Chasing The Giro

For some, seeing a stage of a Grand Tour will forever be on our bucket list. But for Dave Parsons he took the opportunity to travel to the Giro, ride some of the roads, experience the atmosphere of the locals and have the chance to see how the pro's conquer the mountains. So grab yourself a cuppa and your credit card because after this blog, you'll be booking a break for next years Giro! Enjoy!

I’ve been lucky to own a small house in Abruzzo for over 12 years, and have spent every holiday since there. When the route was announced for the 100th edition of the Giro, I mis-read the route details and didn’t see that there was a stage finishing at the Blockhaus, which is about 35 km from my place. The last time the route went to the top was 2009 but I hadn’t been able to go. Abruzzo is a beautiful region to the east of Rome, home to three National Parks, and properly Italian. It isn’t as famous or glamorous as the Italian Alps or Dolomites, but it is a lot cheaper and traditional than those areas. It’s also one of the few places in Europe I can think of where you can ride from the beach to the top of a 2,000+ m mountain…

(The Blockhaus is a fort built in 1860 to control the mountains in the area. I have never been to the actual fort, the ruins aren’t that impressive apparently. To make it more difficult, they are a 20 minute walk from the end of the road, which in turn has become a crumbling track 5 km after the point at which the Giro finished this year. Maybe in the summer I’ll take some walking boots and see for myself. Interesting that the promotion for the Giro refers to it as the Blockhaus stage!). More info here –

I’ve noticed on previous trips that Strava hasn’t gripped the Italian cycling community like it has in the UK. There are less people on it and there are less routes, but segments tend to be longer (which is a good thing!) and those who are on it are bloody good. I guess if you live near the bottom of a mountain you get pretty strong. It was a busy start to the year for me, it was my wife’s 50th in April and I had been planning a surprise party for her in Italy for almost the whole year before. I found I couldn’t think about anything else or make any other arrangements until that was done, so when it came to booking the Giro trip the only dates I could find were to fly out late Friday, return Monday. My buddy Jason wanted to go for longer, and I would have liked a couple more days, but that would eaten into my annual allowance. It would mean arriving in Rome airport after the car hire place was shut – nearly all the car hire firms are based in one location in a car park that is accessed from all three termini at Fiumicino. With a bit of research I managed to find a firm that would do out of hours pick up, for an additional €30. As this meant not having to book a night in a hotel, and that we would wake up in Abruzzo rather than Rome, it seemed to make sense. Trouble was, by the time we got out of the airport and sorted the car hire, it was after 1 am, and then we got a bit lost in some housing estate just off the airport, so we got to my place at 4 am…I had to be up by 8 to go and collect the bike I was borrowing for the trip too!

Once the flights and car hire were booked, we just had to hope the snow that had been on the roads on the mountain at Easter would clear. There was no guarantee of this, but it seemed more likely to be ok here than on the Stelvio a few weeks later. Jason and I spent hours poring over maps and planning routes. Strangely, the idea of riding on the actual Giro route didn’t pop into our heads at first; getting to the start of the stage would be a difficult ride; the flattest/easiest route would have been to ride down to the coast and then backwards along the Giro route, and then come back again, but that isn’t very interesting and would have given us over 200 km to ride. The shortest route would involve several valley crossings – the mountains are parallel to the coast, so all the river valleys are roughly at right angles to these. I knew from experience that trying to go the shortest route would be tiring and probably frustrating; signs can disappear, roads can fade into little more than farm tracks, and as I hadn’t been to the start town before, it just seemed a chance of making what should have been a hard but fun cycling day into a potential disaster.

The first idea for Sunday involved heading up the Blockhaus via Pretoro. This is the easiest route up the mountain, and also the shortest from where we would be staying. We couldn’t find any definite information about road closures but assumed we would be able to ride up this way; we wanted to leave early enough to ride through the finish and on up to the summit before heading back down in time for the stage finish. Eventually the penny dropped and I thought about heading down to the coast and picking up the route in Francavilla; it would be a 90 km ride with at least 75km on the actual route. We could have chosen to head across the river valleys and shortened the ride to about 70 km total but it would have added at least two climbs for no real benefit. I knew the last 20 km were going to be hard for Jason and I so wanted to keep it realistic for us, and skip any unnecessary climbs.

With Sunday decided, the warm up on Saturday had to be thought through. We wanted to make the most of our time in Abruzzo with the bikes, without taking too much out of ourselves the day before the big Giro ride. After much discussion, we had a brainwave, and decided to drive the car somewhere up the mountain as near the stage finish as we could. This would then mean starting the Saturday ride with a 20 km approx mountain descent and we could then meander towards the coast for something to eat, and the return home could be fairly easy, apart from the last few km back to my house which involve a climb something like Ditchling Beacon. Once planned it looked like 100 km and about 1400m of climbing.

