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 Finistre. 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.
The most recent and undoubtedly most thrilling of Finestre’s three climbs in the Italian Tour was last year’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.