Giro d'Italia 2017 - The Stelvio: Myths, legends and the climb of a lifetime

The Stelvio: Myths, legends and the climb of a lifetime
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The most famous segment of the Giro d’Italia is back for the race’s centenary year. It is the mythical Stelvio, the highest mountain pass in the whole of Italy, a Cima Coppi par excellence. It is a journey through winding hairpins, history, stories, sensations and, yes, flavours too.

1. The origin of the myth

A 21.7km ascent along a path that climbs up to the sky, the Stelvio Pass is cycling’s sacred mountain and with two visits to this mythical stretch of road, the 16th stage of the 100th Giro d'Italia could be the highlight of a highly memorable Grand Tour. Rovetta-Bormino, 227km, the Mortirolo Pass, the Stelvio Pass, Giogo di Santa Maria: Stage 16 will be an Alpine epic which crosses the Camonica Valley to reach the foot of the monster: the Mortirolo pass and its famous slopes. Then the Stelvio will be tamed twice: first starting from Bormio up to the Cima Coppi - the title which is bestowed on the highest peak in each year’s Giro d’Italia, and which in 2017 is a towering 9,049 feet above sea level – and then again when La Corsa Rosa descends down those famous hairpins, into Switzerland and back up to the Stelvio Pass via the Umbrail Pass. That climb will reach 8,208 feet before the peloton nosedives in a steep descent back down to Bormio.

The term Cima Coppi was coined in honour of legendary rider Fausto Coppi, who won the Giro five times between 1940 and 1953, as well as the Tour de France twice. In the centenary edition of the race, the highest peak is located at the most iconic of spots, which is no accident. The Cima Coppi embodies the best of cycling, a monument to those who push the boundaries of human achievement, as Coppi did. He was the first rider to cross the Stelvio, back in 1953, the year of his fifth and final Giro triumph, and so this year’s route is a fitting tribute to him.

" Coppi’s physiological structure, if you consider it, appears to be an invention of nature, designed to complement the very modest mechanical structure of the bicycle – Gianni Brera"

On the very first visit to the Stelvio, controversy raged. The battle was between Coppi and Hugo Koblet, the man known as the Pedaleur de Charme, hailing from Switzerland and the first foreign winner of La Corsa Rosa. In contrast to the angular noses and marked faces of Coppi and his compatriot Gino Bartali, Koblet had the visage of a blond angel, who pedalled effortlessly, with extraordinary elegance, and always carried a comb and a bottle of cologne with him on races to maintain his pristine image. In May 1953, he was leading the Giro going into Stage 19 to Bolzano. Second in the GC and with almost two minutes to make up, Coppi approached his rival with a suggestion: “Hugo, if you let me win the stage [today], then tomorrow I won’t attack you on the Stelvio.” The riders came into the velodrome together but Coppi easily sprinted away from Koblet to take the win, as agreed with the Blond Falcon.

Fausto Coppi is one of the greatest cyclists in history

Fausto Coppi is one of the greatest cyclists in historyGetty Images

Coppi only had to uphold his side of the bargain, with Koblet under the impression that Italian had effectively conceded the Giro to him ahead of Stage 20 and the challenge of the Stelvio. But the night before the climb was a restless one. Coppi awoke early, and under the leaden skies of Bolzano, Koblet then appeared wearing a pair of dark glasses, which aroused suspicion. Coppi’s Bianchi team-mate Ettore Milano, who had won Stage 5 from Roccaraso to Naples, cleverly approached Koblet and asked him for a souvenir photo. When he removed his sunglasses for the shot, the Pedaleur was lacking his usual Charme and his puffy and swollen eyes compounded suspicions. Whether it was the fatigue of the mountain passes, an excess of champagne or something rather more nefarious, with amphetamine use not uncommon at the time, no one knows for sure. Coppi himself was open about his own use of drugs, especially “la bomba”, which was a mixed of caffeine, cola and amphetamines, and his team were said to have recognised similar symptoms when they looked upon Koblet’s tired face.

What is far more certain is that Coppi had made a sporting pact – a pact that would be dramatically broken on the Stelvio. Sitting in the leading pack of five riders along with Bartali, Pasquale Fornana and the young Nino Defilippis on Stage 20, Coppi and Koblet were well placed at the foot of the Stelvio Pass. The winding path was a tortuous one and Coppi felt unable to attack, but he managed to convince Defilippis, who was not a team-mate of his but was, crucially, an impressionable 20-year-old, to do his work for him. The word of the man known as Il Campionissimo, or champion of champions, was like the word of God. Defilippis climbed up onto his pedals on the first syllable of Coppi’s instructions, head low and fists tight on the handlebars as he attacked with everything he had.

