2019 Giro d’Italia – A trip down memory lane!

October in Europe is always an interesting period as the Grand Tour cycling races begin to release the stage profiles for the following year. Now that the anticipation and speculation has turned into reality we are pleased to report a few of our favourite findings from the 2019 Giro d’Italia race route.

In 2019 the Tour de France will pay a special homage to Eddy Merckx with two initial stages in Belgium. The Giro d’Italia, not wanting to miss out, has also prepared a nostalgic itinerary for its 2019 race edition. Giro #102 features three legendary climbs in the final week of racing (Passo di Gavia, Mortirolo & Passo Manghen) and a Stage 21 individual time trial for Verona and its Roman Amphitheatre.

Mortirolo & Giro 1994 – A legend is Born!

Mortirolo in our opinion would have to be in the top three climbs for difficulty when it comes to European pro cycling. Monte Zoncolan (Italy) and El Angliru (Spain) are the other beasts which have average climb gradients soaring above 10%. Relatively speaking it’s a new Giro climb as it wasn’t until 1990 that the road to Mortirolo was asphalted and included in the Giro route. 2019 marks 15 years since a young Marco Pantani came to prominence as the then ‘gregario’ executed a solitary Mortirolo escape during Stage 15 of the 1994 Giro.  The ‘Pirate’ left Miguel Indurain and Claudio Chiappucci in his wake. It was not enough to win the Giro d’Italia but he found himself second on the podium and the legend of Marco Pantani was born that very day on the Mortirolo. Stage 16 of the 2019 Giro d’Italia will again scale the summits of Mortirolo just before the finish line in Ponte di Legno so be sure to be watching as the Giro is set to be ignited yet again. A successful breakaway on the Mortirolo in 2019 is likely to deliver a career defining stage win!

Giro 1949: Cueno to Pinerolo – A Solo Victory for the Ages!

Going back even further to 1949 and Fausto Coppi rode alone for 192km as he attacked through the Alpes during Stage 17 to claim his third pink jersey! During the 2019 Giro d’Italia the race will honour the 70th Anniversary of this remarkable solo victory with the stage also starting and finishing in Cuneo and Pinerolo like all that time ago. The 2019 Giro stage in no way resembles what Coppi endured but expect a true Italian celebration as the towns are ‘dressed in pink’ for what was arguably Coppi’s finest ever victory!

Verona ITT – Sabotage at the 1984 Giro?

To round out our ‘ride down Giro memory lane’ and we go back to Stage 21 of the 1984 Giro d’Italia. It was during the Stage 21 individual time trial around Verona that Italian hero Francisco Moser finally won his only Grand Tour title over French cycling star Laurent Fignon. The entire 1984 Giro d’Italia was a battle between Moser and Fignon and they were the only two riders to actually wear the Maglia Rosa that year. Despite many stories of sabotage during the 1984 Giro (time penalities for Fignon, roadside assistance for Moser on the big Dolomites cycling climbs, removing the Stelvio Pass to Fignon’s disadvantage when in fact there was no snow …..) the most intriguing story we think surrounds the Stage 21 time trial in Verona.

Moser took more than 2 minutes over Fignon during the Stage 21 time trial to reclaim the pink jersey but it was later alleged that the official race helicopter had flown directly in front of Fignon and behind Moser creating a headwind and tailwind respectively! Whatever the case the photos of the 1984 Giro d’Italia victory for Francisco Moser inside the Verona Roman Amphitheatre are now part of Italian cycling folklore. Three second Giro d’Italia places during the late 70’s were finally rewarded with victory for Moser in 1984!

Who will win the 2019 Giro d’Italia?

25 years on and will the 2019 Giro d’Italia crown a new Italian hero inside the Verona Roman Amphitheatre? The 2019 Giro final stage time trial only measures 15.6km and it would have been nice to see something a bit longer, a stage closer to the 42km raced by Moser and Fignon back in 1984. Perhaps the 2019 Giro d’Italia has been prepared with Vincenzo Nibali in mind? Stage 15 of the 2019 Giro route, for example, is a replica of ‘Il Lombardia’ cycling monument race which Nibali has won twice before. It is still a long way out to make big predictions but with Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin most likely to focus 100% on the 2019 Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali looking for his third Giro d’Italia crown and Simon Yates fresh from his 2018 La Vuelta a España success are our two top picks right now. No point sitting on the fence though so we have Nibali ahead of Yates by a wheel length!

