Icons of cycling: Blockhaus

Eddy Merckx’s first Grand Tour stage win came on the Giro’s first ever ascent of the southern Italian climb

Danilo Di Luca, Denis Menchov, Lance, Armstrong and Franco Pellizotti at the 2009 Giro d'Italia (Credit: Watson)
(Image credit: Watson)

Words by: Giles Belbin

Making its name from a fortress built on its summit in 1860, Blockhaus is a tough climb in the Abruzzo region that has played a big part in shaping Giro d’Italia history despite being used sparingly — 2017 will only be the seventh time the race has visited the climb, also known as Passo Lanciano, since it was first used 50 years ago.

On May 31 1967, stage 12 took the peloton from Caserta to a summit finish on the mountain, via climbs of the Macerone, Rionero Sannitico and Roccaraso.

In the bunch that day was a young Belgian who had already established himself as a formidable one-day rider.

But now Eddy Merckx had entered his first Grand Tour, focused on showing what he could do in the high mountains of Italy.

Pellizotti wins atop the Blockhaus during the 2009 Giro d'Italia (Sunada)
(Image credit: Sunada)

Merckx’s glory

When the Italian climber Italo Zilioli attacked with around 2km to go, just one rider was able to match the move — Merckx. With the two out front alone and heading towards the summit, the Belgian then launched his own bid.

Such was the ferocity of Merckx’s effort that Zilioli later reflected that it seemed like Merckx was gone in a flash — that one moment he was behind him and the next he had just vanished up the road.

Merckx finished 10 seconds ahead of the Italian to record his first Grand Tour stage win. Zilioli was inconsolable and the Italian media stunned.

“Italian disappointment: Belgian sprinter wins in the mountains,” said La Gazzetta dello Sport. To further ram home the message that here was a rider that could win everywhere, Merckx won a second stage two days later, on the flat and in a sprint.

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A year later he rode to the summit of Blockhaus again. This time he finished second on the stage but wore pink, en route to the first of his five Giro titles.

Not that the climb holds only special memories for Merckx. On the race’s next visit in 1972, the great man was humbled during a 48km blast to the mountain from the seaside town of Francavilla al Mare.

The Belgian lost two and a half minutes and was described as arriving at the finish in a state of exhaustion, his head slumped on his handlebars.

The last time the Giro visited the climb was in 2009 when Franco Pellizotti won, though the result would later be removed from Pellizotti’s palmarès due to anti-doping violations.

While other races have also featured the climb — in 2014 Alberto Contador attacked to win the stage and claim the leader’s jersey in Tirreno-Adriatico — it is at the Giro where its greatest stories have unfolded, with the authors of the next chapter poised to put pen to paper.

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Henry Robertshaw began his time at Cycling Weekly working with the tech team, writing reviews, buying guides and appearing in videos advising on how to dress for the seasons. He later moved over to the news team, where his work focused on the professional peloton as well as legislation and provision for cycling. He's since moved his career in a new direction, with a role at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.