They say 666 is the number of the beast. It will certainly feel that way when the 102nd edition of the Giro d'Italia kicks off this Saturday with a monstrous time trial up to the Basilica San Luca.
Towering above the city of Bologna, the eye-catching church is reached by a steep 1.8-kilometre climb lined by a sandstone portico made up of 666 arches. And with the gradient ramping up to a maximum 16%, each one of those arches will feel fairly diabolical at the end of an intriguing 8km ITT.
It may not share the same celebrity status of the Koppenberg, Mur de Huy or La Redoute, but the punchy ascent has proved a key springboard in three previous editions of the Giro, entertains the masses each autumn in a hipster one-day classic, and is the location of what has arguably become one of the most iconic photographs in the history of the entire Corsa Rosa...
The Basilica Santuario della Madonna di San Luca
Atop the Colle delle Guardia, the church of San Luca dominates the Bologna skyline as the Eiffel Tower looms over Paris. Where tourists can catch an elevator up Gustave Eiffel's monolith, visitors used to be able to catch a cable car to San Luca – until 1976 when it broke down.
Now, those wishing to reach the basilica dominating the Emilian capital on their own two feet are required to work up a sweat along the longest portico in the world. That's if they're not doing it the hard way: on a bike.
The arched walkway zig-zags up the hill to 274 metres above sea level, where the red eighteenth-century church stands on the site of a previous fifteenth-century church. Inside are displayed the Byzantine representation of the Madonna and Child which, every year since 1433, is carried in procession during Ascension week.
In an elaborate ode to a miraculous meteorological superstition (the original procession took place in a bid to stop incessant rainfall), the holy icon is carried down the hill to the city centre, where it is held for one week in the Cathedral of San Pietro before another procession spirits it back up the hill. I know which leg I'd prefer to partake in…
A devilish climb lined with 666 arches
Starting at Meloncello at 55 metres above sea level, the climb is 1.8km long with an average gradient of 10.8% and a maximum gradient of over 16%.
The 3.8km roofed colonnade starts well before the climb kicks up as the road passes under the Pontecchio Marconi – one of the 666 arches which rise to the summit from the centre of Bologna. The journalist Daniel Friebe, in his book Mountain Higher, says that it took 47 years for the brick portico to be completed; for many in the saddle, it will feel like 47 years to reach the top.
Almost instantly, the gradient hits double figures and soon you're looking down on the terracotta tiled rooftops of Bologna as the portico hugs the left-hand side of the road.
"There's a small stadium feel to this climb," says the blogger Inner Ring. "The cyclist rides up the road while locals and tourists march up and down the portico, an ever-present audience that you don't usually get when climbing."
Davide Rebellin en route to winning the 97th Giro Dell'Emilia 2014 on the climb of San Luca in Bologna
Image credit: Getty Images
After the first steep phase, the road flattens out under a footbridge on the arcade. There follows a challenging S-bend, the curva delle orfanelle or "orphan's corner" before the toughest section of the climb: a long, straight ramp that kicks up to 16% with the portico now running on the right.
After another underpass, when the gradient eases to a luxuriant 6%, the final rise to the line takes place with the colonnade back on the left of the road ahead of the finish in the shadow of the basilica.
Unlike, say, the church of Madonna del Ghisallo above Lake Como, which features in Il Lombardia and boasts a small cycling museum, the Basilica di San Luca has no cycling history as such. As the Inner Ring reports, however, it does bear the motto exibit salvation de monte – "to escape from the mountain".
This, of course, depends on your destination – for continue along the road and you enter the Apennines. This Saturday, though, the climb marks the end of an 8.2km time trial that starts with a fast and flat opening 6km section in the centre of Bologna before the sting in the tail.
The riders approach the climb to San Luca in Bologna in the 101th Giro Dell'Emilia 2018
Image credit: Getty Images
A fourth visit after Gaul, Argentin and Gerrans
Saturday's time trial will mark the fourth time that the Giro d'Italia has ridden the steep climb.
The inaugural run came in 1956 with a 3km time trial won by the Luxembourg climber Charly Gaul on a day that is remembered more for the bravery of the grizzled Italian veteran Fiorenzo Magni – the original exponent of the "pain face" perfected today by Fabio Aru. Having broken his collarbone days earlier, the three-time Giro champion tied an inner tube around his handlebars and bit down to help steer and alleviate the pain.
