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The Giro d’Italia on Colle delle Finestre

Colle delle Finestre

Through the lens of BrakeThrough Media
Words by Caley Fretz

His name is Simone. He rode 6,000 kilometers to get here, 7,145 feet into the sky, on a bike yanked straight from the iron grip of the nineteenth century. One gear. Okay, two if you flip the rear wheel. He’s on the easier one now, as you would be too, after 10 kilometers of pavement turned to seven kilometers of dirt, averaging nine feet up for every hundred feet forward.

“It’s a mind question, not the legs. It’s the mind that is important,” he says.

His modus momentum is fitting, here, on the aged slopes of the Colle delle Finestre. Its top half is a pinch of grain and a bit of desaturation away from a pre-War photograph, a natural amphitheater whose only splashes of color come from more modern-clothed fans.

In a few hours, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa (Astana) and nearly 200 others will spin up this same climb, the Cima Coppi of the Giro d’Italia, the race’s highest point. They’ll have 20 gears more, wool replaced by synthetic fibers, steel by carbon, spare wheels on the car behind. It’s tough to say whose ride will be more difficult.

Every fan on these slopes achieved their position through sweat and effort, walking or riding up from the valley below where cars were stopped before dawn. The only motors allowed up are those of the race organization and the press of Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport — all others must arrive under their own power. Like a symphony, the tension on the Finestre builds throughout the day. Fans arrive early, set up camp, crack a beer or a bottle of wine and set about the task of waiting.

The sound of engines excites the crowd. It’s just a few race organization cars, now, but their grumble, amplified by the mountain’s natural amphitheater, seems to offer a small taste of what’s to come.

A far-off helicopter is the first sign. It is heard before it is seen, that distinctive rhythm of pummeled air sending little shock waves bouncing around the mountains. It perks up the crowd, who turn like meerkats to peer down the valley, ten thousand sets of eyes locked on the blank space where the race will first appear.

Then come the motorcycles, streams of them in the blue of the Italian police, a spearhead designed to split the sea of fans that has staked claim to the road. Horns blare, feet are surely run over.

The leaders, Astana’s Mikel Landa and the revelation of the Tour de Romandie, Katusha’s Ilnur Zakarin, roll through a roar. This is the penultimate climb of the Giro — only Sestriere remains — and every rider near the front is showing the full effect of the effort. We usually see fear in the eyes of the chased, anger in the chasers. But not today. Landa’s confidence is contrasted with a distinct desperation from Contador, who has been meaningfully distanced for the first time this Giro. He will crest the top almost two minutes down — half of his lead over Aru erased. The back of the field sees no less suffering, but a distinct change in attitude.

Lotto-Soudal’s Adam Hansen, just 24 hours from completing an incredible 11th consecutive grand tour, snags a pink wig from a fan. The man runs next to the rider for 75 meters before snatching it back from atop Hansen’s helmet.

The grupetto arrives under careful calculations. It cannot fall too far behind, lest it be eliminated from the race by the time cut. Directors in team cars do the math, passing pace on to a few riders, Giant-Alpecin’s Chad Haga calls them the “grupetto bosses,” who act as leaders of this group. The bosses dictate the effort. Attacks, back here, are scorned above all else. It’s cold, raining slightly, as riders crest the Cima Coppi and put the Finestre behind them. The grupetto has one more descent and one more climb left in this Giro d’Italia — down to the valley, then up Sestriere. They grab newspaper en masse, stuffing it down the front of thin jerseys to cut the worst of the wind. This Giro is all but over; almost all downhill from here.