The Mighty Monte Grappa

From issue 10 • Words by Jered Gruber with images by Jered and Ashley Gruber

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Overmatched, outgunned, outnumbered, out-everything’ed, Monte Grappa should have fallen in the final year of the Grande Guerra (World War I), and with it, the rest of Italy. But it didn’t. It should have been a foregone triumph for the northern armies, instead, Monte Grappa became the stopping point, where Italy ceased failing, and won, against absurd odds. It was here that the motto of their elite mountain fighting force, the Alpini, sings clearly through the now quiet valleys of the huge massif: Di qui non si passa—From here, none shall pass.

It’s hard to grasp just how dire the situation was for Italy when the Austrian and German armies turned their attention to Monte Grappa. It’s hard to understand just how poorly off the Italian forces were, but with only the yawning expanse of the southern face of the mountain behind them and the flame-throwing, gas spewing, artillery bombarding Austrian army in front of them, they managed to do the impossible, and with that they managed to not only save their country, but unite it.

Like every front in the First World War, victory came at a huge cost, and everywhere you go in the area around Monte Grappa in the Veneto, the monuments to the lost lives on that mountain stand solemn sentinel duty in their respective villages, towns, and cities. There isn’t a town in the area that is missing a memorial to the countless fallen young men—a lost generation—their names etched into weathered stone to forever be remembered in name only, as the vast proportion never had a chance to create a life for themselves. Fallen on the battlefield before they reached their twentieth year.

Rightly so, Monte Grappa now stands as a focal point of fierce Italian national pride. It stands for all that can be great in its citizens, and it stands for all the possibilities that were lost, but in their loss, the future that was possible.

A young Ernest Hemingway wrote:

Arsiero, Asiago,

Half a hundred more,

Little border villages,

Back before the war,

Monte Grappa, Monte Corno,

Twice a dozen such

In the piping times of peace

Didn’t come to much.

Such is my ignorance of Monte Grappa and its history that I didn’t even know, until recently, that Ernest Hemingway served in the area in World War I. I read the words slowly and quietly as the goose bumps trickled across my body and danced. The pieces finally fit together from all of my disparate experiences, and the magnitude of what the mountain stands for started to finally show itself. I finally began to realize how much I don’t know about the mountain that provided the backdrop to our life this year.

If it weren’t for the vicious conflict across Grappa’s wide flanks and the region around it, Monte Grappa would be just another mountain where people walk, cyclists ride, paragliders fly, and people picnic. Grappa would be just another mountain in an endless chain of massive peaks and valleys spanning from Grappa in the south to Germany in the north.

Instead, it stands as a mountain truly different from many of its Alpine cousins. It’s not just another large lump with a road going up through. Its walls, valleys, faces, cliffs, streams, meadows, and forests—are cemeteries, memorials, mausoleums. They are a lasting gravestone that will never be faded by wind or rain or snow or time. The tens of thousands of young men that died on its slopes will always be a generation that stands as one stripped of the infinite possibilities that went with each of those lives, whether factory-worker, farmer, rich, poor, brave, or cowardly.

If you ride up that mountain, and you don’t think about its past, you’re missing out on what makes Monte Grappa a special, for some holy, place. It’s not holy because of the racers that have lurched slowly up its roads and the two-wheeled battles they waged. It’s not holy in this faux way that we constantly call cycling’s centerpieces. Alpe d’Huez is not holy, nor is the Galibier, nor is the Muur. The suffering of our sport’s heroes is terrifyingly comical next to the fate which befell our forefathers in years gone by on Monte Grappa, but also in Flanders’ fields, the Hell of the North, the Ardennes, and innumerable other locations.

Toughness has taken on a level of popularity that even towers over previous years, if that’s possible. Stuart O’Grady’s famous HTFU, Jens Voigt’s “Shut up legs.” It’s cool to be tough. We all want to dream about how tough we could be. We might never be able to put out over 6 w/kg at threshold, but toughness—that’s something that’s a little more tangible. We all know that feeling and wish more than anything that we could harden the fuck up or tell our screaming legs to shut up. It all starts to seem a little silly when you put it into the perspective of people dying. Jens and Stuey don’t sound all that tough anymore.

