A ride worthy of Il Campionissimo: taming Italy’s spectacular Gran Fondo La Fausto Coppi

Jamie Wilkins discovers the Gran Fondo Fausto Coppi delivers on its reputation as one of Europe's toughest rides

If you’re going to name your event after one of the greatest riders in cycling history, it had better be good. Fausto Coppi dominated the late 1940s and early 50s, winning the Tour de France twice and the Giro d’Italia five times, often by huge margins and among many other victories, so his is not a name to be slapped on some schlep around a forest. The Gran Fondo La Fausto Coppi covers 177km with 4,125m of climbing (110 miles/13,533ft), so we think Il Campionissimo would approve were he around to see it.

There are many tough sportives in the world, and you can usually count on the front riders to compete to be first home whether the organisers call it a race or not, but Italian gran fondos are something different. A bit like the London Marathon, they are a proper race at the front and a challenge ride for the big field behind. The format is now in the UK with the UCI Tours of Cambridgeshire and Ayrshire but, as good as they are, they still don’t capture the full double-espresso intensity of the Italian gran fondo.

The Gran Fondo Fausto Coppi, which this year celebrated its 30th anniversary, is one of the half-dozen top Italian events, all of which are supremely challenging, yet it has its own identity. The narrow roads mean the field is limited to 2,500 riders, which keeps places highly sought after and, uniquely, it is compulsory to wear the official jersey, which makes for an even better spectacle than usual. It’s run from the city of Cuneo, 80km south of Turin and 145km west of Castellania, the birthplace of Fausto Coppi on the other side of the Piedmont region.

The Gran Fondo Fausto Coppi scales four major climbs in 177km, giving the Italian event a reputation worthy of the legendary rider its named after

Cheese, churches and climbs as far as the eye can see

Cuneo is less well known to Brits than many other cities in Italy – but it’s beautiful, even by Italian standards, set in a stunning location at the foot of the Maritime Alps and deserving of a longer stay beyond the gran fondo.

The day before the ride, the charming staff of the Cuneo tourist office took a small group of foreign press to see some of the sights. While they are pushing the region as a centre for cycling and adventure sports, it’s also rich in culture, history, architecture and natural beauty. We visited Castelmagno, where a small artisan producer makes Italy’s best cheese (with the trophy to prove it), aged for up to four years in their cellars and available to buy from the roadside on one of the few less precipitous hairpins.

Fuel for the ride, the local Castelmagno cheese

A few hundred metres further up the mountain is the Sanctuary of San Magno, the highest in Italy at over 1,700m and built on a Roman temple. The chapel at its heart contains vibrant frescos by Pietro da Saluzzo and Giovanni Bottoneri, perfectly preserved out of sunlight.

If you’d prefer to have the roads to yourself away from a gran fondo, the varied terrain here is perfect for a cycling holiday with all the climbing you could wish for around three sides, more moderate valley roads in between and flat plains to the north for your easy days. Even the beach is only an hour away.

Time to hit the mountains

I’m not a morning person, so the 4:45am alarm is unwelcome. The race starts at 7am and it’s a seven-mile ride into town. Our hotel is extremely accommodating and has set out a huge breakfast very early for the riders staying and we all load up. The second strong coffee just about gets me functioning and I’m clipped in at 6am for the (thankfully very easy) roll into town. The square – the Piazza Tancredi Galimberti – is buzzing but it’s far from being completely overcrowded thanks to the relatively low cap of 2,500 riders. Still, more than four portaloos would have been handy and a ‘Dumoulin moment’ is only narrowly avoided.

Cuneo, in Italy’s Piedmont region, lies in the shadow of the Alps and offers a variety of spectacular riding

As the clock counts down, the atmosphere rises. The PA system plays dramatic orchestral music that increases in volume as the announcer’s pep talk builds to a Henry V-style crescendo. He practically screams the final words into the microphone, five thousand energised legs shake with adrenaline, and as the flag drops I’m ready to stamp on the pedals and ‘Cry God for Harry, England and St. George’. We burst forwards… and immediately brake for the official motorbikes. No-one mentioned a neutralised roll-out, at least not in English, but it’s a safer way to leave town. When I rode the Gran Fondo Sportful a few years ago the race erupted along the valley at 30mph like a cork from a shaken bottle of prosecco.

A big group speeds north on flat, straight roads, and with ambitions of a top-50 finish I try to stay near the front. Initially we’re grateful for the cloud cover as it keeps the temperature around ten degrees lower than the 32C which greeted us from the plane, but then it starts spotting with rain, then pouring, only stopping by the time we reach the first climb, Valmala, after an hour of riding. Rising 740m in 9.6km, it’s a tough opener and the strongest lash into it predictably hard, shredding the bunch and scattering riders like confetti. I hang on to the front group for half the climb before choosing discretion rather than blowing my doors off in the name of valour, though I’m sailing close to the wind at 370 watts and I let around ten riders slip away.

Gran Fondo Coppi, sportive
Gran Fondo Coppi, sportive
Gran Fondo Coppi, sportive

The wet roads make for a hair-raising descent but there’s a regrouping of riders in the valley and nine of us quickly settle into a smooth chaingang, all aware of the need for an alliance with well over 100km remaining. I notice another Union flag on a race number and chat briefly with Ruari Grant, a category one racer from London representing the flag more literally than most, with an Irish name and a Scottish address. It’s good to have someone to talk to occasionally, even if he does look frighteningly fit.

