Blockhaus. The name alone commands respect. Take a look at the altitude data and it’ll send shivers down your spine: 28 km with a vertical climb of 2,038 m and average gradient of 7.3% for the climb that starts at Scafa-Lettomanoppello. One of the most challenging and unique ascents in all of Europe, and the longest in Italy.
A sun that splits the stones
Today there are two of us: my friend Max, who has family in these parts, and me. It’s early August and the temperature at the start, at 104 m above sea level, is well over 30 degrees. Of the two climbs, we have chosen the hardest. Today we really want to feel the burn.
We are in the heart of the Majella, a harsh and unforgiving land, which the Blockhaus faithfully reflects. We’ve never tackled it ourselves before but the stories, we know, are the stuff of nightmares: extremely tough climb, unrelenting, offers no chance of recovery, without respite, hell… this is the tenor of the comments found on forums. Someone, in a vein of rhetoric, even wrote “If you are human, do not underestimate it. If you are Martian, good for you”.
Now it’s our turn. But Martians we are not. Let’s see if it can really be that bad.
After 10 minutes of gentle climbing we come suddenly to a series of steep uphill sections, with gradients over 8%, and in still, stifling air: 3-4 km, our legs are already spent and our water bottles half empty.
One good thing
The only positive feelings come from the saddle, at least for me anyway, who’s always had problems finding the right set-up. The Selle Italia SLR Super Flow, fitted specially for the occasion last night, proves comfortable, lightweight and flexible; no pressure, thanks to the large central cutout, which, among other things, helps to disperse the sweat. Finally, I must add that it looks incredibly stylish—which never hurts.
At this early stage in the ride we take care not to overdo it and climb with MTB gears, never under 26, to save our legs and prevent getting into difficulties further ahead.
You feel zero hunger in this heat, but it’s important to make the effort to eat regularly otherwise you’ll suddenly find yourself with empty legs, and then it’s game over.
I tie my helmet to my handlebars for a bit to give my head a breather, but with the sun beating down I’m not sure which is worst. Wasting water on dowsing ourselves isn’t really an option either.
Fortunately trees start to appear, gradually becoming a wood, which provides some welcome shade. The climb has become more regular now, allowing us to increase our pace a bit. We even overtake a small group of locals who climb in constant chatter.
Surprise at 1,300
We reach the 1,300 m of Lanciano Pass where there is fresh mountain air, and, as luck would have it, a fountain of ice-cold water, which we draw from greedily.
But the sense of well-being doesn’t last because all at once the forest disappears and we suddenly find ourselves thrown into a lunar landscape, no longer protected from the now ferocious sun.
At this point we’re not far off, in absolute terms, but given the effort we’ve already put in, the last 700 metres of the vertical climb risks turning into a real ordeal.
We slow down drastically because, after all this effort, to risk not making it to the top for the sake of reducing our time by a few minutes doesn’t really make sense.
The uneven road surface doesn’t help. We’re going so slowly we manage to see and dodge a beetle that is crossing the road.
We think it’s all over, but it’s not…
One final bend and we arrive at the gravel forecourt of the Pomilio mountain hut, which, at 1,888 metres above sea level, dominates the shimmering plains. Better not relax too much though because the climb for bicycles continues, and it’s still pretty tough, around 9%. Over a barrier and the road becomes narrow and uneven. We have to grit our teeth just to stay balanced. At the end, a small roundabout and a diminutive chapel: 2,142 m above sea level. The giant is defeated, although based on how we’re feeling it would probably say otherwise.
Final impressions: what a climb! Never seen anything like it, not even in the Alps, let alone the Apennines.
Total climb time: 3 h and 15 minutes. Perhaps we could have taken a stronger line, but overdoing it without really knowing what to expect is always a recipe for disaster.
Oh, one last thing: be aware that the wind always picks up here in the afternoon, and the initial section of the descent, which is completely unprotected, can become dangerous. A couple of gusts literally picked me up as I was descending at 50 km per hour. Rather a hairy moment…