Part 3: Gaul & Monte Bondone
On the eve the 100th Giro d’Italia, Herbie Sykes takes us back in time to five decisive moments in the Giro’s rich history.
Monte Bondone, 8 June 1956
“Each year the Giro is born from one inescapable necessity, to identify with the continual evolution of cycling. Each and every one of us has an interest in ensuring that, like any sport wishing to survive, it adequately reflects the context in which it is set. It cannot allow itself to vegetate, nor live on its memories. To do so would represent a sort of fossilization, and that would be dangerous…”
Vincenzo Torriani; Gazzetta dello Sport, 19 May 1956.
Blimey. What the new Giro boss had been saying, in a roundabout sort of a way, was that Coppi, Bartali and Magni were as good as finished, that the cycling they practised was archaic, and that the tifosi had best get used to it. Between them they’d won eleven editions, but now the race had need of something different. From here on in it would be much more international, much more dynamic and, yes, much quicker.
This 1956 Giro would be 3500 kilometres, 800 less than the 1954 edition. Then the Catanzaro-Bari stage alone had been 352 kilometres, and for Torriani that had been the final straw. They’d set off at 6 in the morning, it had been as hot as hell, and for nine hours they’d done precisely nothing. The real racing hadn’t started until Taranto, 75 kilometres from the finish, and that had been a travesty.
Those so-called ‘heroic’ stages had been relevant once upon a time, but no more. Time was precious, they were indescribably boring, and their direct consequence was a grumpy, indolent peloton. That’s what had caused the riders to strike, and that’s why Carlo Clerici, a Swiss gregario, had picked the Giro’s pocket.
In theory Torriani’s big idea – that the Giro would reward dazzling speed over prosaic endurance – had chimed with the times. Short, fast stages made sense on paper, but on the road and in public perception (which is to say where it really mattered) they were an unmitigated disaster. Coppi’s absence rendered the peloton strictly B-list, and for the first two weeks the race just meandered its soporific way around the peninsula. It dithered from town to town, pointless bunch sprint to pointless bunch sprint, anonymous stage winner to anonymous stage winner. Day after turgid, wasted day, Italians voted with their feet. Newspaper sales fell off a cliff because the new cycling, it transpired, was just rubbish.
If history tells us anything, however, it’s that the Giro invariably finds a way. In that sense it’s a mirror on Italian life, but here its saviour was a scrawny, monosyllabic former slaughterman from (of all places) Luxemburg. Charly Gaul had dazzled at the 1955 Tour, but here he’d been entirely anonymous. He began stage 19 – the last meaningful one – 24th on GC, 16 minutes down on race leader Pasqualino Fornara. Then, on a pig of a Dolomite afternoon, he not only saved Torriani’s flagging Giro, but produced arguably the greatest climbing display in the history of the race.
Under threatening skies, 87 riders departed Merano. Their destination was Monte Bondone, 240 kilometres and four Dolomite climbs to the south. In apocalyptic weather, the abandons started almost immediately. Gaul attacked on the Passo Rolle and then, as poor Fornara climbed off, steadily built his advantage. By the time he broke the tape on Bondone, 44 had abandoned and, inconceivably, he’d won the Giro d’Italia.
Nobody really knows whether Gaul rode the entire stage, though some have suggested he did much of it in the back of a truck. Most of the survivors claimed to have ridden the entire percorso, but it’s a matter of fact that most professional cyclists are inveterate liars. What we do know is that the Gazzetta had a vested interest in promoting it as the most biblical stage in history, and that their spin worked. Gaul’s win quickly assumed mythic status, which explains why you’re reading about it now.
Monte Bondone is hewn into the legend, but the fact that half the peloton abandoned was due in part to its proximity to Milan. It was the last Friday, the weather was abysmal, and there was nothing much to be gained by risking life, limb and frostbite on the descents. In fact six years later, Gaul himself would pack on an even more horrific Dolomite stage. Then, notwithstanding the fact that there was a week to go (ergo the Giro was still all to play for) no less than 57 of the starters retired.
Read part 4: The Savona Affair here