Video - Fausto Coppi tackles the Stelvio in 1953

00:29

Koblet saw Defilippis dart past him and without thinking started his pursuit. Coppi replied, closing down a fatally tiring Koblet, and then took flight. He reached the summit 4 minutes and 27 seconds ahead of the Swiss, who crashed twice and reached Bormio in a state of exhaustion. The next day in Milan, when Coppi won his fifth and final Giro, and even despite what had occurred on the mountain, Koblet said he had lost to the greatest cyclist of all time. The 1953 Giro was the high point in the career of Il Campionissimo.

The Stelvio had only been scaled once and, thanks to a compelling mix of controversy and mystery, it was already attaining mythical status.

2. Where Eagles Dare: In Memory of Michele Scarponi

Italian cyclist Michele Scarponi rides on Passo dello Stelvio uphill during the Tour of Italy cycling race Giro's 20th stage

Italian cyclist Michele Scarponi rides on Passo dello Stelvio uphill during the Tour of Italy cycling race Giro's 20th stageGetty Images

The title of Cima Coppi was first used in 1965 and has been scattered across Italy's mountains, but no other peak grazes the sky quite like the Stelvio, the highest road in Italy, the second highest pass in the Alps and "the greatest driving road in the world", at least according to Top Gear. On a fine day you are greeted by a bright-blue, clear Alpine sky - a sky where the spirit of the Eagle of Filottrano will always fly.

Michele Scarponi was tragically taken from the world of cycling just weeks ago. It is still impossible to come to terms with the news that broke on April 22, when he was killed in a collision with a van whilst training. Scarponi was set to lead the Astana team at the 100th Giro and only last year won the Cima Coppi with his magnificent ascent of the Colle dell’Agnello on Stage 19. He reached the peak, conquered the mountain, and then waited to assist team-mate Vincenzo Nibali, who was challenging for the GC win and would be crowned the winner of the Giro.

On that day, Scarponi revealed all his humanity, and that of cycling too. His smile will be missed on Friday when the race starts, and his absence painfully felt on every stage, even if memories of his exploits will never fade. Ciao, Michele.

Scarponi was the last rider to claim the Cima Coppi, earning one of cycling's great honours in a list which stretches back over 50 years and includes some famous names; the first, with a stage finish on the Stelvio, was Graziano Battistini. But on that day in 1965 the race stopped 800m from the pass, blocked by an avalanche. Felice Gimondi was making his professional debut. It was, as he recalls, a monumental test.

" The first time I took part in the Giro, I was on the Stelvio with the front of the group when a wall of four or five metres of snow fell down. We got off our bicycles and we put them on our shoulders to make our way through the snow and get closer to the peak."
Passo dello Stelvio serpentine (Phil Galloway)

Passo dello Stelvio serpentine (Phil Galloway)Eurosport

The softly-spoken Gimondi’s record in cycling is one to shout proudly about: he won the Giro three times and the Vuelta a Espana and Tour de France once each. Gimondi also triumphed in the UCI World Championships, Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo and the Giro di Lombardia, twice. But even for a man as richly experienced as the Italian, the Stelvio remains special. Ten years after his Giro debut he tackled the pass for the last time as part of La Corsa Rosa. In that race in 1975, Gimondi broke away from Giovanni Battaglin but Spain’s Francisco Galdos had already conquered the peak. It confirmed a period of Spanish supremacy over the Cima Coppi, with the previous three years having been dominated by Jose Manuel Fuente, who scaled the Stelvio Pass, the Giau Pass and the Three Peaks of Lavaredo between 1972 and 1974.

“Fuente was smoking before the stage. It was impressive – he managed to climb the toughest ratios,” says Riccardo Magrini, who won a stage each of the Giro and the Tour de France in the early 1980s before becoming a unique voice in the world of cycling, as he reflects on this period. “In 1975, I was an amateur and I was listening to the final stint of the Giro on the radio because there was a problem with the television. Faustio Bertoglio won [GC] over Galdos in that mythical edition, with a finish on the Stelvio.”

