The Giro d’Italia, now in its centenary edition is one of the most respected and important races in the world. Back in 1909 when 115 riders lined up in Milan to start the first edition the organisers would have still been wondering and worrying if the event was going to be a success. It wouldn’t have taken long for them to realise that they were on to a winner. Huge crowds gathered at the stage finishes and perhaps more importantly sales of the Gazzetta della Sport increased as the captivated country were desperate to find out what was happening in the race. The future and fame of the Giro was guaranteed. This month it is exactly 50 years since another two now icons of the cycling world were introduced to the Grand Tour scene.
The route of the 1967 Giro included a summit finish up a climb never before used in the race. Blockhaus sounds more like the name of a Kraftwerk album than a climb in the middle of Italy. Only a handful of riders from the area would have been familiar with it and many starting the 12th stage in Caserta may have wondered if they needed to go down an autobahn to reach it. What they encountered after nearly 200 km in the saddle was a 30 km slog with an average gradient of 6.5% with hardly any leveling out to help them gather their senses. And the further they got from the bottom the more exposed to the elements they became as the trees thinned out.
One rider who was seemingly unfazed by such a monster was the 22 year old man-machine Eddy Merckx. He had been making a name for himself as a brilliant classics rider and although still such a young age he had already won Gent-Wevelgem and La Flèche Wallonne as well as Milan-San Remo twice. The 1967 Giro was to be his first Grand Tour and on the 12th stage, lying 7th overall, he was showing that he could compete in the big mountains deep into the second week. With a little over 2 km of Blockhaus left Italo Zilioli attacked out of the leading group and only Merckx was able to respond. As a tired looking bunch containing former Giro winners Jacques Anquetil, Gianni Motta and Franco Balmamion neared the end a sprightly looking Merckx was about to cross the finishing line. It was his first Grand Tour stage, he had beaten Anquetil into 4th place, this was the changing of the guard. Merckx showed his versatility two days later by winning a flat stage and ended up 9th overall only suffering badly in one stage on the penultimate day. This was a successful start to Merckx’s roller-coaster relationship with the Giro d’Italia.
The climbs debut was also considered a triumph. It was included in the very next edition where it was the final assent on the penultimate stage making it the last place where the contenders could win the Maglia Rosa. The stage was won by Franco Bodrero but eventually awarded to Franco Bitossi after a doping test of Bodrero’s from the 4th stage showed up positive. Merckx also returned for the 1968 Giro and aged 23 he won the points competition, the mountains jersey and the overall. However like Blockhaus he would soon be linked to the doping scandal that was being exposed in cycling.
After the death of Tom Simpson in 1967 the cycling authorities knew they finally had to do something about the use of drugs in the sport. The 1968 Giro was that first one which showed any effort to catch out the cheats but as anti-doping was in its infancy the process was a bit of a mess. Testing was sporadic and primitive, and confusion led to accusations of cover-ups. The fact that, for some bizarre reason, the positive tests (10 in total) weren’t revealed till after the race finished didn’t help the public’s trust in the process.
Things were tightened up a little the next year. Every day the stage winner and runner up as well as the GC leader and two random riders were tested. Eddy Merckx back at the race, now the defending champion, led the race at the end of the 16th stage to Savona. He had already been tested 9 times and passed with flying colours, so to speak. The next morning the cycling world woke up to a huge shock. Merckx’s sample from the previous afternoon had contained Fencamfamina, a banned amphetamine. Merckx felt distraught and most people soon had an opinion of whether that came from injustice or the embarrassment of being caught. He took part in a television interview, crying in his bed, and soon found out he would be disqualified from the race and banned for one month. Merckx protested his innocence and his Faema team left the Giro in protest. Conspiracy theories started suggesting his water had been spiked or samples were swapped to give the Italian rider Felice Gimondi the victory. Newspapers and television programmes starting discussing the case and doping in general asking how big the problem was. The issue was out in the open for the first time but then came the omerta.
Merckx suggested he would never ride the Giro again but soon recovered his mental state and was back the next year. He beat Gimondi, who had benefited most from Merckx’s disqualification in ’69 by winning the Maglia Rosa, into second place.
For three years after 1969 Merckx was at his peak and pretty much unbeatable. In 1972 he was going for his third Giro but early on in the race he showed a rare moment of weakness. José Manuel Fuente was one of his main rivals and his KAS team were incredibly strong (they had 5 riders in the final top 10). Stage 4 was split into two parts and the first was only 48 km but most of that was up one mountain, Blockhaus. The Spanish KAS team annihilated Merckx’s Molteni squad before ripping shreds out of Merckx himself. Fuente put 2 minutes 36 seconds into Merckx and took the race lead. Of course, Merckx recovered later on in the race and easily won but Blockhaus had shown that he was human after all. Blockhaus is now a feared climb for many riders and has earned the nickname ‘The Severe Judge of the Abruzzo’.