Carmine Castellano is eighty-two years old, and he has dedicated thirty of those years to the Giro d’Italia. He followed the corsa rosa every year from 1976 to 2005 and served as race director 17 times. For eleven months of the year he acted as a kind of explorer: Castellano was always looking for new things. He browsed road atlases, consulted friends and experts, and traveled. His goal every year was to find something that would add novelty, anticipation or debate to the Giro. Or even just “a little spice,” as he says.
Bringing the Giro d’Italia caravan to new and never-visited places is not easy, especially because, as Castellano explains, “the Giro is polite and does not enter others’ homes without being invited.” But sometimes the invitations came as a result of what were essentially chance meetings. In 1988, a few weeks after the famous Giro d’Italia passage over the Gavia Pass in the middle of a snowstorm, the lawyer Castellano was at dinner in a hotel in Sondrio. The second edition of the Trofeo dello Scalatore had just finished.
“Two friends came to me,” recalls the former director of the Giro. “One of the two was Mario Cotelli, manager of the Italian national ski team during the years of the ‘blue avalanche.’ They told me that not far from there was a very tough climb, harder than both the Stelvio and the Gavia. And, a critical detail, this climb did not reach 2,000 meters of elevation, so it would see bad weather less frequently than the other ‘monsters’ of the Giro.” The legend of the Mortirolo Pass began to take shape the next morning: “We left at 7. These two friends told me: ‘Carmine, you’ll waste an hour, but come see this Mortirolo…’”
It was an epiphany: 11.9 kilometers at a 10.9 percent average gradient, the narrow road rising up in a series of very steep switchbacks. After about 3 kilometers of climbing, past the chapel of San Matteo, a wall with sections reaching a gradient of 18 to 20 percent. Castellano couldn’t wait to introduce it to the world. “Unfortunately, due to the Val Pola landslide, I wasn’t yet able to add it to the 1989 Giro,” he said, “and in 1990 I had to settle for the easier side of the climb, from Edolo. But the following year we finally managed to do the real Mortirolo.”
Franco Chioccioli dominated on the Mortirolo (and in the final classification of the Giro) in 1991, the year the most challenging side debuted. Pantani, with his climb in the 1994 Giro, contributed significantly to the development of the legendary reputation of the pass; then Gotti and Basso (twice each), Belli, and Kruijswijk, among others, were first to the top of the Mortirolo. This year it was Giulio Ciccone’s turn — he was not only first over the pass but (numb with cold) first across the stage finish line, in Ponte di Legno.
The journalist Marco Pastonesi wrote that “the Mortirolo is the Maracanã of cycling”; Claudio Gregori added that this climb with the ominous name is nothing less than a “dagger.” The Mortirolo is universally considered one of Europe’s most brutal climbs, along with the Zoncolan and Angliru. But “Mr. Mortirolo” nevertheless assures us that he has never received complaints from exhausted riders. “Some have found fault with the road surface, but nothing more,” says Castellano.
In addition to the Mortirolo, we also owe to him the introduction of Monte Zoncolan and the Colle delle Finestre, the other two gems in his career as the deus ex machina of the Giro d’Italia. After months exploring possible routes, the three weeks of the race itself would arrive, and he would spend them almost entirely with his head and shoulders emerging from the roof of his director’s car, about 50 meters ahead of the group: “The only way to control the race situation.” Castellano’s profile, appearing watchfully above his car, became an iconic image of the Giro d’Italia in the ’80s and ’90s. Rain, snow or hail, he was always there. “Yet I never caught a cold,” he declares. “If anything it was the sun that burned my nose a little and bothered me at night.”
Now that he is retired, the lawyer Castellano returns to the Giro from time to time, especially when the race passes near Sorrento, where he lives. “It’s like going to see an old friend,” he explains. A friend who over the years has earned the appreciation of cycling enthusiasts from around the world — all but one. After the Giro first climbed the extremely difficult Monte Zoncolan, which Castellano introduced in 2003, a letter addressed to him arrived at the Gazzetta dello Sport. It began like this: “Dear Sir: I use the informal ‘you’ only with children, relatives and idiots, and you are neither a child nor a relative.” It then continued with a series of insults aimed at the director of the Giro and his supposed sadism toward the riders. “I never replied,” Castellano concludes. “But I did laugh about it a lot.”
Words: Bidon – Ciclismo allo stato liquido
Pictures: Gettyimages – Gruberimages