The Kings of the Stelvio

In 1980, the legendary Bernard Hinault participated in the Giro for the first time, winning it immediately. Earlier that year, Le Bleireau – The Badger – was one of only 20 other riders, from a start list of 174, to finish an infamous Liege-Bastogne-Liege race which was rendered near impossible by torrents of snow. The white stuff accompanied him again on the Stelvio in a legendary climb with his compatriot Jean-Rene Bernaudeau, who took the Cima Coppi and Stage 20 to Sondrio as Hinault emerged victorious overall.

Video - Hinault v the Stelvio: An epic assault in 1980

00:56

The sacred mountain returned in 1984, but Giro boss Vincenzo Torriani was forced to block the use of the pass, redrawing the stage in response to treacherous conditions on the route. “According to the mischief-makers, the Stelvio was cancelled because Francesco Moser was in the pink jersey,” he says,”but in reality there was a danger of avalanches and the pass was not traversable due to snow [which was also the case in 1998]. The Stelvio is the mythological part of the Giro: this year, with the double climb, it will be a beautiful stage, something truly magical.

" It is on days like this that epics are written because these mountains always summon fear. Think of the past, of the great champions, who have fallen away by minutes, if not hours. "

Riccardo Magrini’s memories are vivid ones. “A bicycle race contains thousands of stories: the masseur who prepares the bottles; the gregario who battles for his captain; the directeur sportif who has to study every detail. And that’s without considering the members of the public who go to the Stelvio early in the morning, through snow. Why do they do it? To watch a cyclist pass by for a second? You need to have a crazy sensibility, but then when it happens, you get the shivers. Those who love cycling know it.”

Passo dello Stelvio climb

Passo dello Stelvio climbGetty Images

3. The Stelvio Pass: An ascent to greatness

Before going on to win in Flanders in 1996 and then claim another four Monument Classics before retiring in 2004, Michele Bartoli attacked the mountains of the Giro in the flush of youth. It was 1994 and the Stelvio left its mark on him. “There are much harder climbs, but the Stelvio for me was the worst because it goes on forever. The Stelvio is an ascent that, if it is confronted in a strong and decisive way, is among the most challenging in the world because after the first 2,000m, you feel your breath beginning to tire and already it seems like it's game over. But this is what is beautiful about cycling: the athlete’s resistance, which makes Stelvio a magnificent climb.”

The Stelvio stage profile

“The roads leading to the Stelvio are re-opened every year at the end of April to be ready for the Giro public: this year there’s just a bit of snow to clear at the top, about half a mile off the road,” says Umberto Capitani, the director of the glacier lift which, from late May until early November, will carry skiing champions like Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud and Henrik Kristoffersen as they prepare for the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. “Even in a freak year, snow cannot be excluded. Indeed it is expected to snow in the next few days.”

The Stelvio is not just the iconic climb of the Giro d’Italia: it has become a dream target for all cyclists who make the pilgrimage to the famous mountain. Andrea Maiolani is the director of the Bormio Sporting Union, which organises the Stelvio Santini sportive and the Re Stelvio, the annual competition which sees cyclists and runners, both professional and amateur, climb 1,533m up the mountain.

“The cyclosportive offers a route of 150km with a final ascent of the Stelvio on the Bormio slope, while the Re Stelvio is a timed ascent of 21km, the same which is faced by the cyclists in the Giro d’Italia,” says Maiolani. On Re Stelvio day, the ascent can also be tackled with E-bikes boasting assisted pedalling. “It is another clean way of enjoying the ascent in a landscaped environment because there are amateur cyclists who participate accompanied by their wives and children, who should be offered the same possibility.” As a result, anyone can get to the top and say they have “scaled a mountain which is in the canon of legends.”

Video - Why the Stelvio is 'the world's greatest road'

01:16

4. The Descent: Towards the centenary, and to Girardengo and Pantani

Professional and amateur cyclists have one overriding experience in common: devoting sweat and energy to the unforgiving demands of the sport. But cycling gives back too. Those brave enough to take on the Re Stelvio are duly rewarded with a beautiful descent after the torment of the climb. Michele Bartoli takes us down the slopes: “The descent is quite technical on both sides because there are a lot of corners and hairpin bends: a descent that requires you to pay close attention but which nonetheless is not dangerous. I can say it because I took it to its limits in 1994 when I was on the team with Casagrande, who was in the classification and had to return: yes, we went down really at full pelt!”