Cycling with a 5 time Tour de France champion!

During 2014 the Sierra peloton received a special treat cycling an organised 150km stage with Miguel Indurain from Urzainki to Formigal through the Spanish Pyrenees. The ride took us from the heart of the Irati Forest all the way through to the finish at Formigal, one of Spain’s most recognised ski stations in the Pyrenees, and only 5km from the Spanish/French border.

‘Big Mig’ as he is affectionately known in English (‘Migalon’ en Spanish) stepped onto his first Tour de France podium in Paris on 28 July 1991. During the 1991 Tour de France, Miguel gained more than 7 minutes over Greg LeMond during the ‘Tourmalet’ Stage 12 to set him up for his first yellow jersey. The rest as it goes was history and he held it all the way to the Champs Elysees and which started a 5 year winning streak through to 1995.

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain

As our day surrounded by cycling royalty was heading to a close we arrived to the valley approaching Formigal. The final 16km climb at 4% average grade, while long, is not overly taxing unless of course you are riding with a past TDF champion! To add some interest we left the main road mid-climb to cycle the secondary road which follows the reservoir through to Sallent del Gallego. Spectacular scenery with multiple 3000m+ peaks surrounding us! After leaving the town centre one is met with a sudden transition of 4 kilometres around 8%. The final ramp on the backroad to the Formigal ski resort was 25% and required one last effort to our hotel for the night.

How the 1991 TDF was won!

On arrival to Formigal Miguel Indurain spoke to the local newspaper that had gathered to ask him about his famous day on the Tourmalet in 1991. Translated into English it went something like this:

“My idea was not to attack in the mountains. When I launched my downhill attack on the Tourmalet I simply wanted to see what happened. At the outset I was not prepared. My intention had been to try and maintain my presence during the mountain stages and to arrive to the last time trial with an opportunity”. 

The Sierra peloton continued to chatter away excitedly in the presence of an international sporting hero!

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain

Stage 12 of the 1991 TDF

Here is some further background on the defining stage that first brought Big Mig into Le Tour spotlight. On the bikes the professional peloton needed to clear five categorised climbs making it the epic 1991 Tour de France Queen Stage. The pro-cyclists rode 232km from Jaca (Spain) to Val Louron (France) through territory which makes cycling in the Pyrenees a real pleasure. The classic climbs included Portalet, Col d’Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and Val Louron. In case you don’t know already, the mountain road linking the Aubisque and Soulor climbs is one of the most scenic routes world-wide and to put it bluntly is a ‘must do’ for any cycling enthusiast!

The balcony road from Col du Soulor to Col d'Aubisque in the Pyrenees

As a quick side note, the following day our cycling tour group replicated a good chunk of the Stage 12 route which included a 100km cycling challenge over the final 5km of Portalet from Formigal into France, the Category 1 climb of Aubisque, the easy side of Col du Soulor and the hors categorie ascent of the Tourmalet. With approximately 3000m elevation gain it was a big ride but after hearing the stories and exploits of Migalon over dinner the previous night it certainly helped push us all on to a day of great feats!

Col du Tourmalet

With the Tourmalet playing centre-stage Miguel Indurain made his attack on the descent and took on the 1991 Tour de France and made the race his own. Col du Tourmalet is as big as they come when it comes to professional cycling history. During 1991 the Tour de France took on the 19km climb from Luz Saint-Sauveur (7.4% average gradient).

The Tourmalet can you believe has around 85 Tour de France race route passings. This magic col has inspired us so much that we have even designed an exclusive Tourmalet cycling jersey as seen in the below selfie.

Tourmalet cycling jersey

From Luz Saint-Sauveur there is nothing overly glamorous during the initial 7km up to the ski village Bareges. A constant test and some long straight sections to contend with as you follow your way alongside the Le Bastan river. Not long after leaving Bareges you arrive at a large car park which flattens considerably and gives the legs a nice reprieve. It is always a good place to regroup or even have a support car positioned. From here the main road begins to transform into a real mountain col as its sinuous path up to the summit now begins. It is also from this point in Le Tour that the caravans start lining the side of the road as the magnificent switchbacks immediately begin after exiting the carpark.

If you are looking for a car-free section though and something special then after Bareges and just before the car park veer off to the right on the still asphalted road which is also known as the Laurent Fignon way (‘Voie Laurent Fignon’). The original D918 road is open for cyclists only and its narrow winding asphalted road still exhibit some faded TDF race markings and the views down to the valley below are simply unrivalled!