In 1984, the Giro returned to San Luca for a second time with a road stage which was won by the Italian Moreno Argentin. Marking the hundredth anniversary of the Giro, the race returned to the Basilica for a third time in 2009 when Australia's Simon Gerrans dropped an unknown Anglo-Kenyan rider from the Barloworld team – a chap called Chris Froome, you may have heard of him – on the ramped finish before soloing to glory.
If used only sparingly in the Giro, the climb is more regularly associated with the autumn one-day Giro dell'Emilia race, which has taken to feature a finishing circuit which often uses the gruelling climb four or five times in succession!
Alessandro De Marchi claims Giro dell'Emilia win
Italy's Alessandro De Marchi is the most recent winner of a race which has seen victories for the likes of Esteban Chaves (2016), Nairo Quintana (2012) and Robert Gesink (2009, 2010) as well as controversial figures Danilo Di Luca (2008) and Davide Rebellin (2006, 2014).
One of the most memorable wins, though, came in 2001 following a series of astonishing attacks from Germany's Jan Ullrich, which showcased the climb in all its brutality.
Magni-ficent Fiorenzo in 1956
Never mind the technical pros and cons, there's one rider who exploits prove the biggest argument against tubeless tyres and that's Fiorenzo Magni. For without a supply of spare inner tubes, we'd have been deprived the most celebrated photograph from the golden age of Italian cycling.
A war-time fascist who was once accused of being pushed up the Passo Pordoi, Magni was a controversial figure who never emerged from the shadows of the much-loved Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.
"He was the third man on the road and by some distance in public affection," says the Italian-based cycling writer Herbie Sykes. "He won the Giro three times but became a national hero in 1956 when he finished second."
It was the 36-year-old's final Giro and he crashed badly on the descent from Volterra in stage 12 to Livorno. It later emerged that Magni had broken his left collarbone.
"At the hospital they said I should put on a plaster cast and quit," said Magni. "But I didn't want to. Since the next day was a rest day, I told the doctor to do nothing and that we should wait and see."
The day after, I asked the doctor to put on an elastic bandage instead of a cast because I wanted to try to ride the following stage, Livorno to Lucca. It worked! I wasn't among the first riders, but I finished. I used up four pairs of shoes by trying to brake. Then I rode over the Apennines. But on the uphill time trial at San Luca the pain was too much.
It was Magni's mechanic, Faliero Masi, who came up with the idea. Instead of Magni throwing in the towel and putting his shoulder in a cast – as the doctor advised – Masi tied an inner tube to his handlebars so the Italian could pull back with his teeth as the gradient ramped up to 16% on the climb: a means of helping him balance as well as helping ease the pain.
While Charly Gaul won the 3km race against the clock in a time of 6min 56sec – beating Spain's Federico Bahamontes by three seconds – Magni dug deep to finish out of the top 10 more than 30 seconds off the pace. But he lived to fight another day – although he was far from out of the woods...
Gold for Argentin in 1984
Twenty-eight years later, Moreno Argentin won on the Colle delle Guardia in the Italian champion colours after a well-timed kick in the closing moments as Laurent Fignon retained the pink jersey.
There were no intriguing subplots or rubber pain-relief devices on display in that third stage of the race – the controversy involving Fignon and Franceso Moser blew up later – but the finale was captured entirely from above for the viewers on TV.
No Froome at the top of le-Gerran-dary climb in 2009
After a long day in the Goldman Sachs London office, where he recently started the investment bank's sports internship programme following his retirement from the pro peloton, Simon Gerrans chatted to Eurosport for 10 minutes on his way home to Clapham.
The 38-year-old Australian remembers the day he dropped the future four-time Tour de France champion on the steep ramp to San Luca well.
"I was racing for the Cervélo Test Team and our leader for the race was Carlos Sastre," Gerrans recalls. "Our goal was to win the race with him so he told us to be as conservative as possible in the first couple of weeks. Then in the final week the plan was to start animating the race."
