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I’ve driven, ridden, walked, gawked, and spent a morning shooting on Tre Cime in the past. It’s one of my most favorite hated climbs. I’ve always intended to write a piece on the short, vicious Dolomiti kingpin, but it never quite happened. Then I finally saw Michael Pfleghar and Hans Gottschalk’s Greatest Show On Earth, or rather, Die Härteste Show Der Welt. The gems in the film are too numerous to count, but the extended scene late in the movie on the twentieth stage of the race to Tre Cime, which showed the final drama of the 1974 Giro unfold in spectacular fashion, left me awe-struck.

Words & images: Jered Gruber

A vulnerable Eddy Merckx, wearing the maglia rosa, was under attack from all sides, in particular from a Spaniard, Juan Manuel Fuente, and the 21-year-old Italian prodigy Gianbattista Baronchelli. The 12-plus percent average grade of the final four kilometers was their playing field, and one of the most beautiful mountain stadiums in all of cycling was filled with the passionate throngs of tifosi.

The movie does all the describing my words could never hope to do. The riders’ heads bob maniacally—fighting their bikes, the mountain, gravity, with faces coming ever closer to their bars. Fuente, alone at the front, desperately seeks to regain lost time from earlier in the race, churning, always out of his saddle, seemingly running for the line. Some would call it dancing, but the only thing that reminds me of dancing in this situation is the fact that he was standing.

Dai Fuente! Dai Fuente! The tifosi urge the Spaniard forward, upward, and he goes ever harder it seems. Not far behind, the man who would be king, Gianbattista Baronchelli is racing for pink. If the tifosi were enthusiastic for Fuente, they’re enraptured by the approach of Baronchelli—can he do it? Can the Italian usurp Merckx’s dominance? Just behind, head cocked to the side, face giving way to a grimace, the greatest of them all fights to keep his jersey and a fifth overall title in the Giro d’Italia.

Behind, the melee is more pronounced: a rider hits a press motorbike, and the caravan comes to a screeching halt. A spectator pushes a rider so hard he falls flat on his face. There’s a car parked almost in the middle of the road, and it’s only through the collective might of the mob, that it’s picked up off the ground and moved out of the way. At the head of the race, the commissaire waves his red flag frantically, trying to part the multi-colored sea, but it’s only under the threat of the weight of a large vehicle that the crowds part at the last moment. It’s like what you’ve seen in the Basque Country or on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, but worse.

The chaos of the scene is thrilling, the desperate fight for time, enthralling. Through it all, the narrator’s voice is impassive, emotionless.

“The gradient is one in six. The temperature is minus two degrees. Three more miles to the top.”

The perfect paucity of words, their incredible distance from the scene unfolding on screen—it’s goose bump inducing.

Then I had an idea. What if I could talk to Eddy Merckx? What if I could ask Eddy Merckx about this day? What would Eddy Merckx have to say about Tre Cime? That would be a lot better than my gushing about another beautiful piece of road in some spectacular location.

It was a silly dream, simply not possible, but I mentioned it in passing to my editor, and the ball somehow started rolling. Slowly at first, but there eventually came that unbelievable email: call Merckx at this number, at this time, on this date.

He was at Qatar when I reached him. I got a gruff hello. It was the day that Contador’s verdict was passed down. It was the same evening that Merckx had responded to the news of Contador’s suspension with the powerful words: “I think people want to kill off cycling.”

The Cannibal, winner of hundreds of races, eleven Grand Tours, three world championships, and each monument at least twice, was not in the best of moods. I suspect he thought I was calling to ask about the Contador case, but as I began asking questions about his three experiences on Tre Cime, his tone changed, his mood brightened, and there I was, an audience of one listening in boyhood wonder to the greatest cyclist of all-time detailing his experiences on one famed piece of pavement in a far corner of Italy’s Dolomiti.

The topic was so small, so minute, yet in some way, it felt perfect. When talking to a man like Eddy Merckx, where could you hope to begin but with a definite pinpoint spot? In this case, that spot is an 8.5-kilometer ramp to the heavens with three pinnacles of dolomite rock standing tall above the scene, and a rifugio, waiting to receive the riders at the top.

For a climb used as rarely as Tre Cime, it says a lot that it holds such importance in the annals of Giro d’Italia history. It has been used only six times. The first came in the year of Eddy Merckx’s first Grand Tour. It was 1967, and the climb was incorporated into the route to celebrate the paving of the old World War I road. The tifosi turned out in thousands despite wretched weather conditions and were quite eager to give push after push to an entire field of suffering riders who were barely able to turn their pedals over for the final four kilometers, which approach wall-like gradients all the way to the final parking lot. In a bizarre scene, the stage was annulled after a significant portion of the field took tows from team cars and/or enjoyed the firm accelerations of all too happy to help fans.

