The hardest climb you’ve never heard of? The Giro d’Italia has included the Colle Fauniera sparingly and needs to go back at some point to correct past mistakes. For everyone else it’s open all summer.
The Route: there are three ways to the top but this is the route up the Valle Grana from Caraglio through Pradlèves and onwards, the route used by the Giro d’Italia in the past.
On a map or with roadsigns it is the SP23, SP112 and the SP333. From Pradlèves it is 22.4km long at an average of 7.5%. But it starts climbing before and after Pradlèves the road has yet to rear up.
The Feel : Turn away for a moment and the plains of the Pianura Padana stretch out like a rumpled blanket with buildings and vegetation the only breaks on the horizon. Then turn back to you see the mountains dominate the view. If some climbs start in the mountains, this road sees the rider approach from the flat. It’s a perfect start: gentle, warm and lazy as you pass kiwi orchards and signs for farms selling cheese. The Slow Food movement was born down the road and everything so far seems so languid.
Slowly the valley closes in and after the village Pradlèves – “city of cheese” boasts the sign – you climb up a river gorge, the road taking the route cut by the water.
There are signs for cyclists, literally as they indicate what’s ahead. It’s around the Gino Bartali hairpin that the road rears up and the surface deteriorates. The 13.77% slope – such precision from the sign – is steep enough but the crumbling road surface forces you pick your way, making it harder.
Onwards and the approach to the village of Chiotti is one of the hardest sections, the double-digit gradient is obvious. Above is the Santuario di San Magno and a brief flat section. After a few buildings the road shrinks in width and it’s back to 10 or 12% slope, now with added altitude to make it harder.
A tough gradient and the altitude aren’t unique but what makes this even more of a grind is the road itself, its surface is rasping like a cat’s tongue at best, cracked and crumbling elsewhere which robs more energy and why I rate it harder than the Stelvio or Galibier. The views are worth it, green pastures sit below huge towers of rock. You can look back down to the plains below though the path you came up, another world so far below. Take a moment to enjoy these views because once at the top the views aren’t so good. The top of the pass comes into view, a visible finish line from afar and helpfully the slope eases. At the top there’s a small car park with a large memorial to Marco Pantani.
Descend and you’ll find a few rough sections but in time you’re back down below the treeline and in comforting woodland. The effort from before is only a memory. Was it really that hard?
The History: the Giro had to wait until 1999 to climb this. It’s not as if the road was a secret but year after year the race skipped it. Were they afraid? It turns out they were and the race only went up once the descent had been improved says Daniel Friebe in Mountain Higher. It highlights how races return to familiar ground and there several major climbs that the Giro has yet to visit, the Nivolet for example.
When they did visit in 1999 it was spectacular and riders, many with blood as thick as ketchup, were floundering. José Jimenez tried a big gear attack halfway but cracked and then fell to pieces losing double-digit minutes. Laurent Jalabert surrendered his maglia rosa and Marco Pantani ended the day in pink but was later to leave the race red-faced after his haematocrit test leaving Ivan Gotti to win a second Giro. Arguably the Fauniera was the high point of his career and what followed after was a long descent.
It was due to return in 2001 but a police raid on the Giro, sometimes known as the Sanremo Blitz saw the stage cancelled in the aftermath. It should go back and hopefully it’ll be third time luck for a happy ending. But when? There’s no ski station to bid for the finish so it depends on the local towns nearby bidding and if they do pay the money the mountain will take all the glory.
Pantani Memorial: sometimes it seems the old rule of building a chapel on top of a hill in Italy has been surpassed by a new one where they erect a Pantani memorial. It’s an exaggeration but there are molto memorials. This one is haunting for the dark eyes and grey stone.
Name: the pass has two names, the Colle Fauniera but also the Colle dei Morti, the “pass of the dead”. The more mortal name comes from a battle a few hundred years ago in the area while the rocky peak of the Cima Fauniera nearby provides the other name. Today both are used interchangeably.
Climb up and there’s also the Colle d’Esischie and the Colle del Vallonetto along the way. The Esischie is a proper road and is used by the annual Fausto Coppi gran fondo, an alternative route to the top used once in the Giro too while the Vallonetto is just a gravel track.
Travel and Access: Cuneo is the nearest large town with rail and autostrada links and it sits roughly equidistant between Turin and Nice in France. There are a lot of other climbs to do in the area but it can be hard to pick a base. You need to ride far up one valley get a big climb and possibly cross to France and a circular loop for the day is rare.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads