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Is this Italy's greatest secret mountain?

In-depth
8 Jun 2020
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Words Joe Robinson Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

The Colle Fauniera is a sombre mountain. Standing high on the edge of the Cottian Alps, connecting the Valle Grana to the Valle dell’Arma, it’s a giant that has witnessed many tragedies.

In 1744, French and Spanish troops were stoned to death by their Savoyard enemies on its slopes, a massacre made all the more terrible by the fact that peace had already been declared in the valley below. Skip forward some 187 years and newlyweds Romolo and Luisa Contini were illegally trekking across the mountain to find a new life in France; days later police were arresting Romolo in Acceglio as Luisa’s body was being recovered from a ravine just south of the Fauniera pass. Tragedies like these are why the Colle Fauniera is better known in some circles as the Colle dei Morti — the Pass of the Dead.

Locals had used this morbid name for centuries when - as told in Daniel Friebe and Pete Goding's book Mountain Higher - Giro d’Italia organiser Carmine Castellano visited in the late 1990s. Friend and local politician Ferruccio Dardanello had begged Castellano to see the mountain for himself, having long campaigned for its debut at the Giro.

When Castellano visited, he was left speechless by its beauty – how had such a wild colossus been ignored by Italy’s biggest race? He discovered a road flanked by vibrant lilies and violets and delicate edelweiss – one that winds to the skies before falling back down to earth through a patchwork of dairy fields.

Yet as impressed as Castellano was, he was also worried – the road surface into Demonte at its feet was clearly not safe enough for a peloton, and the road’s name was a bad omen for his Catholic beliefs. So he turned to Dardanello and instructed him to repair the descent and change the name. Only then would he have his stage.

In what seemed like no time at all, the road was relaid and the climb renamed (much to the displeasure of the locals), and on 29th May 1999 Castellano’s Giro d’Italia made good its promise and duly scaled the Colle Fauniera’s slopes for the first time on Stage 14, from Bra to Borgo San Dalmazzo.

But where did the name come from? When Castellano and Dardanello visited, a mysterious wooden orientation table at the climb’s summit had been erected that labelled a rocky outcrop to the east as ‘Fauniera’, 2,511m above sea level. So with that it was decided: the climb the Giro would scale would be named the Colle Fauniera.*

Now, 20 years later, I am about to start my own negotiations with this climb, which at 33km in length, 8% in gradient and striking fear into even the most preternatural of climbers, is certain to drive one desperately hard bargain.

Fruits for our labour

Folding over the pages of the morning’s Gazzetta dello Sport, Davide’s face beams at a photograph of Cristiano Ronaldo, resplendent in his black and white Juventus shirt. Davide is a proud Torinese and also my day’s riding partner. He is tanned, no heavier than 60kg dripping wet and has pistol-thin legs with matching veins, the result of hour after hour spent guiding tourists around these Alpine ascents for the Piedmont Bike Hotel. I note his is the complete opposite of my own pale, 90kg frame.

While Davide and I might not share physical attributes, what we do share is a passion for one of life’s greatest endeavours, and arguably the most important thing in any Italian’s life after food, family and football: cycling.

‘The Fauniera has only featured in the Giro d’Italia once,’ says Davide as our cleats clip into pedals on the terrace of the Caraglio cafe. ‘That’s because it’s too high to guarantee good weather in May, and the road is very narrow and not smooth at all.’

I’ve made my pilgrimage in mid-June, and just as well: as per Davide’s lament, the Fauniera’s slopes have only been open for a week such was the snow that fell over winter. Davide adds that the Fauniera’s absence from Italy’s grandest race since its sole appearance means it is hardly ever on the bucket lists of the cyclo-tourists that pass him by on a yearly basis, the nearby Colle del Nivolet and Colle delle Finestre being much preferred.

Rolling out of Caraglio we delve straight into the Piedmont countryside and towards the climb. The brown sign just outside of Pradleves reckons that the Fauniera is 22km long, but I’m not fooled. I’ve done my research and I know we’ll be climbing for 33km, the start coming in the town of Valgrana.

The reason for this discrepancy is that the first 11km do not share the same rude gradient as the final two-thirds, and therefore aren’t included in the count. Indeed, the first 11km is more drag than noteworthy rise, but as we head past a veritable fruit salad of fields, I am at least entertained by the colour and Davide’s surprising revelation that Italy is the world’s largest producer of kiwis.

By Pradleves and the true start of the climb, the orchards have been replaced by thick trees and a fast-flowing river that weaves its way parallel to the road. ‘As long as you can hear the river, the climbing has yet to really begin,’ Davide says.

The trickle of water calms my nerves as we negotiate the ever-rising gradient of the first few kilometres, keeping our eyes fixed on the hamlet of Campomolino in the near distance. Then suddenly the sound disappears and like a switch the climb changes.

The gradient turns from Jekyll to Hyde, 7% doubling to 14% as I wrench the bike into its lowest gear. A nervous disposition has my fingers twitching for non-existent gears like Clint Eastwood at high noon. For 2km the gradient bites away at me continuously, swaying portentously between 12 and 15%.

