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Riding Monte Grappa

From issue 72 • Words/images: James Startt

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In Italy, they call it the Mother Alp. But for some it is simply the mother lode. Although Monte Grappa is far from being the highest mountain in the country, it is one of the most beautiful. And its mythical stature is assured in more ways than one. Situated in the foothills of the Alps, it serves as a sort of high-altitude crossroads between at least three provinces: Vicenza, Treviso and Belluno. And from its summit one can gaze at the Dolomites to the north all the way down across the southern plains to Venice.

History buffs recognize Monte Grappa for its pivotal role on the Italian Front in both world wars. Its strategic location was especially vital in World War I as Italian forces dug into the mountain’s caves to successfully hold off the Austro-Hungarian initiative. For many, Monte Grappa represented the final chance to save Italy, because if the Austro-Hungarian forces crested the summit there would be little to stop them from waltzing through the northern plains of Italy; it was a sort of red line that could not be crossed. Allied forces flooded in from the south to provide additional support, and a young Ernest Hemingway served in nearby Bassano del Grappa as an ambulance driver at the city’s military hospital.

Cycling fans, of course, know the Monte Grappa climb for its frequent visits by the Giro d’Italia, including an uphill time trial in 2011 and, this year, on the final stage of the 100th edition of the race.

Riding up Monte Grappa with Luca, a former standout under-23 racer, provides us with the perfect opportunity to discover this historic climb. Leaving Bassano, we turn left out of Semonzo del Grappa on the southern side of the climb. At first glance the Monte Grappa climb does not appear overwhelming. And Luca makes it look downright easy as he glides up through the first, forest-covered stretches on his sleek Wilier Zero 6.

Luca is the perfect guide. He lives in the valley below and has climbed Monte Grappa often. “I’ve done it about 30 times. It’s our mountain,” he says. “I see it every day from my house in the countryside. It’s different from the other climbs we have in the area. It’s unique. It’s the longest…and when you get on top you feel the satisfaction every time in a different way.”

It is only after exiting the forest that covers the first step of the climb, that you understand that this is a true mountain pass. Here the road narrows and the landscape morphs into a more typical alpine setting.

Luca powers on….

As we climb, the temperature drops, the air thins and snow can still be spotted along the roadside. Little matter that the valley remains drenched in sun. “This is the perfect bike for a climb like this,” Luca says. “It has the best ratio between weight and power transfer. It really reacts when you push on the pedals. And I love the classic, minimal design.”

Luca occasionally stops to take in the views, because he says you can only see Venice on high-visibility days like this. Soon enough, the peak—capped off by an imposing war memorial with its mass grave—comes into view and remains fixed in our sights around each turn.

Nearing the top we hear a marching band striking up a tune. Unrelated to our cycling excursion is one of the many celebrations that pay homage to this mountain’s unique link to history. We slow down as we pass and then make our way to the summit, where a small chalet restaurant provides the perfect rest stop.

“Wow, what a day,” Luca says as he devours a popular local sandwich from the bar. “It was just perfect. The perfect climb coupled with the perfect bike. And to be able to ride through such a beautiful place with such a rich history was just amazing. The view up here is amazing. And the sandwich is great too!” 

From issue 72. Buy it here.