Concerned about the wellbeing of the stricken man he’d just found slumped in a ditch, the peasant phoned the police station at Trento. “I have a cyclist here with me and he doesn’t speak Italian,” he said. “What should I do with him?”
The cyclist was Federico Bahamontes, the celebrated Spanish climber. And like so many on that abysmal day, the ‘Eagle of Toledo’ had had his wings clipped by the cataclysmic conditions that befell Stage 20 of the 1956 Giro d’Italia.
Was the wounded bird of prey really rescued from the gutter in this way? Almost certainly not. Bahamontes’ own account of his plight on the way to Monte Bondone in the Garda Mountains of the Eastern Alps is very different. He claims he took refuge from the snow in an empty farmhouse with compatriot Jésus Galdeano, where they both – and this is so specific it surely must be true – put on some spare pyjamas to warm up.
Lorena Wiebes and DSM execute sprint finish to perfection to win Stage 5
“I had frostbite in my hands and feet,” Bahamontes said, according to an account of that legendary day by Les Woodland, the doyen of British cycling authors. “I couldn’t use them properly for a month. I’d never known such bad weather. It was really frightening. We just stopped wherever we could, two here, six there, wherever you were, you abandoned.”
Of the 83 riders who started the stage that day, only 42 finished – and most of those had a little additional motorised assistance. One rider who battled through hailstorms, torrential rain and blizzards, over five climbs for nine hours, his body twisted and hunched over the handlebars, was hardman Fiorenzo Magni, the previous year’s winner. The Italian veteran had seen the defence of his Giro title dealt a painful blow 10 days earlier after breaking a collarbone and then his shoulder in separate falls. Had Bahamontes only stayed with Magni to the finish, he might well have emerged from a day of hell in the leader’s jersey.
Easier said than done. For it was a day, according to the former Tour de France organiser Jacques Goddet, “that surpassed anything seen before in terms of pain, suffering and difficulty”. Newspapers would refer to the finishers as “survivors” while Bahamontes himself would later tell his biographer, Alastair Fotheringham, that “nobody got to the top on a bike” – a nod to the claims that a large number of the finishers that day reached the summit of Monte Bondone by car.
“Finally, we were picked up by a lorry,” Bahamontes said, recalling his post-pyjama haze. “We all quit. Anybody who says the opposite is lying.”
Those who threw in the towel that day were overnight leader Pasquale Fornara as well as the virtual Maglia Rosa, Nino Defilippis. The latter had simply ridden to a standstill, keeling over on his bike, his fingers glued to the icy handlebars. But with the Alpine troops deployed to help with the fall-out, and as managers and sporting directors turned the heating up in their cars, hoping for the best as they peered through windshields that the frozen wipers couldn’t clear, one rider was still unaccounted for.
As René de Latour would later write in Sporting Cyclist magazine: “A search was going on for a missing man. The searcher-in-chief was former world champion Learco Guerra, now manager of the Faema team. The man he was looking for was Charly Gaul, who had not been seen for the last 20 minutes. Guerra was driving his car up the mountain pass, peering through the clogged-up windscreen when, by sheer chance, he saw a bike leaning against the wall of a shabby mountain trattoria. ‘That’s Charly’s bike!’ he exclaimed to his mechanic.”
Gaul was in 24th place overall going into the stage, more than 16 minutes down on the race leader. But the Luxembourg climber excelled on tough terrain and in cold conditions. Despite a few setbacks along the way, Gaul had bided his time until the final climb, where he’d ridden clear through the blizzard as the carnage played out in his wake. Riding in short sleeves, Gaul had certainly needed that coffee break to warm up, change his freezing kit and compose himself. Years later, he also admitted that a banana offered to him by a spectator had been his “salvation”. But after ploughing through the most extreme of conditions for more than nine hours, Gaul came home to win alone and take the Maglia Rosa from further back than anyone else before or since.
“His face was no longer that of a man,” the journalist Gianni Cerri said of Gaul’s arrival on Monte Bondone in the next day’s Gazzetta dello Sport. Sixty-five years on, here is the story of how one angelic climber beat the demonic weather to become only the third non-Italian rider to win the Giro d’Italia.
