Taming the Passo dello Stelvio
At 2,758 metres, the Passo dello Stelvio is the highest paved pass in Italy and the road over the top, the SS38, usually opens on the last week of May. Problem is, if the Giro d’Italia intends to go up, the Stelvio needs to open a week or two early – and stay open. Now, that is the real Italian job.
Metres from the pass, in a hotel parking lot, we meet three men in fluorescent coats: Marco Bosio, Marco Mutti and Vincenzo Giarratana. They work for ANAS (Azienda Nazionale Autonoma delle Strade), the government agency responsible for maintaining the Italian road network.
The Stelvio is a magnet for visitors using all forms of transport, and it’s in the interests of the regional tourist authorities to keep the road open for as long as possible. In 2016, it didn’t close till December 23, five weeks later than usual. When ANAS’s men in orange shut it, locals know winter has truly come. The workers strip away the guardrails and safety barriers to avoid damage and park the snow cat, a hulking, lorry-sized machine with caterpillar tracks, under the climb’s first tunnel, to be used again months later.
Over winter, nature reclaims the Stelvio. Animal tracks and fallen rocks dot the white expanse; the snow on the summit sits higher than the doorways of most shops. In March, ANAS start clearing snow with a powerful milling machine, which has a rotating barrel to slice through the snow.
Avalanches need to be cleared up; the South Tyrol side is generally more prone to landslides than the Lombard one. It’s a team effort, with help from the local police and subcontracted construction firms.
They didn’t know whether the 2017 Giro would be able to get up the Stelvio until a few weeks before. “It was a fight against time to get rid of the snow. All this was completely covered,” Bosio says, gesturing around us. Once cleared, the road surface had to be redone: “There were potholes, it was ruined. We finished it a few days ago.”
These three are among the few lining the route who appreciate exactly how much graft it takes to get the Giro here – moving a hell of a lot of rock and snow, if not quite mountains. “It’s work that nobody sees, and without doing it first, you wouldn’t see much today,” Giarrantana says. It’s only fair they get a few hours to see the race cross the summit. Are they cycling fans? “Yes, I follow the mountain stages, the spectacle,” Bosio says. “We’re Italians so we’re crossing our fingers for Nibali.”
The effort of opening the Stelvio early for a bike race – and the temporary suffering of sport itself – pales in comparison to the events on this peak, and neighbouring loftier ones, a century ago. During World War I, the pass served as the westerly point of the frontin Italy’s fight against Austria-Hungary. It became a race to the top, troops edging higher till they were battling on ice fields and glaciers between 3,000 and 4,000 metres.
It was a battle to maintain supply lines and survive, let alone actually fight. Soldiers were as likely to succumb to frostbite and starvation as they were to be killed by the enemy; one winter, avalanches claimed more victims than combat. The whole casualty-riddled enterprise was part of mad Fascist belligerence: some of the Italian tactics, such as attacking entrenched positions uphill for no gain, were suicidal.
Such sacrifices would then be claimed as tactical masterstrokes in propaganda and newspapers. By the end of the war in 1919, the border had been stretched and both sides of the Stelvio were Italian, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Various blockhouses still remain in unlikely spots up high and the melting of summer snow occasionally yields ammunition and old grenades from this regrettable “White War”.
The Stelvio’s more mundane modern dangers are drivers, motorbikers or cyclists overcooking one of its many bends. But this giant still demands caution. In July 2017, a middle-aged Italian tourist wandered away from his wife for a walk, fell 15 metres down a crevasse and was rescued hours later in a state of hypothermia.
Avoiding the Stelvio is not an option for the Giro d’Italia. The climb is a symbol of the country, an icon of the race and offers a potentially decisive sporting test. So logistical logjams and wild weather forecasts be damned: it’s worth race organisers RCS chucking it in the route, keeping fingers crossed and giving themselves the best shot of crossing it with a meticulous process.
After informing ANAS of its inclusion in the race, the two stay in touch over winter, thanks to a local contact in Bormio who has overseen plenty of past Giro passages. Maurizio Molinari and Marco Della Vedova, the route inspectors featured in issue 17.3, subsequently do further groundwork, attending meetings with the relevant stage committee and carrying out reconnaissance missions.
Race director Mauro Vegni keeps an eye on weather reports, then the more detailed ones provided by the Italian Air Force when the race is imminent.
