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The Mortirolo: the rise of a warrior


The 10 most iconic climbs of the Corsa Rosa: the Mortirolo

Starting from 21st March we have started to go thorough the 10 most iconic climbs of the Giro d’Italia with a dedicated section with tales, facts and statistics for each one.

After the Blockhaus, it’s the turn of the Mortirolo.

The rise of a warrior

Strategically located between the Val Camonica and the Valtellina, the Mortirolo Pass has been a battlefield long before June 3, 1990, when it first featured in the route of the Giro d’Italia.
Legend has it that the pass was named after a fierce battle that took place there in AD 773, when Charlemagne crossed swords with the Lombard military, which had been defeated in the battle of Pavia. The Carolingian army chased and found them by the pass, killing hundreds of enemy troops. The mountain was hence named Mortarolo (after ‘morte’, meaning ‘death’) and, centuries later, Mortirolo.
As we said, however, this is a myth.
The placename is actually thought to come from ‘mortèra’ or ‘mortarium’, two words referring to the presence of a pond, or to the concave shape of the summit of the pass.
What is not a myth is the fighting between the partigiani and the Nazi fascists that took place from February to May 1945, which many historians regard as the major field battles of the Italian Resistance movement.
The climb passed into cycling legend on June 3, 1990.
The ascent was from Edolo, and Venezuela’s Leonardo Sierra, first to the summit, eventually took the stage.
The Mortirolo was so fascinating that it was used, again, the following year, ascending from Mazzo, which became the ‘traditional’ side: 12.5 km with an average 10.5% gradient, topping out at 20%.
This is what happens to certain climbs.
Up to one day before, they are just unknown roads, lost in the middle of nowhere. Once they have been travelled, however, they immediately win the hearts of the organizers, of the riders and – above all – of the fans. That was the case with the Muro di Sormano and with the Zoncolan as well.
Then came 1994, the year when both the Mortirolo and Marco Pantani – two matching, twin stories –ultimately became legends.
June 5 was the day of the Merano-Aprica stage, with the Stelvio, Mortirolo and Santa Cristina climbs scheduled in order.
The Pirate, who was only 24 at that time, attacked along the punishing slopes of the second climb, at over 60 kilometres out.
He dropped Indurain, Bugno, Chiappucci and the Maglia Rosa Berzin, soloing over the top. He waited for Indurain in the flat stretch before the final ascent, where he took off again – this time for good – dashing to the line to take stage victory and the second place on GC.
In 2006, a sculpture was placed at the 8th kilometre of the Mortirolo to commemorate that accomplishment. Pantani is portrayed attacking, his hands in a low grip on the handlebars, looking back at his defeated opponents.
That day, in a place that had been a battlefield for over a thousand years, the Pirate did more than just score a stage win. He found his vocation, his destiny. He found himself.

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