Who was Charly Gaul?
Often billed as the best pure climber the sport has ever produced, Gaul’s blue eyes, youthful, almost cherubic features, together with his smooth pedalling, graceful climbing and penchant for long-range attacks, earned him the nickname, the ‘Angel of the Mountains’. Gaul was only 20 when he turned pro for the French Terrot team in May 1953, making an instant impression by placing second overall and winning the King of the Mountains title in the Dauphiné Libéré. The youngster made such an impression that the veteran Belgian rider, Pino Cerami, claimed he “climbed even better than Coppi” – high praise given that old Fausto had already risen to five Giro d’Italia titles and two Tours at that point.
What made Gaul stand out from his fellow climbers, as the Italian cycling specialist Herbie Sykes explains, was the fact that he was “a spinner”.
“In relative terms, Coppi turned big gears and, of course, the methodology had always been big gears. Gaul was one who would tick-tack his way up this stuff – and that hadn’t really been done before. They’d only introduced derailleurs twenty years before and cyclists were mules; no one had really seen a cyclist like Gaul before.”
It was the journalist Pierre About, writing in L’Equipe, who first referred to Gaul as the ‘Angel of the Mountains’ after he’d seen the 21-year-old notch his first major victory in the now defunct Circuit des Six Provinces in 1954.
“When Charly Gaul met with the terrible ascent of the Chaubouret,” About wrote, “one forgot that he had been looking like a man who fought and suffered. An irresistible lightness suddenly took hold of this young boy with doll’s eyes, and he gave the impression of an angel for whom nothing is difficult. Light, harmonious, he rode away from the field.”
His good looks allegedly saw Gaul receive up to 60 letters a day from female fans. On showing his impressionable teammate Marcel Ernzer some of these saucy missives, his loyal gregario blushed and vowed never to get married if this was what women wanted. On the bike, Gaul was in his element when the temperature dropped and the heavens opened. While others feared a downpour, he seemed to relish miserable conditions – perhaps unsurprising given his former career handling frozen carcasses in an abattoir.
Raphaël Géminiani, the French rider who was famously thwarted by Gaul in a rainstorm in the Chartreuse mountains during the 1958 Tour de France, described his rival as “a murderous climber, always sustaining the same rhythm, a little machine with a lower gear than the rest of us, turning his legs at a speed that would break your heart; going tick tock, tick tock, tick tock”. Meanwhile, the celebrated French cycling writer Antoine Blondin described him as “Mozart on two wheels”.
"When we raced, we were irreconcilable," Bahamontes told Fotheringham for his book, The Eagle of Toledo, after Gaul died in 2005. "Going uphill even he admitted I was better, but when it rained, he was impossible to beat."
As an amateur, Gaul rode only hilly races. For all his strengths on the climbs, it took him a bit of time to adapt to professional racing. He failed to finish his first two Tours and it was not until the mid-50s when he finally managed to master riding in a pack, positioning himself well, and getting through the long flat days that pepper stage races. He was rewarded with a podium finish in the 1955 Tour, winning stages in both the Alps and the Pyrenees.
In many respects, his “Angel of the Mountain” moniker seemed out of kilter for a man so gloomy, withdrawn and apparently tormented, a man of few words who didn’t have many friends in the peloton. Fotheringham, in his Bahamontes biography, quotes a writer who said that Gaul “gives the impression that an evil deity had forced him into a cursed profession”.
While the nickname stuck until his death half a century later, his peers described Gaul as a moody figure prone to angry outbursts and whose behaviour bordered on the demonic. Bahamontes, who eventually became a close friend to Gaul following their bitter rivalry, described him as having “a very strong character, terrible even”.
“Charly Gaul might have climbed mountains like an angel, but he was far from angelic,” the author Chris Sidwells says in his Cycling Legends series. “He was a butcher before he was a pro cyclist, and once threatened a rival by telling him he’d get his knives and make sausages out of him.”