[Just in case you didn’t know, Laurent Fignon was a professional French cyclist who won the Tour de France in 1983 and 1984. He was also the leader of the 1984 Giro d’Italia heading into the Stage 21 ITT in Verona. To follow a short story about Francisco Moser & Laurent Fignon and potential sabotage at the 1984 Giro please click here].

Coming back to Voie Laurent Fignon on the Tourmalet and it is only a short 2.4km stretch of road, which gains 200m of elevation and later joins back with the modern road. It is well worth the detour though especially considering it was first used all the way back for the inaugural TDF raid into the Pyrenees.

Looking from the Tourmalet summit towards Luz Saint-Sauveur

Now that we have rejoined the main drag it is the final two kilometres which are definitely the hardest on this western Tourmalet ascent. So keep that in mind as you start nearing the 2000m altitude mark. If you have kept something in reserve it is usually here, during the final kilometre, where you catch many recreational cyclists who are often now pedalling squares. The final big left, hard switchback is gruelling but an awesome piece of construction and the final 200m feel like an eternity. For most the highlight is greeting the giant structure (`Geant`) at the rock-cut summit which peaks at 2115m elevation.

Le Geant statue of Octave Lapize on Col du Tourmalet

Le Geant – Octave Lapize

The giant is dedicated to Octave Lapize the first cyclist to cross the Tourmalet during the TDF over a century ago (1910 to be exact)! Just a miserly 326km stage which took about 14 hours for Octave to complete and win back in the day. A highlight for everyone that reaches this magical destination is to mark the moment with a series of photos around the massive statue.

If time permits and you like cycling history also check out the bar at the top directly in front of Le Geant. Some old school TDF bikes are hanging from the walls and excellent black and white photos recalling just how difficult the race was during its early editions in the Pyrenees.

In a perfect world the statue would remain at the summit all year round but the conditions even during summer can be very harsh. So to keep it exposed to the winter elements would be a major mistake and as such between October and June every year it rests down in the Laurent Fignon centre near Bagneres-Bigorre.

To mark the opening of the cycling season the first weekend of June sees the return of Le Geant to its rightful place atop the Col du Tourmalet summit. Keep your eye out for the Montee du Geant free event where often one thousand recreational cyclists follow behind the giant statue as it travels the 30km from Gedre up to the summit. A true celebration of cycling perfect for cyclists of all abilities.

Time to Descend

After the compulsory photos at the summit you can cruise back down the western face of the Tourmalet and spend some time around Luz Saint Sauveur. From this side you have the Gavarnie National Park with the Col des Tentes and Col du Troumouse climbs which are two non-TDF gems. Nearby there are also many other classic cycling cols rising up from Argeles-Gazost and which are covered in detail in our Cycling the French Pyrenees blog post (to be released January 2021).

Otherwise, from the Tourmalet summit continue your ride east down to Sainte-Marie de Campan and the direction where Miguel Indurain made his historic downhill attack during the 1991 Tour de France. Take some speed off this eastern descent as there are not as many switchbacks and a couple of avalanche structures to pass through. The longer stretches can see you build up considerable speed and there are a few surprising corners to still carefully navigate. Once at the bottom in ‘Sainte-Marie’ the options again are endless with Col d’Aspin and Hourquette d’Ancizan immediately up for grabs. You are now also on the doorstep of Saint-Lary Soulan which in our opinion is one of the best bases for outdoor activities in the Pyrenees. 

Related Road Cycling Articles

To find out more about the Pyrenees and many of these above cols and cycling destinations stay tuned for our complete web-guide to Cycling in the French Pyrenees. There is even some more Miguel Indurain information as we feature the underrated Pont de Larrau climb in the French Pyrenees where Big Mig saw his 1996 Tour de France dreams disappear. Pont de Larrau was part of a tough stage through the Pyrenees and was planned to be a commemoration to Big Mig in many ways as the race also passed through his very own Spanish hometown on its way to the finish in Pamplona.

In addition, if you would like to ride the Spanish & French Pyrenees in the future please check out our detailed Pyrenees Coast 2 Coast cycling tour itinerary. We have designed a challenging but fun itinerary which zig-zags both sides of the Pyrenees showcasing the highlights and cultural differences between these two iconic cycling nations!

Cycling with the legend Miguel Indurain