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The Giro d’Italia starts on Saturday and if recent editions are anything to go by, we’re due for three weeks of stunning climbs, sweeping vistas and above all, great racing. In this article Jamie Jowett looks back at some of the defining moments in Giro history, some recent, some not so recent.
If you’re talking about the greatest Giro moments, Fausto Coppi, Il Campionissimo, has to get a mention straight off the bat. Coppi was a giant of cycling who exhibited panache and coolness while dominating the peloton in the process. He won the Giro five times in a shattered, post-war country, leading cycling journalist Alessandro Federico to say of him,“fans across Italy listened as one man on a bicycle taught a broken country to heal itself”. Coppi was the first to win a stage over the (then unpaved) Stelvio and, fittingly, the highest stage each year is now named after him: the Cima Coppi.
The 1949 Giro d’Italia started with early stages of 261km, 273km, 292km and 296km, many of them over unpaved roads, and Coppi was happily ensconced in 2nd place in the GC. The huge 17th stage to Pinerolo was yet another monster at 254km, not to mention the five mountain passes, but this was where Coppi neatly folded up the Giro and put it in his pocket.
In the rain on the slopes of the first climb, the Maddalena, Primo Volpi attacked and Coppi went with him. One story has it that Coppi’s great sparring partner Gino Bartali had suffered a puncture, and Coppi chased Volpi down out of anger at his sheer petulance. Coppi was more than six minutes clear by the summit, but Bartali was content to let him solo across the Vars and Izoard climbs, thinking he would catch him before the ski resort on Montgenevre.
After the fourth and final climb, the Sestriere (with an average gradient of 8.6%), Coppi was eight minutes clear and crossed the line in Pinerolo nearly 12 minutes ahead of Bartali. Coppi held onto the maglia rosa for the rest of the Giro, and would become the first man to win the Giro and Tour in the same year.
American Andy Hampsten’s victory in the 1988 Giro saw him take the pink jersey on one of the most brutal stages in the race’s recent history, crossing the 2,621 metre Passo di Gavia in a blizzard. Hampsten reached iconic status on stage 14 that year, but like many of life’s great moments, the details don’t matter — he never actually won the stage.
Put simply, the weather started getting rough. With reports of around a metre of fresh snow at the top of the climbs, the organisers’ logistical skills disappeared and the stage was cancelled, shortened, reinstated, called off, called back on again, all while the riders huddled at the start like emperor penguins.
Not long after starting, the riders stopped in a tunnel, protesting at having to race in the arctic conditions. Like the father of a toddler, the organisers gave the riders an evil-genius ultimatum — the hotels for that night were at the end of the stage, the only way to get there was to ride, and the first over the line would get their pick of the hotels.
Hampsten set off in short sleeves and a sweet pair of yellow Oakley Factory Pilots, but without a jacket, warm hat, gloves or shoe covers. Many others did the same, including Johann Van der Velde and GC leader Franco Chioccoli. Thankfully, 7-11 director sportif Mike Neel made a quick detour to a ski shop nearby to buy some warmer gear but most other teams were unprepared.
During the climb, Hampsten was handed a pair of neoprene diving gloves, a neck-warmer and a woollen beanie as the snowfall got worse. As he put on the beanie, Hampsten recalled, “I brushed my hair, thinking I was going to wipe some water out, and a big snowball rolled off my head and down my back”.
As my mate Fridgey likes to say, it was all gruppo compacto early on. Together up the climbs of the Aprica and part of the Tonale, the bunch began to stretch out on the left turn up the south face of the Gavia pass. With its ramps reaching 15%, only the switchback sections were paved. Back in the peloton, things were a mess, as Alan Peiper says, with riders stopping to drink grappa just to stay warm. Impressively, Johan Van der Velde took the chance to break away from leaders Breukink and Hampsten, with the two Italians Chioccioli and Giovanetti about 40 seconds behind.
Although he was first over the Gavia, Van der Velde stepped off his bike as ice built up on his rims making braking impossible. He proceeded to lose 47 minutes that day, as he waited for warm clothes from the team car and then walked the dangerous sections of the descent.
Despite being in the Maglia Rosa, Franco Chioccoli was not the protected rider at Del Tongo, and on the Gavia his team car dropped back to look after Flavio Giupponi instead. Chioccoli was left shivering and bitter. Broken by the extreme weather and being abandoned by his team, his Giro was as good as over.
