Stone Cathedrals Of The Dolomites
The 2016 Giro d’Italia will start properly at the weekend as it launches into the final week of continuous mountain climbing all the way to Torino. First on the menu are the Dolomites and who better to give us some background on cycling the ‘Stone Cathedrals’ than Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours who runs extensive tours taking in the history, culture and the food and drink of the area.
-By Peter Easton of VeloClassic Tours–
The great modern architect Le Corbusier once said “there are mountains, and then there are the Dolomites.” And while the bespectacled Swiss was surely a much better designer than he was a cyclist, he nevertheless made no clearer statement of Europe’s natural landscape and the essence of design than to conclude “The Dolomites are the most beautiful construction in the world.” A cerebral and arrogant man who studied the intrinsic value of light and shade, depth and space, and natural and man made form, Le Corbusier clearly understood what makes the Dolomite mountain range of the Italian Alps so stunning, so inspiring and to a cyclist, so challenging.
Forming white, gray and pink curved crystals, It’s the unique carbonate mineral named dolomite that is responsible for giving the mountains their sculptural shapes, like a vertical maze of futuristic high rises and city blocks jutting in exaggeration from a science fiction movie set, defining the sky in a way that is at once breathtaking, and yet so recognizable as the backdrop to the sports most colorful and exciting grand tour, Il Giro d’Italia. But it’s before the day has dawned and while the sun begins to set when the beauty of what Le Corbusier described and French mineralogist Dieudonne Sylvain Guy Tancrede de Gratet de Dolomieu uncovered that truly sets the mountains apart – a rose pink glimmer in the early morning hours as the jagged peaks and vertical mountain walls absorb the low morning light, to a blood red sunset as the cool evening air envelopes the eighteen different peaks that thrust skyward beyond 10,000 feet.
The words Stelvio, Marmolada, Gavia, Mortirolo, Sella, Gardena, Pordoi, Erbe, Falzarego and Giau most likely mean different things to different people, and it’s almost certain the names had a different meaning to Le Corbusier and others who spent their lives designing and integrating man made structures into the natural landscape than it held for their contemporary cycling professionals. To cyclists, this roll call rings with a tone that can call like a symphony for those whose legs itch for inclines, an invitation to a parade across a cyclist’s paradise. And for others – like the sprinter’s who wear the mask of pain from climbing on their sleeve, struggling to heights their bodies aren’t built for just for another shot at 200 meters of glory – for them it’s a monotonous ringing that could usher in a sundown rendition of Taps. But embraced or dismissed, the Dolomites have been immortalized as much by the legendary racing that has taken place on their slopes as by their beauty and awe-inspiring natural construction.
The Dolomites are synonymous with the Giro d’Italia, and some of the most demanding stages in its history have been mapped across and over some of northern Italy’s most grueling roads. The passes that slither over Dolomieu’s namesake comprise a veritable treasure chest of ascents that are rich in Giro history, blessed with beauty and inspiring to ride. The Sella Ronda – perhaps the most beautiful mountain loop in all of cycling – comprises the Sella, Gardena and Pordoi passes. The massive Marmolada glacier, reaching to heights of 3,343 meters, is the backdrop to the Passo di Fedaia, one of the most difficult climbs in the Dolomites. At the center of much of the history of the Dolomites and the Giro is Italian legend Fausto Coppi. And this year’s Stage 14 – covering seven climbs including the 1.3 kilometer Muro del Gatto at the finish – is rich with tales of the great Piemontese legend and the legacy he left to both Italy and the cycling world. Since 1965, to honor Coppi after his sudden death in 1960, each Giro offers the Cima Coppi prize to the rider who crests the tour’s highest peak first. The Passo Pordoi, at 2239 meters and stage 14’s first ascent, has awarded the Cima Coppi an unrivaled 13 times, while the Passo di Giau, the fifth and perhaps most challenging climb of the stage, has awarded it twice. And while height alone doesn’t determine a climb’s difficulty, there are additional elements that contribute to defining a climb’s stature other than sheer gradient, or inflated legend.