Some 23 years later, cycling has made the art of the descent into an exact science, a formula of mechanics, aerodynamics, disk brakes and posture. You can see it in the calculations of the current downhill king, Vincenzo Nibali, or when you think back to the inventor of the modern discipline: Paolo Salvoldelli, who is regarded as one of the best practitioners of the descent of all time.

Video - Giro Explainer: How to master a descent

03:23

Savoldelli won the Giro in 2002 and 2005 and the Stelvio stage departs from his home, in Rovetta. Just as the winding descent offers spectacular views of the Alpine landscape, the course of the 100th Giro will pass many landmarks indelibly associated with some of cycling's greatest names. It will be an education, as well as an athletic endeavour, as the centenary edition celebrates its legends on the route of La Corsa Rosa. Notably, Stage 11 starts in Ponte a Ema in honour of Gino Bartali, a giant figure in the history of Italy. “It is a tribute from the Giro to the Tuscan champion who, in the historical moment when he raced, was a national hero; it is a true and proper reason to be proud of our region,” says Bartoli.

Have we found the new Bartali?
"Gino Bartali represents cycling because, since he was a youngster, wherever you went to train, Bartali had already passed through," Riccardo Magrini recalls. "I knew Gino when I was a racer, he gave me advice and I was fond of him. His Tuscan qualities founded a true and distinct school: from Alfredo Martini to ‘Coppino’ Carlesi, Tuscany has been a lifeblood of racers. Without a doubt, Bartali was a little bit ‘blunted’ by the premature death of Coppi, and also merits the same exaltation as Fausto because he was exceptional, and then had an inestimable civil reach, a champion also on a humanitarian level. I remember when I had to turn professional in '74 after the junior World Championships in Montreal and Franco Calamai of the 'Gazzetta' newspaper wrote: ‘We have found the new Bartali’. You know I was not so pleased about it, because this juxtaposition was really too grand."

From Florence for Bartali to Selvino for Gimondi, then on to Tortona, following in the path of Costante Girardengo, who was the first great legend of Italian cycling. A verdant Stage 14 pays tribute to 80 magnificent years of cycling. Fausto Coppi was born in Castellania, where the stage begins in 1919; in 1999, the Sanctuary of Oropa, where the stage ends, was nicknamed ‘Pantani Mountain’ in honour of Il Pirata’s incredible comeback to win. The Giro had already showcased the best of Pantani, though, five years earlier on the Stelvio stage. On June 5, 1994, Pantani enjoyed success at Merano and Wladimir Belli was one of those who trailed in behind him. The former Lampre rider recalls: “It was a tough section for climbs and mileage. I remember the words of my directeur sportif Pietro Algiers:

" At Trafoi the ascent begins and then, remember: when you come out of the woods, don’t look up!"

“When you start, you’re already at a height of two thousand metres, you attack the ascent and then you see the Indians [the spectators] that fill the road and you are alive and the public screams, and the hairpin bends invite you by natural instinct to look up high, exactly as they told me not to do. There I understood what the Stelvio means.”

The stage was spectacular. Mortirolo, Belli and Chiappucci had a half-minute advantage but Pantani came on strong on the very toughest of slopes. “That is where his character and his conviction could be seen, because he came right back to us and went straight through the screams of Chiappucci, who was his captain.” Pantani went ahead; he took flight, climbed to Santa Cristina and won in Aprica. It was just as he had warned Belli, who came third on the stage: “Belu, today fasten your seatbelt.”

Girardengo, Coppi, Bartali, Gimondi, Pantani: mythical Italian figures exalted by the centenary Giro. As Gianni Mura, the high priest of Italian journalism, tells us: “The celebratory part of the centenary is necessary. Today the memories are fading and it is only right that there are places dedicated to those who have made history in cycling.”

And nowhere are legends forged as fiercely as on the slopes of the most magnificent mountain pass in cycling.

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IntroductionGiro d'Italia 2017 - The Stelvio: Myths, legends and the climb of a lifetime
  • Chapter 11. The origin of the myth
  • Chapter 22. Where Eagles Dare: In Memory of Michele Scarponi
  • Chapter 33. The Stelvio Pass: An ascent to greatness
  • Chapter 44. The Descent: Towards the centenary, and to Girardengo and Pantani