The Colorado native Hampsten summitted the Passo di Gavia in a white-out, but his 7-11 teammates Davis Phinney and Bob Roll were unable to help. Roll was later taken to hospital with hypothermia.
Shoving a La Gazzetta newspaper inside his jersey, Hampsten was now in the lead and heading down the steep and technical descent, with numb hands on black ice, to the finish at Bornio. Not far behind, but unable to see him in the sleet and snow, Breukink chased but was forced to take both feet off the pedals at times on the descent. Breukink managed to catch Hampsten in the last few kilometres, while Hampsten hammered on, deciding to lose the battle to win the war.
Breukink won easily, but Hampsten was now in the race lead. He kept the maglia rosa all the way to the finish in Vittoria Veneto, becoming the first “non Euro” to win a Grand Tour and leading La Gazzetta to proclaim it “the day the big men cried”.
The 1999 Giro was made for climbers, with Alex Zulle, Laurent Jalabert, Danilo Di Luca, Roberto Heras and Paolo Salvodelli all placed highly in the GC. By stage 15 though, which ended with at the mountain-top at Oropa after 160km, Marco Pantani was laying in wait, ready to strike.
At the base of the 10km main climb, Pantani unexpectedly slipped off the back of the main group and lost nearly 30 seconds. Pantani had jammed his chain and derailleur, but while his loyal Mercatore Uno-Bianchi teammates nervously soft-pedalled to wait and the race radio fizzed, Il Pirata got off, fixed the problem then calmly rode tempo to get back on.
He caught Ivan Gotti first, around halfway up the climb, and began to stalk his targets more rapidly. By now the tifosi were apoplectic, swarming around him, a wall of noise and many helpful hands pushing him up the hill. Down in the drops in his unique but classic climbing style, the 57kg Italian rode upwards and seemingly into the sky.
Pantani once said he liked to dispose of something on the climb before his real attack, as a mental trigger more than any weight differential. Usually, it was his bandana, which he now swept off his bald head before cutting a merciless swathe through the scattered riders.
Roberto Heras, Nicola Miceli and Laurent Jalabert had been drilling the bunch to keep clear of the attacking Pantani. GC contender Paolo “Il falco” Salvodeli was a casualty and cracked early, fighting on gamely to contain his losses.
At the 3km-to-go mark, Jalabert was on his own and desperate. He looked over his shoulder like a girl in a horror movie, and there was Pantani, who didn’t just pass him but stormed by. Jalabert later said, “If I hadn’t got out of the way, he’d have ridden right over me”. Pantani’s win by 21 seconds may as well have been an hour, such was the mental deficit to the other riders.
Later, on the morning of stage 21, Pantani was squalificato, booted out of the race for registering a haematocrit level of 52%. As Matt Rendell wrote, this moment arguably turned his life into one slow-motion car crash, ending in his sad demise four years later, bitter and alone in a hotel room, dead from acute cocaine poisoning. For his near-angelic climbing style and his mano-a-mano battles with Lance Armstrong, I may forgive Pantani somewhat for his doping, but I will never forgive him for popularising the bandana-under-the-helmet look.
Over the six-hour, 2,320m, and 213km 12th stage to ‘Tre Cime di Laveredo’ in the 1968 Giro Eddy Merckx put his first real stamp on a Grand Tour. Sitting 2nd on GC under the wing of his super-gregario Vittorio Adorni, Merckx was content to let a break go early in the stage. When the group of 12 had a nine-minute gap though, he had to act.
After a mechanical problem forced a change of bike, Merckx rode through the bad weather to try to catch the break, dragging Adorni with him, by now more for company than any real help. The rain turned to sleet, and Merckx was still behind the bunch as they started the climb of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. In fact, Merckx was still nearly 9 minutes behind.
Still in short sleeves but by now wearing a pair of heavy gloves, Merckx chased Gianni Motta and Felice Gimondi up the climb. Labouring over the bars, Merckx forced the mountain to submit. Merckx said years later that this was his best ever day in the mountains. He went on alone to win at the top of Tre Cime di Lavaredo by 40 seconds, his soigneurs throwing blankets over him as the snow swirled around. Motta was four minutes behind, a tearful Gimondi a further six minutes back.
