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The Giro Legends

By Giacomo Pellizzari with images by Gruber Images

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Mountains, moments and unforgettable climbs of the Giro d’Italia.
The real stars of the Giro d’Italia are often not the riders but the locations—nearly always giant climbs in the high mountains. These legendary peaks are each associated with a particular episode, an amazing feat or an unusual anecdote, including snowstorms, solo breaks or sudden crises. These five different mountains are remembered for the exploits of five different men racing for the Giro’s pink leader jersey, the maglia rosa: Coppi, Gaul, Merckx, Pantani and Contador.

Passo dello Stelvio: June 1, 1953
Fausto Coppi has just left everyone else behind, as indeed he must do to reduce the gap between him and the man currently in the maglia rosa, the Swiss Hugo Koblet. To have any hope of winning this Giro d’Italia, Coppi has to go for broke. And he has to do it today, here on the Stelvio, a climb ideally suited to his attributes: large lungs and long, slender legs. His legs look more like the metal claws of a bulldozer than the limbs of a human body, perfect for pedaling in high gears on endless climbs like this one.
It’s the first year the Stelvio Pass has been included in the Giro, and it’s a baptism of fire for everyone: a 25-kilometer ascent, with 2,000 meters (over 6,500 feet) in elevation gain. It’s a stairway of switchbacks that resembles the Great Wall of China. Tino Petrelli is a photographer and fanatical supporter of Coppi. On this day he has decided to take the perfect photo, a shot that will make the history books.

Having set off early in the morning, Petrelli’s motorbike is speeding up the switchbacks that lead to the Stelvio’s 2,758-meter (9,048-foot) summit. Suddenly he stops, gets off his bike and runs at breakneck speed back down the road. He has spotted a large fallen pine branch near the centerline. It is long and tapered, with a tip that looks like a freshly sharpened pencil. Armed with this curious tool, he writes in the wall of snow in large letters: “W Fausto!” (short for “Viva Fausto!”). Then he swiftly returns to the opposite side of the road, satisfied with his handiwork, and patiently awaits the cyclists. Coppi is first to arrive. Approaching the curve, an amazed Fausto turns to look.
The photo of the century is in the can.

Monte Bondone: June 8, 1956
It’s called the Mountain of Trento, a giant mass rising to nearly 2,000 meters above the town, discovered almost accidentally by Vincenzo Torriani, the organizer of the Giro d’Italia. Although he barely managed to climb this mountain road by car, he fell hopelessly in love with the Bondone.

On this race day, the thermometer at the summit shows a heartless 8 degrees below zero Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit). Siberia has come to the Trentino region in the middle of June. It’s snowing like gangbusters and it’s already 20 centimeters deep. They’re predicting twice that by the time the riders arrive. Charly Gaul stands up on his pedals. Many do not like his style, finding it ungraceful. Various journalists have compared it unfavorably to the classier style of Coppi. Snow gathers on Gaul’s cap and eyebrows, his mouth trembles, his lips are blue and swollen. But his eyes are alive, as bright and blue as those of Paul Newman.

From the fir trees, heaps of snow suddenly fall onto a group of fans. People dash out from under this unexpected shower and brush it off as best they can. But nobody wants to miss Gaul. When he crosses the finish line, more than half the cyclists have dropped out due to exposure. Gaul, on the other hand, has cycled through the bitter cold and eventual blizzard for some nine hours. He has earned the maglia rosa. His helpers haul him off his bike, carry him into a shelter, undress him and massage him. They take off his shoes, bury him in blankets, and light two stoves. The eyes are the first part of his body to react when they tell him what he has achieved on the Mountain of Trento.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo: June 1, 1968
In order to determine the precise location of the border between the towns of Auronzo and Dobbiaco, it is said that one day two girls agreed to set off when the rooster crowed in their respective towns and meet at the summit. But the girl leaving from Auronzo was more cunning than her competitor, and hatched a devious plot: she secretly pricked the rooster so as to make it crow early. That’s why the border now finds itself further north than one would expect.

Perhaps Eddy Merckx knows this local legend, judging from the way he is climbing today—twice as fast as his adversaries, some say three times as fast. Snow lines his face, falls into his eyes, freezes his hands (covered by just a thin pair of gloves), but he does not seem to care. He is on a mission, a mission to win big. Everyone in front of him has slowed down. They are limping forward, huffing and puffing. Some even quit. It’s disastrous.
Located exactly on the border between the Veneto and Trentino Alto Adige regions, the Tre Cime di Lavaredo are the most famous peaks in the Dolomites. The last part of the climb to the summit, to the Auronzo Shelter, is 7 kilometers long and has gradients of over 10 percent. A killer.

