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May 25, 2014 - Valdengo - Plan di Montecampione, 225 km
Want a genuine Giro d'Italia hero? How about the greatest of them all, the absolute number one. Coppi? Binda? Merckx? Not a bit of it. Ladies and gentlemen we give you… Felice Peli!
Who he? When the Gazzetta launched the race in 1909, a 19-year-old from Sarezzo, was quickest out of the traps. He gathered together the ten lire inscription fee and dispatched it, post haste, to Milan. As such, and given that he was the first to put his name down, he got to wear the number one dossard subsequently reserved for the previous year's winner. No Fausto Coppi perhaps, but he remains literally, if not perhaps qualitatively, the number one Giro d'Italia rider of all time. And that's not all. As a matter of fact he and Coppi do have a good deal in common. Both were butcher's apprentices, and both trained by delivering salumi on their pushbikes. So now you know…
SEE, HEAR, FEEL...
Pan-flat for 197 kilometres through the Po Valley, then the gloves will be off. The 20 kilometre ramp up to Plan di Montecampione doesn't boast the headline-grabbing gradients which characterize much of 21st century cycling, but gradients in themselves are neither here nor there. In the first instances because bike technology is so advanced these days (ergo they can fit pretty much any gear ratios they want) and secondly because when cyclists are going so slow that it's impossible to make a selection the gradients are often nullified anyway.
So there's a balance to be struck, and here it seems just about right. As supporters we want to see attacking, aggressive racing, and we also want to see the stage evolve. Long climbs like this still offer the best chance of that, as one very famous day at the in 1998 Giro testifies…
MOMENT IN TIME
Irrespective of his subsequent fall from grace, those who saw Marco Pantani's epic struggle with Pavel Tonkov here will never forget it. It took place on 4 June 1998, and it ranks as one of the greatest stages of the era. By the same token it also provides a hint at the collective amnesia which was starting to envelop cycling back then. Perceived wisdom has it that Pantani and Tonkov were operating on a level playing field, but the fact remains that the writing was already on the wall.
Following the stage one of Pantani's Mercatone Uno gregari, Riccardo Forconi, was thrown off the Giro. The official explanation was "irregular" blood values, but in reality everyone knew that it meant “manipulated” values. Tonkov's MAPEI team issued a press release alluding to Mercatone Uno being "overloaded", but the beauty and bravery of Pantani's performance was so irrefutable that the news was pretty much buried.
This a GC day, pure and simple. Montecampione is long and nasty, and history tells us that only the very best can win on it. I expect some pretty big time gaps amongst the top ten as well. Lose two minutes here and it's very unlikely you're going to get them back, so there's no question that somebody's Giro is going to get shipwrecked.
It's an important day in the sense that it honours Pantani, because it's impossible to overstate his importance to Italian cycling. Notwithstanding what happened to him, he delivered new fans and new sponsors to the sport, and we should never lose sight of that. I don't know whether you can use the term “genius” to describe a cyclist, but if you can then he was it…