We would be heading for the seaside town of San Vito Chietino, which was also on the route and has some brilliant sea food restaurants. They call it street food, as you sit out on benches on the pavement, and it is served on paper plates with plastic disposable cutlery, but for €5 a plate, you can get all kinds of fresh sea food dishes. It’s a bit like tapas, but each plate is a proper portion so you can’t really sample loads of dishes. Leaving the car up the mountain meant we could also have a change of clothes, including normal shoes and cold and wet weather gear if needed, as well as maybe leaving the bikes in the car and walking around the stage finish more.

Saturday turned out to be one of the nicest days on the bike I can remember. The sense of freedom was extraordinary; the only deadline was to beat nightfall home, and nobody was waiting for either of us. We had a vague route in mind, but could change and adapt it as we went along. We were both conscious that the route was typically what we would do on our weekend rides, perhaps with more climbing than is usual in Sussex; the fact that the next day was going to be a lot harder was praying on our minds but we didn’t want to make Saturday a total copout. Once the car was left at the mountain, we would still have to get back to my house so that Ditchling-esque finish was unavoidable. Jason’s bike had survived the journey on the plane, and another thing we both wanted to avoid was damaging either ourselves or the bikes on the warm up day.

The descent down the mountain is brilliant, we were stopping to take videos of each other as we swept by – a red Alfa Spider appears in one of mine! It can be hard though, you have a lot of weight forward on your wrists, the turns are all different and the road surface varies greatly. They had put a lot of nice shiny black Tarmac down for the Giro’s visit, but it wasn’t a constant ribbon and where it met the old Tarmac there were often bumps, potholes and loose bits. You can’t really relax at any stage, you’re only a slight lapse in concentration away from running out wide onto the wrong side of the road or the loose stuff and not being able to make the turn. Just above Pretoro is a roundabout with a statue of a howling wolf, to denote the beginning of the National Park and one of its famous residents.

If you’re heading up the mountain here, the easier route up is the second turn to Passo Lanciano, but if you really want to stretch yourself take the first turning to Manopello, and from there either go to Lettomanopello or Roccamorice. In addition to the wolf, there was now a pink bicycle so we stopped for photos. The pink bike was made from polystyrene and lashed to an old pallet, but looked good in the pictures. It was my 70’s British roots that had me thinking about driving back in the car after dark to nick the pink bike…would make a lovely ornament in our house!

After Pretoro I decided to go towards Bocca di Valle and then to Guardiagrele. The more obvious route was a busier road, and meant descending further to then climb back up to Guardiagrele. It’s a 5 km climb averaging 5% and in the sun of the early afternoon, and despite not trying I managed a PB, so we probably should have gone the other way, but the countryside is lovely and there was hardly anyone about. The descent from there to Guardiargrele is a good one, and meant we had the opportunity to check out il Muro di Guardiagrele, which was in Tirreno Adriatico in 2014. Have a look at it on Youtube, the one with Robert Millar and Bradley Wiggins (seated all the way I think). In the interests of not ruining the trip, we didn’t ride down it. We had a look at it from the top, although the hillside is so steep you just can’t see most of it. We then rode through the town and had a look at it from the bottom. Also in the interests of not ruining the trip, we didn’t ride up it… (Average gradient 20%, parts way over 30%!).

We got to the lovely old town of Lanciano at about 3.30 and decided to stop for refreshments. It supposedly being an easy day I fancied a Peroni (or two) so headed to the nearest bar with tables and chairs outside. Unfortunately it was shut, so we headed to a very classy café and had fantastic cappuccino and little cakes. €5 for two! I bumped into a couple from the UK I know, sitting at the next table, and we got chatting about the events of the next day. They were driving up to the Blockhaus, and had booked a table for midday at one of the restaurants at the top. We discussed road closures etc, and we all thought we’d be ok riding up 2-4 hours ahead of the race. The coffee and cake stop meant we weren’t hungry when we got to the sea food place in San Vito, so we turned north and headed up the trabocchi coast, on the route of tomorrow’s Giro. A traboccho is a wooden fishing platform on stilts, with an array of nets hanging from arms that can be raised and lowered into the sea. Some of them look really rickety, like I built them, but some of them are quite sophisticated. At least one becomes an exclusive upmarket restaurant at night, with very un-Abruzzo prices.