“When bad conditions are forecast, I normally send people on site a couple of days beforehand to give me constant updates, not just of snow but also of ice and temperature. After this, if things are looking bad and the forecast justifies it, we can think in terms of an alternative route. But that is the last resort because clearly we would only consider that if the conditions are not in place,” he says.
Even overnight snow on the Stelvio can be cleared by ploughs owned by the ski station. “The problem isn’t whether the road can be used or not … it would have to be a real storm,” Vegni says. “The problem is the state of the road, especially on descents.” If snow melts in the sun then freezes overnight, there is a risk of ice.”
The Giro has used an expert meteorologist in the past, but it now relies on riders’ perceptions. Vegni has a few recently retired professional cyclists he can consult: “Obviously, in the end, I’m the one who takes the final decision, but in reality, they are the ones who exercise their judgment, because they are on site and know the risks, so it is much easier for me to reach my decision. However bad it turns out to be, I know that it will be the best decision that circumstances allow.”
Sometimes, cancellation is unavoidable. Of the 16 times the Giro has originally put the Stelvio on its route, four have been not been possible. The most recent occasion was in 2013: the Gavia and Stelvio were deemed too dangerous on a day to Val Martello, and even the Plan B route, over climbs 500 metres lower in altitude, was unsafe.
Nonetheless, this is all far slicker than it used to be. Before the Stelvio’s debut appearance at the 1953 Giro d’Italia, in a feat of Fitzcarraldo-esque labouriousness, the local authorities organising the stage between Bolzano and Bormio flew a special snow plough over from East Berlin. Near the summit, it made walls of snow that reached five metres, while teams of workers cracked the thick ice in the tunnels and fixed the road surface. The pass was only opened the night before the race.
All the effort was made worthwhile by a memorable debut. Thirty-three-year-old Fausto Coppi had spent days trying to crack race leader Hugo Koblet without success. On the penultimate morning of the race, 1’59” down, he needed to be cajoled by his Bianchi team-mates, whose minds were more on their post-race pay packets than glory, to have one more go on the Stelvio. (Word has it, Coppi had already made a sporting non-aggression pact with his Swiss rival.)
Nevertheless, he attacked 11 kilometres from the top and Koblet was kaput.
The great Italian champion was strong, but lucky: 40 centimetres of snow fell on top of the Stelvio that evening. Had it happened a day earlier, the big finale would probably have been cancelled. Crack descender Koblet also crashed twice and punctured while haring down to the finish in Bormio.
“I had destiny with me,” Coppi said afterwards, adding: “I hadn’t imagined the Stelvio would be so hard … I can say it with certainty: no more stage races for me. I’m getting old.” Coppi returned for the following year’s edition, but his fifth Giro victory was the last big win of his career.
For 1965, coinciding with the Stelvio’s third appearance in the race, the Cima Coppi prize was introduced for the first rider over the race’s highpoint. Despite a stated risk of landslides, they raced it. There was more aggression from Mother Nature than the contenders, who virtually rode up in a ceasefire, with the race destined to go to Vittorio Adorni. Three hundred metres from the finish, there was a mini landslip of snow, covering the road and a following media car.
Standing on the drift, the commissaires decided to take the time from the blockage. Another minor slide minutes later left the later finishers shouldering their bikes cyclo-cross style to get to the top of the pass. “Suffering is okay, but this is too much,” tenth-placed Guido De Rosso said afterwards. It was a spectacular farce.
Once pencilled in the route, there was usually a will-they-won’t they-climb-it drama played out between legendary race director Vincenzo Torriani, overly cautious road engineers and the racers in the media. If the weather forecast didn’t look good, he would wait till the last minute before making a decision. He knew that it was a pain to include, but it captured the public imagination and was a sporting coup.
When the Giro crosses the Stelvio unimpeded, it usually makes for enterprising racing. Bernard Hinault built his 1980 win over it, linking up with team-mate Jean-René Bernaudeau for a two-up on the valley roads to Sondrio. “Hinault gave me the greatest satisfaction in my life as inventore of the Giro routes. He won the race on the descent, in those 86 kilometres that, according to some, rendered the great mountain useless,” Torriani told La Stampa.
