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Of course cycling is still a very popular sport, but let's not delude ourselves that it's the most popular. For that we need hark back to the Coppi / Bartali years, the so-called "golden age". Back then its import was on par with that of football today, its lead players genuine superstars. The proof lies in this little lot, the top seven at the 1951 Giro: Magni, Van Steenbergen, Kübler, Coppi, Astrua, Koblet and Bobet…
Six of the seven, as any half-decent cycling historian will confirm, are icons, and so is tenth-placed Gino Bartali. What, though, of the other? Why, if he was that good, has the world forgotten about fifth-placed Giancarlo Astrua?
You might well ask, but suffice to say that Astrua, Biella born and bred, was a sensational little climber. So good was he that he beat Coppi (and all the rest) in the cronoscalata to San Marino, and very few have that in their CV. It earned him a maglia rosa he lost the following day, but treasured until his passing in 2010. He finished third at the Tour as well, and the good people of Biella will never forget him. So now you know. Giancarlo Astrua was a massive star in an era of greats, and what's more a quite wonderful human being.
SEE, HEAR, FEEL...
Rising to the east of Biella, the Sacred Mount of Oropa is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Funded by the local communities and by the ruling Savoia family, it's the jewel on Biella's crown. Set amidst a splendid natural amphitheatre surrounded by the Alps, it's an astounding architecturally, but also in the breadth of its ambition.
A complex of twelve chapels and adjoining dwellings and business premises, it's dedicated to the worship of the mysterious Black Madonna. A 132 centimetre figurine made of Lebanese cedar wood, she was delivered here in the fourth century. Still today she fascinates pilgrims from far and wide.
MOMENT IN TIME
Marco Pantani's stage win at Oropa is highlighted elsewhere, but in 1963 another pint-sized climber seized the day here. Vito Taccone, a warrior from the Abruzzo, had been fancied to contend the overall classification. However he'd lost a slug of time during a flat stage, and adjusted his sights accordingly. He'd already won the previous stage to Asti, the pink jersey group not troubling themselves to chase. Here it was a fight to the death, but still he prevailed over Vittorio Adorni and eventual winner Franco Balmamion.
Taccone's abrasive nature made him deeply unpopular in the gruppo, but he couldn't have cared less. He won the following two stages as well, as the Giro reached the Alps proper. He added a fifth in the Dolomites, and remains a genuine corsa rosa legend.
I think this will have a big part to play in deciding the mountains jersey. By now we'll know who the contenders are for that, and they will know that this is an important stage. We'll target it with Rabottini, and it's quite possible someone like him could make it today.
The reason for that is that the pink jersey group will likely let them go, and there will probably be a truce on the first climb. Their race will probably start in earnest at the bottom of the climb to Belmonte, but that's over 100 kilometres in. They will race, and the middle section to Oropa will be a big sort out, but it could be that they're racing for the time as opposed to the stage win. That’s the plan anyway…