One just cannot speak of the Passo (or Valico) di Santa Cristina without also mentioning that stage, the Merano-Aprica of 1994.
On that day, this iconic climb first featured in the route of the Giro d’Italia. On that day, a young and virtually unknown Marco Pantani attacked along the Mortirolo, dropping all his strongest opponents.
In the following false flat, his team car advised him to wait for Indurain and Rodriguez. They were only a short distance away, and they could be of help before the closing climb to Santa Cristina.
So he did, and the three got along well. Moving to the fore early on the ascent, Indurain played the only card he knew he had: keeping the fastest pace he could to dissuade his young breakaway companion from attacking, or, at least, to delay any potential move as much as possible.
Looking at the footage of that climb, there is something touching and emotional in Indurain’s attempt to resist the Pirate – a completely different rider, with a completely different style.
One was a tall, sturdy, pure time trialist who was skilled enough to endure along a climb by holding a steady tempo, who was however afraid of attacks and changes of pace.
The other was a tiny little rider blown away by the wind on pan-flat roads. As soon as the gradients went up, though, when everyone else started praying for air and strong legs, to no avail, he would take flight, as if by magic.
The two were worlds apart, like a tank and an airplane.
Yet, at that very moment, early on the Santa Caterina ascent, the airplane and the tank were still riding side by side, against the laws of physics and against all logic, as if in some kind of spell (you know, cycling can work magic sometimes).
As it always happens, however, spells don’t last long, and reality kicked in powerfully after a few kilometres.
Pantani moved up to Indurain, kicked clear and never turned back.
The airplane had taken flight, quickly and lightly, and the tank had to surrender.
The gap grew with every inch of tarmac, with every switchback. At the summit, it had reached a whopping 3’19”, especially considering that it all happened in less than five kilometres.
His lead further grew in the short descent before the finish in Aprica, and the Pirate won the stage 3’30” ahead of Indurain and 4’06” ahead of the Maglia Rosa Berzin, snatching the second place on GC from the Spaniard.
So, on that epic stage, the Passo di Santa Cristina first featured in the route of the Giro d’Italia. A debut on the top-class cycling scene that we will never forget.