On May 30th Bassano del Grappa will host Stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia - a gigantic "cronoscalata individuale" (Individual Mountain Time Trial) to the summit of Monte Grappa.
Bassano del Grappa was founded by a Roman named Bassianus in the 2nd century. Like many towns in the area, "del Grappa" was only added to the name following World War One, after military "victories" above on Monte Grappa.
Napoleon Bonaparte spent months here in 1796 after defeating the Austrians at the "Battle of Bassano." Ernest Hemingway convalesced in Bassano in 1917 while serving as an ambulance driver during World War 1, the basis for his classic novel "A Farewell to Arms." And finally, your reviewer (me) was in Bassano del Grappa last weekend for the 1st annual Monte Grappa Bike Day.
It may surprise you but the origin of the name Monte Grappa is unclear, and does not appear to be related to the alcoholic drink grappa. One theory has it derived from an ancient word for "crag." In any case, it's an imposing mountain. Author Daniel Friebe has appropriately compared it to Mont Ventoux, in that the mountain dominates the horizon from miles away, visible from the Adriatic on a clear day.
Monte Grappa has only appeared four times in the Giro Italia. In 1968, Emilio Casalini won the first ever stage here, climbing the north side on the main Cadorna road. In 1974 (Fuente), and 1982 (Natale) climbed the south side of the Cadorna road to victory. The 2014 Giro will climb via a much tougher (shorter) route: "la strada Generale Giardino," previously used once in 2010 when Ivan Basso took victory.
It's impossible to be too euphoric when visiting this sacred mountain as there are constant reminders of the horrific battles that took place here during the White War between Italy and Austria-Hungary as part of World War One. For example, the above mentioned Cadorna road is named after the butcher that led the Italian army for much of WW1. His favourite strategy of uphill mountain charges versus entrenched machine-guns led to hundred of thousands of Italian dead.
Don't let the relatively low altitude of the summit fool you: This is a very, very difficult climb. It begins a full vertical kilometre lower than Bormio - Stelvio's start. Just under 20 kilometres in length with almost 1600 metres of climb, Monte Grappa is indeed in the same difficulty league as both Stelvio, and Ventoux. Note, the total vertical is often underestimated as there are two small descents, thus a few metres need to be climbed twice.
The 1st Annual Monte Grappa Bike Day was a non-competitive event open to all. The road was closed to motor traffic from 9:00 to 14:00. As I rode to the start from my hotel, I was joined by more and more cyclists at every intersection. This was a well attended event.
"Chiacchierare" means "to chat" and the early, hair-pinned slopes were noisy with cheerful Italians.
There are 28 signed / numbered hairpins (tornante) on this side, with the first 20 or so early on - see map. These initial hairpins are probably the most regular part of the climb - but still plenty of +10% stretches.
Half way up, there is a short descent before approaching Campo Croce - which will be the intermediate time check. I hope the Giro has as good music here as my event did. An 8 Second video:
In October 1917, the Italian line collapsed during the battle of Caporetto. 300,000 Italian soldiers were captured, killed, or injured. The Austrians advanced 100 kilometres to the doorstep of Venice and seeming victory. The flooding of the Piave river stopped their advance, and the focus of the war turned to Monte Grappa as a key part of the line across the river. Three major battles were fought up the mountain, with the Italians halting the Austrian offensive in high altitude fighting. The Austrians would retreat soon after the 3rd battle and the war would be over two weeks later. Thus, Monte Grappa (and the Alpini soldiers) hold an honoured place in Italian history - salvaging pride (and glory?) from a terrible war started by the Italian leadership as a cynical land-grab.
After Campo Croce, the road is much more interesting - and at times very steep - including a 14% ramp. I did respect the purist approach of seemingly only including numbered signs for 180 degree tornante. But If I lived here, I would spend endless hours at the coffee shop guzzling espresso with i ragazzi debating whether some of these great curves deserved a hairpin sign.
How Crazy Will The Fans Be For This Stage?
Fans have already chalked in pink "Cadel" on the road. And do you see the taped off section in the photo below? That is one of at least five prime "viewing locations" already reserved by cycling clubs a full week before the Giro stage. It will be bedlam here!
The event, and the Giro stage, are policed by the famous Alpini wearing their feathered hats. I introduced myself as a tourist to a friendly Alpini and told him I liked his hat (I might have said I liked his hair - my Italian is not great). He was very kind and let me take a photo.
The last three kilometres are pretty tough. Ouch. Several people passed me here and said "duro," so I assume this means "nice kit."
Nearing the summit, I could see endless ruins and old roads, mainly remnants of the WW1 battles here. But there was also some fighting on Monte Grappa in the second World War. Partisan and resistant movements used Monte Grappa as a base in the late stages of the war, and many were killed when the Nazis surrounded and climbed the mountain in the autumn of 1944. At the last signed hairpin (28), well off the road, it is easy to miss an incredible monument to the partisans/resistance.
The last ramp to the Cima Grappa is steep. But being my usually tourist self, instead of faking a sprint finish, I stopped about 50 metres short. I had seen the entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle III (the timid and weak Italian King for almost 50 years). Galleria means tunnel, and during WW1, five kilometres of military tunnels were built just below the summit significantly improving the Italian defences. It is now a museum. I only took a peek:
The "summit" where the race will finish and where all amateur cyclists congregate is not quite the high point of the mountain. There are old barracks and military building a little further along that are closed off. And more importantly, directly above the finish is the monumental "sacrario militare del monte Grappa." This truly impressive ossuary has the remains of approximately twenty-three thousand soldiers, almost half Austrian, and the vast majority unidentified. It is a moving and impressive place. I didn't understand why none of the other cyclists seemed much interested, but I cycled up and proceeded to take some photos.
I am always looking for opportunities to practice my Italian, and I was about to get my wish. I climbed the steps and went to explore the other side of the monument when two Alpini approached and yelled at me that bikes were forbidden. I apologised and rode back down. As I rejoined the main road, another Alpini started really yelling at me. I said I hadn't seen the sign. He started playing to the crowd, pouring it on. I heard the word Americano and I said: "non sono Americano, sono Canadese" - which at least got a laugh from some of the audience and the Alpini decided to forgive me. I proceeded to the event finish for my standard celebratory beer at a summit photo.
Next, I descended the far north side (the first Giro climb in '68) and climbed back to the summit, making for a very tough day for my old legs. I won't bore you with too many details. But here is a handy tip for mediocre cyclists suffering on a long day: To avoid a complete bonk (fringale / hunger knock) I stopped at a little café at the base of the climb and proceeded to eat and drink like a pig. Never fails to help. :)
The north side is longer and thus less steep, but don't let an elevation profile fool you, there were still some challenges:
While the south (Giro) side has views of the Veneto plains far below, the north side has views of big mountains (Dolomites), and some funny looking cows.
Of course, for my second summit of the day I deserved a gelato with my second beer.
I didn't know much about Monte Grappa before this visit. But I can see why it is a revered place for cyclists. Nine challenging paved routes up (lots of overlap, but wow), all extremely challenging. The next day I would visit the two steepest sides of Monte Grappa. See here for details and a map showing the five sides outlined in Daniel Friebe's book Mountain High.
The Stage 19 Giro d'Italia cronoscalata individuale will be fascinating, But as much as I enjoyed seeing Cadel's name painted on the road, I can't see anyone but a little scalatore winning here. Non vedo l'ora!