The suffering on these slopes nearly a century before my tires touched Grappa’s pavement was so much more terrible than I could ever hope to imagine. So of course, there’s the clichéd idea that that suffering could in some way provide perspective on my own, make it hurt a little less, make me realize that riding my bike is not that hard. Hardly. Perspective does little for me as I gasp for each pedal stroke and wonder how it’s possible that it takes so long for my computer to tick by another tenth of a kilometer.

Below me, on the perfect pavement on one of the nine different routes up Monte Grappa, two words spray painted in neat yellow writing stare back at me in English: Extremely hard.

I’m on my way up Monte Grappa via the Salto della Capra on a section of road that tilts far over 20%, and here I am reading English, ridiculously unnecessary English at that.

Far below me, my friends from Velo Veneto told me this climb was steep. I found their warnings amusing. I had a 34×28, and I had a year of experience dueling with Tirol’s wickedest. I had seen steep, felt steep, knew what steep was.

See, there’s a common pitfall with cycling struggle—it’s easily forgotten on a practical level. So what I often forget is this undying fact: the thing about steep, and gaining experience with steep, is that no matter how many times you’ve done it, it never gets easier. It’s akin to the cobbles in this regard. I’ve ridden the cobbles of Roubaix three different times, and yes, they still take a jackhammer to my insides and render me useless just in time for the Carrefour de l’Arbre and thus open the door wide for my very own chance to visit earthly hell. Such is the truth with the steep climbs. I’m not talking about 8-12%; I’m talking more in the realm of 15-30%. STEEP.

It’s the kind of steep that humbles you and makes you question yourself. There you are wondering, “If I turn around now, would anyone ever notice? No one would hold it against me. There’s no reason for me to do this.” And yet, I continue for no other reason than I want to make it to the top, just so I can say that I’ve done it—and my GPS will vouch for me on Strava when I get home. It sounds silly, but it’s enough to keep me going when I’m creaking along at a pace that rivals not only a three-toed sloth but a slug as well … in full sprint.

Then the street graffiti gets an attitude. It lists the percentage: 20, 23, 25. Then there’s a little yellow dotted line, painted in a beautiful s-pattern, chiding me, telling me, “It’s ok, you can do the Paperboy, so many people have done it before you, there’s no shame.”

I look back down at my computer in disbelief. I’ve only gone 300 meters since Extremely Hard-ville? Is this right?

And then, up above me, I see the cursed goat (it’s cursed when you’re a few hundred meters below it, but it’s perfect when you’re even with it). It’s a steel, white spotted goat on the top of the promontory that sticks just a little ways out from Grappa and looks down upon the intestinal tract of a road free-falling below its goofy pose.

It’s hard to believe, but this is my favorite road on Monte Grappa. Despite a grade that makes me long for a 5 kg bike and a 50 kg body, it has everything I dream of in a climb: narrow, twisting road with a lot of switchbacks, starting in a dense forest, and gradually working its way out of the trees to an altitude which offers huge views. Along the way, you’ll meet a road that starts out tough, grows up to be mean, and as it nears its conclusion, it’s downright awful. The final three kilometers will test any rider to the extreme. Then you’re to the goat. Salto della Capra roughly translates to Jump of the Goat. Don’t ask me where the name came from. From here, the barely one-car-wide road climbs just a little bit further before it becomes not even a car wide, and you enter my favorite section of all—a small valley, hidden from the plains below by a ridge, hidden from seemingly the world. It’s just you, your bike, your sore legs from the first part of the climb, a road barely six feet wide, and a beautiful meadow—peaceful, quiet, nothing like what you just endured. And then it’s gone, replaced by an impossible road that cuts a deep scar across a sheer rock face. And as quickly as you’ve realized where you are on the mountain, the wall with its black tunnels has come and gone, and you’re in the final stretch through the high meadow and its cows grazing and the paragliders noiselessly floating just above your head. And then you’re there.

Lay of the land
In the giant scheme of mountains, Monte Grappa isn’t much. It doesn’t even crack the 2,000 meter mark at only 1,775 meters above the nearby Adriatic Sea. It isn’t even in the Dolomites proper. It’s Pre-Alps, so they say.

In reality, as in the reality of standing in the hometown of our great friends at Velo Veneto in Castelcucco, or Bassano del Grappa, or Feltre, or Semonzo, or any number of a thousand different towns that lie in the fields below, Monte Grappa is a giant. It’s the first mountain to rise up from the Veneto Plain, and it looks like it could be Mount Everest from the flatlands looking up.

