We last saw this climb in the 2005 Giro when I rode it with much gusto and panache (perhaps a bit of an exaggeration…). But I was keen to get back up there from the time I saw the corsa announced last year.
After some internal rebellion that included an ugly incident with one of the 2 porta-potties at the top, a celebratory beer had me back on track. Musta been that peach…
It’s 18,450 meters long, averages 9.2% grade, pitches to 14%, and the final 8km are on hard dirt track. The summit at 2043 meters comes after a looong bloody 18km uphill on a bike, and if you’re not fit, fresh, or both, you can fuggedaboutit.
Thar she blows – that ridge in yonder distance.
I’d hoped to recreate my epic loop of 7 years ago through Sestriere, down the valley to Susa, then straight into the belly of the beast, up its gullet, and out the ‘boca’. But after a pretty epic struggle to get myself around the final 7 stages of this race, I had neither of the above required elements with which to assault such a formidable foe.
Plan B was soon devised, to take in the 30ish km ride up the valley from Pinerolo, then climb up the descent of the Finestre and catch the race at the summit, with all the other crazies.
This would allow me a hoped for easy escape should the road be traffic jammed later, and also be a lot easier than the 100km epic of last time.
A couple things I learned:
1. That 30km ride up the valley is a snoozer. If it wasn’t for the tailwind, it’d be worse, but I’ll chalk it up to experience and know to avoid it in the future.
2. That 30km ride up the valley really ‘softens’ up the legs for a brutish climb to the Finestre summit.
3. That 30km down the valley after the race is a long long way.
A few kms up the valley I decided it was time for a banana stop at a local fruit vendor. The friendly ‘fiorista’ bonused me up with a couple of peaches. I should say here that I’m not a fan of the fuzzy fruit (at least pre-ride), and here was reminded of Greg LeMond’s battle with a bad peach during the 1986 Tour – I certainly did not want to live through that. She liked me so much, that she left me in charge of the shop so she could run for a coffee. She mostly yelled this to me (“Signor ciclista”) a she strode off up the street while I was getting ready to leave.
“I’ll be back soon!” she shouted and off she went.
So there I am, watching out for customers and hoping no one shows up on my watch. Luckily her sister arrived and I was on my way.
There’s a lot of history in this area as a guarded border against invaders from France. The walls on this crumbled fort were about 10 feet thick, and were part of a much grandiose wall that carried on up the mountainside. I suppose if you were a bad-ass enough invader to make it over the Alps and through the rugged terrain to get this far, the defenders better have some thick walls.
Even from the Sestriere side, it’s a 12km grinder, that thankfully is full of awesome views, and some longer gentler grades to enjoy them.
There were fewer riders than I expected and a lot less than last time, when Il Falco dueled DiLuca and Simoni right up the slopes of the Finestre to win the most exciting race in years.
There’s the summit – way up in that saddle.
With Contador’s bow pretty much tied up, the Italians are left with little hope for glory, so it’s the purest and die-hardest of fans who’re here today.
This guy towed his dog all the way up. Yes, I said ‘dog’.
The view back towards Sestriere from just below the summit of the Finestre.
After 3h 10mins of pedaling…all uphill, I finally cracked the summit. It was 2:10PM and the place was abuzz with fans and anticipation in one of the finest natural amphitheatres in sport.
This guy rode up the corsa, and was carried along by a wave of cheers and shouts – the fans love a good effort.
What’s a summit party without your own DJ?
With fan anticipation at the breaking point, the whup-whup-whup of the race copters finally echoed up the valley from Susa. It was a few minutes before they appeared, and it was odd to be looking down to the helicopters from our vantage nearly 500 meters higher.
Here is a great place to see the race, since you can watch it from such a long way out as they wind up the switchbacks – the race guide says there are 29 turns in one section of the climb alone.
The riders appear at last – Kiryienka ‘solo a commando’ – the fans go bananas and I almost get trampled by a runner as I try for a pic. Long-ago flash-in-the-pan Rujano follows a few minutes later, and the tifosi love the chance to cheer the riders one by one.
Then the GC boys arrive in a small group riding smoothly. Contador looks calm, job almost done.
The biggest cheers seem to wait for the gruppetti, which come minutes later in bits and bites. The climb is so hard, there is no single autobus, just batches of riders banded together to get through today and survive the time cut for tomorrow – no one wants to be eliminated on the 20th stage.
I jump into one of the gaps and make my way back to the summit, in hopes of beating the rush off the mountain and buying some much needed time for my drive back to Milan tonight.
My plan works and I’m through before the exodus begins. There are massive gaps now – minutes – and I’m mindful to watch for what’s left of the race – that’s no place to be caught up.
Some a kms down the police motos blast past and I pull over in a field that rewards with a view across the valley. The final peloton rolls through, and I can hear chats, and conversation – no one’s sweating it here. The Italian Alps make a spectacular backdrop.
My last foto is snapped, and I start the long journey out of here.
It’s Sunday AM as I wrote this – a couple hours before the TT starts – time to get out there for one final day at this Giro.
Ciao a domani –