Turin: The city at the foot of the Alps

Both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France will spend time in Piemonte this year. Rouleur takes a ride from the region’s capital city Turin to the Sacra di San Michele via the Colle del Lys, passing through terrain where nature and culture mix seamlessly

Just after 2pm on Thursday 25 May 1876, 21-year-old Paolo Magretti crossed the finish line of the first edition of Milano-Torino. Just eight cyclists had set off before dawn from Milan’s Porta Magenta, and only half reached their destination. Magretti – future entomologist and explorer in Sudan, Tunisia and Eritrea between 1883 and 1900 – covered the 150km route in just over 10 hours, averaging 14.77 kp/h. Carlo Ricci Gariboldi was runner-up, arriving 75 minutes after the winner, with Bartolomeo Balbiani finishing six minutes later.

Milano-Torino is the oldest race on the current UCI calendar. The first edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, commonly known as the ‘Doyenne’ due to its seniority, wasn’t held for another 16 years, in 1892, four years before the inaugural Paris-Roubaix.

Turin is a focal point for the Grand Tours in 2024. The city will host both the opening stage of this year’s Giro d’Italia and the third stage of the Tour de France, but it has a connection with cycling that goes back a century and a half when the roads were just dust and gravel, and the photos were all black and white. More recently, the link between the first Italian capital and the country’s most important race was strengthened by the 2021 Grande Partenza, a downtown time trial won by Filippo Ganna, and 2022’s challenging hilly stage, won by Simon Yates.

On Saturday May 4 of this year, the opening stage of the Giro from Venaria Reale to Turin will see all the candidates for the pink jersey come out on the challenging climbs of Superga, Colle della Maddalena and San Vito.

The Tour de France stage, on July 1, will be very different, as the sprinters look set to do battle at the end of a high-speed stage that starts from Piacenza. It’s the Tour’s first visit to the subalpine capital in 68 years, when the stage from Gap to Turin finished on the city’s velodrome in front of a crowd of 60,000 fans, with victory going to local favourite Nino Defilippis.

Innovation has always been at the heart of Turin’s character, and it is now trying to leave behind its label of ‘Italy’s Motor City’ to forge a new, post-industrial identity. For almost a century, every road project has had to deal with the auto-centric thinking of the city’s de facto shadow government, Fiat, Italy’s leading car manufacturer and a huge employer in the region.

Hosting the 2006 Winter Olympic Games kickstarted a process of urban transformation that is still underway, and since the early 2000s, cycle paths have multiplied, bringing people back onto two wheels. It’s still a long way from Italy’s most bike-friendly urban centres in Veneto and Emilia Romagna, but with around 258km of cycle paths, Turin is leading the way among the country’s larger cities.

Political will has joined forces with grassroots movements, and in the last two decades, there’s been a marked improvement in safety and the city’s focus on sustainable mobility. Informal rides like Critical Mass have given way to Bike Pride, an annual parade which brings together as many as 20,000 cyclists. And in parallel to the development of downtown cycle paths, there has been a huge development of extra-urban cycling arteries connecting to the nearby plains, hills and pre-Alpine areas. And in spite of resistance from some of its inhabitants, Turin seems to have understood the direction in which mobility is going, with bike-friendly infrastructure being given priority under recent administrations.

Starting from Turin’s historic centre, we set off on a route which, in a single day, offers riders a huge amount of natural and cultural sights to enjoy. In Italy, Turin is known for the understatement of its inhabitants and the extreme rationality of its urban layout, but further afield, the city is universally identified with a monument, the Mole Antonelliana, which is a masterpiece of audacity, an exercise in hubris applied to architecture.

Inaugurated in 1889, and 167m high, it was the tallest masonry building in the world at the time. And since 2000 the Mole (as it is commonly called, dropping the adjective that recalls its creator, Alessandro Antonelli) has hosted the National Cinema Museum, a place of worship for cinephiles from all over the world. Among old Hollywood scripts and eccentric pre-cinema machinery, sumptuous stage costumes and colourful posters, the museum houses the memorabilia of Cabiria, an Italian silent epic from 1914, which is unanimously considered the first blockbuster in the history of cinema.

Any route claiming to showcase Turin and its surrounding mountains could only begin from this iconic monument and then continue towards Piazza Castello, a square that’s home to both the Palazzo Madama (an interesting hybrid of Baroque and Romanesque architecture) and the Palazzo Reale (once the seat of the Savoy dynasty). With the exception of the anarchic Via Po and Pietro Micca, the city centre is a coherent set of parallel and perpendicular straight lines, streets that, in the words of the poet Umberto Saba, “resonate like bells ringing”. A few metres from Piazza Castello, the city’s cathedral houses the Turin Shroud, an ancient linen sheet which, according to Catholic tradition, wrapped the body of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion, but which was carbon-dated to mediaeval times.