Arriving at Francavilla we thought we’d be a little short of 100 km for the Strava Gran Fondo, so we rode along the coast for a couple of km. The road had been closed to cars and there was a street fair with local produce, bike based entertainment…and a beer stall. We sat there with a beer watching the world go by, including a local folk type band. One of the instruments looks like a drum with a pole coming out of it, which the player strokes in time with the rest of the band; the noise can only be described as flatulent. My friend Claudia had decided we were eating at her place and as it was early evening we reluctantly left the setting sun and headed inland for her place. It was about now we both started to feel the day, we hadn’t eaten that much for a 6 hour mooch about and the sun had been shining all the time. We stopped at Claudia’s for a lovely meal and a couple of glasses, and then had to get back on the bikes for the final climb. We both took it really slow and all we could think about was the massive amount of climbing the next day, it wasn’t a the best way to finish an otherwise fantastic day.

Later that evening I got a message from the people we had bumped into in Lanciano. The message read that if you parked anywhere above Pretoro you would be towed away. The three of us spent half an hour discussing what to do; riding back up to get the car wasn’t really an option as that would force Sunday into being very gentle, we’d have to settle for seeing the Giro pass by somewhere else and we doubted we’d have the legs to climb the mountain. Plus the car had been up there for at least 6 hours, chances are if it was going to be towed it would have gone on Saturday afternoon, not into the evening. Also, the car hire company hadn’t been in touch – we assumed if the car was about to be towed, there would have been some contact with the registered keeper of the car. It wasn’t even parked on the road, it was well off it, and where we had parked wasn’t the actual Giro route for Sunday, although it would be busy with Giro traffic before and after the stage was over. We decided to leave it as it was…

Sunday dawned with not a cloud in the sky and hardly a breath of wind. The plan was to have a coffee and head off, stopping somewhere for breakfast en route. As we headed towards Francavilla and picked up the route we passed a large bunch of larger Italian guys all in the same kit, and wondered if we would encounter them all day, but they never reappeared. Francavilla is a long thin coastal strip which really gets busy in July and August, I wouldn’t be surprised if the population trebles with sun worshipping holidaying Italians. At half 8 on a Sunday morning in May, it is pretty quiet and we could ride side by side whenever we wanted. There were a few cyclists out, but not many seemed to be heading our way. As well as the lack of cyclists, there wasn’t much sign that a major sporting event was 6 hours away from passing through, but we were able to navigate by the little pink Giro signs that, much like a good sportive, were cable tied to sign posts before and after junctions.

As we turned inland, the mountain loomed ahead in the distance, and it was pretty much there for the rest of the ride. We had done the first 20 km of the day, so that was the easy part out of the way. The Abruzzo countryside, like most of Italy, is peppered with settlements on the top of hills. Chieti is one of the bigger towns in Abruzzo, and is also on top of a large hill. We took it as easy as we could on the first climb of the day (3.4km at 5%) and the mountain was now off to our left. The outskirts of Chieti are on the lower slopes and have more modern characterless buildings. As you get near the top, the older buildings feature more and give the place a lot more character. We were climbing mainly but then there was a drop and the climb resumed, and then there was a sharp right up a sudden ramp, I think Jason said 16% at this point. Would make a great place for an attack we both thought. The gradient eased and we went around the Museo La Civitella which marks the high point of the town, and has stunning views to the mountains. It being Sunday it was very quiet, so I didn’t register we were heading the wrong way down a one way street. A portly copper shouted something along the lines of “Signori, sono contre I mani” (we were against the hand!) but he let us roll on. This developed into an amazing descent with lots of wide almost hairpins and seemed to go on for miles. I began texting all my mates asking them to record the whole of the stage on tv, not just the highlights.

There’s a long strip of shops and businesses at the bottom called Chieti Scalo and this is where we began to pick up groups of other cyclists. This is also where we picked up our average speed, rising to a respectable 30 kmh along this section. There was one nightmare part where our half of the road was coned off for about 200 m, and ended with a slip road coming in from our right hand side; the traffic coming from the opposite direction wasn’t quite in the single lane left for both directions, so we just steamed through on the wrong side of the road, thankfully there weren’t many cars coming the other way. After this part, there was a diversion into the foothills of the mountains via Manopello, and I started to get concerned that we might be going to Roccamorice via Lettomanopello. I had driven this road and really didn’t fancy riding it. Narrow, with short steep climbs and potholes everywhere, but luckily we swerved away again on a great descent towards Scafa. It must have been around midday now, the sun was high in the sky and the ever-present mountain was now more looming than ever. We had a long gradual climb to the next village, about 4 km at 6%. I sat down and really forced myself to take it steadily; every time I looked back I could see Jason was falling away, clearly suffering in the heat.