From such finery to fiasco: in 1984 and 1988, it was cancelled. “Going up the Stelvio would be madness, we’re not in the time of the gladiators,” Ennio Ortolani, then-director of the Bolzano ANAS branch, said. He suggested there was a risk of avalanches and that the descent of the northern side was risky. Torriani claimed he was surrendering to bureaucracy; helicopter images later showed the way up was clear. Many felt the organisers were favouring mediocre climber Francesco Moser, who led the race.
Four years later, directly after the freezing stage over the Gavia, where Andy Hampsten got a crucial advantage, the seething directeur sportifs delivered an ultimatum for Torriani: take out the Stelvio tomorrow or we won’t race. With the white stuff falling on the Giro’s prize peak, the race drove over it and started at its northern foot.
The Cima Coppi winner is awarded the Trofeo Torriani, an especially fitting juxtaposition whenever the Stelvio is the roof of the Giro. Fausto helped to make the pass an instant classic with his rousing ride, but the legendary race director was an innovator who stubbornly kept it in the route and ensured an iconic status.
Under the stewardship of Mauro Vegni, the modern Giro has been a regular vistor again, with a summit finish in 2012, a cancellation the following year, and a mid-stage crossing in 2014. That edition was a return to cold weather and controversy: it snowed over the Gavia and started up again at the foot of the Stelvio. The race organisation considered stopping the race, but where do you put a broken-up bunch on a mountain? “Most of the suitable heated spaces were closed. If we’d stopped them outside, they would have frozen,” Vegni told the Gazzetta dello Sport.
On they went through falling snow for spectacular images and considerable suffering. At the top of the Stelvio, there was confusion over whether the first 1,500 metres of the descent had been neutralised after a misleading race radio message. With half the stage still to go, race leader Rigoberto Uran eased back, rival Nairo Quintana stole ahead, took four minutes on his compatriot and ended up winning the Giro.
The wait for the race is over. The eight-strong breakaway is visible from a kilometre away, insignificant against the majestic backdrop. Team Sky rider Phillip Deignan sets the pace, while his leader Mikel Landa is about to pounce and take the Cima Coppi. “It was nice to be on the front on such a mythical climb,” the Irishman tells me the next morning. “I took in bits and pieces, whatever I could. You’re just in your own little world going up there. I think everybody – everybody – is suffering, but it makes it a little easier when you’re controlling the pain that way.
The Stelvio habitually produces drama. That’s thanks to its perennial spot in the backloaded route’s final week, the neighbouring difficulties that can precede or follow it, the accumulated fatigue of contenders, its great altitude, its difficulty on the way up – both sides are long and steep, but not fiendish – and twistiness flying down. And on top of all that substance, it has style.
Climbing the 21-kilometre Lombard face of the Stelvio on race morning reveals its different moods. The first part is pleasingly verdant, with half a dozen damp, dark tunnels. At the halfway point, the landscape opens up to reveal a cluster of hairpin bends piled on top of one another, the road’s path discernible by the rusty brown guardrails above. It is jaw dropping, seemingly dimensionless, like how a child would draw a helter-skelter. Meanwhile, tucked away at a couple of service entrances on these kinks is a parked snow tractor and a digger respectively, hinting at the recent labour.
Three kilometres from the top, everything goes full Narnia. The snow is blinding, accentuating the jagged black peaks and colourful riders. Spectators’ bikes are wedged into the snow behind the barriers, standing up of their own accord. W IL GIRO and W LA VALTELLINA are spelled out with rocks.
“Once you get over 1,800 metres, you start to feel the altitude too. The power goes down every couple of hundred metres. But it’s the same for everybody.”
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The ragged breathing of the leaders is lost in the shouts of spectators: “Dai Vincenzo! Allez! Dai, dai, dai, Davide!” The leaders grab rain jackets and bottles at the summit; there’s little time for refuelling or recovery with 48 hairpins to be negotiated before they hit the valley and head up the Umbrailpass in Switzerland, which links up with the Stelvio a few kilometres down its southern side. On the decisive descent into Bormio, Vincenzo Nibali pushes it to the limit, catches Landa and pips him on the line. The ANAS boys will be delighted with the all-action Italian win, as will Mauro Vegni.
It’s another heroic chapter for this momentous climb, but even more importantly, after Tom Dumoulin’s dramatic call of nature 30 kilometres from the finish, the most enthralling Giro finale of the century is set up. This time, the great Stelvio gamble has paid off.
The full version of this article was originally published in Rouleur 18.3