by Giacomo Pellizzari, translated by Gillian Shaw (original article)
The Stelvio – what is that?
Once Alfa Romeo named a car after it, everyone knows what ‘The Stelvio’ is – bewitching mountain with all the critical ingredients to strike terror and to make history. A kind of pagan temple shrouded in the mists of Mount Ortler and the glaciers of Monte Cevedale. An impossible dream, a route that runs straight from Austria to Italy. From Vienna, down to Milan. A non-stop road, taking the most direct route. 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. No one had seen such an incredibly seductive road 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 let mankind climb it. It turned into a gothic cathedral enveloped by ice. A temple perched high up in 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 the Stelvio is on for the Giro d’Italia tomorrow. And they’re already starting to feel jittery.
Mention the Stelvio and it’s as if a VIP has turned up – lovely but unwieldy. 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 to be scrupulously stuck to. You’re not allowed to go off the mark.
You can even be unprepared for the Stelvio, for heaven’s sake. You can be bewildered or even off form. Anything can happen.
The organisers assure us it’ll be sunny. There will also be two walls of snow like battlements and crowds as far as you can see. 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, know 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, where the riders descend tomorrow. Let’s ride!
A story from 2,758 metres above sea level
How the devil is the publicity caravan going to get up there? They’ll have to put their foot down to get the “Simmenthal” tinned meat van up those 48 hairpin bends, with that enormous tin and the huge, plastic cow sticking out of the back. At the very least, the clutch will burn out. And what about the “Cora” liqueur car? It already looks like a trashy 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 to double the car’s speed. A dazzling – obviously female – smile of 32 teeth on the bonnet. How will all of this crazy ad cars manage to climb the Stelvio pass reaching a height of 2,758 metres above sea level, located between the Trentino Alto Adige and Lombardy regions? (…)
The first section of the road leading up out of Prato is surrounded by dense pine-tree forest, charming waterfalls and stacks of logs. It doesn’t hint at any of what’s in store for the riders later on. 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 – and believed to be the third highest peak in all the Alps.
A mass of rock and ice that keeps a stern eye 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 strict, demanding and unbending. If the pass behaves badly, Ortler will not hesitate in putting him back in his place by conjuring sudden, unseasonal snow storms – sometimes with the help of her neighbour, Cevedale. A real blizzard to make you barricade yourself inside, not even venturing out for a cigarette. Along with special help from the – obviously ice-cold – wind, fog and arctic temperatures. The Stelvio is just terrible. Did it really have to be in the Giro d’Italia?
In the mid-19th Century, Emperor Franz I of Austria wanted the road to pass through here. That stubborn ruler got it into his head that he needed the most direct route to connect Vienna with Milan, Austria with Italy – Do not pass “Go”. It was needed, he said, to attend to his business and his Empire’s affairs. It had never been done before. So, Franz enlisted the era’s leading expert in the construction of colossal roads. 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 endeavour would be successful.
The result was one of the most beautiful and impressive masterpieces in all of Italy’s road engineering. Some 48 hairpin bends to delight, one stacked above the other. A succession of exhilarating hairpin bends forced the naturally stubborn mountain – how could it be otherwise with 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 either from the bottom as you enter the Trafoi valley or from the summit to the grassy valley below, you can only applaud Donegani. It’s a dizzying staircase of hairpins. A zig-zag that seems almost like a Jackson Pollock painting. Asphalt on canvas.
A monumental sculpture, a sort of tomb 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! 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)