Today is the Queen stage of this years Giro d’Italia. Running for 222 km from Rovetta to Bormio it includes three monster climbs, the Mortirollo, the Umbrailpass and between them the Stelvio where this years Cima Coppi prize will be awarded.
The Cima Coppi has been the name given to the highest point of the Giro since 1965 and the first rider to go over it is given the Cima Coppi prize. The list of winners over the years is pretty eclectic and includes the greatest Grand Tour riders from history such as Eddy Merckx, Laurent Fignon and Miguel Indurain. Others may regard getting the Cima Coppi prize as the high point of their careers. The French rider Yoann Le Boulanger crested the Colle dell’Angelo first in 2007 to add the award to his top stage wins at the Tour de L’Avenir and Tour de la Somme and Vladimir Miholjević of Croatia, first over the Gavia in 2004, perhaps only considers his national titles to have greater worth. The rider who has had most success with the prize in the sky is the Spanish climber José-Manuel Fuente who won three Cima Coppi’s in a row over three different summits (the Stelvio, Giau and the Tre Cime di Lavaredo) between 1972 and 1974.
There is one mountain which if it’s in the Giro route will be the Cima Coppi no mater where else the race goes. The Passo dello Stelvio, the first Cima Coppi in 1965, is the highest point that the race has ever reached at 2758 metres. It has been climbed ten times in the Giro since its debut in 1953 and that number would be higher if wasn’t for the weather. Because it is so high up the area can be effected by heavy snowfall, even during May when the Giro is run.
The very first time the Stelvio was used at the Giro there were patches of snow at the side of the road as Fausto Coppi was the first over the top. In 1965, the first year that the Cima Coppi was a thing the final 800 metres of the monster weren’t climbed due to an avalanche on the course. In 1988 and 2013 the stages which contained the Stelvio were cancelled altogether because of snow drifts. But it isn’t just the Stelvio which has been effected by snow. The Gavia, Colle dell’Agnello and even Blockhaus near the south of the country have suffered from heavy snowfall and avalanches which have forced the organisers to either cancel, shorten or re-route stages.
The weather can give race organisers a bit of a headache when trying to figure out whether or not to take any action but when the racing goes ahead it provides a fantastic spectacle. There are amazing pictures from over the years of riders seemingly coming through white tunnels which are huge banks of snow at the side of the road and video footage of riders suddenly appearing through a wall of falling snow. The riders might not enjoy it very much but in those moments they occupy legendary status and what they are doing becomes, for that moment, more important than the actual race and in the future more important than who crosses the line first
There have of course been winners and losers in the snow. Most recently, last year, the sight of Steven Kruijswijk in the maglia rosa somersaulting into a wall of snow will remain fresh in the memory for a while. That descent of the Colle dell’Agnello, the years Cima Coppi, is legendary but I had to double check, just a year later, to see if it was Vincenzo Nibali who won the stage that day.
One of the most memorable moments of the Giro d’Italia in the snow happened in 1988. It was the 16th stage and the stage finish was in Bormio, as it is today. As the stage started the 120 km day with ascents of the Aprica and Gavia Franco Chioccioli was in pink with most of his rivals for the GC, including Andrew Hampsten and Erik Breukink, within 2 minutes of him. There had been the chance of bad weather up to the start of the stage and the race director Vincenzo Torriani had even considered changes to the route. Riding through cold rain and wind the main contenders stayed together over the first climb, the Aprica. As they reached the foot of the Gavia the rain had turned to snow and the higher they got the more biblical, if there was snow in the bible, the conditions became. Pretty soon the road under the riders has turned to mud, back in 1988 the Gavia was only tarmacked on the switchbacks with the rest gravel. It soon became clear that it was going to be a day where mental and physical toughness would be vital but it also seemed that many of the riders were badly prepared for the conditions. Many of them were in short sleeves and only some had appropriate hats and gloves. Looking back at the coverage puts a shiver down your spine.
The first rider over the top was the most under dressed of the lot Johan Van der Velde quickly followed by Breukink then Hampsten. Chioccioli was around 40 seconds back but still comfortably in pink. If it was difficult for the riders grinding through the snow up gradients of up to 15% it was soon to become even more tough, and dangerous, on the descent. Everything was frozen, the road, brakes, gears and hands. It was almost impossible to guide the bikes down into Bormio and Breukink, chasing the now stage leader Hampsten, spent most of the downhill with his feet out of the pedals for extra balance.
Halfway down it became a possibility that Hampsten could become the first American to pull on the Maglia Rosa. Chioccioli was losing buckets of time and suffering dreadfully. He desperately needed a warm hat and gloves but his team car was way behind following a teammate. Hampsten’s 7-Eleven team manager by contrast was playing a blinder. He’d had warm drinks and extra clothes for his riders to take at the top of the Gavia and that forethought was paying dividends for his man. The rider who suffered most was the rider first over the Gavia, Van der Velde (he would be the unofficial Cima Coppi winner after the planned ascent of the Stelvio was scrapped the next day due to the continuing bad weather). He had enough and got off his bike to wait for his team car and warm clothes before gingerly continuing down the mountain, even tackling the steepest sections on foot. He would lose 47 minutes at the end.
Just before Hampsten reached Bormio Breukink was about to catch him and approaching the finished rode straight passed him and went on to win the stage. But it was the American who really won the day. He took pink and held it for the rest of the race and it would be the images of him in the snow which would be remembered through history.
Tomorrow- The rider who performed best in blizzards.