29.4.20

Italy's Colle delle Finestre

Region: Piedmont, Italian Alps.
Departure: Meana di Susa
Height: 2,178 metres
Altitude Gain: 1,700 metres
Length: 18.5 kilometres
Average gradient: 9.2%
Maximum Gradient: 14%

If you’ve been following my recent blogs, you would have read ‘my’ version of the hardest climbs in the world of Italian cycling. Like many cycling experts and the pros themselves, Monte Zoncolan is the popular choice.

Another of the great passes that I’ve longed to climb is the Colle delle Finestre. It undoubtedly belongs in any cyclist's Top 10. In fact, for length, steepness and certainly not least, road difficulty, there are few, if any, that are harder; perhaps not even Zoncolan itself.

Another of the latest climbs introduced to the Giro d’ Italia, Finestre’s debut appearance wasn’t until 2005, when Italian cyclist Danilo Di Luca became the first to reach the pass’s diminutive summit. Finishing in Sestriere, the stage 19 race was ultimately won by Venezuelan cyclist, José Rujano.


Undoubtedly the most thrilling climbs in the Italian Tour was 2015’s stage 20 race, again finishing down the valley in Sestriere.  Who can forget General Classification leader, Alberto Contador, (with more than four and a half minutes up his sleeve), almost coming to grief in the dirt on one of the ‘road’s’ sharp sterrato-laden switchbacks. The Spaniard’s slow and protracted struggle to the summit was dramatically entwined alongside second placed Fabio Aru’s gallant, but forlorn attempt to rein him in. Despite the drama, particularly over the second-half of the climb, it was Aru’s compatriot, Mikel Landa, who won the Cima Coppi, the only cyclist who has been awarded the title up the Colle delle Finestre. 

After a patient wait of many years, I finally got to taste the Colle delle Finestre’s treacherous ‘goat track’ for myself. A 140-minute journey of two halves, it was as gruelling as just about any climb I can recall. Surrounded by oak, acacia and ash, the narrow road wound its way frenetically over its first 10.5 kilometres. An intestine of 32 hairpins, of which there were as many as 11 in the 7th kilometre alone, I could have been on my way up the Passo del Mortirolo but for the 8 kilometres of white sterrato that lay ahead.

The last time the Giro d’ Italia had ridden along unmade mountain road was way back in the year 2000, when 3 kilometres of the Passo di Gavia were yet to be sealed. As for me, it was the final 10 kilometres of narrow, pothole infested road up Spain’s Pico de Veleta, back in 2014. Try cycling on 23mm tyres, on no less than a bed of black earth and gravel and see how far you travel!   

With nothing better than 8 kilometres of sterrato road up ahead, I was soon asking myself, ‘How badly do I want to reach the top?’ An above-9% gradient and 13 more hairpins is one thing but a deteriorating unpaved road, made worse by more than a summer of cycling traffic, and I had nothing but a slow drawn-out slog ahead of me. 


Once out of the forest, the top of the pass finally unveiled itself. But still a long way ahead, the only prominence was the narrow labyrinth of white road that rose sharply up the valley. Despite the magnificent views, much of the time spent was not on the soaring landscape but on the road itself. Continually searching for an accessible path through the maze of rubble, there was little comfort in slow movement. But here I was, like many before me, and many since, travelling as slowly as 5 and 6 kilometres per hour and rarely, faster than 10. 

Nearing the top of the climb, the hairpins gradually became scarcer and the road even steeper. Two hundred metres, perhaps more, of relatively straight road, finally had me at the top of the pass. Relieved, I cast my eyes down the valley I’d just climbed. A zigzagging network of white rock and sand, it reminded me of a bygone era when daring young cyclists became the first to conquer the unpaved mountain roads of the Alps and Pyrenees. 

 Books by Mark Krieger:





‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books


Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante





“The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

                                  English author Iris Murdoch

27.4.20

An Exercise in Peace 'An Escape From Lockdown'




If stuck at home there's nothing better than a ride up Arthurs Seat, on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia. A normally busy place stricken with tourists, coffee lovers, busy trucks and cars and even the odd peloton of professional cyclists grinding their way to the summit, it's as quiet as I've ever seen before.











It's like a ghost town up there, with both cafes and the gondola closed due to the outbreak of Coronavirus.
It's not to say that there isn't still the occasional exercising hiker, cyclist and of course the odd car speeding by but most moments are free to magnificent flora and fauna.


It's not to say that there isn't still the occasional exercising hiker, cyclist and of course the odd car speeding by but most moments are free to magnificent flora and fauna.