In 1940, Fausto Coppi won his first of five Tours of Italy, riding as a domestique for legend Gino Bartali, who already had two Giro titles to his name and was the current National Champion, as part of the Legnano team. The 20 year old Coppi took advantage of a Bartali mishap and won the critical stage that saw him cement his overall victory over the Pordoi, Sella and Falzarego passes. In 1952, Coppi would define the mountain stage finish for future grand tours and change the face of cycling forever when he won at Alpe d’Huez, which saw him win his second Tour de France. In claiming his second Giro/Tour double (his first was 1949), victory in the Giro included a stage win over the Pordoi, Giau and Falzarego passes again, this time besting the great Swiss Hugo Koblet who won the 1950 Giro and the 1951 Tour, Frenchman Raphael Geminiani, Fiorenzo Magni, the defending Giro champ who also won in 1948 and 1955 and his nemesis Baartali. The roads of the Dolomites, it seems, were built to suit Coppi and stage 14, which also includes the Sella, Gardena, Campolongo and Falzarego passes, seems to honor his legacy 56 years after his death.
Though Coppi’s legend transcended borders, he is forever immortalized within the borders of Italy, and more importantly, the Dolomites. Such was his style and status he is remembered on the Passo Pordoi with a stone statue. In considering the history of the Giro and Coppi and the magnitude of elevation riders scale in an effort to claim the maglia rosa, one only needs to quickly look at what defines the Giro – its legends. The Tour de France has Alpe d’Huez and its 21 switchbacks, each with a nameplate of the winner who has heroically conquered the 13.8 kilometer climb faster than his competitors on that given day. In comparison to the Cima Coppi, the Tour de France awards the Memorial Henri Desgrange to the rider who scales the highest peak first, named for the father of the French grand tour. In true Italian style, while the French honor a relic that was credited with the Tour’s creation, the Italians honor a legend, a man who won the Giro five times and exuded such panache on and off the bike he transcended cultural boundaries in post war Italy. The French honor a man who was so stubborn he refused doctor’s orders to sit out his director’s role from the organizer’s vehicle in order to recover from the illness that felled him two stages into the race, and ultimately killed him. The Italians, meanwhile honor a man who twice won the overall title and the King of the Mountains in the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia in the same year. Not even Eddy Merckx accomplished that.
Coppi rode with such style and panache that he ushered in the modern era of cycling, with the first mountain top victory on Alpe d’Huez in the 1952 Tour, But unlike the Dolomites, the Alpe appears as a folly, the premiere mountain top finish in the Tour de France celebrated more as a publicity stunt than a miracle of engineering or human design – a dead end road leading to the glamour of French life at a ski station. As if on cue, that glamour was attractive enough to the first winner on Alpe d’Huez and the name of the rider who adorns plate #1 – Fausto Coppi. For perhaps the only time in cycling history, it was the rider who defined a mountain, not the other way around.
Historically, the Giro has delivered more than a bike race. It continues to give the country a visual story that connects people and during Coppi’s era it reconnected a culture ravaged by war. Fausto Coppi represented a new national spirit of Italy, as the country positioned itself towards a more complex and industrialized nation. The well-known and well-documented battle between Coppi and Gino Bartali was as much about Italian life as it was about victories, the old world farmer vs. the new world modernist. Post World War II euphoria was taking hold, and this interested the media. Writing in this period flourished with the adjectives journalists used to describe the exploits of these newborn heroes, and populate the imagination with the exploits of the sport and weave it into everyday life.
The Dolomites express what is so beautiful about the Giro, Italy and Italian life. Stage 14 creates an aura around itself that celebrates its history, its legends, their victories and their losses. This day may not define who wins the race as much as it may show us who will lose, but it will be a massive day played out under the grandest of stages, a playground that needs no further hype or definition, climbs that are as daunting today as they were 66 years ago. The sheer brutality that comes with seven climbs across 210 kilometers will, in all hope, bring the Giro closer to a worthy winner, honoring the legacies of Le Corbusier, Dolomieu and Coppi.
Peter Easton is the owner of VeloClassic Tours, a company who specializes in highly personalized luxury cycling travel experiences for serious cyclists through enlightened hospitality. For over a decade, Peter has shown guests the best riding, dining and hotels for cyclists across Europe, and is an expert in the rides, roads and races that make up the Spring Classics.