The first big climb of the 2019 Giro d’Italia, the climb to Montoso features on Stage 12 from Cuneo to Pinerolo so here’s a closer look. It’s a brute and a lesson to study the route more closely, but also a road to nowhere, or perhaps to the past and Italy’s better days.
The Route: the Via San Vincenzo heads west out of Bibiana, a town in the Province of Turin in north-western Italy. It is 8.8km long with an average gradient of 9.5% and with a gentle start and a flat finish this means the main part of the climb is consistently over 10%.
The Feel: the region here is Piemonte, literally the “foot of the mountain” and this climb is a toe as it starts from where the giant flat plains of northern Italy first meet the Alps. As you turn your back on the town of Bibiana you can see the wooded mountains ahead and poking over the treeline two giant Alpine peaks sit like white pyramids. But for all the allure of leaving the plains behind it’s an unpromising start, the Via San Vincenzo feels ordinary, a big wide road with a mix of houses, light industry, supply yards as well as a “sports bar” and a kiwi orchard. This is supposed to be a hard climb but it’s not climbing that much. Which is nice until you realise that every easy turn of the pedals means the road to ahead has to be steeper to make up the average. After two kilometres the road enters the forest and from here on it pitches up through chestnut woodland and the gradient rarely dips below 10%, if you can find 20 metres at 8% then it only means you’ve got 200 metres at 12% next or more. The road surface varies, the Giro is coming and so one minute there’s a section of fresh blacktop, the next it’s the cracked road and then sometimes one half of the road is old and one side new. There’s little traffic – one car during the whole ascent on a weekday afternoon, more about this later – so you can cross to the smooth side if you keep your eyes and ears open. And you’ll want to because the slope bites and every bit helps.
After four kilometres you pass two giant buildings hiding in the woodland, they’re large apartment blocks, each with their own style, only the first is dilapidated and the second heading that way and they look abandoned. Around the corner a house is for sale. Onwards and its more woodland and sometimes you can see through the trees to view a mosaic of green fields and red brick buildings on the plains below. Then on your right is the San Vincenzo shrine for Vincent Ferrer. Soon the road begins twists with hairpin bends, these are steep and irregular and serve to make things harder still, at times you feel like a mountainbiker as the front wheel wants to lift up as you scale the 14% parts. The final section sees the road leveling out and you arrive in Montoso itself.
Montoso might be perched at 1,250m above sea level but it vibes flat. Almost every building looked empty, the shutters closed. It could be an out of season visit but the emptiness felt more enduring. Some apartment blocks were encircled with temporary fencing and the place had plenty of signs saying Vendesi or “for sale”, only the large number of signs and the faded nature of many of these them suggests it’s not a thriving market. It’s as if they built it and nobody came, or at least nobody comes these days. It’s a mountain resort but you have to higher up to Rucas for the skiing and there you only get six kilometres of skiing with the longest run just 1.5km and it’s all between 1,400m and 1,800m meaning the snow isn’t reliable. The whole place feels abandoned and a reminder that it can be easy to fetishise Bella Italia for those who come and leave in the space of three weeks every May: yes the coffee is good, but for those who live there it’s not all wine and maglie rose as the country, especially the countryside, is beset with unemployment, an economy in the doldrums and political challenges.
The descent is the reward. If the way up was steep and irregular and on a rough road, the other way down to Bagnolo is a high speed toboggan run with big views, fresh tarmac, wide sweeping bends. You can easily reach 80km/h or more and yet it never feels unsafe, partly because the deserted town means few people are driving up the other way.
The Verdict: a hard climb, a lesson to pay attention when route planning because at a glance 8km at 8% sounds hard but nothing wild, only look closely as 6km of 10-15% means you need low gearing. It’s not famous, it’s not glamorous but it does have a peaceful feel. The top in Montoso feels melancholic, a place that has seen better days but if you want to get out quick the descent is brilliant fun.
History: there’s no obvious sporting history as Giro visits for the first time and the hard climb ought to thin the field on a stage from Cuneo to Pinerolo although it’s too far from the finish to see big moves. Instead the mountain has a place in Italian history as a place of refuge and activity for resistance during the Second World War and you can quickly see why, the thick woodland provides cover and allowed people to vanish into the mountains to escape the fascists.
Travel and Access: Turin is the nearest big city with major road and rail links and Milan has the closest international airports. Nobody would travel for this climb but nearby Pinerolo is a large town and the area around it makes a great base for riding in the Alps as you can have the Colle del Nivolet to the northwest and the Colle di Fauniera to the southwest and if hard to find better climbs in Europe.
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads