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The whole sun of the world

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After Francis I of Austria commissioned him the construction of a street connecting Val Venosta – and thus Vienne – directly to Milan, the engineer Carlo Donegani realized that, in order to succeed, he should have resorted not only to his scientist skills, but also to his artist soul: the project aimed to make vehicle-accessible the rock and snow wall of the Stelvio, 2758 meters above sea level, and needed a great stretch of imagination. In that symphony of canyons and choke points, some hairpins could not be simply placed on the ground; the new-born street could be built up just one turn at a time, by making use of ballast stones and bricks. 

PZeroVeloIn the journal kept by Donegani’s brother during the work it is possible to read that on the Stelvio’s slope of Trentino Alto Adige: “the nature seemed to put together the greatest obstacles against the street opening”. More than 2000 men were employed at the same time, 48 the number of the hairpins needed to connect Prato to the Stelvio pass. After just three years the work was inaugurated, to the satisfaction of the Austrian emperor. The street had a key strategic role, to such an extent that, in order to grant a 365 days per year traffic, at every kilometer was employed a person in charge of snow and ice removal from the road. Moreover, the location at the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Italian Kingdom, turned the Stelvio into the background of fierce battles during the First World War; then, after the Italian expansion, the pass lost its geographic importance. It would be put into the spotlight again, yet with a completely different role, thanks to a mean of transportation which at engineer Donegani’s time had not been invented yet. 

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The Giro d’Italia – Tour of Italy – faced the Stelvio for the first time in 1953, as second to last stage of the 36th edition of the so called pink race. In Bolzano, on the grid, Hugo Koblet had almost two-minutes head start on Fausto Coppi. Then the climb began. “the effort the athletes were supposed to make” – wrote Orio Vergani on the Corriere della Sera – “was expected to be backbreaking”: such a strong adjective that, however, was the only one suitable for defining the horrid, perhaps even inhumane exertion required for the bikers. Inhumane effort during the climb, and fearful risk during the slope. At first a race of chamois and ibexes; then, during the slope, a competition among skydivers to descend from the Stelvio’s snowy roof to the Bormio’s valley floor fields. 

Coppi sprinted all alone, “in one of the most arduous hour of his life, in the hopeless solitude of his own effort, up there where the glaciers creaks”. He won the stage and the Giro d’Italia, his last one, being 34 years old. The pictures of the “Campionissimo” – Champion of champions – in the Stelvio white walls, together with the writing “W Coppi” carved in the snow, are one of the most famous things of the cycling history. 

Another Fausto – named Bertoglio, from the city of Brescia – won the Stelvio race; it was the edition on which the director Vincenzo Torriani stopped the race, a million-to-one chance, at the mountaintop of the second highest crossing place in Europe (only the Iseran, in France, exceeds in height the Stelvio). The Spanish climber Galdós won the last stage, yet he did not manage to tear the pink jersey off Bertoglio. Five years later, Wladimiro Panizza could not maintain the first position along the Stelvio’s 25400 meters; he was overtaken by both Jean-René Bernaudeau and his captain Hinault, who got his first Giro victory out of three, during a day hit by “the whole sun of the world”, as it was written by Gian Paolo Ormenazzo on La Stampa. “Bernard Hinault won the Tour of Italy sticking to the new cycling rules, which force the pro to give up the epic and commit to the logic”. In recent years on the Stelvio, Pantani was on fire (in 1994 won the Aprica stage) and Basso took a downturn (in 2005 lost 42 minutes); many would have gladly avoided the bitter cold and the height rarefaction, while some others would have climbed it with all their heart: in 1984, when the organizers questionably decided to cancel the Coppi peak passage due to bad weather conditions, Laurent Fignon was ready to ally with the hairpins to keep a safety distance from Francesco Moser, future winner of that edition. 

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When it is accessible (generally from May to October, not without several interruptions), every kind of cyclist takes the climb towards the Stelvio by storm; the giant gives the chance to enter the myth, or at least to discover something more about ourselves, because whatever the destiny is, it dwells in the mountains above our head . In the new “A 48 tornanti dal paradiso” (Ediciclo Publisher, 2017), the journalist Stefano Scacchi tells, turn after turn, about the ascent towards what he defines “a Fortezza Bastiani – Bastiani’s Fortress – in reverse: not a stronghold where you wait, yet a castle to be challenged in order to fight against your own limits”.

The first turn – which is number 48 according to the official count, the hairpin numbering is intended to be a countdown – is on the left, and it brings to a first long and bike-friendly path, surrounded by woods, and fairly dark. Once you go beyond the fourth hairpin called Trafoi, the landscape changes, it opens and discloses rivulets and the mount Ortles’ snow. The mountain pass may be seen above. A much less shy light starts illuminating the increasing effort. The Stelvio, unlike many other Alpine climbs, goes up regularly. The inclines are high (average of some 7.25%, maximum of 11%), yet steady. Mr. Scacchi says that it seems “a royal palace without dungeons, but provided only with ballrooms and courtyards”. The street was imagined as a winding climbing, without breaks, which means hardly any chance to take a breath for who pedals.  

The last 5 kilometers of the SS 38 trunk road may be never-ending: the final hairpins are very close to each other, a spiral stairway to the crossing place. The very last one is half-circle shaped with a panoramic terrace; the view discloses the valleys and a slope along which, strange cycling mystery, you cannot feel anything but envy of who is still climbing engineer Donegani’s masterpiece. He was appointed as “architect of the impossible”, in 1839 emperor Ferdinando awarded him the rank of Knight of the Austrian Empire and Nobleman of the Mount Stelvio. He died 6 years later, somebody claims due to the physical exertions undertaken during the realization of his visionary Alpine projects. 

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