Rubens Bertogliati rides clear on the climb to San Luca in Bologna in stage 14 of the 2019 Giro d'Italia
Image credit: Getty Images
With the Spaniard Sastre sitting in fifth place on GC, it was stage 14 when Gerrans and team-mate Philip Deignan got the nod to attack. Played out in sweltering temperatures above 30-degrees, the 172km stage featured four climbs ahead of the punchy finish.
The 13-man move had a big enough gap over the peloton as they started the climb. After some early pace-setting by Ukraine's Andrey Grivko, Switzerland's Rubens Bertogliati rode clear before Froome, three days after his 24th birthday, tried to bridge over. Chunkier than the elbows-and-knees cyclist we know today, the Barloworld rider was making his maiden appearance in the Giro.
I don't think anyone back then saw the potential that Chris Froome had or what he was going to go on and achieve.
Gerrans latched on to Froome's counter attack and the pair reeled in Bertogliati on the first steep double-digit section of the climb. But it was on the Orphan's Corner when Gerrans started to show his class. As the Australian hit the steepest part of the climb, he dropped Froome with ease. As Gerrans passed under the flamme rouge, his inexperienced rival could be seen zig-zagging his way up the 16% incline as the chasers closed in.
The crowds that day were enormous with many spectators watching from the arches of the portico, making the finale a claustrophobic but stunning spectacle. Did Gerrans have time to appreciate the scene in which he was playing the lead role?
"You'd say I wasn't really soaking up the, er, vista of the climb," Gerrans laughs. "I was more concentrating with getting to the top as quick as I could and working with my breakaway companions to ensure we weren't getting caught by the bunch."
I do remember, obviously, that it's ultra-steep, I remember going through quite a narrow archway near the bottom, but I don't remember much about the surroundings. When you're in a front-row race like that you don't even really notice the crowds too much, you just stay focused on the job in hand.
Simon Gerrans and Chris Froome battle it out on the climb to San Luca in Bologna in stage 14 of the 2019 Giro d'Italia
Image credit: Getty Images
Gerrans soloed to victory by 12 seconds over Bertogliati, with Froome pedalling squares on his way to sixth, 36 seconds down – his best stage result of the 2009 Giro.
Having ridden the climb, could Gerrans envisage riding it with a broken collarbone like Magni?
Oh, my goodness – absolutely not! I've obviously seen that photo but I wasn't aware that it was from that climb. I've completed stages with some broken bones in the past, but it's really tough when you've got to really use your upper body to pull on the handlebars. On a steep climb like San Luca, if you have a broken collarbone, that would be very difficult.
Simon Gerrans rides clear on the climb to San Luca in Bologna in stage 14 of the 2019 Giro d'Italia
Image credit: Getty Images
What happened next..
One day after Fiorenzo Magni bit down on that inner tube on his way up to Madonna di San Luca, the determined Italian, unable to use his brakes properly or barely steer, crashed on a descent in Apennines and broke his humerus.
I didn't have enough strength in my left arm and I crashed after hitting a ditch by the road. I fell on my already broken bone and fainted from the pain. The ambulance came to bring me to the hospital. In the ambulance they gave me water and I got back on my feet. When I realised that I was being taken to the hospital I screamed and told the driver to stop. I didn't want to abandon the Giro.
Hardman Magni got back on his bike and completed the stage. Four days later, and entering the Dolomites with two broken bones, he rode over the Stelvio and finished second in stage 19. The next day, almost half the peloton abandoned – including race leader Pasquale Fornara – in apocalyptic show on Monte Bondone; Magni was not one of them.
Charly Gaul – the Angel of the Mountains or Monsieur Pipi, depending on whom you spoke to – moved into the maglia rosa despite trailing Fornara by 17 minutes before the stage, with Magni his nearest rival. In his last Giro, Magni defied everything to finish runner-up just 3'37" down on Gaul. Only 43 riders from 105 starters made it to Milan.
Once the race was over, Magni finally listened to the doctor's advise from two weeks previously…
The mythical photo of Magni biting down on his tube became the most celebrated photograph from the golden age of Italian cycling – one field where the Third Man managed to surpass Coppi and Bartali. "Magni had what the Italians refer to as "grinta" [grit] or "cattiveria" [badness] – he was hard as nails," says Sykes. "He made up in desire and guts what he lacked in outright class."
John Foot, author of Pedale! Pedale!, a history of the Giro d'Italia, says that Magni kept a blow-up of the photograph by his desk in his car showroom in Monza, where he continued working well beyond retirement.