The second climb, La Piatta Soprana, is as long but climbs less steeply, gaining 540m at seven per cent. We ride it together at tempo, rather than trying to kick each other’s heads in but at the summit feed there’s French treachery, with one rider asking the group to all stop to refuel, only for him and his mate to shoot off down the descent while the rest of us are unscrewing our bottle caps. Rauri and I barrel down after them and have to chase for a few minutes on the 15km drag up to Praleves.

Following in the pedal strokes of Marco Pantani

The Colle Fauniera is the marquee climb of the GF Coppi. Chances are you haven’t heard of it – I hadn’t – but it’s an utter brute and one of the highest paved roads in the Alps. The eight per cent gradient average doesn’t sound so bad but it goes on for 22.3km, and that gradient is skewed by the easier lower slopes and a traverse near the top; most of the time my Garmin shows 12 per cent, putting the Fauniera beyond the Stelvio and on a par with the likes of the fearsome Mortirolo.

The Colle Fauniera was used on stage 14 of the 1999 Giro d’Italia, when Marco Pantani performed miracles up the climb, and Paolo Savoldelli on the way back down it. Savoldelli won the stage but Pantani regained the leader’s jersey, only to be ejected from the race ahead of the penultimate stage for an excessive hematocrit level. A statue of Pantani now marks the summit of the Colle Fauniera.

The brutal Colle Fauniera tops out at 2,481m and was used in the 1999 Giro d’Italia

The road is narrow all the way and often poorly surfaced. Hairpins are infrequent; instead the road winds up as steeply as necessary. Ruari and I set the tempo on the front of the group for some 50 minutes, chatting a bit with what little spare breath we have, happy we’re riding our own pace and that the gradient means the others aren’t getting a slipstream. When we finally look round, there are only two guys left with us. A few kilometres later, our group splits again but this time Ruari and I are on different sides as I accept I have to let him and a Frenchman ride on if I’m to have anything left for the final climb. I call out ‘good luck’ and watch them inch away until they’re out of sight.

At 2,481m the summit is well above the tree line. It’s bare and less pretty than other sections of the route until you look over your shoulder at the immense view behind and the valley a full vertical mile below. Even on a hazy day it’s magnificent.

The descent is fast, technical, long – over half an hour – and would be fun but I’m wracked with cramps and there’s no chance to take a drink on the writhing, bumpy road. Many of the corners tighten back on themselves maliciously and, just in case we needed a reminder to exercise a little caution, around one bend near the top lies a bike broken clean in half. In the valley we see the air ambulance about to take off and later we hear the rider, a woman riding the 111km medio fondo which takes in the final two climbs of the gran fondo, has broken bones but will thankfully make a full recovery.

Gran Fondo Coppi, sportive
Gran Fondo Coppi, sportive
Gran Fondo Coppi, sportive

In the valley I eat and drink as much as possible and the cramps fade. Failing to fuel properly is the most common mistake on long events and routes like this make it especially hard. When climbing at 165bpm you can’t really eat properly and can only sip drink; you can do neither on the intense descents and the valley sections can be short. It’s just five kilometres before we (myself and an Italian called Simone) reach the last climb, the Madonna del Colletto.

At 7.3km it’s shorter than what has come before but averages eight per cent, again with a tricky easy section masking the double digit average for the ramps between hairpins. I set the pace with Simone happy to follow. In return, he waits on the descent as I refill a bottle at the last feed. We both know we’re better off together for the final 19km back to Cuneo, where the false flat descent keeps the speeds in the high 20s and makes a slipstream hugely beneficial. We push on, aware of the risk of a group gaining on us.

Paolo Castelnovo, a former domestic pro turned gran fondo specialist, crossed the line first

Flying into the finale

Flickers of cramp have me worried for the finale. We’re at the sharp end of the gran fondo and every place is worth sprinting for. Simone tries to out-manoeuvre me by staying on my wheel but I spot the turn into the square first, push it through the corner and sprint to the line.

  • Do it yourself

  • We flew to Turin, served by direct flights from London Heathrow, Luton and Stansted, and hired a car to reach Cuneo. There are trains from Turin to Cuneo but only if your flight lands early enough and it’s worth having a car to see more of the area
  • See Jamie’s ride on Strava
  • Website: Gran Fondo Fausto Coppi

A few minutes later I’m delighted and amazed to learn that I’ve finished ninth overall and first in my age group, netting a trip to the podium and armfuls of prizes. Ruari was seventh and also won his age group, making it a good day for the small British contingent of eight.

The overall winner is Paolo Castelnovo, more than three minutes clear of second place and 20 ahead of me. It turns out he’s a former domestic pro and now a gran fondo specialist. No kidding – that’s how seriously Italians take gran fondo racing. He did one a hell of a ride – but the same goes for every finisher. On days like this, everyone suffers, and everyone finishes empty.

If you’re into tough-as-nails mountain rides then this should be on your to do list – just be sure you have the fitness and gearing to take on this severity of climbing. The Gran Fondo Fausto Coppi is as mighty as the great champion himself.


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