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Classic climbs: Passo Pordoi

BikesEtc
3 Mar 2017

A true test of your cycling mettle awaits in one of Europe's most formidable landscapes

Towering over the heart of the Dolomites in north-eastern Italy, the rocky plateau of the Gruppo della Sella and Sasso Pordoi can be seen for miles around.

It’s one of the key features that makes the Passo Pordoi a must-do climb for cyclists, its two routes converging in the shadow of that monumental granite outcrop.

Built in 1904, the Passo Pordoi has been among the regular highlights of the Giro d’Italia since its first appearance in 1937, and for the past 30 years has also featured as the second of the seven mountain passes in the infamous Maratona dles Dolomites sportive (www.maratona.it).

Although it may not be the toughest climb on that notoriously difficult one-day ride, it is the highest – at 2,239m, the summit of the Pordoi is a few metres above that of the Passo Giau, making it the second-highest paved mountain pass in the Dolomites after the Passo Sella.

Another hugely popular closed-road cycling event, the Sellaronda Bike Day (www.sellarondabikeday.com) takes more than 20,000 riders over the four passes surrounding the Gruppo Sella every June, including the Pordoi.

Being a mountain pass, it’s possible to approach the Passo Pordoi from two directions. Starting from the west in Canazei, the road climbs for 13km at an average gradient of 6%, its 28 hairpins twisting their way through alpine meadows, with breathtaking views of the Gruppo Sella and Sasso Pordoi, punctuated by spells of riding through cool pine forests.

While the road from Canazei is the more scenic of the two ascents, it’s the route from the east, starting in Arabba, that is favoured by both the Giro d’Italia and the Maratona – shorter at just 9.4km but steeper, with even more hairpins and an average gradient of 6.8%, nudging double figures at its steepest point, around 1.5km into the climb.

Coppi's climb

Open roads allow expansive views back down the valley or towards the rocky crags that loom overhead. The great Fausto Coppi became synonymous with this climb, and a monument to his achievements stands at the summit.

The first time Il Campionissimo (‘The Champion of Champions’) encountered the Pordoi was in 1940, leading the Giro d’Italia at his first attempt and cresting the summit alongside his great rival (and then team-mate) Gino Bartali.

On the descent, Bartali took a wrong turn while Coppi continued on the correct route towards the Passo Sella. But the Pordoi had taken its toll on Coppi and Bartali not only caught him but had to literally push him to carry on.

Coppi went on to win the Giro and again on four more occasions, and the Pordoi became his favourite climb – he was first over its summit a total of five times.

Following Coppi’s death in 1960, Giro organisers instituted the Cima Coppi, the prize awarded to the first rider over the summit of the highest pass in that year’s edition of the Giro – an honour that’s gone to the Pordoi on 13 occasions.

The historical role of the Dolomites is remembered in another monument that stands to the east of the summit – a circular ossuary containing the remains of 8,582 German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers who died on its slopes during the First World War.

The region saw many vicious battles during the conflict with many soldiers succumbing to cold and exposure. A chilling reminder of how this gloriously stunning landscape needs to be respected at all times.

Race numbers

1937: Year the Giro d’Italia first visited the Passo Pordoi.
5: The number of times Fausto Coppi led the Giro d’Italia over the Pordoi’s summit.
9.7%: Passo Pordoi’s steepest gradient, which comes 1.5km into the climb.
13: Occasions the Pordoi has had Cima Coppi status – i.e. been the highest point of the Giro d’Italia.
2,239: Passo Pordoi’s highest point as measured in metres.

Do it yourself

To travel to the Dolomites, the best option is to fly to Venice Marco Polo – Monarch Airlines (monarch.co.uk) operates direct flights from London Gatwick and Manchester, with prices starting from around £60 for a return trip.

The stats

(from Arabba)

Summit: 2,239m
Elevation: 637m
Length: 9.4km
Average gradient: 6.8%
Maximum gradient: 9.7%

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