May 2011

By Eddy O'Rourke
Flandria Cafe and
CyclingRevealed Historian



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Grossglockner, the Giro and Gaul

From Flandria Cafe
Fast Eddy O first wrote this article for Flandria Cafe in April 2010.

Eddy O of Flandria Cafe (a virtual wielercafe) is rapidly become one of the best Cycling History writer on the internet, if not anywhere.

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Austria's Grossglockner.   The 2011 Giro will visit after 40 years absent.

The Giro d'Italia this year looks like it's going to be one of the hardest editions in recent memory. Angelo Zomegnan and co. have put together a route seemingly with more killer climbs than any Grand Tour in recent memory.

Monsters like Etna, Zoncolan, Fedaia, Giau, Nevegal, Finestre, Sestriere - and the newly discovered Monte Crostis all will doubtless provide launching pads to a festivale scalatore that has most of us cycling fans licking our chops in anticipation. Some of these climbs are veterans of the Giro, and some are recent discoveries over the past few seasons. The melange is a potentially explosive mix. Alberto Contador has been quoted that this will be his hardest Grand Tour yet, expressing open worry about the Monte Crostis - Zoncolan combo.   A bevy of super climbing challengers with nothing to lose, and bearing names like Rodriguez, Scarponi, Anton, and Nibali, are all teeing up to take a tilt at the campionissimo from Pinto. If you love climbing battles - especially those on unpaved dirt tracks up scary percentage grades - then this will be one to watch.  

Eighteen year old Charly Gaul on the Grossglockner, 1951.
First big mountain, first big victory

But one storied climb is almost overlooked in all the fanfare.   On Friday May 20, Stage 13 will see the Giro cross into Austria, and climb to a finish on the Grossglockner, a storied pass that hasn't been included in the Giro since 1971.   From the hearty speck and noodles, to the neat tyrolean style chalets, the Italian Dolomites are former Austrian territory anyway - an Italian region with a strong Germanic flavor.  A ride north to visit Austria is a natural extension of the race.  It's also one with a stronger connection to Giro history than its single past appearance in the corsa rosa suggests at first glance.

To cyclists, the Grossglockner is better known as the biggest challenge in the Tour of Austria.  It's a climb whose history in sport goes back many years.   The road up was built in 1930, following a centuries-old foot path track that had long been trodden by pack mules as well as Celt and Roman warriors. The first race up was held in 1935.  The climb has been used for auto and motorbike hillclimbs, as well as for bicycle road races ever since.   It's estimated that about 20,000 cyclists pedal up the climb each year.   A recent attempt to collect a toll from cyclists riding up the Grossglockner was just recently defeated, such was the outcry.  Not only is the Grossglockner a regular fixture in  the Tour of Austria, but is also used in annual cyclosportives.

Gaul on Monte Bondone - Giro, 1956.

The Giro connection?   It's about a man.  One who was for my money, the greatest climber of all time:  Luxembourg's Charly Gaul.

The 5' 8", 141 lb Charly, who passed away in 2005  is a cycling legend.  Although he's best remembered for winning the 1958 Tour de France, he's perhaps even more revered- particularly in Italy - for coming from many minutes down to score a famous knockout solo victory in a snowstorm on the Dolomite stage to Monte Bondone back in 1956.  The man they called the Angel of the Mountains took the Maglia Rosa on that day when most of the field dropped out - freezing and destroyed.  A day the hardest of men cried.

The photo of Charly Gaul being carried away by Alpini soldiers wrapped in a blanket, totally spent and freezing, with a dazed  thousand-yard stare, is a symbol of the Giro d'Italia at its most cruel, and most glorious.  It was an image that would be a precursor to Andy Hampstens similar exploit to secure the only American Giro win on the Gavia Pass, some 32 years later.

Gaul went on to another, similar, killer single stage strike - this one between snow walls on the Grand St. Bernard Pass - to take the 1959 Giro.  Jacques Anquetil was the victim on that occasion, another day of cold rain, the weather Gaul loved.

First trip abroad... Teenage Charly Gaul (front)
and his Luxembourg teammates.  (photo BiciSport)

Mec nageur, Louison Bobet called him.  The "swimming guy".

Was Gaul the greatest champion the Giro has ever seen?   Perhaps not.  But was he the man with the two greatest knockout, giant-slaying, come from behind victories in Giro history?   No question.   Gaul could turn an entire Tour upside down with a single attack.  He did it in every Grand Tour he won.

What's less well known is that the climbing phenomenon that was Charly Gaul was 'discovered' on the Grossglockner.   The year was 1951, and Charly was only 18 years old.  He'd been ripping up the scene in Luxembourg, winning junior and amateur races, and impressing many with his twiddling ease on the climbs.   After two big wins in Luxembourg stage races the "Fleche du Sud" and the 'Tour des Douze Cantons", he was selected for the Luxembourg team to tackle the amateur tour of Austria.  It was teenage Charly's first view of the Alps.  And his first attempt to ride a bike up a major mountain pass.


Tour of Austria Podium, 1951.  Wearing
unlucky13, Gaul isn't smiling, but will
go on to greater things.  

Amateur Charly Gaul
on the Grossglockner in 1952.

On the day he saw his first big climb ever, Gaul won the stage up the Grossglockner by over 5 minutes, beating the record for the climb by that same, massive 5 minute margin over the prior record held by an Austrian, Menapace.   Fittingly, it was a day with the kind of inclement weather he'd come to covet for his later exploits as a pro.  The writer Charlie Woods later wrote:

"The Grossglockner is slightly higher than Mont Ventoux and just as formidable. One can imagine the youngster engaging rather sheepishly with such a monster. He knew that he could climb well on ordinary hills, but this was no man's land. At half-distance, however, despite his manager's exhortations to caution, his class told and he found himself alone in the lead. A few moments of giddy pleasure were soon dispatched by the ever-present need to keep the pedals turning; he was, after all, still in no man's land. This show of force was greeted by another, a thunderstorm and the first squalls of rain probably cooled the fever of his labours and brought with it a lighter, freer atmosphere. He had always been at ease in rainfall [and] beginning to pedal now with an edge of fierce affirmation, he perhaps completely forgot himself for a long series of ramps and bends... To such an extent that not only did he win the stage but broke the existing record for the climb."
Gaul wore the leaders jersey for two stages, and ended up taking 3rd overall in that '51 Tour of Austria, his first major Tour, and first big race outside of Luxembourg.   The next year, Gaul came back to finish one place better -2nd, after another festival on the Grossglockner.    

For the 2011 Giro d'Italia, the Grossglockner stage will go up the south-eastern approach - the Heiligenblut side, a side used less frequently in the Tour of Austria. The Giro route from Heiligenblut (1,301 m) to Kaiser Franz Josef Höhe (2,369 m) will climb 1,068 m in 16.5 kilometers, with the last 14km at 10.1%.   The Giro will not go all the way tothe 2,503 meter summit, but will finish slightly lower at 2137 meters.  A tough enough hors d'oeuvre to commence a four-in-a row series of Dolomite summit finishes:  Zoncolan, Gardeccia, and a TT up the dirt climb to Nevgal will follow, so the Grossglockner perhaps won't see the fireworks that will undoubtedly mark the following days. It will however be a day when the Giro will be lost for many. And a day when the eventual contenders will show their hand.

Bill Bradley takes the cup after breaking
Gaul's record on the Grossglockner, 1957.
(photo from 'Conquer the World', by
Chas Messenger, c 1968)

 The other more northerly side is considered the tougher challenge, the one tamed by Gaul.   It's a route you can still ride to compare yourself to the Angel of the Mountains, for the timed Glocknerkoenig - or “King of the Glockner” event is held on the first weekend in June every year.  It's a challenge open to cyclosportives.   From Ferleiten to the Fuscher Törl (Fusch Gate) the race goes up to 2,428 m, climbing 1,283 meters in only 12.9 kilometers, through 36 breathtaking, well surfaced hairpin turns.   Austrian pro Christian Pfannberger holds the current record of 47'20, set in 2007.

The man who broke Gaul's record back in the days of heavier bikes and light riders?  It was an Englishman, the late Bill Bradley, back in 1957.  Bradley sealed victory in the Tour of Austria by dropping everyone on the Grossglockner, including the local hero Durlacher.  Southport Cycle Club's Bill Bradley would go on to become on of England's greatest roadmen of the day, winning the Tour of Britain Milk Race in 1959 and 1960.

Since then, other well known pros have ridden to victory on this climb, the list includes Niki Rüttimann (1983), Pascal Herve (1992), Frank Vandenbroucke (1997), Daniele Nardello (2000), Ivan Basso (2001) and Koos Moerenhout (2009).

The Grossglockner was only once before included in the Giro, back in 1971, going all the way to the top in the 17th stage.  The climb and stage were won that year by Dreher's Pierfranco Vianelli, the man who'd won the Gold Medal in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games Road Race.  The eventual Giro winner, the Swede, Gosta Petterson, finished 5th that day, over 4 minutes back.

It seems in '71, the Grossglockner wasn't a stage to win the Giro, rather a day not to lose it.  Will that hold true this year, or will somebody use the 'Lance strategy' and put in a Charly Gaul-like attack to assert domination on the first big day, in a series of mountain days?  The story will unfold in a few short weeks.


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