By John Wilcockson
Charly Gaul, perhaps the best pure climber the sport of road cycling has ever produced, should have been standing at the Monte Bondone summit finish of Tuesday’s stage of the Giro d’Italia. But Gaul, who won an epic victory on the Bondone climb in 1956, died last December at age 72. The Giro organizers chose the Bondone as the stage 16 finish to mark the 50th anniversary of Gaul’s stage win, which was achieved in apocalyptic conditions.
Gaul was only 20 when he turned pro for a French team, Terrot, in May 1953. Within a month he was racing in the second biggest stage race in France, the Dauphiné Libéré, where he astounded the professional peloton by placing second overall and taking the King of the Mountains title. After that race, the veteran Belgian rider Pino Cerami said that Gaul “climbed even better than Coppi.” (Italian legend Fausto Coppi, of course, had won the Giro and Tour de France multiple times at that point in his career.) “Gaul pedaled a smaller gear than anyone, sitting on his saddle, [whereas] Coppi pushed a much bigger gear and had to accelerate several times before breaking away.”
Gaul’s first major victory came in May 1954 at the now defunct Circuit des Six Provinces, when he won a stage over the Croix du Chabouret climb into St. Étienne (over the same climb that Floyd Landis rode away from the Paris-Nice field this spring). Pierre About, a reporter for the French sports newspaper L’Équipe, wrote in his report that day that the 21-year-old Gaul, because of his unlined face, blue eyes and smooth climbing style, was like “the angel of the mountains.”
That moniker stuck with Gaul until his death 51 years later, even though his peers said his moods were much more complex than an angel’s. One of Gaul’s most bitter rivals — and later closest friends —Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes said, “He had a very strong character, terrible even.” Indeed, Gaul could explode into angry outbursts, but that strength of character also enabled him to make marathon solo breakaways in the mountains.
The first of these stupendous exploits was his race-winning move on the stage to Monte Bondone at the 1956 Giro. Starting what was that year’s final mountain stage, Gaul wasn’t even in the top 10 after he had flatted three times the previous day. He was lying in 24th place, a distant 16 minutes behind race leader Pasquale Fornara of Italy.
The 242km stage started from Merano in the Dolomites in cold, wet weather. Gaul made his first attack with Bahamontes on the day’s first climb, the Costalunga. They were reeled in on the descent, but Gaul attacked again on the second climb, the Passo Rolle. This time, the Angel of the Mountains really took flight and by the top of the pass race leader Fornara, suffering in the awful conditions, was four minutes behind. But Gaul then had more bad luck. Two punctures cost him six minutes and he was well behind the leaders when he reached the foot of the day’s third giant climb, the Brocon, as the rain redoubled in ferocity.
Over this third climb in a stage that would take the leaders nine hours to complete, Gaul again turned on his climbing power. He passed Fornara and set about chasing the other top Italians, Fiorenzo Magni and Nino De Filippis. The Luxembourger continued his relentless progress into a violent head wind. With about 40km to go, he had passed Magni, caught De Filippis and was only two minutes behind the leader on the road, Bruno Monti.
At this point, with Fornara almost five minutes behind, De Filippis was the virtual race leader. But once Gaul passed him, De Filippis suddenly lost all his willpower in the horrendous weather. He could barely turn the pedals and was soon re-caught by the Fornara group. De Filippis could go any further. He stopped, collapsed and was then carried into his Bianchi team car.
By the time Gaul reached the wet streets of Trento, at that foot of the 14km ascent to the ridge-like summit of Monte Bondone, the frail-looking 23-year-old climber was looking strong enough to win the stage and perhaps take over the pink jersey.
On the early slopes of the climb, where the grade was at 10 percent, the rain began turning to snow and later to a full blizzard, blown by gusting winds. The maglia rosa, Fornara, was overcome by the freezing temperatures and took refuge in a farmhouse. Others rode to a standstill, while some riders stopped to dip their freezing hands in bowls of hot water offered by spectators. Only 43 of the day’s 89 starters would reach the Bondone’s 5413-foot summit, and some of those arrived in cars (and were allowed to start the next day).
Gaul — about whom French rival Raphaël Geminiani once said, “he has the skin of a hippo” — plowed a lone furrow through the tempest. He arrived at the summit finish almost eight minutes ahead of the second man, Alessandro Fantini, and 12:15 ahead of defending champion Magni. His face a wrinkled mess, his hands and feet turned blue, Gaul had won the stage and taken the Giro lead by 3:27 over Magni. Never in the history of the Italian race had one man come from so far back to win the overall title in a single day. Gaul had to have his clothes cut from his frigid body before he was immersed in a hot bath at his hotel. Two days later he was crowned the champion of the 1956 Giro d’Italia.
His feat is still revered and remembered. It was a shame he couldn’t be on Monte Bondone this week.