The sheer numbers are terrifying. The 20th stage will be 18.6 kilometers long, and in the last 7.5 kilometers alone, with an average gradient of 12.1 percent, it climbs almost 900 meters. For comparison: the nearby Vršič, the fear and trepidation of Slovenian recreationists, is about three kilometers longer, but the height difference is a hundred meters smaller. But the true dimensions of the ascent to Višare are revealed only on the ground.
A road miracle in Višarje
Road cycling is a storytelling sport, especially when it comes to three-week races. For months before the official presentation, there were rumors about a mountain time trial along a brutally steep road to the top of an almost unknown ski resort. Slovenians know Višarje well, but the church of Our Lady of Višarje was once the most important pilgrimage point in these parts, but the story about them did not reach much further than this end of the Alps. Until this year, when the name Višarje or Monte Santo di Lussari has probably been said more times than before in the entire history of at least some 500 years since the shrine was erected on top.
Nevertheless, the day before the 20th stage of the Giro, at least from the cycling point of view, Višarje is still a mystery. In a sport where every gram and watt count and tactics are planned down to the last detail, the peloton is entering unfamiliar territory. But the Giro will not be the first cycling race in Višare. In recent years, a mountain bike climb took place here. I rode it myself some twenty years ago in a hellishly difficult race of the Alpe-Adria regional mountain bike cup competition. This is also why, when the route was presented last October, it was not clear to me how they would run the road time trial there. Sacral miracles have already happened in Višarje, which is why there is a church there. The Italians, however, are masters of road construction, and thus practically overnight they performed another miracle. The bad macadam road was completely concreted, on such a steep slope and in such sharp bends, there is no other way.
Of course, they didn’t listen to my requests, perhaps from some cycling teams, to move the entire stage to another place, to a more suitable slope. The race had already started, the work on Višarje was in progress. The chasms were protected with nets. They limited the number of spectators along the track, only 3,000 lucky people could get tickets for the gondola. Viewing along the route will only be possible for a few hundred meters at the beginning and in the last 3.5 kilometers, and the most difficult section will be closed.
Due to road works until the last moment, few saw the climb in the form it will be presented on Saturday. Not among them are those who will decide tomorrow whose name will join the list of former winners of the famous Trofeo Senza Fine Cup.
A hellish climb to the pilgrimage center
Statistics sometimes hide more than they say even in cycling. It is already clear from the numbers that the climb is no picnic. But the eleven kilometers of flat ground from the start in Trbiž and through the villages of Žabnica and Ovča to the bridge over the Zajzero, where the slope begins, are quite pleasant for a recreational cyclist. Plain? Already eight hundred meters after the start on the main square in Trbiž, the Alpe-Adria cycle path turns through two steep turns. The cycling meter showed 17 percent there, but this is a short test. The bicycle path, which follows the route of the former railway, then climbs by more than 60 meters in five kilometers. It really goes down after that, but when we turn right, onto the road towards Ovčja vas, it goes up again. Even through the narrow streets through the village.
A little before the tenth kilometer, cyclists will be able to exchange time trial bikes for normal road bikes in the zone designated for this purpose, made easier for everything that is not necessary for what awaits them. And for some, the toughest test of their hard cycling life awaits, I’m sure. The concrete surface, when we turn left from the main road, is the factor that makes the slope a little more difficult. But it goes smoothly at first, followed by a short descent with a turn to the bridge over Zajzero. From there, it’s almost flat for a few tens of meters, but then there’s no more romance.
The most difficult are the first five kilometers, where the gradient is not less than 13 percent, but the counter often shows a longer time of 17 percent and more, up to 22 percent on the steepest section. A concrete base is good, but of course slower than asphalt. Drainage channels are a major inconvenience. Otherwise, they were covered, but they still spoil the rhythm, which can’t be bouncy anyway. For the head, the worst test is the fact that there is a forest all around. There are no views to be able to look back on the journey already completed with minimal satisfaction. All you see is a two meter wide gray strip that at times looks like a wall.
Falling into a hole before the final climb
After five kilometers of such a brutal climb, the terrain calms down for a kilometer or so, which is favorable for those who don’t hitchhike. For guys who really go for sports, there is no rest on this kilometer-long section with a gradient of around four percent. They can lose the race there as well, but at the same time they have to be careful not to get carried away, as the slope to the Prašnik saddle, which is already at an altitude of more than 1,700 meters above sea level, and another 22% ramp follow.
Just below the top otherwise it becomes almost pleasant. Anyone who has time to look back will see something of the world, but straight ahead there is a wall and something going down in the left turn. It will be better when there are fences, but the tour was like going into the unknown. When the terrain opens up right before the finish line, you fall into a hole, so to speak. This can be a real little surprise, but one that cyclists will definitely be warned about. The descent is short, and in only a hundred or two hundred meters you reach a speed of 60 kilometers per hour and more. You’re down too fast to rest, and there’s a chicane in front of you that can take a few seconds from someone who doesn’t ride the ideal line. Even the bravest and most accurate will not bring much speed in the last hundred meters of the climb to the finish line. We will see many tortured faces at the top. That’s just the way it is in mountain time trials of this type: nobody gets to the finish line looking good.
Nothing can stop the spectacle
Before the race, we can be critical of the fact that the time trial on Višarje is an exclusive event. Due to logistical challenges, thousands of cycling fans are deprived of seeing the key stage live, a meter or two from the best cyclists in the world. But it looks like that doesn’t bother anyone. The Giro builds recognition on the dramaturgy of a slowly developing race, which turns into a bicycle massacre in the last week. They are doing well. No matter what happens today, tomorrow no one will have a high enough advantage to be sure of victory.
Three years ago, on a much easier mountain time trial on La Planche des Belles Filles (Planet of the Beautiful Girls), Primož Roglič was not even a minute ahead of the overall total. He was almost two minutes behind the winner Tadej Pogačar in less than an hour of racing. Anyone who has bad legs tomorrow in Trbiž can lose much, much more time on Višarje. One of the greatest spectacles in this sport awaits us, so to speak, here. And the best thing: every surfer with some love for this sport can try this road himself. He won’t regret it at the top.