Just before San Vito in Citeriore, we had to turn left through a full-on police road block. Soldiers were there too and they were checking cars against a list of registration numbers before letting them through. At Roccamorice we stopped for a drink. In the planning, this was going to be a lunch stop, but it was madness. The café was jammed, they had run out of cold bottled water so we just had coffee and coke. We had a detour around the town looking for a water tap; Italian towns and villages tend to have taps on the street, and I didn’t fancy the next 90 minutes climbing without a drink. We set off from Roccamorice and there were a lot more cyclists. There were some amazing bikes, and Pantani-lookalikes, and a good selection of mountain bikes too, but there was also a good number of larger folk on clunky old Halfords type MTBs. There were also people walking up the mountain, and several large groups were making a day of it as they roasted arrosticini by the side of the road and sat under their ombrellone. (Arrosticini is an Abruzzo delicacy, small cubes of mutton about 1cm on skewers cooked over a long thin charcoal barbecue type arrangement; smells lovely!).

The road up the mountain went on and on and on. There are no trees at the bottom, so whatever the weather is doing, you get the full force of it; today it was just the blazing sun, not much wind. I was starting to feel the 36/28 my borrowed bike was running – I use 36/32 in Sussex for chrissakes!) and knew I wouldn’t be able to reach the top without stopping a few times. The strategy reduced itself to making it to a corner and stopping for a bit. Jason was somewhere behind me, we both knew this kind of climb you can only do at your own pace; my first stop was nearly 10 minutes; I had a flapjack and just took in the lovely views and admired those who kept going. I struck up the odd conversation with people as they went by, I was trying to say we don’t have anything like this in England – a climb is 300m, not 2,000! One Dutch guy told me we had just passed Moser and another world champion but I wasn’t aware. The problem with this climb is the gradient is irregular, although the Strava segment doesn’t really show this.:

I was also finding the “Get to the next corner and stop” strategy hard to implement, sometimes the gradient after the corner was worse, sometimes easier. From Roccamorice it took me 90 minutes, I must have stopped 3 or 4 times. When you get to within about 3 km of the top, there is some relief from relentless sun as trees reappear, although the gradient doesn’t seem to ease off. From 1200m out there were 100 m markers to the finish, although we had to get off the road with 400m to go. This was the peak of the climb though; they had obviously picked this point with cyclists in mind! From here, there was about 100m slightly downhill to a right hander where the small road from Roccamorice meets the larger one coming up from Passo Lanciano and Pretoro. This road is really wide, more like a dual carriageway if not larger. The finish was a little further up, and beyond that the road gets narrow and winds up past some aerials to the actual Blockhaus. We’d both wanted to do this final 600 m but I was shot and thought Jason would feel the same. It would have meant walking round all the finish paraphernalia in the hope of being able to get back on the road to continue the climb. I sat down in the shade of a van and waited for Jason to appear; he looked a bit wobbly so I grabbed the bike off him and took him to the large water trough nearby.

We had about 90 minutes to kill before the race arrived, so watched the big screens. We saw Thomas’ crash with the police bike, and everything that followed. Nibali looked done quite early on, and I was a little mystified as to why Quintana didn’t push on sooner to make his advantage as large as he could. He looked like he had just started his ride as he came round the final corner into the finishing straight! Once the race was over, it chaos. We headed down towards the final corner where we could see a gate in the fencing, as did everyone else on our side. There were other people with bikes, people with pushchairs, young and old, all squashed together. It seemed to take an age for the gate to be opened, and then another age to get through it. We had to walk the bikes for a few hundred metres while the throng thinned out. By the time we could get back on, some of the team cars were trying to get down the road too. The team coaches were parked in the middle of the road, and there were floods of soapy water coming out from them, I guess the pros were showering after their efforts.

We rolled the few km back down the mountain to where we had parked the car, and both sighed with relief to see it there still. Not only that, there were two more cars, a tent and a small barbecue! When we had finally packed the bikes and stuff away we got on the road behind the Team Sunweb bus, one of the bright orange CCC cars and knew it was going to be a long slow wind down the mountain. Two cyclists passed us and the car but just couldn’t commit to passing the bus, must have been horrible for them. The road is so narrow and windy, a bike is much quicker over most of it; although the bus did give it full welly every time he got to a straight bit.

So what gems of wisdom can I pass on if you’re planning a trip to a Grand Tour mountain stage? Don’t underestimate the combined effects of a long climb and hot weather – or bad weather too. Heed the advice of those who say to eat and drink even when you don’t feel hungry or thirsty. Keep your plans flexible – we got to Roccamorice and were not able to get much to eat or drink, with the benefit of hindsight we should have stopped in Chieti or Chieti Scalo. The nearer you get to the stage finish the more likely it is to be crammed with people so again you may not be able to get food or drink here.

Dave Parsons