“To say the 2019 Giro route is back-loaded with climbs is an understatement of gigantic proportions. Yes there are a couple of short uphill finishes and a multitude of lumps and bumps in the first two weeks but all the real elevation is saved for the end in the Alps and the Dolomites. To see the best of the action and to experience for yourself some of the toughest climbs on this year’s route Sports Tours International are running two trips to the Giro, either a 10 days excursion or a slightly shorter 7 day trip. To follow the Giro is to follow a festival that consumes Italy for three weeks, it’s far more than just a bike race and is as much a part of the nation as Pasta and Espresso. The passion, pride and excitement that fills the air, radiating away from the drama on the road fills every house, bar and school yard. This love of the race must be witnessed first hand and here are just a few of the highlights of that last week of action.
Starting in Bologna then heading south before looping back to draw a giant figure of eight around the top two thirds of the country this year’s race arrives in the Alps on stage 13. After a couple of days visiting foes both old and new the route then heads east on stage 15 to Lombardy, to pay its respects to one of cycling’s five monuments. Held each October and famously dubbed the race of the falling leaves, (although they will be firmly attached to the trees in May) the roads that form the route of the Tour of Lombardy have witnessed battles on two wheels for over a century and will now play host to the Giro. Central to the race both physically and spiritually is the climb of the Madonna del Ghisallo and if cycling were a religion, and let’s face it to many of us it is, then this would be its holiest site.
At the summit sits the church of the Madonna del Ghisallo, a shrine to deceased riders which is packed full of mementos and memorabilia, some moving and some morbid. Although the climb only has an overall average gradient of 5.6% the first four kilometres are very hard indeed. Riding it for the first time I was told that there was a nice gentle section at mid way, but boy does it take a long time to arrive and you are on your knees when it does. Thankfully it presents a prolonged opportunity to recover before you face the even tougher final 1500 metres to the top. Peaking at 14% they require some real grunt to summit before you pass the church and its fantastic adjoining museum. The race route continues its tribute to ‘Il Lombardia’ by heading next to the Colma di Sormano, but thankfully avoiding the dreaded ‘Wall of’ Sormano. Then and if riding through this part of Lombardy wasn’t beautiful enough the course drops down to Nesso to reveal the majestic Lake Como and a view to take the breath away. With these two famous ascents ridden it’s no easy run in to the finish as the organisers have spiced things up by adding the climbs of the Civiglio and San Fermo della Battaglia to make sure you have worked hard before you get to cross the finish line.
Following their jaunt round Lombardy the riders on the Giro get a rest day and our tour relocates north to the town of Bormio, which just so happens sits at the base of one of the greatest passes on the face of the planet, the one and only Stelvio. This road has to be close to the top of every cyclist’s bucket list so there will be no rest day for you. Brilliant from either direction and with views that will have you struggling to comprehend what you are seeing the pass is arguably better to ride from the Austrian side. So in an ideal world you would head north out of Bormio, cross the summit, descend to Prato allo Stelvio before turning to retrace your route all the way back. The final eight kilometres of the northern flank are simply paradise. The sinuous road zig zagging its way up the side of the barren mountain is as brutal as it is beautiful as you negotiate the last of the climbs 42 hairpins. And this isn’t the only mountain in the area as rising out of Bormio, if you fancy something a little more sedate then you could always head up to either Bormio 2000 or ride west tackle the Passo del Foscagno, so to hell with a rest day, there are mountains to be ridden, loads of them.
Day two in Bormio and it’s time for the riders to return from their day off as stage 16 tackles two legends of the race, the Passo Gavia and the Passo Mortirolo. The Gavia was the setting of maybe the most famous scenes in Giro history when in 1988 it was crossed in a blizzard and is the high point, or Cima Coppi of this year’s race. That year the American Andy Hampsten battled through horrendous conditions to secure the pink jersey riding in elements that would halt the race today under it’s extreme weather protocols. Even on a summer’s day the Gavia is hostile though and if that isn’t enough to break the riders it is followed by the sadistic Mortirolo. If you were to make a list of the hardest climbs in pro cycling then this would be VERY close to the top and I have only ridden two tougher, the savage Monte Zoncolan in the Dolomites and dreaded Angliru in northern Spain. When I tackled its ruthless slopes I spent about six of its 12 kilometres out of the saddle, grinding a 39 x 27 up its unforgiving slopes and cursing the fact that I was too stubborn to invest in a compact chainset. Even with a 34 ring fitted there is nothing easy about this road though with kilometre after kilometre averaging in the double figures, 10%, 12% and even a kilometre of 15% await, hidden in the forest on its tangle of tarmac. To ride it with fresh legs is an ordeal for any rider so once you reach the top imagine how the pros feel having to race up it with 186 kilometres already in the legs, not to mention the previous 14 days, this will give you a true appreciation of what it takes to ride a Grand Tour.
As the race heads into its climax in the Dolomites our tour transfers to its base for the next four nights in Fiera di Primiero to present a plethora of opportunities to both catch the action and ride the local mountains. From here you have easy access to the Croce d’Aune, the Passo di Valles, Passo San Pellegrino and the giant Passo Manghen (see below). The stage 19 finish up to San Martino di Castrozza which sits three quarters of the way up the giant Passo di Rolle will provide another decisive point in deciding who wears pink at the end and another chance for you to ride in the wheel tracks of the race and witness the gradient, and hairpins first hand.
The final day in the mountains is truly horrible for the riders, a brutal end to a grueling tour with one of the beasts of the Giro lying in wait, the Passo Manghen. Inclusion of this road on the final mountain stage will have sent a shiver down the spine of every rider in the peloton, installing a fear in their hearts that will stay with them from the moment they turn their first pedal in Bologna on day one. Like a large black cloud looming over their heads for three weeks the thought of tackling this monster after 19 days racing will be fuel for their nightmares the whole tour, and today those nightmare will become reality. First introduced to the race in 1976 when it was little more than a goat track, such was the uproar from the competitors it was 20 years until it returned, thankfully paved. Still it won’t be easy and it isn’t even at the end of the stage, that lies up one of the most important climbs in the history of Cycling, the Croce d‘Aune.
The Croce d‘Aune may not be the longest or steepest but it’s a wonderful climb to ride and it was on this road that the late great Tullio Campagnolo had the brainwave that would lead to the invention of the quick release skewer and change cycling forever. It was on this mountain in 1927 as he struggled to remove his rear wheel in terrible weather, wasting time that would lose him the race that he realised there must be a better way. At the top of its sumptuous curves lies a monument to the man who thanks to a simple idea made all of our lives that bit easier, so remember to stop and pay your respects.
With the mountains done and dusted the race finishes with a time trial in Verona which offers the perfect chance to see each warrior close up one final time as they conclude their and your epic adventure at the Giro d’Italia.”
Simon’s latest book 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs of Italy is now available to order. If you want to hear more from our cycling ambassador make sure you get a copy. https://www.amazon.co.uk/100-Greatest-Cycling-Climbs-Italy/dp/1472143051
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