Grappa is surrounded on two sides by moving water. Two of Italy’s great rivers stand guard on its western and eastern sides—the Brenta and Piave rivers, respectively. Before the Dolomites begin in earnest is a small valley to the north with the cities of Feltre and Belluno in it. To the south? The rest of Italy.

It’s about 100 kilometers around Monte Grappa. You’ll need every bit of those 100 km to find all nine ways up the mountain. The fierce fighting in the First World War (as well as the Second) necessitated the building of roads upon roads upon roads in the area, and Monte Grappa, the centerpiece, is rich in roads. There are four main arteries, approximately flowing in the four cardinal directions. Three of these roads comprise the main routes up the mountain. In the west, the ascent from Romano d’Ezzelino—the Strada Cadorna—is the classic, easiest approach of Monte Grappa. It was the main military supply route during the crucial series of three battles that culminated in Italian victory. Even then, it was built as a main road, so it is kind, generous, pleasant, and still 26.5 kilometers of climbing—my least favorite. Behind the Strada Cadorna are the two other main road climbs: Caupo to the north (with its remote, demanding twin paralleling it from Seren), and the Giro’s selection for the 2010 Corsa Rosa, from Semonzo to the south. Both of these climbs are tougher than the Strada Cadorna. The ascent from Semonzo is nothing short of Grand Tour perfection, averaging 8 percent for just about 20 kilometers. It’s fantastic, nearly perfect.

For me though, the consistent grade, neat rows of cypress trees and 28 switchbacks are great, but they don’t quite live up to the wild ride expectations offered up by Grappa’s eastern approach, the Dorsale. The Dorsale spans the length of Monte Grappa’s dominant eastern flank to its conclusion at the Piave River. In my opinion, this is the crowning jewel of Monte Grappa. It’s to this ridge that four smaller climbs wind their way (plus the Dorsale itself, which begins in Pederobba), and these are the meat of the viciousness of Grappa: the Strada degli Alpini, the Salto della Capra (see above), Monte Tomba, and the climb from Alano di Piave. Four climbs, four brutal ascents with average grades over 10% for all of them and huge chunks of time spent northward of 15%, to go along with the shiver-inducing promise that your computer will often read much higher than 20%. Heinous.

At the top
No matter how you choose to take on the Grappa, one destination awaits: the Rifugio Bassano and the parking lot just below the war memorial. No matter how distant those memories of battles that are now 95 years old may stray while you climb the mountain, there’s a somber reminder that you can’t get away from at the top.

Each time I climbed Monte Grappa, I started out with the knowledge that the sprawling, huge, Grappa-like monument was at the top, and yet it never ceased to stun me. I’d arrive out of breath, heaving with the effort after an unnecessarily hard final effort to the top, and then I’d stop. It’s often completely quiet when I arrive up there, mainly because I always ride late in the day. There are never any cars, the sun is falling behind the topmost ridge, and it’s just me, the sweat dripping off my body full of fatigue, and the souls of almost 25,000 young men, entombed in the rock just above me, a little bit further up. It’s always a little bit further up.

There’s nothing I can do to make it better or pay my respects in any way close to befitting their sacrifice, so the air seems to grow uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the setting sun, maybe it’s my tiredness, maybe it’s the weight of history, maybe I’m easily spooked, but I hurriedly put my jacket on, give a nod to the memorial, try to imagine the landscape before me all those years ago, cascading down to the plain below, and I point my bike back down the mountain and head for home.

And I breathe in tired and exhale happily all the way home with what feels like all of Italy below me—its heroes above me—and I feel clean, light, satisfied.

The words that I’ve struggled with for the last week, the pictures I spent too many hours on before that—I know I’ll loathe them all in a few years time, maybe even in a few months. When you love a place like I love Grappa and the Veneto, I think it’s impossible to do it justice to yourself. I set the bar as high as I can. I want to prove to you that this is a place worth loving and respecting and riding. It’s impossible though. The idea is silly, because you can’t fall in love with something from afar, you can’t convince a person that what you’ve seen and they haven’t is the greatest. You have to come see it for yourself. Only then can the act occur, and my words will be seen for what they are—a shoddy substitute for the real thing.

Thanks to the following for giving us the chance to fall in love with Monte Grappa in 2011: Castelli Cycling, Paul and Christine Wolfe and Velo Veneto.

From issue 10.

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