Nearby are Lake Misurina and the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo. Ernest Hemingway came here on vacation. Orson Welles and Brigitte Bardot were familiar figures. What would they have said of this 23-year-old Belgian cyclist devouring his opponents like crumbs? No wonder they call him “The Cannibal.” And with good reason: the only others left in contention are Franco Bitossi and Michele Dancelli. His teammate Vittorio Adorni had to let him go, later saying “it’s as if he was on a motorbike.” The legend of Merckx is born today on these three rugged, inhospitable but unfeasibly beautiful fingers of rock, a perfect setting in which to launch the greatest cyclist of all time.

Mortirolo: June 4, 1994
The hardest section of the Mortirolo is from Kilometer 3 to Kilometer 8, not that it gets any easier after that, but at least the suffering is a little less severe. When you arrive at the foot of this gargantuan climb, locals look at you with a mixture of pain and pity, as if to say: “What the hell were you thinking? What are you going to do up there? Do you have any idea what’s in store?”
We’re in the Province of Sondrio, at a pass also known as the Passo della Foppa. The narrow road climbs to an elevation of 1,852 meters (6,076 feet) and connects two valleys, the Valtellina and Val Camonica. The crossing, however, usually goes by the name Mortirolo.

Marco Pantani, a member of the Carrera team, is 24 years old and has never climbed the Mortirolo. Everything here is new to him. Every curve is a new adventure waiting to happen. He faces them all with a strangely serious and anxious expression, never smiling, never relaxing. He has grabbed the maglia rosa ahead of Russia’s Evgeni Berzin, the robot-like Miguel Induráin and even his captain, Claudio Chiappucci. But Pantani is still not happy. He is about to catch the day’s lone breakaway, Franco Vona. It’s as if those curves at 20-percent grade, hidden in the woods, were flattening themselves beneath his wheels to let him through. The little Italian climbs in a gear so high that others could only dream of using it.

The other competitors, overwhelmed by fatigue, can only exchange defeated glances. In the woods, derailleurs snap in search of the sleekest sprocket. Pantani simply flies. By now he has left them all behind, and has Vona in his sights. Vona sways, staggers and starts zigzagging dangerously—as happens when you have nothing left to give on such a steep pitch. He’s done and he knows it. With two quick surges, standing on his pedals, Pantani takes the lead. Solo. Pantani reaches the summit in just 43 minutes. He has climbed over a thousand meters in altitude in less than three quarters of an hour. The rest, including race leader Berzin, are all behind him, left in the dust. From now on, the Mortirolo is Pantani’s mountain.

Colle delle Finestre: May 30, 2015
Anyone cycling here must proceed with extreme caution, paying attention to the rocks, roots and ruts in the road surface. To say nothing of the puddles. If it rains, the whole place quickly becomes a swamp. Forty-five hairpin bends, the first few narrow and submerged in the woods, a bit like a tunnel through the vegetation. Without a single ray of sunshine, a single breath of air. An inhuman struggle. The first 11 kilometers are paved before being replaced by a dirt track for the remaining eight. It’s a high-altitude Paris-Roubaix, a northern hell shifted a little to the south, and uphill all the way. Welcome to the Colle delle Finestre.

Alberto Contador, El Pistolero, wears the maglia rosa, but he is now running the serious risk of losing it. The Spanish climber has been in trouble for the last few kilometers. The dirt road has exhausted him. Fabio Aru, on the other hand, is feeling fine, and wants to make the most of it. A sudden sprint and the Italian leaves the Spaniard for dead. Leading the stage is a Russian, Ilnur Zakarin. He made his break several kilometers back, but now he too is beginning to tire. With a gradient that never falls below 10 percent, the trees start to thin out, and the rocks and stones take over. In the distance, only snow-flecked mountains.

This final stretch of the Colle delle Finestre looks beautiful. But it is just an illusion, the calm before the storm. In fact, it is the starting point for a succession of snaking uphill bends that it would perhaps be better not to see. On the crest of the mountain we can see long lines of fans who have been staking out the summit since the early morning. Seen from here, they look like native warriors ready to ambush the approaching hordes.

Someone waves a black flag bearing the pirate symbol, and Marco Pantani immediately comes to mind. What on Earth would Il Pirata have made of this climb? Mikel Landa catches up with Zakarin and overtakes him. The Finestre is his. But the stage, finishing in Sestriere, will be won by Aru, who gains more than two minutes on race leader Contador—a gap big enough to give the crowds a thrill, but not large enough to make Aru’s dream of Giro victory come true.