Setting the scene to Stage 18
Gaul had won Stage 7 to Campobosso, a day after the careworn Campionissimo Coppi had withdrawn with a back injury, and then the 2.5km Stage 13 uphill time trial to Madonna di San Luca. But three punctures during the previous stage over the Stelvio had seen him drop further away from the top 10, the Luxembourg climber languishing in 24th place. This all contributed to his being almost 17 minutes behind race leader Pasquale Fornara of Italy with only three stages remaining of what had been, in fairness, a rather hum-drum edition of the Giro.
“It was the fag end of what was a s**t Giro d’Italia,” Sykes says. “Nothing had happened. It was the first Giro post Coppi and Magni. Well, Magni was there, and Coppi had started, but he wasn’t really the rider he once was, and Gino Bartali was working as a journalist. No Italian who wasn’t one of those three had won the Giro for 17 years.”
The organisers had introduced lots of compact stages and filled the 39th edition with several short time trials in what was a failed attempt to reinvent the Giro. The result was that journeyman Alessandro Fantini, a sprinter by trade, led for pretty much the first half of the race before Fornara – a solid, but hardly stellar Grand Tour rider – took over the hot seat. Fornara held a slender nine-second lead going into Stage 20, the final mountain test of a race that Sykes describes as having been “crap and boring – nothing happened”. That morning, La Gazzetta had even admitted that “the decisive part of the race is over”. But freak storms had blown in overnight, and a cold snap hit the Garda Mountains – a sudden drop in temperature that to this day confounds meteorologists.
If Gaul revelled in bad weather, even he would have felt his deficit on GC was too large to pull off an upset. Besides, his entire Faema team – for which he cared very little, often refusing to share his winnings – had threatened to withdraw that morning. In his head, the Maglia Rosa might have been beyond his grasp, but the angel was going to have a little fun. Besides, a spectacle in the snow was just what the Giro needed before the curtain came down, as Sykes explains: “After three weeks of absolute tedium – you had Fantini in the Maglia Rosa for 10 days and he was a sprinter – something needed to happen and something pretty apocalyptic did. Something really big.”
Gaul fights back from two flats
Featuring five climbs, the 242km stage rolled out of Merano in the Dolomites in cold, damp weather. Gaul and Bahamontes signalled their intent by attacking on the first climb, the Costalunga. The duo were reeled in on the descent before Gaul attacked again on the Passo Rolle. By the time the race leader, Fornara, crested the summit of the second climb, he was four minutes behind Gaul, who had really taken flight. Fornara was really suffering in the awful conditions, but a lifeline came when Gaul was laid low with two punctures, costing him six minutes.
Gaul was well behind the leaders as the race hit the third climb, the Brocon, at which point the rain started to come down even harder. Spinning away in his trademark small gears, Gaul quickly reeled in the Pink Jersey. Making light of a fierce headwind, he now focused on closing the gap to the Italians Magni and Defilippis.
“It was no surprise when Charly Gaul broke away,” says Les Woodland in Cycling’s 50 Triumphs and Tragedies. “He was one of the most talented climbers of his era and a man who did best when the weather was against him. And that day it was against everyone. Snow began falling and Gaul, sensing his day, was alone with 88km still to go. And the snow carried on falling. Riders scattered across the countryside, more concerned with their future than the race and their rivals.”
It was around 50km from the finish that Bahamontes either took refuge in that ditch or resorted to putting on a stranger’s pyjamas. Either way, he later told Fotheringham: "It was impossible to race. There had been landslides, and stones as big as a cupboard were all over the road. Charly Gaul ended up partially deformed by the cold and I had frostbite in my hands and feet. I couldn’t use them properly for a month."
Gaul soon passed Magni – bravely riding on despite his litany of injuries – and then caught Defilippis, the virtual Maglia Rosa. At this point, with two climbs remaining, Gaul was only two minutes behind the leader on the road, Bruno Monti, but still a chasm away from leading the race. The horrendous weather got the better of Defilippis on the penultimate climb. Although he was riding into pink, he was struggling with both the elements and gradients. Caught by the Fornara group, he soon collapsed and had to be bundled into his Bianchi team car. He allegedly told his manager that he wouldn’t continue even for 10 million lire. It wasn’t long before scores of riders followed suit – including Fornara.