Just a few pedal strokes are all it takes to leave behind the silence of the square in front of the cathedral of San Giovanni Battista and enter another opposing dimension, the stalls of Porta Palazzo, the largest open-air market in Europe. Noisy, polychromatic and Babel-like, it is an unmissable place for anyone who wants to fully understand Turin’s multiculturalism.

After half an hour in morning traffic, I arrive at the royal palace in Venaria Reale. It’s here, on the cobblestones of this small town on the outskirts of Turin, that the 107th Giro d’Italia will start. It will be the town’s second Grande Partenza, but the first, back in May 2011, was a team time trial. Among the many royal residences that once belonged to the Savoys that are located in and around Turin, the palace in Venaria Reale is certainly the most majestic: at 80,000 square metres, it is larger than both the Palace of Versailles and Buckingham Palace.

Disregarding the planned route of the Giro, I pedal along the walls of the Mandria Park and reach Lanzo, a town located at the foot of three valleys to which it gives its name. And after crossing the bridge over the Stura, the road begins to climb. Warm sun and primroses herald spring, and the first 12 kilometres of the climb are gentle enough to be managed in the big chainring, and an almost total absence of traffic makes this climb extremely pleasant.

At an altitude of 787 metres, I reach Viù, the finish line of the second stage of the Giro d’Italia Femminile back in 2019. There’s a kilometre of descent after this mountain village, and then the road starts to climb again with more challenging gradients and pitches. On the ascent towards Colle del Lys, I encounter steeper ramps for the first time. Two tight series of hairpin bends develop near to a spectacular beech forest. The thick woodland and its northern exposure have preserved some of the snow that fell copiously at the end of winter, and when the sun’s rays meet the roadside accumulations, the reflections become a feast of light.

The first part of the climb, 6.5 km long, is completed when I reach Colle San Giovanni. I stop to top up my bidons at a fountain, and take a moment to enjoy the contrasting landscape of lingering snow and meadows in bloom. The second part of the climb – 7.5 km and less steep – passes the villages of Bertesseno and Niquidetto, becoming more demanding only in the final moments, and when I reach the top of the Colle del Lys I’m over 1,300 metres. There, a circular tower commemorates the partisans who died in the surrounding valleys during the Second World War, in particular the 26 victims shot by Nazi troops in July 1944.

Just time for a quick photo and to pull on my windproof, and then I’m off again downhill. After a very fast first kilometre, the road narrows and becomes more technical, all chicanes and hairpin bends. I pass Almese and then Avigliana, the gateway to Valsusa. Here, in 1914, Giovanni Valetti was born. He was a rider of supreme elegance who won the Giro in 1938 and 1939 before his career was ended prematurely by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Along the second climb of our route, which leads from the two lakes of Avigliana to Colle Braida, some signs celebrate Valetti’s exploits and pay tribute to a talent whose sporting life was irreparably damaged by the war. With 83 kilometres on the clock, the crisp morning air is a distant memory and now conditions are ideal. On the hairpin bends that bring me to the village of Mortera, my legs respond best. It’s a climb I know well. I’ve been coming here since the early 1990s, and it’s one of the most popular with Turin’s cyclists.

The first five kilometres are quite gentle, and there’s a chance to catch your breath after that with a small descent before the climbing begins again in earnest with a real feast for the hungry legs of climbers. In this second part, the hairpin bends give way to long straights where the gradient is often in double figures. This is the peak of the dopamine flow: four kilometres from the summit, a turn to the left, and suddenly the Sacra di San Michele stands in all its majesty.

The hilltop abbey is an iconic symbol of the region, and was the inspiration behind Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose. It has more than 1,000 years of history to tell, and it welcomes 100,000 tourists every year. The abbey is one of the focal points of the Via Francigena pilgrim’s route, on the Linea Sacra di San Michele, a holy route that unites seven sanctuaries dedicated to St. Michael, from Ireland to Israel. More than 30 years have passed since I first came here, but the sense of wonder I feel is renewed every time I return. I

t’s early afternoon by the time I descend to Colle Braida, taking me back to the Lakes of Avigliana, first on tight hairpin bends, then on a fast and busy road. Avoiding the entrance to Avigliana, I head to the northern ridge of the moraine hill up and ride to Rivoli. This is the last effort of the day: 400 steady uphill metres on cobblestones.

The town’s historic centre hosted a Giro stage finish in 2023 and the finish of the 2022 Milano–Torino. It’s also home to the third Savoy residence of our route, the Castello di Rivoli. The castle has a chameleon-like history: home of the Savoys until the unification of Italy, it was used as a barracks and then a library, and today houses a prestigious museum of contemporary art. From there, it’s a descent to the Corso Francia, a 12-kilometre straight road that ends in the centre of Turin, in Piazza Statuto.

The spire of the Mole Antonelliana is the north star that guides our ride to the end of this 135-kilometre loop. Closed in between the broad arc of the Alps and the ridge of its hill, Turin is a city with a stimulating geography for cycling, a metropolis intimately linked to the mountains and cycling. It won’t be long now until the two great festivals of the Giro and the Tour confirm this for all to see.

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