Roads to Ride: Colle di Fauniera


The hardest climb you’ve never heard of? The Giro d’Italia has included the Colle Fauniera sparingly and perhaps needs to go back at some point to correct this. For everyone else it’s open all summer and is one of the most spectacular climbs in the Alps.

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 road signs, it is the SP23, SP112 and the SP333. From Pradlèves it is 22km long at an average of 7.5% with long sections at over 10%.

The Feel: look back 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 look forward again and you have to tilt your head up like a tourist in New York to see the skyscraping peaks across the horizon ahead of you. If some climbs start in the mountains, this road sees the rider approach from the flat plains. It’s a perfect start: gentle and lazy as you pass kiwi orchards and signs for farms selling cheese. The Slow Food movement was born down the road and everything feels languid.

Slowly the valley closes in and after the village Pradlèves – “city of cheese” boasts a sign – you climb up a river gorge, the road taking the route cut by the white water.

There are signs for cyclists to indicate what the next kilometre will bring. It’s round 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 still.

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, just enough time to eat and drink. After a few buildings the road shrinks in width and it’s back to 10-12% slope, now with added altitude.

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 it feels harder than the Stelvio or Galibier.

The views are worth it, green pastures sit below huge towers of rock. This is a spectacular landscape with an enormous sense of space. You can look back down to the plains below though the path you came up, another world down below. Take a moment to enjoy these views on the way because the views at the top of the pass aren’t so good, the road is cut into the rock. The top of the pass comes into view, a visible finish line from afar and helpfully the slope eases allowing you to finish with a flurry. At the top there’s a small car park with a large memorial to Marco Pantani. Stop for the memorial but if you want better views keep going for a moment.

Descend and you’ll find rough sections and loose rocks but in no time you’re back below the treeline in comforting woodland that is several degrees warmer. The effort from before is only a memory. Was it really that hard?

The Verdict: if you scored climbs by their challenge, scenery, altitude, calm and other factors then the Fauniera could well be Europe’s best. That’s a subjective matter, up to you to work out your priorities. This climb is wild, there’s no ski resort at the top, in fact there’s little in the way of amenities, just a road and even that is crumbling in places. But the length of the climb and its altitude make it majestic because they’re a means to an end, once beyond the sanctuary of Castelmagno the landscape turns spectacular, it’s almost a climb you don’t want to finish because once the pass comes into sight the adventure is over.

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 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 failing his haematocrit test, leaving Ivan Gotti to win a second Giro. Arguably the Fauniera was the high point of Pantani’s career and what followed after was a long descent.

The Giro was due to return in 2001 but a police raid, branded 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 for a stage finish and if they do pay up the mountain will take all the glory. Plus the road needs repair.

Pantani Fauniera

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 of course 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 mortal version 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 by locals.

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 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.

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15 thoughts on “Roads to Ride: Colle di Fauniera”

      • That is what is called to express a well-informed opinion…
        He didn’t win the stage – and wasn’t busted for doping! 😀

        Besides, the test which I suppose you’re referring to is now being investigated again by the Public Prosecutor’s office, as new elements are strengthening the suspects of “criminal conspiracy and fraud”. Criminal conspiracy and fraud regarding the manipulation of the blood test, not any possible doping by the rider, who is considered to be “the injured party”.
        Not that Pantani wasn’t doping, but maybe something way worst was happening that day in Madonna di Campiglio. And (maybe) he wouldn’t have returned any unfavourable result, either, just as his colleagues who were equally doping.

  1. A visit to Colombia to explore its huge mountains which have supplied us with a never ending stream of climber’s must be on the cards soon?

    Perhaps to tackle the ‘Alto de Letras ‘ 85km long with an average gradient of 4% and an elevation gain of 3199 meters. One day I will make it but until then below is the strava segment link:

    • There’s a blog entry and some photos of a chap who did that Colombian climb a couple of years ago, which I have tried to paste below. There’s another crazy race you can do in Taiwan which is apparently ridiculously difficult that some Australians have travelled over to do. A bucket list trip perhaps before my middle age truly crushes me ….

      Thanks for the post @inrng. These are among my favourite entries. I do hate irregular road surfaces pretty much more than anything: freaks me out on the descents in particular. Theres nothing like a new layer of hot mix Tarmac …

      • inrng doesn’t specify what descent did (s)he take, but I think the best thing to do is to go down to Demonte, and thus close a circular loop, which is always more fun than “going there and back again”. What matters the most is that the asphalt is way better – at least when I was there – and people who like descents will definitely love this one (be very careful, anyway).
        Epic cycling memories for the descent, too: Savoldelli offered an incredible show here during that 1999 Giro stage, as @Albumciclismo says. I think there are just a few seconds of impressive TV footage; he left the motos way back, the pilots absolutely amazed.