Magni recalled years later: “It snowed the whole day and it was very cold. I hadn’t noticed how much. Along the way I saw many bikes parked next to bars and I asked what was going on. They told me that most of the peloton froze and had to quit. Then, before reaching Trento, I saw the race leader [Fornara] quitting too! ‘What? Am I seeing things,’ I wondered. If I were the Pink Jersey I would have continued even if I had to walk, but I would never abandon.”
You’d have expected nothing less from a man who, days earlier, had been reduced to biting on an inner tube tied to his handlebars to combat the pain of two broken bones. That he had ridden on at all was a minor miracle.
As the remaining riders passed through Trento, such was the attrition rate that Gaul, the frail 23-year-old forced to descend the penultimate climb using his feet as much as his frozen brakes, not only looked like he could win the stage, but perhaps move into the Pink Jersey as well. Provided he could get up the final ascent to the exposed summit of Monte Bondone.
Carnage in the snow on Monte Bondone
Rising from 192m to 1,300m over 16km and taking in 30 hairpins, the so-called ‘Mountain of Trento’ was being used for the first time in the Giro that year. And it achieved instant legendary status. Never mind the riders – only one of the race’s 12 motorbikes made it to the summit as rain turned to snow and later to a full blizzard, buffeted by gusting winds. In short sleeves and no hat, Gaul ploughed a lonely furrow through the slush, perhaps demonstrating just why his French rival Géminiani once described him as having “the skin of a hippo”.
Earlier in the stage, Gaul had been reduced to descending at a snail’s pace because his frozen fingers could not pull on the brakes. But he was so far ahead going onto the final climb that people were unsure if he was still in the race, or if he had joined the swathes of riders who had thrown in the towel.
Once his manager, Learco Guerra, had managed to locate Gaul in that mountain trattoria halfway up the climb, the lone leader’s advantage was large, but the win was not yet in the bag.
René de Latour’s account in Sporting Cyclist continues: “They rushed into the bar and there, sitting on a chair sipping hot coffee, was Charly Gaul, exhausted, so dead to the world that he could hardly speak. Guerra knows bike riders. He talked gently to Gaul. ‘Take your time, Charly,’ he said. ‘We’re going to take care of you.’ While a masseur was ripping off Gaul’s wet jersey, Guerra had some water warmed and poured it over the rider’s body. Then, rubbed down from head to toes, Gaul’s body gradually came back to life. He lost that glassy look and in a few minutes he was a new man again.”
Not for long. There were moments in the closing kilometres of the climb where Gaul told his manager that he was “dying from cold” – to which Guerra simply replied: “Go ahead and die – but do it with the Pink Jersey on.”
Of course, Gaul was not the only one suffering. In his history of Italian cycling, Pedalare! Pedalare!, John Foot reels off an endless list of riders resorting to any benefit that could keep them going. As winds reached speeds of 70kph, riders plunged their hands into bowls of warm water supplied by spectators, wilfully accepting glasses of brandy or grappa. Coppi, who was following the race in the Carpano team car after pulling out in the opening week, was advising his teammates to “stop, have a hot bath” and then carry on. Bruno Monti and Aldo Moser, who was third on GC going into the stage, “carried on while pleading for hot water to be thrown at them”. The Italian Nello Fabbri apparently collapsed into a soldier’s arms, crying: “I don’t want to die.”
The Spanish newspaper El Mundo Deportivo would describe the stage as “a hecatomb” – the classical term denoting a largescale public sacrifice, usually of a hundred oxen. It is indeed hard to look beyond the riders that day as more than livestock. And how ironic that the man leading them like lambs to the slaughter was the man who once worked as a butcher.
Victory and amnesia
A banana given to him by a spectator in the closing kilometres was just about enough to get Gaul over the line, where he managed a half-hearted fist pump before promptly fainting on trying to dismount. Alpine soldiers picked him up and wrapped him in blankets, carrying him to a hut where they plied him with hot drinks. His face wrinkled with cold and his hands and feet blue, Gaul couldn’t open his mouth. He was trembling so violently that, even an hour later, his frozen jersey had to be cut from his chest.