Cycling up to the summit of Arthurs Seat (sometimes three times in a row) isn't easy but it's worth the views and as I've said, it's one of the most peaceful places I've felt in the last few months since the 'virus' began.

One of the other features about Arthurs Seat is it reminds me of some of the well-known climbs in Europe. Despite its meagre 3.03 kilometres, this granite hill is remarkably steep. For half its length it has a gradient of 9.5% or more,with an average of 8.1%. That's steeper than France's Col du Tourmalet, Hautacam, Italy's Passo dello Stelvio and many others.
 



Meanwhile, while you're moving over the top of Arthurs Seat, think of its present quietness and perhaps even some of the world's magnificent climbs.



16.9.18

Cycling in Andorra - The Collada de la Gallina

Region: Pyrenees, Andorra la Vella

Departure: Sant. Julia de Loria

Length: 11.1 km


Altitude: 1,910m


Height Gain: 982m


Average Gradient: 8.3%


Maximum gradient: 12.7%


Category: Hors Categorie



Though less than a 12-kilometre climb, via Aixovall, the Collada de la Gallina resembles the infinitely more popular Alpe d’ Huez in some ways. One of the jewels in the French Tour’s crown, the Alpe is best known for its 21 switchbacks which claw up the side of the les Deux Alpes at an 8%average gradient.


While the Andorran mountain has nothing but flat tarmac to entice you to its bare summit, its number of switchbacks are almost the same - I counted 22 - and it climbs at an even higher average gradient (8.3%). A Hors Categorie  climb, like the Alpe d’ Huez itself, it first featured in the Vuelta in 2012 as a stage finish, and again in 2013.

It also reappeared recently, in what was  regarded as the most difficult stage of this year's Vuelta a Espana. The Collada de la Gallina was the fourth of six climbs which finished atop of the Alto Els Cordals de Encamp; hard to say and no doubt, much more difficult to climb.   
While a far cry from the Alpe d' Huez' colourful summit,
the Collada de la Gallina  won't disappoint.
Unlike the French mountain, which was as crowded as New Year’s Eve in Times Square, when I climbed it back in 2009, the Collada de la Gallina is unpretentiously inconspicuous. Less than four kilometres from Aixovall, just past the small village of Bixessarri, the gradient increases significantly. It's from here, as its  lacets wind steeply up the road for the next five kilometres, that thoughts of the Alpe d' Huez  might arise. They certainly did for me. 

Nevertheless, beautifully quiet and remote, with nothing but the sounds of your own breathing and a grinding chain, the mountain will be yours and yours alone Don't expect any favours towards the summit however, particularly the penultimate kilometre of above 10%.  With little to greet you at the top of the climb, there's not much to hold you, save for the thrill of having climbed a very formidable, and in many respects, mystical mountain.

Books by Mark Krieger:





‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books


Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante





“The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

                                  English author Iris Murdoch






11.5.18

Cycling in Italy: Colle del Nivolet




Region: Between the Aosta
Valley & Piedmont, Italy
Departure: Locana
Length: 40.5 kms
Elevation: 2,612 metres
Elevation Gain: 1,999 metres
Average Gradient: 4.7%
Maximum gradient: 14.0%



 
Despite many cycling holidays in Italy, I’d never  heard of the Colle del Nivolet until it was recommended to me by a good cycling friend, 70-plus year-old Eric. Known for its beauty, the 2,612 metre summit is located at the top of the Orca Valley on the road from Turin to Ceresole Reale, in the heart of the Gran Paradiso National Park. The colle forms part of the boundary between the Aosta Valley and the Piedmont region in northern Italy.
 
Purportedly the 11th-highest paved road in Europe, the route was built between 1953 and 1963 to service two hydroelectric dams – both passed on the higher stretches of the climb.

Due to a tight schedule, which involved leaving for Modane (France) the next day, I had little option but to climb the Nivolet the next morning before I left. While I'd previously arrived in Locana late in the afternoon in sunny weather, the morning was filled with dark-grey skies and the threat of rain.  

The 40 kilometre ride to the summit started out easy enough; it hovered between 3% and 4% (on the SP40) for the first 12 kilometres. But like the beginning of France’s Col de Vars (from Jausiers) and the Col de la Croix de Fer (along the D526 from Le Bourg-d’Oisans), I soon realised that it plays the imposter, giving the rider little idea of the steep gradients above.
The first obstacle, 15 kilometres into the climb was a 3.5 kilometre long tunnel. Never a favourite of mine, long tunnels, particularly those that are narrow and without lights, make me feel uneasy; even the short ones. The tunnel towards CeresoleReale and its artificial lake disguised as a dam – the Lago di Ceresole – is the longest and steepest tunnel I’ve heard of in relation to cycling; it has an approximately 8% average gradient that rises as high as 14% on occasions.
Fortunately, there was an alternative route, one I was happy to try perchance. It included hairpin bends, though not as many as I imagined, along the remains of secondary roads that meandered steadily upwards adjacent to the tunnel.

After three kilometres of easy cycling and with little more than 15 kilometres left to travel, the SP50 road from Ceresole Reale soon left the Orca River Valley behind.  From now on I'd be travelling along the steepest part of the climb, which contained more than 30 hairpin bends and lengthy gradients of 9% and 10%. 

Nivolet is a gruelling climb, but I dare say much harder and dangerous in bleak conditions. The closer I drew towards the summit the colder it became and the more difficult it was to see. Known for its extreme and unpredictable weather conditions; blizzards, snowstorms and even landslides, it was an unnerving, solo journey towards the top. As for the artificial lakes, Lago Serrù and the smaller Lago Agnel, located directly below the pass, it was almost impossible to see them through the mist.
Once at the summit, I spent little time taking in the views. Unlike most road mountain crests there was none to be had; just icy snow and a view of little more than 30 metres. I'd read that the paved road descends for another two kilometres, towards the Piedmonte-Aosta border. I was curious but with my hands numb and shivering with the cold it wasn’t worth the risk. I learned why the pass is closed between mid-October and the middle of May each year; and I was cycling in early June.
Glad to have made the climb, I was nevertheless wary of the descent down the slippery, lonely road. There was not one cyclist or motorcar to be seen, not even one below the snowline. Would I make the climb again? You bet I would, but I’d be more careful about the day I'd choose to do it. I've experienced steeper but given the weather, it was probably the most dangerous climb I've even done.
Books by Mark Krieger:






‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books


Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante




“I still must abide by the rules of the road, of biking, of gravity. But I am mentally far away from civilization.”

                    US author and poet Diane Ackerman

10.2.18

Cycling in Austria: Kitzbüheler Horn




Region: Tirol, Austria
Departure: Höglern
Length: 9.7kms
Altitude: 1996 metres
Height Gain: 1250 metres
Average Gradient: 12.9%
Maximum gradient: 22.5%

 

There aren’t too many road climbs around double figures that exceed more than 10%. Italy’s Passo del Mortirolo, Monte Zoncolan – from each of its three routes – and Spain’s Alto del Angliru, immediately come to mind but perhaps surprising to many cycling enthusiasts, none of them are as steep as Austria’s Kitzbüheler Horn


Kitzbüheler Horn was one of the three toughest climbs I did back in the European summer of 2012. The other two high Alpine roads were Rettenbachferner and Grossglockner. Close to the summit, Das Alpenhaus, a so-called Alpine house and meeting place for skiers and snowboarders during winter, has provided the finish of the King or Queen Stage of the Tour of Austria over many years, including last year, (2017).
 

Beginning from Höglern, the road up onto Kitzbüheler Horn is incredibly steep and winding. The first 800 metres of the climb’s 9.7 kilometres is by far the easiest, should you regard 8.9% a comfortable gradient. Arthurs Seat, near where I live, has always been a formidable task for me, but one I’ve grown used to. Three kilometers with an 8.1% average gradient is tough enough but it is nothing compared to the Austrian climb's 9 kilometres ahead, even with a 34x30 gear ratio. 





Alternating between 12 and 15%, the road zigzagged back and forth, and like just about all of the fabled climbs, it became ever harder the higher I climbed. I didn’t know at the time, but the final 2 kilometres was along privately-owned road, a very thin road, little more than a metre wide. Averaging 17.5% and maxing out above 22%, the final 700 metres of ‘footpath’ towards Kitzbüheler Horn’s 1996 metre summit, was a hell of a way to finish. Incredibly steep, I dreaded the thought of coming to a sudden halt, for fear of not being able to get back on my bike. If you’ve climbed the final 3 kilometres of Monte Zoncolan, from Sutrio or Priola, you’ll know exactly what I mean: tough!   
But one thing is for sure, the sprawling views of the valley below and the mountains beyond are well worth the sweat and heavy breathing of the last hour. Like all great climbs, it's well worth the effort!
 Books by Mark Krieger:





‘High Spain Drifter’ is available on Amazon , Barnes and Noble, Booktopia  and other online bookstores. 

‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books


Both books are also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante





“The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

                                  English author Iris Murdoch