        Speaking of circular loops, the area offers various options, but normally you must accept to have just a big climb each day. You go up a valley, cross through a big mountain pass to the parallel one, and go down to your starting point.
        If you’re fit enough, a beautiful two-climbs-130kms-long loop you can do implies climbing towards Fauniera but turning right before you get to the top, through the Colle d’Esischie. Down to Marmora and up to Sampeyre through the impressive Vallone d’Elva (if it’s still open to traffic). Down to the plains, and back to your starting point.
        All the same, what inrng says about loops is indeed true if you want to cross to France, through the beautiful Colle dell’Agnello, for example (or Maddalena, or Lombarda): to come back you need some kind of “Coppian” stage.
        Generally speaking, Dronero or Caraglio can be good bases from a “geometrical” point of view to explore the beautiful valleys of Valle Grana, Maira, Varaita…

  2. I agree that Pantani’s climb to Fauniera may be considered higher point of his career. That day he lost the stage win because Savoldelli catched and overcame him in the descent, but that climb was something greater than Galibier 1998. Unfortunately there was fog on the top and we had no TV coverage, but who was there cannot forget.

  3. This climb is included in the Fausto Coppi Gran Fondo – its tough. When i rode the GF it was 30 degrees at 7am when i set off and by the time i hit the base of the climb it was 40 degrees, at the top the temp was 38, no cooling breeze as you ascended, it remained rosting hot all the way to the top. Coupled with the fluctuating gradients, the heat and asphalt road that in places was melting…this is by far the hardests climb i have ever done it really was brutal !!!
    The descent however, which was a bit technical at the top, was breathtaking, at one stage i was doing over 70kph.

  4. Nice review. Brings back memories of when we ran a Savoy Alps tour over this a few times back-in-the-day. I can still remember the first time we came up in a car to map things out….just a few days before the Giro was to come though. They were laying fresh asphalt and we had to wait while they rolled it smooth. No argument this is a harder climb than Gavia or Stelvio, dicey pavement or not! Great ristorante in Castelmagno, home of the famous cheese, but probably a bit heavy to continue the climb. We stopped there for the night and continued the climb the next morning, following the route the Giro used later where Pantani and Garzelli crashed on the descent of Sampeyre. Our day ended with an overnight in Ponte Chianale, leaving the toughest part of the Agnello for the next day. I’d love to see this stage repeated, but will settle for the Finestre stage in 2015. I thought environmental protests would keep the Giro away for good.

    • I’m not informed about environmental protests against the Giro passing through Fauniera, if you were speaking about that, too; I think that’s a problem of money, more than everything.
      If you only referred to Finestre, I recall the question being the opposition again the hypothesis of asphalting the whole road, an idea which had been taken into consideration before the Giro passed there for the first time. Then it was clear that also the Giro liked it best as it is now.
      They say that environmental protests are hindering a mountain-top finish on Nivolet, too. In that case, I think the matter should be carefully examined, since there you’d go straight into a National Park, indeed. Anyway, I suspect that once more it’s just a problem of money (no sky resort, no big municipality around), but, whatever the reason, I’d back up the decision to give the Park priority over the Giro. A National Park’s mission is to preserve, not to be a touristic attraction (which can be an interesting and profitable side-effect, but nothing more).

    • Awful weather for that Giro stage… Hail and some snow (personally, I consider hail even worse!). What kind of weather did you find up there? It’s wild mountain, totally, and bad weather can strike hard, with very few human settlements to take cover and some sections of the road that can be very dangerous. I loved it, but I definitely waited the Azores anticyclone to travel there with my bike…

      • Val d’Susa’s been a hotbed of anti high-speed train protests. I’d heard some of that same sentiment was applied to the Giro going over Finestre and the reason they hadn’t been back. I would hate to see the road paved the rest of the way, but I doubt that RCS is too interested in that idea either. We’ll be there in 2015 to see La Corsa Rosa for sure.

      • Sorry, forgot to reply about the weather. Every time we’ve been there it’s been just fine. Our mountain tours are run in July to avoid nasty conditions in the mountains, though of course that’s never certain.

  5. The Fauniera-Agnello-Vars-Bonette-Lombarda-Sampeyre loop should be used by both Giro and Tour for giant, not mountaintop Alpine stages. If not, there would be room for a gigantic mountain classic.

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