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Moments: Marco Pantani at Campo Imperatore

On 12th May, the Giro d’Italia will hold one of its most famous stages at Gran Sasso d’Italia, arriving at Campo Imperatore. In 1999, Marco Pantani held one of his most historical performances on this iconic ascent.
Marco Pantani Campo Imperatore Ascent 1999
Marco Pantani during Campo Imperatore Ascent in 1999

Gran Sasso d’Italia is the highest mountain in peninsular Italy and Appenini, just shy of 3,000 meters and with several peaks above 2,500 meters. It is also home to the most Southern glacier in Europe, Ghiacciaio del Calderone, even though it is gradually disappearing and it is now half of what it was 60 years ago. 1,400 meters inside the mountain, the National Laboratories of Gran Sasso are the largest underground laboratories of the world together with CERN and represent the excellence of Italy’s physics research.

Apart from a mountaineering and research point of view, the Gran Sasso had a crucial role during WWII when Benito Mussolini was imprisoned on 28th August 1943 at Campo Imperatore, which was considered a hostile and inaccessible place, before being freed by the German army 15 days later. After 80 years, Campo Imperatore is abandoned and only a small hostel is on the site. However, it is still the initial point for any Western ascent to Gran Sasso and the final point of one of the most famous Giro d’Italia’s ascents.

Campo Imperatore hotel winter
Campo Imperatore Hotel during the Winter Season

The 26.4 kilometers of ascent to Campo Imperatore starts from Santo Stefano di Sessanio with an average incline of 3.4% (13% max) and a total vertical gain of 900 meters. The last 4 kilometers are the real deal where the average incline is 8%, cyclists are above 2,000 meters and temperatures are close to 0 degrees. The arrival at Campo Imperatore, 2,130 meters, is usually covered with snow and is one of the most suggestive of the race.

Campo Imperatore ascent
Campo Imperatore ascent profile from 2023 Giro

The ascent was part of Giro d’Italia for the first time in 1971, won by the Spanish Vicente López Carril, and this year will be the sixth time where cyclists will arrive at Campo Imperatore. The stage has always been within the first 10 of the Giro, except for the 1985 edition when it was the 14th, and one of the main stages before tackling the Alps ascents in the latter part. Many times the Maglia Rosa passed hands at Campo Imperatore, one of these being the unforgettable 1999 edition.

On 12th May 1999, the stage from Pescara to Campo Imperatore was the 8th in the Giro. All eyes were on the first big ascent of the year from Marco Pantani, the Pirata from Cesenatico who had just done the double, Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, the year before. Pantani was the best cyclist in the world at that time and an icon who went beyond the sport. Italy stopped functioning when Pantani was racing and all Italians were glued to the TV, similar to Alberto Tomba’s phenomenon a few years before - this is a story for another time.

The atmosphere during those days was particularly tense in the pack due to a debate about the spot on medical controls indicted by CONI, the Italian Olympic Committee, during the Giro in order to tackle the rising issue of doping. Many cyclists and teams took sides against this practice and Pantani was one of these. During the early kilometers of the stage, Pantani had a heated conversation with another cyclist, Andrea Tafi, about their divergent views on the topic leaving Tafi in tears and thinking about retirement from the race.

Marco Pantani Campo Imperatore 1999
Pantani during on of his sprints

That afternoon the weather conditions were terrible, with temperatures below 0 degrees at Campo Imperatore and torrential rain falling which made it impossible for helicopters to fly and left spectators only with TV shots from the ground and updates from Radio Corsa. Despite all the rumors about his sub-optimal form, at 4:04 pm Pantani started a series of accelerations in the last 2,500 meters of the ascent which force the other cyclists to capitulate one after the other, with Ivan Gotti being the last one to fall. On the last turn before the finish line, a collective scream erupted from the crowd while the commentator exclaimed “Eccolo” (“Here he is”). The Pirata concluded the ascent from Fonte Cerreto to Campo Imperatore in 53 minutes and 40 seconds winning the stage and taking the Maglia Rosa.

Brividi d’emozione: di quelli che un giorno si dirà, ‘io c’ero’ Chills of emotion: of those who one day will say, 'I was there' The day after the race on the newspaper Repubblica

24 years passed since that day and looking back now, nobody could know that the win at Campo Imperatore was one of Pantani’s the last bright days. Later on in that edition of the Giro d’Italia, Pantani was found positive for EPO during a doping control in Madonna di Campiglio and his descending trajectory would start.

Despite what happened after, history was written by the Pirata on that day. In 2015, the organizers and local municipalities decided to entitle the ascent from Fonte Cerreto to Campo Imperatore Salita Pantani, giving him a forever place in cycling history.


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