Davide’s cadence remains smooth and fast while mine resembles more of an awkward two-step dance. Both of us are travelling at walking pace. I close my eyes, grit my teeth and attempt to transport my mind to simpler times. Those 2km to Campomolino take us 12 minutes, but the pain feels like a lifetime’s.

The gradient beyond Campomolino mellows for a while as we head higher to the next village, Chiappi. Here the scenery begins to open up before us as we follow the squiggle of road into the sky. The only thing averting my gaze from the vastness of the mountain is the Santuario Saint Magno church perched above the road.

When we eventually reach its doors we discover the chapel to be closed, my plans of saying a prayer to the cycling gods for the final part of the climb crushed. We do, however, find a restaurant serving short espresso and even shorter liquors, and this proves to be the perfect cocktail before the climb’s final stretch.

Marco’s mountain

The Fauniera truly is a beautiful climb. It rains and snows a lot on these slopes but mixes that with often blazing sunshine and the result is breathtaking. The colours, the greens, whites and yellows, seem magnified. It’s the kind of scenery that would have the late Clive James burst into a flowing, self-reflecting monologue about how the beauty of natural landscapes helps to place the sheer triviality of one’s life into the grand scheme of everything. And it’s enough for me to compartmentalise the brutality of this climb’s unrelenting gradient.

Of course, when the Giro came to play in 1999 the peloton had something else aiding their efforts. To make no bones about it, this was slap-bang in the middle of the EPO era, and plenty of riders would have been scaling the Fauniera with blood like ketchup. Yet even with that chemically enhanced advantage, the ascent’s sheer savagery had them bawling into their bidons. This climb struck true fear into that race.

Take Banesto co-leaders Jose Maria Jimenez and Alex Zulle. They were among the favourites for the maglia rosa that year and decided to spend their final rest day with a recon of the unknown climb ahead. Probed by the press when they rolled back into the hotel, Jimenez was quoted as saying it was the ‘hardest climb I’ve ever seen in my life, harder than the Angliru,’ while Zulle stared straight into the journalist’s eyes and said, ‘To be honest, the Fauniera frightens me.’

A day later, neither of them were still in contention for pink. By the summit both were lagging behind the group of overall favourites; by the finish in Borgo San Dalmazzo both were crossing the line flanked by four teammates, having haemorrhaged 20 minutes. The pair had been chewed up and spat out by the Fauniera. They had also been subjected to the savagery of Marco Pantani.

Pantani was trademark Pantani on the Fauniera. Grainy footage shows him dancing in the drops, shedding Jimenez, Zulle and pink jersey-wearer Laurent Jalabert on the early slopes and reaching the summit alone with enough of a gap to have the virtual pink on his shoulders. Despite not winning the stage – Pantani, safe in the race lead, allowed himself to be caught by Paolo Savoldelli – many say Pantani’s ride that day was his finest, eclipsing even his famous assault of the Col du Galibier in 1998.

Indeed, that swashbuckling ride is why I’m now standing beside a marble statue of Il Pirata, having just struggled my way to the Fauniera’s peak. Oddly, this statue is far from celebratory in look, projecting, if anything, a real sadness. Pantani’s sockets are dark, his face Nosferatu-gaunt, gaze haunted. Knowing Pantani’s tortured genius, this statue is particularly poignant.

Davide has another word for it – ugly – and while I get his point, something tells me the sculptor wasn’t going for a pretty portrait. After all, just six days after Pantani crested this mountain alone he was being unceremoniously expelled from the race – still in the maglia rosa – having returned a blood sample showing a haematocrit level way over over the UCI limit of 50%.

In many respects the peak of the Fauniera saw Pantani at his own metaphorical highest: untouchable, the best climber in the world and on course to defend his 1998 Giro title. But the descent, to race expulsion and beyond, was the beginning of a spiral that would end in Pantani dying of acute cocaine poisoning five years later. Davide and I take a moment. It’s impossible not to.

 Then Davide breaks the silence. ‘Repeat after me, Joe. Fanculo le marmotte.’ As he lets out multiple expletives, he presses his thumb hard against bunched fingers, wagging his hand freely in front of his chin in that typical Italian gesture. ‘I hate marmots. Sure, they look cute, but they are dangerous.’

I’m staring straight into the eyes of a small ball of fur and I cannot say I share the same hatred. Then again, unlike Davide, I haven’t just been given a speed-wobble at 60kmh by one of them sprinting across the line of my front wheel. They’re certainly a bigger danger than cars. So rare is the appearance of a motor vehicle that given this freedom of the road I am able to fully engage with the true craft of going downhill.

The Fauniera provides long sections of rapid, straight roads to tempt me to go ever faster, before all at once rudely interrupting any reverie with sharp, technical sections that challenge my brakes nearly as much as my concentration.

Yet soon Davide and I are in a flow that sees us rolling round sweeping bends without cutting speed, and before too long we’re back to the valley floor and pushing towards Borgo San Dalmazzo. After 17km of through-and-off we arrive at our journey’s end, where we share an embrace to congratulate one another on the day of riding.

