Italians love their history, particularly their cycling history. Last Sunday, because the summit of the Col du Galibier was buried in snow, the organizers of the Giro dItalia decided to place the stage 15 finish line next to a memorial to Marco Pantani, where he made the decisive attack that won him the 1998 Tour de France. The 2013 Galibier winner was another Italian, Giovanni Visconti, who also won Wednesdays stage 17 into Vicenzawhere Campagnolo was celebrating the 80th anniversary of its founding.
It was a nice coincidence (or was it?) that Visconti was riding a bike equipped with Campagnolo components, including its groundbreaking electronic shifters. Thats the latest in a long line of innovative products that have emerged from the Vicenza factory since founder Tullio Campagnolo first thought of ways in which to improve the performance of the bicycle in the late-1920s.
When he was a 26-year-old bike racer, Campagnolo experienced problems with removing a wheel to change a flat tire on the Passo Croce dAune in the Dolomiti Bellunesi mountains, 100 kilometers north of Vicenza. The legend has it that Campagnolo was leading the GP de Vittoria road race and that the wheel problem cost him the victory. It was snowing on the Croce dAune pass when Campagnolos freezing fingers were unable to unscrew the wing nut. Frustrated, he was said to mutter, Something must change in the rear!
Three years later, in 1930, he patented the worlds very first quick-release hub mechanisms, and began selling them in 1933 after founding his manufacturing business in Vicenza. Another of his inventions was a rudimentary derailleur gear, which went into production in 1940. Campagnolo eventually supplied the worlds best racers with his accessoriesto win Grand Tours, classics and world championships.
At Tullio Campagnolos funeral in 1983, Eddy Merckx gave a eulogy, saying, Dear Commendatore [the Italian inventors military title], Ive shared with you every success. You finished first with me, seven times, in Milan-San Remo, and you were with me in the snow, the day when I climbed victoriously the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Merckx says that his Tre Cime stage win at the 1968 Giro remains one of his top three athletic performances, along with his 1969 Tour de France title and his world hour record.
Thirty years after giving that eulogy, Merckx, a five-time Giro champion (as well as the winner of five Tours and innumerable classics and world titles), returned to Campagnolos world headquarters in Vicenza for the Italian companys 80th anniversary celebrations, along with several other Giro winners, including Vittorio Adorni, Felice Gimondi, Andy Hampsten, Miguel Indurin and Francesco Moser.
Also being celebrated this week was the 15th anniversary of Pantanis Giro-Tour double (a feat that has not been replicated); the 20th anniversary of Indurins repeat Giro victory (again, no one has won the Giro back-to-back since then); the 25th anniversary of Hampstens epic Giro success, which saw him take his first maglia rosa after a breakaway over the Passo di Gvia in a blizzard; and the 45th anniversary of Merckxs very first Giro victory, which was highlighted by his historic Tre Cime stage win.
After 11 stages in that 1968 Giro, the 23-year-old Merckx was lying second to Italian Michele Dancelli by one-and-a-half minutes. The 12th stage began at Gorizia in the far northeast of Italy, which meant the riders tackled the Tre Cime climb from the plains, close to sea level, up to the dead-end roads 7,677-foot summit just below the famed Three Peaks of Lavaredo in the Dolomites.
That day, a 12-strong breakaway raced clear in torrential rain to gain almost 10 minutes before reaching the first uphill slopes. Wearing the rainbow jersey of world champion, Merckx started to chase the leaders on his own, followed by fellow Belgian Willy Van Neste. The rain turned to snow when Merckx was still seven minutes behind the break, which was being led by climbers Joaquim Galera and Giancarlo Polidori.
Merckx had to change bikes at one point, which allowed Van Neste to go ahead. The world champ caught and passed Van Neste with 4 kilometers still to climbthe hardest and steepest part of the climb with 18-percent pitcheswhen he was still 3:30 behind Galera and Polidori. Climbing through a mountain mist in his bobbing style, shaking off the freezing snow, Merckx overtook first Galera, then Polidori, and crossed the finish line solo.
Polidori was second at 40 seconds, Merckxs Italian teammate Adorni came in third at 54 seconds, Van Neste was three minutes behind, and race leader Dancelli finished with defending champion Gimondi more than six minutes back. Merckx took over the maglia rosa that day and eventually won the 1968 Giro by five minutes over Adorni and nine minutes ahead of third-place Gimondi.
This Saturday, the Giro is due to return to the Tre Cime at the end of a 203-kilometer stage that (weather permitting) will cross four mountain passes before completing the day up that wicked final stretch where Merckx was so dominant 45 years ago. If the snow doesnt make the organizers change the course, the Italian tifosi will be cheering for their new cycling superstar, Vincenzo Nibali, to crown his superb Giro ride that has already taken him more than four minutes ahead of his closest rivals, Cadel Evans and Rigoberto Uran. And just like Merckx, Gimondi, Adorni, Hampsten, Moser and Indurin before him, Team Astanas Nibali will be riding a bike fully equipped by Campagnolo.
If Nibali succeeds this weekend, then at various points in history, the Italians will celebrate a host of Nibali anniversaries, and likely erect a monument to the popular rider from Sicily, maybe up on the Tre Cime. Forza, Italia!
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