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Where legends dare

  • By Matthew Beaudin
  • Published May. 26, 2014
Andy Hampsten grinding his way over the Passo di Gavia, in 1988. As the Giro prepares to tackle the Gavia and Stelvio tomorrow, weather reports call for cold temperatures and moisture, setting up an epic day. Photo: Cor Vos | VeloNews.com

PONTE DI LEGNO, Italy (VN) — The peloton rests at the bottom of the Italian Alps now, the Giro d’Italia still very much up for grabs and a bundle of men who would be stars at the base of the Gavia.

Absolutely, the rest-day weather is miserable, with rain at the base of the fabled pass, which the peloton climbs immediately Tuesday morning, with snow up higher on the Gavia.

Temperatures are expected to hover around 32 degrees Tuesday, with a high chance of snow as the field crests the pass and barrels into Bormio, and hangs a right toward the Stelvio. On Tuesday evening, it’s a green light for the quintessential Giro stage — one that beckons history, and the famous 1988 ride of American Andy Hampsten.

On the eve of one of cycling’s all-time great stages — with the Gavia-Stelvio double — on pedigree and history alone, this much is true, and in no way hyperbole: Someone is poised to become a legend. The inclement weather would only lend to the sense of the extraordinary. On Monday, brave cyclists packed into the Rifugio Bonetta atop the Gavia and sat in wooden chairs in front of a fire, above them newspaper clippings recalled the road’s place in cycling history. The racers aren’t immune to it, either; this isn’t just another stage in a bike race. On the ground in Italy, the Italian climbs feel every bit as important as those in France.

“I’m a Giro d’Italia champion, man. I think about that stuff all the time,” Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal said when asked of the significance of Tuesday’s stage. “I am part of the history I think of those climbs. I sealed my Giro on the Mortirolo, the Tonale, the Stelvio. I love it all, you know? The Giau, the Gavia. I’ve never ridden Zoncolan, so I think that’ll be some more learning for me in the Giro.”

These are the mountains that don’t yield stage winners but rather the champions who continually pedal through history. Hampsten, of course, comes to mind in a snowstorm with flakes as large as birds. Two years ago, it was Hesjedal fighting Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) tooth and nail for the maglia rosa, and Thomas de Gendt searing his name into history as a stage winner.

The Gavia climbs to 8,600 feet, mostly via a single-lane road from Ponte di Legno, where the peloton will ascend from. Race wise, it’s uphill immediately, from kilometer 6 to kilometer 23, with sections of 18 percent. All told, it gains 4,200 vertical feet at an average of 8.1 percent for 17 kilometers, or 10.5 miles.

And though a break will likely form quickly on the Gavia, the general classification contest will unfold a bit later, perhaps up the ballyhooed Stelvio. After a fast, technical descent down the Gavia and into Bormio, it’s showtime. Among cycling’s iconic mountain passes, the Stelvio is in the troposphere; men who’ve either won on the Stelvio, or ridden over it first en route to a stage finish elsewhere, are legendary. The list includes the likes of Coppi, Gaul, Hinault, Pantani. From the Bormio side, the climb is 22 kilometers long, at an average of 7 percent, gaining about 4,500 feet. It’s the highest point in the Giro, the Cima Coppi, and the highest paved pass in the Alps. Ivan Basso once got sick and lost 42 minutes struggling up the Stelvio.

The final climb up Val Martello/Martelltal comes after the two beyond-category monsters, and covers 22 kilometers at 6.4 percent, with a max steepness of 14 percent. After a cold and likely wet day, it promises to be race-shaping.

On Sunday afternoon in the sun, Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo) may have spoken a bit too soon.

“I think there’s something special about it. They’re in the history of cycling, those climbs,” Rogers said. “So if I keep thinking about … when Hampsten went up the Gavia and it was snowing — hopefully we don’t have those temperatures.”

The sun broke through the clouds above Ponte di Legno late Monday evening, but Giro organizers were still keeping an eye on conditions.

“Of course, everything can change from one hour to the next mountain ,” race director Mauro Vegni said. The route could change as late as Tuesday morning, should a sudden drop in temperature make salting the roads impossible. “The threat is freezing,” he said.

Meanwhile, the teams pressed on, playing a game of wait-and-see.

“Despite the bad weather, we were able to train for two hours,” leader Rigoberto Uran said via a team release. “We had a good training session. We went down from Passo Tonale by car, and we trained on the Ponte di Legno area, and then we went back to Passo Tonale by bike. Everything is OK.”

FILED UNDER: News

Matthew Beaudin

Matthew Beaudin

Matthew Beaudin graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder's journalism school in 2005 and immediately moved to Telluride, Colorado, to write and ski, though the order is fuzzy. Beaudin was the editor of the Telluride Daily Planet for five years. He now lives in Boulder, where he joined VeloNews in the spring of 2012. Music. Coffee. Bikes. His dog, Anabelle. That about sums it up. Follow him on Twitter @matthewcbeaudin.

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