If at first you don’t succeed, try again. That was the attitude of the legendary race director, Vincenzo Torriani, when the spectacle he had planned for the 1967 Giro descended into farce. The Tre Cime di Lavaredo was the latest in a string of crippling, glorious climbs that Torriani had introduced to the Corsa Rosa since taking over from Armando Cougnet in 1949, but it didn’t have quite the impact he’d hoped for on its debut.
Crowds of fans pushed the riders up the brutal final kilometres, wiping out the lead by Wladimiro Panizza, who found himself overtaken by a hoard of lesser riders near the peak. Immediately after the finish, the day’s winner, Felice Gimondi, declared it a ‘disgrace’. The next day’s Gazzetta continued the reproofs with a front page that cried: ‘The mountains of dishonour.’
Undeterred by the fiasco, Torriani made sure that the Tre Cime returned the following May, as the grand finale to stage 12’s 213-kilometre route from Gorizia, on the Yugoslavian border. Just as they had been in 1967, the conditions were woeful, the peaks veiled in thick storm clouds as the riders suffered through snow and heavy winds. But the fans controlled themselves and left the peloton to suffer honestly on what remains one of Italy’s most difficult ascents.
Starting on the banks of Lake Misurina, deep in the Dolomites, it’s a 7.5 kilometre slog to the Rifugio Auronzo at the top, where the altitude reaches 2,320 metres. Taken as a whole, the gradient averages a testing enough 7.5 per cent, but it’s the final four kilometres that do the real damage, where the pitch rarely dips below 11 per cent and in parts ramps up to an excruciating 19 per cent. All of which made it the perfect stage for what Eddy Merckx still believes was his greatest performance.
Over the years, the Belgian did a number of incredible things at the Giro, including holding the Maglia Rosa from stage one until the finish in 1973, but no day epitomises his supremacy quite like Tre Cime in 1968. Having announced his arrival on Blockhaus the previous spring, the 22-year-old was now considered a top contender for the general classification in any race he entered, but after 11 stages of the 51st Giro, he was still a minute and a half behind Michele Dancelli, a courageous, punchy rider who was famous for being among the most consistent winners of his generation, and for the lengthy, lone breakaways that he liked to undertake. In reference to that racing style, the great Gianni Mura once called him, ‘Un sognatore nomade’, a nomadic dreamer.
Early in the day, the leading contenders allowed a group of 12 optimistic riders to escape up the road, and as the weather worsened, their lead grew to more than nine minutes. Merckx, having been dropped when a mechanical issue forced a bike change, chased like a rabid dog, through sheets of sleet and violent squalls, dragging his gregario Vittorio Adorni back up to Gimondi, Italo Zilioli and Gianni Motta and then past them, closing on the hapless leaders, oblivious to the cold despite his short sleeves, intent on a victory that would have seemed impossible to anyone else.
By the top, Merckx had humbled the mountain and all but humiliated his rivals.
None of the GC favourites could get anywhere close to him, and Gimondi finished six minutes back, in tears. Such was the force of his performance that he now led Dancelli by more than five minutes, relegating the erstwhile GC leader to third by hauling Adorni up the mountain behind him.
There were still 10 more stages in that year’s Giro, but it was over. Merckx finished in Naples with four stage wins, the Maglia Rosa, and the jerseys for best sprinter and best climber, while his Faema squad took best team. The era of Merckx as the Cannibal had begun, and for the next six years, everyone else would be making do with leftovers.
This is an extract from Giro d’Italia: The Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race, by Colin O’Brien. The book is available now in paperback from Pursuit Books. Colin is also the translator of Marco Pastonesi’s Pantani was a god, published by Rapha Editions.