Sadly, the 1968 Giro signalled the start of the Omertà, a reaction by the riders to the first instance of drug testing in a Grand Tour, where eight riders were ejected. Nothing could overshadow the momentous coming of the great one, however, as the 22-year-old Merckx won each of the GC, Points and KOM jerseys.
One of cycling’s true hard men, Fiorenzo Magni rode the 13th stage of the 1956 Giro with a broken collarbone, using an inner tube tied to his handlebars, one end between his gritted teeth.
Although overshadowed at times by his countrymen Coppi and Bartali, Magni nevertheless won the Giro three times and was the first to earn the title “Lion of Flanders”, winning Ronde van Vlaanderen three times in succession.
Magni was no stranger to controversy. While wearing the yellow jersey he effectively lost the 1950 Tour de France when the Italian team departed the race in protest at French fans assaulting his teammate Batali on the Col d’Aspin stage. Off the bike, he was accused of being part of a fascist militia group involved in war crimes during WWII, in stark contrast to Bartali who had fought with the Resistance and secretly delivered anti-fascist newspapers while on his training rides.
In the 1956 Giro, however, Magni broke his collarbone in a bad crash on stage 12. Refusing to abandon and with his broken clavicle heavily strapped, Magni’s team mechanic Falierio Masi (Ernesto Colnago was the other) reportedly came up with the idea to attach the rubber inner tube to his handlebars and hold this between his teeth.
The next day, in a mountain time trial, Magni bit on the inner tube to relieve his pain as much as to steer. After a couple of consecutive 270km+ stages, on stage 16 Magni faced a 230km mountain stage but, unable to use his brakes or barely steer, he crashed while descending and broke his humerus (upper arm). Waking up in the ambulance on the way to hospital, Magni reportedly screamed at the driver to stop, then remounted his bike and rejoined a waiting peloton to finish the stage.
It took another similar supreme effort to beat Magni. On stage 20, facing an overall deficit of 16 minutes, Charly Gaul won a legendary mountain stage across four climbs in the Dolomites, through snow and ice. Some 60 riders abandoned that day, but Fiorenzo Magni was not one of them. A genuine exponent of the “pain face”, Magni finished second in the 1956 Giro, 3:27 behind Charly Gaul but another 3 minutes ahead of third place.
The 2010 Giro d’Italia was a great year for Australian pros, and a great one for fans as well. With stages on the Monte Zoncolan, Plan de Corones, Passo di Motirolo and Passo di Gavia, Cadel Evans, Richie Porte and Matthew Lloyd won the points, mountains and youth jerseys that year.
Stage 7 was meant to be a showpiece across the white gravel roads of Tuscany, but heavy rain turned the 215km stage into a muddy and treacherous battle. Photographers and fans alike were in ecstasy at the images from the Montepashci Strada Bianche stage, which undoubtedly rocketed interest in the one-day classic and the Montepaschi Eroica gran fondo.
After a 52km/hr first hour along the coast, several breaks went but were caught, but it wasn’t until 30km to go that the race was really on. Pink jersey wearer Vincenzo Nibali crashed on a bend and joining him on the tarmac were Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre. Immediately Linus Gerdemann attacked, quickly followed by Alexandre Vinokourov and Stefano Garzelli, ignoring tradition, but blowing the race apart. Shortly after a small bunch joined them including David Millar, Damiano Cunego, Cadel Evans and Philippo Pozzato.
Gerdemann marked Cunego’s dig, and the two briefly got away. By now, they were onto the mud, riders were overcooking it constantly on corners and, on the slippery gravel, handling became crucial. Glasses were discarded in the milky brown mud, which was covering the jerseys of the riders making them hard to differentiate, but the group was soon back together.
On the Poggio Civitella, Vino attacked and looked across to Evans, who happily traded surges to break the riders behind. Meanwhile, David Arroyo wheelsucked and generally hung on like an annoying little brother. His rainbow jersey no longer white, Evans led a four-man group to the finish in the historic town centre.
Evans’ reconnaissance of the stage paid off as he scooted confidently across the slippery and narrow stone roads of Montalcino. Evans opened it up down the finish straight, crossing the line pointing to his rainbow stripes, perhaps realising he was the first world champion to win a Giro stage for over 20 years.
These are just some of the many moments that have defined the Giro d’Italia since its first edition way back in 1909. I have no doubt we’ll see more amazing moments in this year’s race as well.