In Bill and Carol McGann’s book, The Story of the Giro d’Italia, the cycling historians quote La Gazzetta writer Bruno Raschi as describing Tre Cime after the annulled stage: “le montagne del disonore.”

Merckx, who himself finished third that day and ultimately ninth in his first ever Grand Tour at just 21-years-old, sees it entirely differently.

“No one had any idea about the climb. All the riders had terrible gearing. We couldn’t make it up the mountain!”

Considering that Merckx came back a year later and fitted a 42×24 to his bike to recommence battle with Tre Cime, one can only wonder what he rode his first time up. The memory must be too painful for even Merckx, because he couldn’t remember.

A year later, things looked very different. In once again dire conditions low/highlighted by falling snow, Eddy Merckx put on one of the finest displays of power in his entire career.

So says the Cannibal himself: “I was much better than in 1967. I had lost a lot of weight over the winter, and I was flying that day. It was one of the best climbs of my career. There was a break about nine minutes and I caught the last person one kilometer from the finish line.”

Riding with thick gloves, a cycling cap, and the world champion’s jersey shining on his shoulders through the snow, Merckx was a man apart. It was the young rider at his absolute best—it was Merckx at his best.

Despite this punishing performance, Tre Cime was a stern test for even Merckx. As the Belgian crossed the line, he came to a complete stop (a common theme), was grabbed by a number of helpers, and a huge blanket was tossed across his back. The trio of men grabbed hold of the giant of the sport and pushed his exhausted body onward to the warmth.

It was Merckx’s fourth stage win (after Motta’s doping disqualification) in that year’s Giro. His success vaulted him into the maglia rosa, and there he would stay for the next ten stages, all the way to Napoli and his first career victory in the Corsa Rosa, his first Grand Tour victory. He’d win the Giro five times in his career—the last time in 1974—which happened to be the next time Tre Cime was used in the Giro.

The year 1968 had seen the Eddy Merckx of legend. Untouchable, so far above his so-called rivals, it’s almost laughable looking back.

It was, however, an entirely different matter in 1974. It obviously wasn’t known at the time, but 1974 would be the final year in which he would win a Grand Tour. In true Merckx fashion, he won two: the Giro and the Tour.

Even with the minuscule time gap between Merckx and Baronchelli—all of twelve seconds—it’s easy to think that the result was still more or less a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t. As Merckx describes the journey to the Rifugio Auronzo for the third and final time in his career, he had lost the jersey as he came to the red kite.

“The third time was when Jose Manuel Fuente won. I knew at one kilometer before the finish that I had lost the jersey. I sprinted the last kilometer and took back the jersey with twelve seconds to spare. This was two days before the end of the Giro, so it sealed my overall victory.”

Along the way, amidst the chaos and fervor of the crowd that smelled Cannibal blood, the tifosi made sure to let Eddy know as he tells it: “The Italians were telling me it was finished as I climbed, but they didn’t know that I wasn’t done.”

He certainly wasn’t. Merckx’s final kilometer soul searching saved his Giro, but the likes of Baronchelli and Fuente weren’t on his mind as he pulled every last bit of energy out of his seemingly infinite engine. Despite knowing the situation as he climbed, the time gap and the chance that he could lose the Giro were not on his mind. His thoughts were of a far simpler variety.

“I wasn’t paying attention to my rivals. I just went as fast as I could. I only wanted to get to the finish line as soon as possible. It was the only thing I could think of.”

While his performance in 1974 stands in stark contrast to the solo rampage of 1968, the seemingly traditional Tre Cime finish line scene returned for a third time. In the rain and snow and freezing temperatures, a heaving figure crosses the line, grinds to a halt just inches after pushing past the goal. People descend upon the head down, gasping superstar. A heavy blanket is tossed across his broad shoulders, and he’s pushed by three men, out of the way, and to desperately needed warmth. The day is done, the jersey is saved, but fatigue and relief aren’t the only things he carries with him.

“I remember after crossing the finish line, I went straight away to hot water. My feet were freezing. I couldn’t think of anything else—I had to put my feet in warm water.”

The next day, Merckx not only consolidated his lead, he added a stage win in Bassano del Grappa to bring his career stage tally in the Giro to 24. Merckx would wrap up his fifth and final Corsa Rosa the next day on the track in Milano. He defeated Baronchelli by a mere twelve seconds, but twelve seconds or twelve minutes, it was Merckx in pink on top of the final podium that final afternoon in Milano. Tre Cime and a host of riders had done their best to dethrone the king, but at least for that one last time on Tre Cime, they couldn’t wrest the crown away.

From Issue 11. Buy it here.