It is often said that the world of cycling is one big family. And that is never more true than in Italy, one of the true cradles of the sport. Here, that one big family is in fact made of many, and often they overlap in unexpected ways. Take the deep-rooted connection with the historic Columbus brand and the Moser family. Francesco Moser needs no introduction. One of the winningest cyclists in the history of the sport, he captured three consecutive Paris-Roubaix titles, a Giro d’Italia as well as setting the world hour record, all on Columbus equipped bikes.
Words & Images by James Startt
And then there is his nephew, Moreno, who is discovering the beauty of Columbus in his new-found passion for gravel riding. A winner of the epic Strade Bianche race as a professional, Moser is now a member of Team Cinelli Smith and often rides the Cinelli Nemo gravel bike equipped with the new-generation Columbus Spirit tubeset, which is made with an all-new high-performance Omnicrom steel-alloy. The Italian brand’s Futura Gravel carbon fork—part of the wide range of Futura forks, each purpose built for different disciplines of riding—completes the package for a balanced ride.
“Columbus is something I have always seen on bikes,” Moreno says over coffee in the village of Montalcino, home to stage 11 of this year’s Giro d’Italia. “I saw them on Francesco’s bikes, on his classic Benotto bikes as well as the Moser bikes he produced. I just always saw this logo. And it has been great to discover the company since I retired as a pro. I love visiting the factory and seeing real people working on the tubes, working with the different machines. Some of the guys have been working there for years, still working in the way they have been for decades and you can just really feel the connection.”
Columbus, which just celebrated its own centennial in 2019, is experiencing nothing less than a renaissance, due in large part to the resurgence of steel on a variety of gravel bikes. “Steel just has real advantages in gravel,” says Antonio Colombo, son of the founder Angelo Luigi. “It is just so comfortable over bumps and uneven surface and so stable. The new steel that we have been using in the last five years or so has allowed us to find new heights of weight and stiffness that we never thought possible. As a result, we have witnessed more and more demand, for gravel, but also road bikes. To be honest, our factory has not been this busy in years.”
The White Roads Call
While Moser’s professional days are now behind him, he couldn’t be having more fun cycling. Today, he is eager to get out and ride on the roads of what promises to be an epic stage in this year’s Giro. Stage 11 will be like no other in the Giro as it crosses no fewer than four gravel sections made famous by Strade Bianche. Moreno is only too eager to recon them on his Columbus-equipped Nemo.
“Riding on gravel is just so much more fatiguing than the road,” says Moreno. “There is no place to hide. It is just so much more individual. If you are having a bit of a bad day, you will really suffer. But with the Columbus Spirit modern tubes, well, they are just so much more forgiving. It is just so much more fun.”
Once suited up, we head straight to the first section that awaits the Giro riders in on the edge of the village of Torrenieri. It is here where the first gravel section starts 92.8 kilometers into the race with a 9.1-kilometer stretch that first climbs and then descends to Buonconvento. As soon as Moser hits the gravel, he is instantly at home.
“It’s always special to come back to these roads,” Moser says with a smile while stopping briefly to make minor adjustments to his position. “And every time I leave an asphalt road and hit gravel it makes me think of the Strade Bianche and what it is like to be in the bunch. The thing about hitting gravel is that no section is the same. It’s always so crazy because everybody wants to be at the front. The dirt roads are always smaller so there is always somebody crashing, somebody screaming. It was always very emotional. Riding here today with a gravel bike, I wonder firstly: how did I ever race these roads on a road bike!?”
The road climbs steadily out of Torrenieri until it hits a ridge of one of the region’s stunning hills. For those that have time to look around, the views are stunning, but for those racing in the Giro this year, there will be no sightseeing as such hilltops are easily exposed to winds that can quickly complicate matters, especially if traction is made unstable from the dust and gravel, or in the case of rain, mud. “In the Strade there are always a couple of sections where you are really exposed to the winds, and when the roads are slippery it is just crazy,” says Moser, who has plenty of first hand experience with these conditions. “You don’t have control on your bike and you just see riders flying away off the road.”
Soon after the first section we make our way to the second, the longest and quite likely the most difficult. Section two starts at kilometer 109.8 and grinds its way up the Passo Del Lume Spento, a daunting 13.5-kilometer stretch of brutal gravel riding.
“We’ve done this section in the Strade Bianche and it’s always a hard section,” Moser recalls. “I remember it in the first years when I won it, but I really remember it a couple of years ago when I was suffering. It is just really, really hard.”
The most intense climbing comes in the first half as the road snakes its way up and out of the valley with a series of switchbacks. Visually, it lacks the picture postcard quality of the opening section. But for the riders, it is simply one long grind.
“This is the hardest of the four sections for sure,” says Moser. “I think in the Giro you will definitely see some big attacks here. This is where the race will really start in my opinion. It will really explode. A team that likes to race aggressively will try something here. If not, any guy that is not sure if he is strong enough to win in the final needs to try something.”
Finally reaching the summit the riders will then attack a long descent, passing through Montalcino, before hitting the third section at Castelnuovo dell’Abate. And while this 7.6-kilometer section may not be the most difficult, it opens with a technical descent that promises to offer challenges all its own, before making its way up a long, exposed climb.
“The thing is that each section just gets harder and harder as you approach the final,” Moser says. “And if you are suffering, you can only watch as the gap grows between you and the guy in front. I know; I’ve been on the front and off the back in Strade and they are two very different experiences.”
Exiting this section after 143.7 kilometers of racing, the riders will only have 5 kilometers to recover before hitting the final gravel section of the day. And while it is the shortest, the pace promises to be high as the pack races towards the final climb and the finish.
Nobody will win the Giro on this stage, but some could definitely lose it here. Riders with a big team can just put their team at the front and stay safe, or at least safer. But anybody having a bad day, or a GC rider without a big team, can really get isolated quickly and have a really difficult day.
“The pace will definitely be fast here, but there is still one final climb after this section,” Moser says. “That will change things a bit.”
“It’s going to be interesting,” Moser says as he looks back over the four gravel sections he just rode. “A stage in the Giro will be different than a real Strade Bianche race. I think the pack will stay together longer. The thing is, riders with a big team can just put their team at the front and stay safe, or at least safer. But anybody having a bad day, or a GC rider without a big team, can really get isolated quickly. There just will not be enough room on these roads for everybody to be at the front. And if you get isolated, well, you can be in for a really difficult day.”
“I won Strade Bianche and I will never forget it—but I also suffered a lot there, and I will never forget those moments either,” Moser says. “But today was something entirely different. It was just so much fun! My Nemo was perfect. These contemporary Columbus Spirit tubes are great, and when combined with the functionality of the Futura Gravel fork, well, that is a pretty ideal combination.”
“What is interesting for me is seeing the way Columbus has evolved,” says Moser. “It is not just something historical, something retro. But today people are desiring the Columbus tubes because they are so functional. And with gravel bikes in particular, steel tubing can compete with any material out there. It is just so comfortable, so stable. You can ride five hours on gravel, with no added stress, no fatigue. It’s just plain fun!”
Key Gravel Sections of Giro d’Italia Stage 11
Sector 1: kilometer 92.8 to kilometer 102.0 — 9.1 kilometers
Sector 2: kilometer 109.8 to kilometer 123.7 — 13.5 kilometers
Sector 3: kilometer 136.1 km to kilometer 143.7 km — 7.6 kilometers
Sector 4: kilometer 148.4 to kilometer 153.3 — 5.0 kilometers
Learn more about Columbus tubing at columbustubi.com