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The Mortirolo: One of the Giro d’Italia’s toughest climbs

In-depth
24 May 2022
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Today, the Giro d’Italia tackles the fearsome slopes of the Mortirolo, one of Italy’s hardest climbs. Cyclist’s Henry Catchpole knows what it’s all about

Photography Alex Duffill

You have to be a cyclist to understand the appeal of the Mortirolo.

It’s too narrow and poorly surfaced to be fun in a car or on a motorbike, and the main road provides a faster and easier route between Mazzo and Monno.

Unlike the nearby Stelvio and Gavia, there are no real views for the traditional tourist to stand and gaze over, mouth agape. No Michelin-starred cuisine or site of special scientific interest awaits you on the summit either.

A compulsion to don Lycra and pedal is therefore imperative if you’re to be inspired by these slopes. Take anyone else over the Mortirolo and they will have forgotten all about it as soon as they finished descending it.

Even the world of cycling wasn’t aware of the Passo del Mortirolo (also known as the Passo della Foppa) until 30 years ago, and what’s more it almost robbed us of one of the Giro’s most famous stages.

In 1988 the Gavia was still stacked with spring snow and even in pre-Extreme Weather Protocol days the authorities were wondering whether it might be a bit too chilly for the riders.

The nearby Mortirolo, which summits nearly 1,000m lower than the Gavia, was suggested as an alternative. The commissaires decided that a little bit of frostbite wouldn’t do the peloton too much harm and as a result we have the images of Andy Hampsten battling valiantly through the snow.

However, although it wasn’t used in 1988 (or 1989), the Mortirolo’s presence had been noted and in 1990 it made its Giro debut.

That first year the riders ascended from Monno, but the steep descent was deemed too treacherous in hindsight, so in 1991 the route went in the opposite direction and the rest is history.

Out of sights

On the way to the Mortirolo, it seems natural to ride through the sleepy streets of Mazzo di Valtellina first, admiring the Alpine architecture and cream-coloured walls that lie in the valley between the wooded slopes.

However, it’s almost impossible to avoid juddering across some cobbles if you cycle through the centre of town, and that might not be the preparation your body needs.

Follow the small brown signs south towards Salita del Mortirolo (climb of the Mortirolo) and after a few twists and turns you’ll see the large, craggy piece of pale rock that marks the official start of the climb on Via Valle.

(Curiously, if you look on Google Maps, you’ll see the Strada del Mortirolo actually climbs out of the town a bit further north, but if you’re following the official route you’ll only join that road after about 2.5km).

The climb is narrow from the start and the first few hairpins snake through orchards. The next point of interest is the imposing if slightly dishevelled Castello di Pedenale, which sits on a prominent hillock next to the road.

It was built by the powerful Venosta family in the 12th century and was part of a network of defences around the Mortirolo Pass.

I mention these little cultural delights because, bar a church and one notable monument that we’ll get to in a bit, that’s really it for sights. Immediately after the castle, you plunge into the mainly deciduous trees that are densely spread across the mountain, and most of the climb is spent beneath branches.

If it’s sunny you’ll be glad of the shade, even while cursing the slightly stifling nature of the still air in the arboreal tunnel. And you’ll definitely notice the nature of the air because you’ll be sucking in great lungfuls of the stuff.

Between kilometres three and six, right in the heart of this 12km ascent, the gradient averages between 11% and 14%. It’s relentless. There’s no other word for it.

It doesn’t have the severe spikes of the Angliru or Zoncolan (although I still saw brief flashes of 20% on my bike computer), but it grinds you down with its sustained steepness.

It’s like a boxer that doesn’t possess a knockout punch so just keeps pummelling you with hefty body blows until you sink to the canvas. At hairpin 14 you emerge, briefly, from the trees into a meadow. It was here that Alberto Contador danced away from a pain-faced Fabio Aru in the 2015 Giro.

On the day I ride it there’s some Spanish graffiti chalked on the road, but this unsheltered stretch also brings an unwelcome hammer blow of headwind to exacerbate the gradient.

Haul yourself through the next couple of tightly stacked switchbacks and you’ll pass a more permanent reminder of a cyclist: a sculpture of Il Pirata, Marco Pantani.

Mounted high on a wall, the sculpture shows Pantani in his classic attacking climbing position with his hands on the drops. He’s looking back over his left shoulder, no doubt assessing the damage wrought on those left behind.

In 1994 Pantani was in his second full professional season and started the Giro in support of Claudio Chiappucci.

However, he won the mountainous Stage 14 and the next day, after crossing the Stelvio, he attacked at the bottom of the Mortirolo and went on to win his second consecutive mountain stage.

This catapulted him both into the limelight and into second overall on GC, behind eventual winner Evgeni Berzin but ahead of none other than Miguel Indurain, who had won the race in both 1992 and 1993.

While it is disappointing and deflating knowing that it was almost certainly drugs that allowed him to push a 39/23 up here with disarming disdain, it’s nonetheless hard not to admire the panache with which he used his forbidden fuel.

Onwards, ever onwards

By the time you pass the Pantani monument, the realisation hits that there is still a third of the climb to go. Each hairpin has a number, counting down from 33, and they’re ticked off with reasonable regularity, helping to break up the climb into smaller chunks.

Until you reach number eight, that is. From here to number seven it’s a tortuous 1.5km, and it seems to last an eternity as you plug away through the trees.

Thankfully, not long after this you emerge from between the trunks for the final time and into something akin to heathland.

Once here you’re over the worst, and after the final hairpin the gradient even eases enough to allow a sprint for the line so that you can pretend you’re Pantani – even if it’s only for a few pedal strokes.

And it’s worth remembering as you reach the finish of the climb that this was also the start of something. Such was the intrigue generated by this hideously difficult ascent that the Vuelta felt it needed to respond and find something harder still.

So, to grab its own headlines, the peloton was tortured on the Angliru. Then, keen not to be outdone, the Giro organisers in turn retaliated by sending the riders zig-zagging up the Zoncolan.

But for many, the Mortirolo and its savage slopes will remain the original and hardest climb of them all (an assertion made by Lance Armstrong after training there). The wider world might not see the appeal, but if you’re a cyclist the Mortirolo is a must.

Want to read more about this year's Giro? Check out our guide on this year's route and on how to watch the race