After nine hours, seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds in the saddle, Gaul had won his third stage of the 1956 Giro d’Italia – and with it, the Maglia Rosa. He finished nearly eight minutes ahead of runner-up Alessandro Fantini, who John Foot reports as having crossed the line wearing a leather jacket.
“It was obvious that Fantini had not climbed the last mountain under his own steam,” Foot adds. He wasn’t the only one. The reports differ, with some claiming only 29 riders completed the stage and most settling on a figure between 42 and 49 – from the morning’s 89 starters. Most people can agree, however, that hardly any of the finishers got to the summit by bike alone. For many, a truck was the preferred means of transport to the top, although some riders got in team cars before exiting to make a show of riding the last stretch to the finish – in a bid to avoid elimination.
In any case, the history books say that Magni battled to third place, more than 12 minutes in arrears. The top 23 in the General Classification – all those riders who led Gaul going into the decisive stage – either retired or came home well after Magni. Indeed, the last-placed rider took more than 11 hours to reach the finish, while the entirety of the rest of Gaul’s Faema team pulled out. The stage winner, meanwhile, was bundled into a hot bath, where he stayed for half an hour while thawing out, apparently suffering some kind of amnesia. When he came around, he still couldn’t remember what had happened. After being told once again that he was in pink, Gaul started swearing and rued the day he first got on a bike.
Never before in the Giro’s history had one man come from so far back to take the Maglia Rosa in a single day – a record still unbroken 65 years on. The race was still not over, with two more flat stages to compete. And Magni, the crocked defending champion now up to second in the standings, albeit 3’27” down, hadn’t given up yet.
“I actually thought about attacking Gaul in the following stages and trying to win my fourth Giro,” Magni would later admit. “I tried attacking him a couple of times during the last two stages, but he was too strong.”
Gaul rode into Milan to become the third non-Italian-to-win the Giro after Switzerland’s Hugo Koblet (1950), and his understudy and countryman Carlo Clerici (1954). The victory was secured by an astounding performance that Philippe Brunel of L’Equipe describes as having “never been equalled in the long history of post-War-road-racing”. Such hyperbole was also how the race was greeted by the press corps at the time. Giuseppe Ambrosini, “typing with frozen fingers”, wrote of a “real drama” that day; Emilio De Martino predicted, correctly, that “this day will become part of history”; Guido Giardini claimed that “this stage of the Giro will… soon become legendary” and compared it to the 1910 Milan-San Remo won by Eugène Christophe in similarly barbaric conditions; for Jacques Goddet of L’Equipe, “we found ourselves in the mountain stages of a prehistoric age”.
Did Gaul really win fair and square?
In his history of Italian cycling, John Foot says that “the apocalyptic Bondone stage had been [Gaul’s] triumph and had revolutionised the whole race”. But was there a lingering suspicion that even the winner that day had benefitted, perhaps understandably, from foul play in the horrendous conditions? Federico Bahamontes certainly thinks so. Had he finished the stage, the ‘Eagle of Toledo’ would have probably led the Giro, and then gone on to become the first Spanish winner of the race – something which, in the event, did not happen until Miguel Induráin triumphed in 1992.
Speaking to Cyclingnews in 2014, the Spaniard explained how bad weather could become the biggest obstacle in the Giro for those in the hunt for pink. Looking back at that fateful stage to Monte Bondone, he said: “I could have been in the Pink Jersey that day, but had to quit because of the weather. That day nobody made it to the summit [of the Bondone] on a bike, whatever anybody says. Everybody got in a car, including Charly Gaul.”
While it has never been proven that Gaul did not ride all the way himself – and, in any case, it was nine years too late for him to put the record straight after Bahamontes’ claim – it is certainly true that there was an element of panic from the Giro organisers. Such a spectacle was what they wanted – and, indeed, what the race needed – but it would not have looked too good if the only rider who made it to Milan was the man in pink.
As Foot explains: “In their desperation, the race organisers actually encouraged this assistance for Fantini and others, because the whole Giro was at risk. Too many cyclists were dropping out.”
And if you believe Bahamontes, even those who got to the finish in trucks or cars were allowed to start the next stage if they wanted. “The next day,” he continues, “the organisers came round the team hotels asking who would want to start the stage even if we’d abandoned, because they didn't want a tiny peloton for the last day into Milan.” A man of honour, Bahamontes naturally declined.
His claim that Gaul was given a lift to the top is dismissed as sour grapes from Herbie Sykes, who over the course of his career has spoken to numerous riders about that stage that day, notably Agostino Coletto, who finished fourth on that stage and went on to take the final spot on the final podium in Milan.
“All the riders I spoke to said they weren’t one of those who hitched a lift, and those who did, said they weren’t the only ones,” says Sykes. “I was quite good friends with Tino Coletto and he said that everybody – or, at least, almost everybody – went up Bondone in team cars because the organisers needed to get the race over the line in some way.”
“So it’s quite possible that Magni, Coletto and goodness knows who didn’t actually ride all of the stage. But we’ll never know. There was even some conjecture about whether or not Gaul rode all of the stage. It seems fanciful to me that the guy who won the stage didn’t ride it – because, of course, there would have been journalists watching. I find the notion that Guerra shoved him in the back of a car at some point highly improbable, if I’m honest.”
Perhaps even more controversial by today’s standards – although not so much at the time – was Gaul’s well-documented drug use. If it can’t be proven that Gaul had motorised assistance, then it’s beyond reasonable doubt that he didn’t get up the Bondone on a banana alone – he was probably charged with a large dose of amphetamines. Indeed, amphetamine psychosis has been mooted as a possible explanation as to why Gaul, who so often rode with expressionless eyes and with flecks of foam on his lips, suffered a breakdown in retirement and became a notorious recluse. Amphetamines are said to not be so effective in the heat, and Gaul’s best days came in cold, bitter weather. Make of that what you will.
L’Equipe once published an alleged conversation Marcel Ernzer had with his team leader, compatriot and roommate in which a morose Gaul, speaking in the third person, said: “Charly is going to die.” Asked why he felt this way, he replied: “Because Charly takes too many pills.”
“But everyone takes them,” Ernzer said (amphetamines were not officially against the rules back then). “Yes, but Charly takes a lot more than the others,” came the reply.
What happened next: Tour triumph and a second Giro
History repeated itself when Gaul won the 1958 Tour de France after similar exploits in ghastly weather. It was the last day in the Alps; Gaul had already won two stages, including a time trial up Mont Ventoux, but he was sitting in sixth place, 16 minutes down on his French rival Géminiani, ahead of the 21st of 24 stages. With the rain falling and cold temperatures engulfing the peloton, Gaul was bullish ahead of the stage. He approached his even bigger French rival, Louison Bobet, and taunted him, telling the triple-Tour winner exactly where he’d attack and put a nail in the coffin of his teammate Géminiani’s Yellow Jersey chances.
Gaul duly delivered, soloing to glory in Aix-les-Bain almost eight minutes clear, with Géminiani losing yellow after trundling home 14 minutes in arrears, an empty Bobet a further five minutes back. This made up for the day Bobet had humiliated Gaul in the defence of his Giro title one year earlier, when the Frenchman attacked while Gaul was answering a call to nature – an episode that earned him the nickname ‘Monsieur Pi-Pi’. It is said that Gaul was so riled by Bobet’s duplicity that he reminded him that his previous job in an abattoir ensured he knew how to handle a knife. And, more to the point, that he wasn’t afraid to use one.
Victory in the penultimate day’s time trial – his fourth success of the 1958 Tour – was enough for Gaul to move into the Maillot Jaune and win the race. A year later, he won his second Giro ahead of Jacques Anquetil. After his faithful lieutenant Marcel Ernzer – who always rode an identical bike in case of an emergency – retired in 1962, Gaul struggled to find the motivation or form to reach the same heights. He quit, then came out of retirement again, before calling it a day for good in 1965 to open a bar near the station in Luxembourg City. It closed down after six months.
