machine. In those days most if not all of the roads were gravel or dirt. With spare tires hung over their shoulders and goggles shielding their eyes, how much more difficult were these feats for them back when…?

The natural amphitheater starts to open and you can see the summit. You imagine the throngs of fans who were here in 2005. At the top, there’s a stone sculpture recounting the events of that day along with a small monument garden paying respect to the nine “most epic climbs in cycling” the Izoard, Fauniera, Mortirolo, Gavia, Stelvio, Ventoux, Tourmalet, Alpe d’Huez and Galibier. After recalling each of the listed climbs we’d completed over the years, we shared in the collective delight at having survived another epic one. We posed for celebratory, commemorative photos.

Thankfully, the descent is now paved. We’re able to make a quick ride down with a slight unpaved detour to a remote agriturismo where meals are served in bright mountain sunshine. Unlike the racers WE get to enjoy a sit-down pranzo, refueling with spaghetti ragu and mixed salads after our efforts. After all, we have to make sure we take in enough calories to ride to our gelato stop in Sestriere!"
Photos: Larry Theobald riding the Colle delle Finistre

Stage map for next year's Stage 20:

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