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 .Napoleon Bonaparte spent months in Bassano after defeating the Austrians at the “Battle of Bassano.” Ernest Hemingway convalesced in Bassano while serving as an ambulance driver in World War 1, gathering inspiration and source material for “A Farewell to Arms.” And finally, last weekend, your reviewer (me) was in Bassano for the 1st annual Monte Grappa Bike 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 at the summit. The 2014 Giro will climb via another route: “la strada Generale Giardino.” In 2010, Ivan Basso won the only previous time that the strada Guardino has been used.
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 was 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 difficult climb. It starts low in the Veneto plain, a full vertical kilometre lower than Bormio, the start of Passo dello Stelvio.
Just under 20 kilometres with almost 1600 metres of climb, Monte Grappa is in the same difficulty league as 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 hairpins (tornante) on this side, with the first 20 early on. But the road is much more interesting as one gets higher. I did respect the purist approach of seemingly only including 180 degree hairpins. 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.
Half way up, there is a short descent before approaching Campo Croce – which will be the intermediate time check for the Giro stage. I hope they have 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.
How Crazy will the Giro Stage Be?
Fans have already chalked in pink Cadel Evans’ name 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 tappa (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 friendly and let me have take a photo.
Throughout there are quite a few very steep ramps. Several people passed me and said “duro,” so I assume this means “nice kit.” 🙂
As I got higher 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 final 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 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 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 American and I said: “non sono Americano, sono Canadese” – which got a laugh from some of the audience and the Alpini decided to forgive me. I proceeded to the event summit for my standard celebratory beer at a summit photo.
I proceeded to descend the far north side and climb back to the summit, making for a very tough day for this old guy. I won’t bore you here with too many details. But here is a handy tip for mediocre cyclists everywhere: 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.
The north side is longer and thus less steep than from Semenzo, but don’t let the elevation profile fool there were still some challenges:
While the south side has views of the Veneto plains far below, the north side has views of big mountains (Dolomites), and some funny looking cows.
Finally, I descended the main Cadorna south road back to Bassano. It’s of course also a huge climb. But it is easily the least interesting of the three sides I saw today (and the two I would see Sunday – details here).
This was an incredible day on the bike. I never realized what a huge and interesting mountain Monte Grappa is. And the well organized Bike Day just added to the experience.
For details of five routes up Monte Grappa see here.
Here’s a map with all five routes with the three profiles not included above (click for bigger versions):
View Monte Grappa Cycling Routes in a larger map