Gaul then had a slump and took himself off to the Ardennes to live in a hut in a forest, where he grew vegetables and a beard, drank heavily, and ballooned at the belt following the disintegration of his second marriage. He refused to speak to any journalists and was in denial about his entire career, spending his days listening to the birds and watching the deer that roamed his grounds. He had no electricity, and he unplugged the phone. A third marriage in 1983 saw Gaul become more stable. He returned to the suburbs and had a daughter. He even bought a little portable TV and started watching the Tour de France again. He soon took a job as an archivist in the Luxembourg sports ministry and started to speak to journalists again, opening up about his life as a hermit in exile.
“It’s difficult to go back to normal life after being a cyclist,” he explained. Somewhere along the line, Gaul also struck up a friendship with another fragile climber, the late Marco Pantani.
Back in public life, Gaul was a guest of honour in 1989 when the Tour started in Luxembourg City, and in 2000 he was invited to sit on the podium at the end of stages. To mark the 50th anniversary of his victory, the Giro returned to Monte Bondone for a fifth time in 2006 following the subsequent victories by Italy’s Gastone Nencini (1957), Belgium’s Johan De Muynck (1978) and Spain’s Miguel Induráin (1992).
Charly Gaul should have been present when Ivan Basso took the spoils on Stage 16 that year, but he had died six months earlier, aged 72. There are two permanent monuments on the mountain dedicated to him and his epic victory. Stage 17 of the 2020 Giro included the mighty Bondone ahead of the finish at Madonna di Campiglio, where the Australian Ben O’Connor took the spoils for NTT Pro Cycling. An annual gran fondo called La Leggendaria Charly Gaul starts in Trento and finishes on the climb that Gaul described as “having marked my life – it was a source of joy and regret”.
Gaul’s victory in the sleet and snow of Stage 20 of the 1956 Giro d’Italia cemented his status not only as a climber par excellence but a GC rider capable of winning Grand Tours. He’d won on centre stage before, but this was the first time that he had a leader’s jersey to show for his considerable effort. As Foot emphasises in Pedalare! Pedalare!, the Luxembourg cyclist’s entire career, in retrospect, became centred on that one extraordinary day. For Sykes, Gaul’s victory in the 1959 Giro was curiously a better all-round exploit, performance-wise, but did not have the same reverberations as his win on Monte Bondone – primarily because of the weather.
“It’s definitely one of those seminal days in cycling and it resonates down the ages,” he says. “There were a lot of circum-collateral things around that day that made it what it’s become – the stuff of Giro legend.”
But because of the pedestrian nature of that year’s race, when something did finally happen, La Gazzetta couldn’t help but overegg the tiramisu.
“Cycling has that need for hyperbole,” Sykes explains. “The previous year there had been this big showdown on San Pellegrino with Coppi and Magni. That was the end of that time, this was the beginning of a new time – and they needed to generate some momentum around cycling. I think Monte Bondone was a useful construct in that respect.”
Like Andy Hampsten’s win on the Gavia in 1988 or Bernard Hinault’s victory in what became known as Neige-Bastogne-Neige in 1980, Monte Bondone had an important role to stoke interest and fire up a narrative. “It’s one of those big days that serves a purpose beyond the cycling itself,” says Sykes, who reckons the fourteenth stage of the 1962 Giro was “far worse” in terms of weather.
That day, 57 riders abandoned in the Dolomites as eventual winner Franco Balmamion surged up the standings after the overnight leader, Belgium’s Armand Desmet, shipped 18 minutes in the cold. “But there’s always stuff around the race that determines where it sits in history,” Sykes adds.
For Charly Gaul, his win on Monte Bondone confirmed his status as the sensational climber that he was. Whether he would have won that Giro had Pasquale Fornara not climbed off his bike, or Federico Bahamontes not put on a pair of pyjamas and jumped into a truck, we will never know. But they did – while Gaul, regardless of which gear, motorised or else, got him to the top – crossed the line ahead of the rest to secure a win that would both fuel him and haunt him for the rest of his days.
Giro d'Italia Donne: Stage 3 highlights
Van der Breggen dominates to win Stage 2 of Giro d´Italia Donne