After winning at San Luca, Moreno Argentin added a second stage scalp two days later at Blockhaus. The Italian finished the 1984 Giro in third place behind compatriot Francesco Moser and the Frenchman Laurent Fignon, who were engulfed in numerous spats on their way to a final, highly controversial, time trial to Verona.
Having already won the Prato Nevoso stage on the Tour de France in 2008, Simon Gerrans went on to complete a Grand Slam later that year with victory in stage 10 of La Vuelta at Murcia.
Gerrans' win in stage 14 of the 2009 Giro opened the floodgates for his Cervélo Test Team: Carlos Sastre won twice in the final week – at Monte Petrano and Vesuvius – en route to finishing fourth in Rome (elevated to runner-up behind Denis Menchov following the retroactive bans of Italian duo Danilo Di Luca and Franco Pellizotti). Lithuania's Ignatas Konovalovas added a fourth win for Cervélo on the final time trial in Rome.
King of the Mountains leader Chris Froome of Great Britain and SKY Procycling chats to former team mate Simon Gerrans of Australia and Orica Grenedge at the start of stage eight of the 2012 Tour de France
Image credit: Getty Images
A year later, in 2010, both Gerrans and Chris Froome (who finished his first Giro in 36th place) joined Team Sky. After two frustrating seasons, Gerrans left the British team to join the new Australian project at GreenEdge. Froome looked to be joining him on the way out until a sudden upturn of form at the 2011 Vuelta, where he came within 13 seconds of the overall win.
It was only late in the second year of his two-year contract that Chris Froome was able to turn things around and become the consistent rider that he is today. I think we saw flashes of brilliance, but he was inconsistent until late 2011. From that point on, he very rarely misses his mark.
Froome's sensational last-gasp victory in last year's Giro completed the rider's grand slam of consecutive wins in Grand Tours. The 33-year-old is not part of the Team INEOS squad that will tackle the 2019 Giro as he focuses on making history with a fifth Tour win.
Stage 1 of the 2019 Giro d'Italia
The following was written ahead of the stage - scroll down to watch video highlights of how Stage 1 panned out
Twenty-five years after Bologna last hosted the Giro's grande partenza, the race returns to the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region for Saturday's opening 8km time trial. A fast and flat opening 6km against the clock features just six bends before the road ramps uphill for the slog to San Luca.
"It will make a fantastic time trial. I think it will be super exciting way to start the Giro," says Gerrans, the last Giro stage winner at the Basilica.
Given the difference between the first three-quarters and the final uphill quarter, will any riders be tempted to switch bikes from a time trial rig to a road machine at the foot of the climb?
"It's hard to say. But for the time that you actually lose to change a bike it will be very difficult to make it back again over such a short climb," he says.
"The longer, more technical sections before the climb play into the hands of [the new Hour Record holder] Victor Campenaerts or the pure time triallists but when you get to the short climb at the end, it's really something that will suit the pure climbers.
There's a lot to play for in a time trial so early on in a Grand Tour like this. These days the really good time triallists are also very good climbers – guys like Tom Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic – so I think it's something that will play into the hands of the GC guys.
The current Strava record for the climb is 5min 26sec and was set by Vincenzo Nibali two years ago when he finished second in the Giro dell'Emilia behind team-mate Giovanni Visconti.
This bodes well for the veteran Sicilian, who is among the favourites for a maglia rosa that would put him alongside countryman Magni as one of six riders to have won a hat-trick of Giri.
For amateurs who'd like to give the climb a go themselves without travelling to Italy, it couldn't be easier: Giro organisers RCS have announced a link up with Zwift which means anyone with a turbo trainer and a laptop can take on those diabolical 666 arches to the top…
As for the Giro's last winner at San Luca, Gerrans will sacrificing his well-earned weekends from the daily grind at Goldman Sachs to help out with Eurosport's live coverage of the 102nd edition of the Giro this May. "I'll miss that stage but I'm commentating the next day," he says.
One rider who won't be there, though, is Egan Bernal after the much-touted Team Ineos leader pulled out after breaking his collarbone in training last week. Perhaps the Colombian should have taken a leaf out of tough-man Magni's book and bitten down on some rubber...