by Giacomo Pellizzari, translated by Gillian Shaw (original article)
The Stelvio – who is that?
Of course, now that Alfa Romeo has named a car after it, everyone knows what ‘The Stelvio’ is. A bewitching mountain with all the required ingredients to strike terror and to make history. A kind of pagan temple shrouded between the clouds of Mount Ortler and the glaciers of Monte Cevedale. An impossible dream, a surfaced route that goes straight from Austria to Italy. From Vienna, down to Milan. A non-stop road, that takes the most direct course. But before that, who knew what the Stelvio was?
It took an Italian engineer – the best there was – to build this road at the behest of Emperor Franz I. The Austrians would only have the best, after all. His name was Carlo, Carlo Donegani. Such an incredibly fascinating road had never been seen before, one that could challenge the tricky forces of gravity and the geological demands of a mountain that had no intention of stepping aside to allow mankind to climb up it. It gave rise to a gothic cathedral in the midst of the ice. A temple set between the clouds and star dust, up there in the middle of Ortler and Cevedale. Where no man would ever have expected to climb.
Everyone knows that tomorrow the Stelvio is on for the Giro d’Italia. And already they’re feeling it a bit.
Mention the Stelvio and it’s as if a VIP has turned up – lovely, but inconvenient. You need to watch your back and more importantly you have to know how to behave. If you plan to climb the Stelvio (and the Giro riders have to do it twice), you need to follow a code of conduct. It’s a sort of climbers’ etiquette that has to be scrupulously stuck to. It’s forbidden to go off road.
You can even be unprepared for the Stelvio, for heaven’s sake. You can be muddled or off form. Anything can happen.
The organisers assure us that it’ll be sunny. There will also be two walls of snow – often like castle walls – and crowds as high as the pyramids. That’s the beauty of the Giro.
You’ll have a glint in your eye, your heart in your mouth and you’ll need nerves of steel. Something that the two previous winners, Fausto Coppi and Bernard Hinault, knew only too well.
Ladies and Gentlemen, straight from the pages of “Storia e geografia del Giro d’Italia” (tr. History and Geography of the Giro d’Italia) here is one of my favourite chapters. “The Stelvio”. Let’s pick it up at Prato, to where the riders will descend tomorrow. Rock ‘n’ roll.
A story of 2,758 metres above sea level.
How the devil is the publicity caravan going to get up there? Getting the “Simmenthal” tinned meat van up those 48 hairpin bends, with that enormous tin, and the huge, plastic cow sticking out of the back, with its foot pressing wildly on the accelerator. At the very least, the clutch will burn out. And what about the “Cora” liqueur car? It already looks like a broken-down old banger? With its three gigantic bottles – not one, but three and thankfully not glass bottles – on the roof. You can be certain it’ll tip over on the bends. And then there’s the toothpaste? “Binaca” parades its long, toothpaste-tube shaped cars, Durban’s – “the dentist’s toothpaste” – has two 3-metre-long toothbrushes on the roof, and what about Chlorodont? Two tubes, like rockets doubling the car’s speed. A dazzling – obviously female – smile of 32 teeth on the bonnet. How will all of this extravagant publicity manage to climb the Stelvio pass at a height of 2,758 metres above sea level, located between the Trentino Alto Adige and Lombardy regions? (…)
The first section of the road that leads up out of Prato is enclosed in a dense forest of pine trees, enchanting waterfalls and stacked logs. It doesn’t bode well for what’s in store for the riders. Their only company is the initially muffled, then deafening heavy roar of the Solda river. The river that springs right from here, from the Ortler massif – the highest mountain in the whole of the Southern Rhaetian Alpine range. In the past, before the Alto Adige became part of Italy, it was the highest summit of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Looking at the Ortler, it’s still covered in ice and snow even in the summer. Before it was accurately measured – it is “only” 3,905 metres – it was believed to be the third highest peak in all of the Alps.
A mass of rock and ice that keeps a harsh watch over the Stelvio pass, from the top to the bottom, as if it were her child. A good mother only when it suits her, then for the rest of the time she’s perpetually exacting, strict and unbending. If the pass behaves badly, sometimes with the help of her neighbour Cevedale, the Ortler will not hesitate in scolding him by sending sudden, unseasonal snow storms. A real blizzard to make you barricade yourself inside the hut, not even venturing out for a cigarette. Along with the special appearance of the – obviously ice-cold – wind, fog and arctic temperatures. The Stelvio is wicked. Was it really necessary to include it in the Giro d’Italia?
In the mid-19th Century, Emperor Franz I of Austria wanted the road to pass through here. That stubborn man got it into his head that he needed the most direct route to connect Vienna with Milan, Austria with Italy – without passing “Go”. It was needed, he said, to attend to his business and that of his Empire. It was ahead of its time. So, Franz enlisted the leading expert in the construction of colossal roads, of the period. And that was the Italian engineer Carlo Donegani, the magmatic creator of high-altitude roads – the type that make you think twice – and who was certain his new undertaking would be successful.
The result was one of the most beautiful and impressive masterpieces in all of Italy’s road engineering. 48 hairpin bends of delight, one above the other. A succession of exhilarating hairpin bends forced the mountain, by nature stubborn – how could it be otherwise with the Ortler? – to step aside. To do this Donegani had to resort to impressive supporting walls, almost marble sculptures capable of holding back the ground, stones and rocks, prone to frequent landslides.
If you look at the Stelvio today from the bottom to the top, just as you enter the Trafoi valley, and from the top to the bottom, from the summit to the grassy valley below, you can only applaud Donegani. A dizzying staircase of hairpins. A zig-zag that seems almost like a Jackson Pollock painting. Bitumen on canvas.
A monumental sculpture, a quasi-mausoleum to the incline, or a cathedral to the road system.
Of course, nature has ended up being defeated. Artificially modified, compressed and crushed to make way for a crazy, uphill road, the most beautiful that could be imagined. But what the heck, it was worth it! The arterial road no. 38 – the Stelvio Pass – is a masterpiece on a par with the Pyramids and the Empire State Building.
(from “Storia e geografia del Giro d’Italia” (tr. History and Geography of the Giro d’Italia) – Utet 2017)