What was Carmine Castellano, then director of the Giro d'Italia, thinking when he took the peloton up - and down - the Colle Fauniera twice in 1999 and 2003? This is the question I've been asking myself ever since I climbed this little-known giant in Piedmont with my friend Luca.
Certainly, the Giro's bosses have a reputation for making bold route choices and finding improbable climbs such as the Mortirolo or the Zoncolan. But the Fauniera is something else again, and here’s why.
A good starting point to climb the Fauniera is Cuneo, the capital of the province of the same name. This city of 55'000 inhabitants halfway between Nice and Turin is ideally located at the foot of the Cottian Alps to the west and the Maritime Alps to the south; it is also a good base to reach other major passes such as the Agnello, the Lombarda and the Colle Sampeyre.
You quickly leave the city by the provincial strada to get closer to the mountains. Morning traffic can be dense, the vans go fast but the drivers respect the cyclists - this is Italy. After 12 kilometers, change of atmosphere: you turn left in Caraglio to find yourself on an almost deserted road. You enter the Val Grana, which you will not leave any more until the summit.
At the beginning, the slope is imperceptible. Then it becomes slightly steeper but you progress at a good pace up to the village of Pradleves (km 25) which marks the entrance of a deep gorge. There, a sign provides an appropriate warning: there are 21.9 km to the summit and the average slope is 7.6%. Serious business begins... especially since the notion of average slope doesn't mean much: from Campomolino to Chiotti Sant'Anna, the average gradient is just over 10% with peaks of 14.
A short drop allows you to refuel, then the road narrows and the slope becomes even steeper: you approach the San Magno sanctuary, in an increasingly alpine landscape. In 1999, this is where Marco Pantani placed a devastating attack to break away from the group of Giro favorites with Ivan Gotti during the 14th stage that led the riders from Bra to Borgo San Dalmazzo. Where exactly? We don't know: the Fauniera was in fog and the helicopters hadn't been able to take off, depriving the viewers of TV images.
After the sanctuary, 9 km from the summit, the road surface becomes really bad. You have to slalom between the potholes that have been dug since the Giro came here. You imagine Il Pirata dancing on the pedals while you keep your eyes fixed on the road.
A few hundred meters higher, a fountain allows you to quench your thirst and you start to guess the pass on the left, among the rocks. Two kilometers from the summit, the slope softens somewhat and the Rifugio Fauniera provides a last opportunity to refuel. You pass near the Colle d'Esischie (2'370m), another access to the Fauniera used during the Giro 2003, before reaching the pass at 2'481m. You have covered 47 km from Cuneo. No refuge or café at the summit: just a small parking lot and a monument in memory of Marco Pantani, erected a few months after his death in 2004.
The Colle Fauniera is a crazy climb because of its length and its difference in altitude which are worthy of the Stelvio. But what can be said about the descent? First of all, that it crosses magnificent landscapes. As you cruise down, you can finally look up and admire the peaks that line up as far as the eye can see in all directions. However, you must be careful: the road remains narrow and winding. It is then that you remember that the Giro riders raced here. And that Paolo Savoldelli, the crazy downhiller, earned his nickname of Il Falcone, the Falcon. Crossing the top of the pass a minute behind Pantani and Gotti, he caught his preys and then overtook them in San Giacomo, 14 kilometers down the road. The race was then out of the fog and the archive images found on internet show the feat of the Italian angel-faced rider, winner of the stage a little further on in Borgo San Dalmazzo.
The 24-kilometer long descent of Colle Fauniera ends in Demonte in Val Stura. If you go up the valley, you head towards France via the Colle de la Lombarda or the Colle della Maddalena. If you go down, you head back to Cuneo. You can stay on the main road, but the smart riders will choose to turn right at the exit of the town to join the SP337 which winds in the shade until after Gaiola. You have then reached the plain and Cuneo is only a few kilometers away on a slight downhill slope. A gentle epilogue for a punchy ride: 99 kilometers and 2100 meters of climbing.
Don't forget to subscribe (see below) to our newsletter so that you don't miss our next blog post!