Gran Sasso d'Italia, the wonder of Abruzzo
When climbing towards Campo Imperatore, the horizon opens up and the spaces become wider, literally immense once we reach the finish line. The landscapes of this Abruzzo mountain are highly recognisable and are nothing short of unique: we are sure that a spectator, turning on the TV without knowing which stage he or she is watching, would be able to identify the setting of the Gran Sasso d’Italia without too much trouble, partly because of the incredible extension of the plateau, surrounded by various peaks touching 2,500 metres above sea level, such as the Corno Grande and Monte Aquila, and partly because of the entirely herbaceous vegetation.
From a technical point of view, the Gran Sasso d’Italia is a very long and rideable climb, a good 26.5 km at 3.4% starting from Santo Stefano di Sessanio, which become 46 km if we also consider the previous climb up to Calascio. The games for the stage victory, however, are usually held in the last four kilometres of the climb, with an average gradient of 8% at an altitude that exceeds 2000 metres.
Ever since the Giro d’Italia first arrived at Campo Imperatore in 1971, with stage win of Spaniard Vicente Lopez-Carril and the Maglia Rosa on the shoulders of Ugo Colombo, the Abruzzo finish line has traditionally been included in the first part of the Giro d’Italia, Stage 9 at latest, as in 2018, and for this reason it has often featured one of the first face-to-face battles among the GC men. On the Gran Sasso d’Italia, riders are still relatively fresh, with more questions than answers about their condition and a burning desire to gain a few seconds, but at the same time the fear of uncovering their cards too early.
These were the premises in 1999, on the eighth stage of the Corsa Rosa, which started in Pescara and finished in a still snow-covered Campo Imperatore despite it being the end of May. All eyes that day were on Marco Pantani, who had made history the year before by winning both the Giro and the Tour. Everyone was waiting for him on the first real uphill finish of that edition. Although rumours had it that he was still far from his best form, the star from Cesenatico put everyone to the test with a series of accelerations and progressions in the last 2,500 metres of the climb, dropping his adversaries one by one, with Ivan Gotti being the last to give way.
The Giro d’Italia has visited Campo Imperatore four times, not counting the 14th stage in 1985, ending at Fonte Cerreto, at the foot of the climb, and won by Franco Chioccioli. The last time was in 2018 and, on that occasion, the stage started in Pesco Sannita: competition was less marked than in ’99 and the winner was Simon Yates, who was also wearing the Maglia Rosa at the time (that edition is remembered for the remarkable rise of the British rider followed by his painful fall in the last few days) and who managed to beat Thibaut Pinot and teammate Esteban Chaves in an uphill sprint. That stage caused quite a bit of talk because of the difficulties of Fabio Aru and Chris Froome. The latter lost few seconds that he would later recover in legendary fashion in the famous Colle delle Finestre stage. Unfortunately, not the same can be said of the former.
Listen to the episode of In Cima dedicated to Campo Imperatore: