The Rainbow Phoenix: Felice Gimondi

It was well on into his career—a full nine years after he burst on the scene with a victory at the Tour de l’Avenir, and eight years after he took his one and only Tour de France—that Felice Gimondi won the 1973 world road race championship in Barcelona.

peloton/Images: Yuzuru Sunada

RELATED: Read our review of the Bianchi Specialissima.

The Phoenix, as the Italian was called, beat a star-studded breakaway: Freddy Maertens, Luis Ocaña and the great Eddy Merckx. Losing to Merckx was something Gimondi had come to terms with over his career. While Gimondi was racing, Merckx won both the Tour and the Giro d’Italia five times, with Gimondi his foil in many. If not for Merckx, Gimondi himself may have been considered the greatest of all time.

After 248 kilometers and more than six hours in the saddle, the small group of all-stars headed for the line with their pursuers almost two minutes behind. Gimondi and Ocaña were not fast finishers, so the smart money was on the two Belgians, Merckx and Maertens. But what that smart money did not consider was the brutal nature of the course and that the harder the race, the more Gimondi thrived.

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Maertens began the lead-out early, Merckx struggling to stay on his wheel. With 250 meters to go, Maertens looked back and saw Merckx fading. With a long drag race of a sprint underway, Maertens knew it would be up to him and he dug again, but Gimondi jumped from Merckx’s wheel and passed Maertens, winning his one and only elite rainbow jersey by half a bike length.

The result, Gimondi beating the two Belgians, so shocked the cycling world that rumors of misconduct and bribery were rampant. But a look back to the race footage shows simply that the Belgians backed the wrong man on the day. If Eddy had led out Maertens, it’s hard to see Gimondi winning that sprint. As far as rumors of bribery go, the legendary cycling journalist John Wilcockson told us, “Gimondi just did the best sprint. Eddy always wanted to win, so I don’t believe any buy-out theories. He called that defeat one of the major disappointments of his career.”

With the 2017 worlds around the corner, we asked Gimondi to reminisce a bit about his victory that day in Barcelona and about his career in general—the rivalry with Merckx, the bikes of the day, how he broke into the pro ranks…

Peloton: How did you first reach the professional cycling ranks?
Felice Gimondi: My story began almost 50 years ago, the first time I came in contact with Bianchi at the world championships at Salo in 1963. I was there with a small amateur team and at the finish I was approached by Pinella De Grandi, who was, at the time, the team manager for Fausto Coppi. He said to me: “Today I saw you, you rode well…would you like to come ride for Bianchi?”

P: Did it mean something extra that your opportunity came with the legendary Bianchi team?
FG: It’s obvious that for a young guy who came from a small town in the country to hear that I could ride the same bike as Coppi was the biggest compliment I could have. It happened so quickly that the Monday immediately after the worlds I was at the Bianchi factory in Milan picking up my first bike.

P: Did you find success right away as a professional?
FG: In 1964, I won six races, including the Tour de l’Avenir. In 1965, I won the Tour de France. In 1966, I won Paris–Roubaix, Paris–Brussels and the Tour of Lombardy. In 1968, the Vuelta a España and the Tour de Romandie, and like this it continued with three wins in the Giro d’Italia, the last of which was in 1976 when I was already considered “a bit old » in the peloton. The last important race of my career was Paris–Brussels, 311 kilometers, which I won in 1977, 12 years after my victory in the Tour de France. Not an easy feat!

P: What was it like racing against, and sometimes beating, the great Eddy Merckx?
FG: My biggest adversary was Eddy. He was hard to compete against because he was strong everywhere, he was a better sprinter than me and he could attack harder and change rhythm better. I had to keep my eyes on him for sometimes 200 kilometers. My most memorable result against Eddy was the world championships in Barcelona where I won ahead of Maertens, Ocaña and Merckx. It’s a memory that has a particular meaning to me. I think about the moment when I arrived ahead of everyone [Gimondi raises his arms and smiles].

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P: How have bikes changed from your day to what the pros ride today?
FG: First of all we raced on steel. The bikes had a longer rear end because many of our races were still on gravel. And then we started to shorten the rear end to make a bike that was more nervous and alive. In time we’ve arrived at bikes that respond to the courses, the distances and the racers of today. Now bikes are as short as possible because you race shorter distances, there is no gravel and the pace is always high and nervous. So we continue to adapt, not just yearly but day by day.