Think of a mountain range used by the Giro and the Alps surely come to mind. The Apennines are the poorer cousins and all the more interesting for it. This central ridge, the spine of Italy, includes many good climbs and the Blockhaus is one of the hardest on Italy, not just in the Apennines but as challenging as anything in the Alps. The stats are comparable to Mont Ventoux, the reality is even more of a challenge.
The Route: there are three main ways up. This is the climb from Roccamorice on the SP64, KM12 on the profile above and the same route that the Giro d’Italia will use in 2017. Roccamorice is in the province of Pescara, Abruzzo, central Italy. The climb is 19km long and averages 8.3%. It’s a remote road but there are signposts all the way. Note the 2017 Giro d’Italia calls the climb on Stage 10 the “Blockhaus” but it stops several kilometres short of this route.
The Feel: Roccamorice sits on a ridge between two small river gorges meaning you have to climb just to reach the start of the climb. It’s a small town but there’s room for parking and a couple of shops and a bakery in case you’ve forgotten any food or need supplies on your return. The town is built with the white limestone of the Majella mountain you’re about to climb.
The start is innocuous, it’s signposted but doesn’t have the obvious visual clues that mark the start of a typical Alpine climb such as a bridge or a valley wall. This is the first challenge and a clue of what is to come: you are never quite sure what lies ahead. Is this one of the hardest climbs in Europe or just a road that leads to some fields behind the town? For all the fearsome reputation the start is gentle and unremarkable, as if it is a road to the fields as it passes chestnut and oak trees. There’s even a football field, proof the terrain is far from vertical.
Things toughen up after 2.5km, the road simply rises up at 7%. This is a small road with a rough surface and you spend time thinking about your line around the cracks and holes. It’s also hard to get into a rhythm because the slope keeps changing. Blockhaus might conjure up images of German engineering, of a military road with an regular gradient like the Colle delle Finestre but this has the feel of an old mule path that eventually got tarmacked. It’s not on the profile but the road even descends for a moment early on, a relief for a few seconds but it only means the upcoming road will pitch up even steeper to achieve the 10% average. You’ll find 12-14% along the way.
Soon after the trees give way and you’re riding up a big open space. Many mountain climbs can have an intimate feel, perhaps with a rocky flank on one side and pines on the other. Here it’s wide open with not even a tree for company, there are long stretches where you’re the tallest object on the landscape for a long time amid large grassy pastures with thousands of crickets chirping. There are bends along the way to aim for only they’re not the usual hairpins that let you stretch your legs, they’re wide and steep and link some of the hardest sections.
After a series of bends the road tracks up the side of the valley and the road closes in and you pass by some small pines. Progress is slow with the gradient often exceeding 10%. Finally some buildings come into sight, this is the small Majelletta ski station and you come to a T-Junction. Turn right for the Blockhaus (left to descend to thePasso Lanciano and the plains below). You’re now on a much bigger road and it has a touch of Mont Ventoux about it, the white limestone rocks around you and best of all, the enormous views to your left. It’s here where the 2017 Giro’s finish line is to be found but only because of logistics and the need to park plenty of trucks around the finish line and whisper it the Giro’s finish isn’t anywhere near the Blockhaus. It’s important to know this if you want to ride on because there’s still another five kilometres to go. Press on? Yes because the views get even better and because you can’t climb here and abandon before the summit. Keep going and you get a series of bends past communications masts. The road stops officially but the tarmac continues as a service road for the ski lifts and nobody minds as ride on clear 2,000m above sea level. The road ends short of the Blockhaus, the stone ruins are hardly worth seeing but you can take in the views instead but wrap up because it can be windy and the views of the beaches below contrast with the chill at the top.
The Verdict: 18km at 8.2% sounds hard enough, comparable to Mont Ventoux and there are more similarities thanks to the limestone rocks, communications masts and stunning views. Only this is a much tougher climb. Where Mont Ventoux steep in the forest on a wide, regular road this is irregular in gradient, often steeper than 10% and all on rough rural back road that is much slower to ride and has you changing gear a lot, or at least if you’re lucky to have fitted low enough ratios to cope with the gradient and the relentless length.
It’s remote, there is a ski station but it’s more a couple of sheds connected by a button lift than a resort. It’s remote, a a road up a mountain rather than pass connecting two valleys and you’re more likely to meet deer, boar, foxes and chamois on the way up than other cyclists or motorists, especially on the section from Roccamorice to the Majelletta T-junction. If you’re unlucky you might even meet the bears and wolves that roam here. The climb’s remote aspect probably explains its lack of status, an unknown and unloved king of a climb.
The Giro: 2017 will be the Giro’s sixth visit and marking the 50th anniversary of its inclusion. In 1967 and Eddy Merckx won, “of course” you might say but this was a significant moment, his first stage win in the Giro on his way to ninth place overall. This was a surprise win, famously one newspaper headline the next day was “Un velocista belga supera i nostri scalatori“, or “Belgian sprinter beats our climbers” as Merckx had yet to become the fearsome stage racer. Today there’s a memorial to Merckx in Roccamorice, the “unbeatable champion” who “once raced on our roads”.
The race returned in 1968 (Bitossi), 1972 (Fuente), 1984 (Argentin), 2009 (Garzelli) but all on the relatively gentler slopes via Fara Filorum Petri or Lettomanopello: the Passio Lanciano more than the blockhaus with a bigger road and more level gradients although both still hard work.
It’ll never happen but imagine for a moment a Giro without the Alps. This may sound sparse and boring but instead the Apennines offer so much climbing that the route would never be short of mountain stages. What the Apennines lack in altitude they compensate by irregular gradients and mystery, a voyage into the unknown where the peloton doesn’t know what lies around the next hairpin. But these hills lack ski resorts and their money meaning the regions can neither pay for the race, nor host the caravan. At best one day the formulaic pattern of the final Alpine week could be broken.
The Name: blockhaus doesn’t sound very Italian but remember that Italy has only recently started speaking Italian. Back in the 1860s it was common for many military officers to have links to the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian. The block house was a small garrison designed to allow the army to control the Abruzzo hills for military and economic reasons, a strategic point to monitor the land and any smugglers. One visit to the top and you can see the view for yourself and why the government wanted to control the terrain from this point. The Giro says Blockhaus but the roadsigns in the region say Block Haus.
Travel and Access: it’s a long way from major transport hubs, a problem to get there but it means rewarding roads once you arrive. Rome is the closest city in a straight line but that means crossing the Apennines but there’s the A25 Autostrada. The eastern, Adriatic coast is well served by Autostrade and rail.
- Photo credit: RaBoe/Wikipedia
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads