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Granfondo La Fausto Coppi: Meditations on the Fauniera

PELOTON rides the toughest Granfondo in Italy.

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“Move up to stay put.” That’s the mantra at the start of any big granfondo. Constantly move up. See a gap? Pedal into it. Someone moving up on your inside? Defend your place with a bent elbow or angled thigh. By working your way forward you’ll actually just stay in the same place, protecting a spot in the first 30 or 40 wheels of the unruly, thousands strong field. This is where you want to be. Out of the wind, but close enough to front to see the roundabouts, the motos, the tiny village lane you’re all about to squeeze into at 50kph.

PELOTON

A big European granfondo is the closest most if us will ever get to racing a World Tour event, and the La Fausto Coppi Granfondo, held in Cuneo, Italy on July 8th, is no exception. It’s named for the great Italian champion of the ‘40s and ‘50s who executed one of his most legendary wins in the region. At the 1949 Giro Coppi dropped the great Gino Bartali, gaining 11minutes on the roads between Cuneo and Pinerolo. Just like in 1949, the roads of the Fausto Coppi Granfondo are closed to traffic, helicopters buzz overhead, motos with police, race officials and photographers zip around the peloton. At big roundabouts you’ll make a choice, “left or right?”, you may gain 20 positions or lose 20 positions based on your pick. Everybody wants to be at the front, resulting in a first hour of racing clipped off at 50kph. Of course, then we hit the hills and there’s no more faking it, the real racers roar off the front and the rest of us settle into whatever pace our watts-per-kilo will allow.

RELATED: Come ride with us as we head north to the historic village of Nuits-Saint Georges in France.

Monster climbing is a part of many European gran fondos, and again, La Fausto Coppi Granfondo is no exception. Both the Medio (short) and Longo (full) rollout together from the gorgeous city center of Cuneo in the Piedmont region on Italy’s border with France. Cuneo itself means ‘wedge’ in Italian, and the city sits at the confluence of the Stura and Gesso rivers. It’s one of Italy’s old city states, almost equidistant between the Ligurian Sea and Turin at the foot of the Alps. The fondo leaves from the great Piazza Tancredi Galimberti, off the Via Roma, a gorgeous walking street with scores of restaurants and shops, all under the watchful eye of the alps, glimpsed between the ancient buildings. The name of the region, Piedmont, literally means ‘foot of the mountains’. Imagine Tuscany without the traffic. This is Piedmont.

While some Italian fondos may be better known in the states – Maratona Dolomites, Stelvio Santini, Campagnolo Rome – in our experience and chatting with numerous other riders, none is more difficult than La Fausto Coppi, with the possible exception of the Stelvio Santini. The full Fausto Coppi is 110 miles / 177 kilometers with over 13000’ / 4125 meters of climbing. The climbing comes thanks to four major ascents, the Sanctuary of Valmala, La Piatro Saprano, Colle Fauniera, and Madonna of the Colletto. While they may not enjoy the legendary status of the Stelvio or the Gavia, they are more than a match for those climbs at the pedals.

The lions share of the elevation comes thanks to the Colle Fauniera. It is a brute and must be in the conversation for toughest climb in Europe. It’s certainly the toughest we have ever done. As we wandered the race village and sat in restaurants the day before we heard the word ‘Fauniera’ countless times, sometimes whispered like a blessing, other times spit out like a curse. We’d learn it was both.

The Fauniera is the third climb on the parcours and comes after 100km on the bike. It’s listed as 22.3km, with a maximum gradient of 14 percent and an average gradient of eight percent. Those numbers lie. The first five kilometers are a shallow rise from the valley floor, it’s really after that that the Fauniera gets serious, so toss out that idea of an average gradient of eight percent. That would be child’s play compared to the true Fauniera.

A left hand turn five kilometers in reveals a view that raises the heart rate before the effort truly begins. The valley pitches into a narrow notch in the mountains, with unbelievably steep slopes holding the sliver of tarmac hostage. Alarm bells go off in your mind, “I am supposed to climb my way out of this?” Quickly, the grade reaches ten precent for sustained pitches, with moments well beyond 15precent. The true Fauniera, the 18 or so kilometers from the valley floor, averages over ten percent.

All conversation stops. All thought of riding with a group is gone. Every rider wears a thousand yard stare and goes to a place deep inside on the Fauniera. My power meter was laughing at me, ‘280 watts for 5.5mph’. Can I do this for two hours? The dull ache in the legs turns to a sharp burning, the lower back and neck begin to tighten. The mind goes negative as all the effort seems unrewarded with maddeningly slow progress. “I’ve only climbed 10km?”, “I’m not even half way there?!”, “Why isn’t there an aid station yet?” “What are these promoters thinking!” “Why did I sign up for this!”, “This is madness!”.

We all know the debate in your head can determine the result as much as the ability in your lungs and legs. On the Fauniera, it’s tough to win that debate, to battle the negative thought. We’re used to going deep for a few minutes, perhaps even a 60min long climb, but twice that? On a climb that offers no respite, no easy slopes, under a hot Italian sun, at altitude?

But this is where the magic of the Fauniera comes in, the length and difficulty of the climb are an opportunity, a means to reach a place inside very few people ever get to find. With your legs screaming, your back and neck, your shoulders, your hands, tight and numb, your heart beating at its threshold just to keep moving, you’ll be left with no option but to turn those signals off, to retreat deeper into thought, leave the suffering and effort behind and then shut the door. It is here, in this quiet place, that you’ll find a state akin to lucid dreaming. It’s this place that endurance athletes crave, it’s what others may find in transcendental meditation or hear from the pulpit. Athletes? We need to suffer. The Colle Fauniera offers a unique brand.

You’ll start musing on your career, your friends, loved ones at home and loved ones lost as your mind wanders. Doubt and insecurities can rear up, there’s never enough time or money. But this is where the Fauniera works its magic. As you doggedly work your way up its slopes you’ll see these doubts and insecurities, worries of time and money for what they are – details.
Thoughts will shift to gratitude and appreciation. The big, beautiful picture replaces those details. The dark thoughts and suffering of the lower slopes give way to light and achievement as the summit appears among the rocky peaks. I firmly believe you’ll be better person at the top of the Fauniera. It’s diabolical slopes will have gifted you a little bit of perspective, an extra ounce of appreciation.

I thought of my dad, passed away last February, and at my core discovered no anger or despair in his passing, just a vast appreciation for everything he gave me, and his memory continues to give. That is the gift of the Fauniera, by shutting out the physical suffering, the mental clarity is intense. So, the Colle Fauniera is both a curse and a blessing. The first hour is the curse, forcing you to a state of physical suffering that leads to the blessing, the mental space to see through the everyday noise and minutia of modern life, to what really matters.

As I approached the summit and the reverie begins to be replaced by thoughts of food and hydration, I noticed a rough piece of stone. Circling around it I discovered the great and troubled Marco Pantani emerging from the block of raw stone. I could think of no greater monument to see at the summit of this magical climb. Pantani was a man that lived to climb, thrashing up mountains in a literal fight for his life, exorcising demons with the scalpel of suffering. Sadly, when Marco had no more Fauniera’s to climb, those demons caught up with him. It’s a stark reminder. The rapture a mountain like the Fauniera offers requires constant devotion. I need to keep climbing, we all need to keep climbing, to keep searching for the clarity only suffering can provide.

While the rest of La Fausto Coppi Granfondo traces a path through gorgeous valleys and villages and one more serious mountain, it’s the Fauniera that is the race’s identity, it’s the climb that you’ll remember and take home with you, long after you roll back into Cuneo and the Piazza Tancredi Galimberti. It’s the climb you’ll talk about over dinner at Osteria Senza Fretta or Trattoria Roma off the Via Roma. It’s the climb you’ll tell your friends about when you get home, it’s the climb that will call you back to Cuneo for another La Fausto Coppi Granfondo. But the lessons you learn on the Fauniera’s slopes, the truths revealed, you’ll keep those to yourself.

To learn more about La Fousto Coppi Gran Fondo and plan your own trip to the Piedmont region of Italy go to: faustocoppi.net