Times (don’t) change

It’s November and I’m sitting at my desk daydreaming about those sweet Italian liquors and those even sweeter Italian corners. The livestream announcement for this year’s Giro d’Italia route pops up on my laptop screen, the organiser, with his low-buttoned shirt and bright jacket, talks about the theme of the race for 2020.

A visit to the Passo Stelvio and Colle dell’Agnello signify the race’s pledge to scale the highest heights, he says. He mentions some of the forgotten roads of the Giro, and that’s when the Colle Fauniera’s name leaves his lips.

For a 21st year, its slopes have been ignored by the Giro’s race director, Mauro Vegni, and organisers RCS. No doubt it will wonder, that Pass of the Dead, just how much more alive it needs to be to be invited back to Italy’s race ever again. The Colle Fauniera remains a sombre mountain.

* Credit to Daniel Friebe and Pete Goding's Mountain Higher for providing research on the climb. You can buy the book here from Quercus Publishing.

Wild riding

Follow Cyclist’s struggle up and over the Fauniera

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/100italy. Some rides are up-and-down affairs involving multiple turns and complicated directions, but not this one. There is only one significant turn, and only one (very) significant climb, the Colle Fauniera itself, which dominates the first half of the route.

From the start in Caraglio, a town 11km northwest of Cuneo, ride along the SP23 to Valgrana and the beginning of the Colle Fauniera climb. Brace yourself and continue climbing past the hamlets of Pradleves, Campomolino and Chiappi for the next 30km until you reach the summit. Continue along the same road as you descend the climb, following it as it turns first south then back east until the town of Demonte.

Stay on the main road, which becomes the SS21 out of town, before turning right at the roundabout to Festiona, where you turn left to your finishing town of Borgo San Dalmazzo. While this route is a point-to-point, it finishes only 12km south of Caraglio, so you can easily complete the loop if desired.

Local Heroes 

A rough guide to the Cuneo region's movers and bakers.

The Strava legend

Pinerolo-based Davide Busuito holds the Strava King of the Mountains title for the Colle Fauniera. The Italian covered the 19.74km official segment in a time of 1:13.26s. Erica Magnaldi, pro rider with Ceratizit-WNT, holds the women’s QoM in a time of 1:25.55s.

The chocolate mogul

The late Michele Ferrero was born in nearby Dogliani. Inheriting his father Pietro’s bakery in 1949, he transformed this local business into Europe’s second-largest confectionery company with inventions such as the Ferrero Rocher, Nutella, Tic Tacs and the Kinder Egg, to the extent that today Ferrero uses 30% of the world’s production of hazelnuts.

The alternative climb

If you tackle the Colle Fauniera, be sure to also tick off the Colle dell’Agnello while you’re at it. A 60km ride away from Cuneo, its 2,744m pass makes it the third-highest paved climb in the Alps.

The rider’s ride

Pinarello Dogma F10, £9,000, pinarello.com

You’re much more likely to find a Pinarello Dogma in the hills of Surrey than the Alps of Italy these days, such is the affinity the MAMIL has for the bike made famous by Team Sky/Ineos. But it’s perfect for riding in the mountains – after all, it’s the bike dynasty that guided Wiggins, Froome, Thomas and Bernal to a combined 10 Grand Tours and counting.

Simply put, the F10 does everything well. The asymmetric frame – offset and overbuilt to the left to balance the forces coming from the drivetrain on the right – is wonderfully stiff, providing an ideal platform for long climbs, while Shimano’s Dura-Ace mechanical groupset never missed a beat, which given how much I was shifting on the climbs was no mean feat.

Yet it’s the downs where the Dogma F10 excels, its pinpoint handling and near-telepathic balance instilling all the confidence needed for 30km of winding, unrelenting downhill.

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew from Gatwick to Turin with British Airways, which cost £140 return. The Piedmont Bike Hotel provides transfers to its hotel, but the train from Turin to Cuneo is also pretty easy to navigate and has a dedicated carriage for bikes. At €6 each way, it is also incredibly cheap.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Piedmont Bike Hotel just outside Carmagnola. It has a dedicated team of guides and mechanics, as well as a support van that will accompany you on any ride.

Rooms start at around €80pn, with extras available such as guided rides and Pinarello bike hire. While Italy remains in lockdown at the time of writing, the Piedmont Bike Hotel is still taking bookings and is offering increased flexibility should you need to rearrange your dates.

See piedmontbikehotel.com for more.

Thanks

Many thanks to Gianni from the Piedmont Bike Hotel for hosting us in his charming hotel. Grazie mille also to Davide for supporting us on the ride and planning the route, and to Diego for patiently driving our photographer around all day too.

The Piedmont Bike Hotel is part of the wider Bici Amore Mio cycling group that offers cycling holidays around five regions in Italy, from the high Dolomites to the rolling hills of Tuscany. Prices vary depending on location. Visit biciamoremio.it for more information.