SANCTUARY OF OROPA
Sanctuary of Oropa, the Pirate's crazy comeback
“Watch out, Pantani has punctured. Actually, maybe it’s not a puncture, but a chain jump”. The voices of Adriano De Zan and Davide Cassani, RAI commentators in 1999, echo through cycling history
Marco Pantani is in the Maglia Rosa, he regained it the previous day on the finish line of Borgo San Dalmazzo thanks to the difficulties of Laurent Jalabert, and now leads the general classification with 53″ over Paolo Savoldelli and 1’21” over Ivan Gotti. The Racconigi-Santuario di Oropa is therefore a delicate passage to establish whether there is anyone able to challenge the “Pirate”, although the final climb is not particularly difficult, as it measures 11.7 km and has an average gradient of 6.2%. The race, however, suddenly ignites on the first slopes of the climb towards Oropa: the Maglia Rosa has a technical problem! Pantani gets off his bike, it is a chain jump, but with the help of the spare Shimano bike he manages to quickly get going again, losing only 45″ from the bunch. In front, however, the rivals have realised that Pantani is not there, they must take advantage of the situation and begin to pull hard. The peloton quickly crumbles. The Mercatone Uno block waits for captain Pantani, who remains lucid and gets even hungrier. He lets his teammates work for him for as long as possible and then, when even his right-hand man, Marco Velo, runs out of energy, he launches himself in pursuit of his rivals. Within about six kilometres, he catches and overtakes 49 riders, including Gotti, Savoldelli, Simoni, and finally Jalabert, alone in the lead up until that point. With three kilometres to go Pantani gets rid of the Frenchman and sprints towards the arrival. He wins, in the Maglia Rosa, but surprisingly shows no sign of celebration as he crosses the finish line: “I didn’t think I had caught them all…” he would say.
The climb to Oropa is inevitably linked to Pantani’s achievement, one of the finest in the short but electrifying career of the Pirate. The Sanctuary of Oropa, located at an altitude of 1,200 metres, is dedicated to the Black Madonna and is set in a natural amphitheatre of mountains, the Biellese Alps, which surround the city of Biella below. As mentioned, numbers in hand, the climb to the sanctuary is not particularly hard, but when the Giro has chosen to arrive here it has always been fun.
In total, the Corsa Rosa has crossed the finish line here six times; the first was in 1963 with Vito Taccone’s success, while the second appearance had to wait another 30 years. In the penultimate stage of the 1993 Giro d’Italia, in which the breakaway rider Massimo Ghirotto took victory, Pëtr Ugrumov attacked the Maglia Rosa Miguel Indurain on his way up to Oropa and the Navarro rider got into troubles. At the finish, Indurain was able to defend himself, retaining the leader’s symbol, but the fatigue was such that after the stage he had to hold on to the barriers to avoid falling off his bike. And what about 2017? It was the last time the Giro arrived at the sanctuary and on that occasion the protagonists were Tom Dumoulin and Nairo Quintana. The imposing Dutchman was in the Maglia Rosa and, on that day, he not only managed to fend off the expected attacks from the Colombian, but also went on to win the stage, thanks to a deadly progression in the last kilometre that crushed the holdouts of his rival. Dumoulin, Quintana and Nibali put up a great fight stage after stage, but in the end, it was the “Butterfly of Maastricht” who took home the Trofeo Senza Fine.
Listen to the episode of In Cima dedicated to the Sanctuary of Oropa: