I was so jealous. My little sister, 10 years old, needed a new bike. And by some stroke of crazy luck my father had found her the most beautiful machine I had ever seen. It was a child’s Benotto road bike, sprayed in the manufacturer’s classic champagne color, with Italian components, light wheels and tubular tires. Tubulars on a bike for a 10-year-old who was more interested in tap dancing than cycling! The only thing that hurt more than my jealousy was knowing that I was too big to ride it. As a 13-year-old road racing fanatic, I was in love with all things Italian. Yet that gorgeous Benotto was probably produced a long way from Italy, and is part of a rather intriguing set of connections between Italy and Latin America.
If you happen to be strolling around the center of Mexico City and you feel yourself being pulled by the forces of cycling history (an uncanny feeling but you’ll know it when it happens), just go with it. Jump on Metro Line 9 (the brown one) and look out for the Velodromo station. On exiting the station, peer through the urban concrete clutter and you will find the Agustín Melgar Olympic Velodrome. It has seen better days, and it may not be immediately evident how you get in, but if you do persevere you will be able to stand on cycling’s hallowed ground. Built for the 1968 Olympic Games, it’s ironic—or perhaps emblematic of cycling’s ambivalent relationship with the Olympics in general—that the velodrome is best remembered for an event that took place four years after those Games.
By 1972, Eddy Merckx was at the peak of his domination. He had multiple Tour de France and Giro d’Italia titles on his palmarès, a whole raft of one-day classics victories and scores of other successes on road and track. There were few events that had eluded him. He was rich and famous, and not getting bored of winning. Yet there was something nagging him—the idea, put across in some parts of the media that his rivals were below average and therefore his wins were coming easier than they should. Merckx wanted to prove his quality in a pure, objective test. He wanted to break the World Hour Record—previously held by legends such as Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Roger Rivière.
Merckx’ attempt was scheduled for late October 1972. The record holder at the time was Danish rider Ole Ritter, a time trial specialist who had traveled to the ’68 Olympics as an adviser to the Italian amateur track team. Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on Mexico City’s high altitude and the fast new track, Ritter negotiated some track time on the day before Olympic competition started and promptly set a new Hour Record of 48.653 kilometers. His record still stood when The Cannibal flew into town four years later.
Merckx’s preparation had been patchy. On one hand his team of doctors (he was working with at least five at the time) had found a neat way to simulate the effects of altitude by making Merckx ride on his rollers while pumping thinned air into a facemask. On the other hand, Merckx had spent very little time on the track, not even completing a single hour-long practice session before flying out to Mexico. Merckx did however win the Tour of Lombardy in early October by riding the final hour alone—which is a pretty good training session if you have Merckxian legs!
If his training was less than perfect, his choice of bike designer was inspired. Ernesto Colnago had a growing reputation as a producer of custom road frames and was head mechanic at Merckx’s Molteni team. Colnago understood Merckx and the pair had developed a close working relationship based on mutual respect and innovation. For the Hour Record a very special bike was created. Said to be the most expensive bike ever made, it weighed just 5.5 kilograms (just over 12 pounds) and was rumored to have been forged from more than 200 hours of intense Italian artisanal labor.
On the morning of October 25, as Merckx took to the Mexico track under sunny skies, Colnago was probably the most nervous onlooker in the stadium. Would the delicate aluminum-and-titanium frame, fitted with drilled components and superlight 28-spoke wheels, withstand the power that its rider was about to thrust through its tubes and components? The first three laps were all about getting up to speed. If the bike didn’t break during those opening laps, it would withstand the rest of the hour.
The bike held, and so did its indomitable rider. Afterward, Merckx told Colnago that he’d never again attempt the Hour Record, such was the suffering he’d endured. His record distance of 49.408 kilometers would stand for 12 years, until Francesco Moser brought his outlandish low-profile bike with double disc wheels to Mexico City and added another kilometer to the record distance.
For Colnago, the personal pride at having created Merckx’ bike was tempered when decals for another brand, Windsor, were put on the machine just before the attempt. Windsor was the sporty brand of Mexican cycle manufacturer Acer-Mex, which was happy to pay for the kudos of having “manufactured” Merckx’s machine. In a further Italian connection, Windsor’s chief designer was a man called Remo Vecchi. Before moving to Mexico to work with Windsor, Vecchi had spent 20 years at Cinelli; so Windsor’s racing bikes looked remarkably similar to Cinelli’s famous models.
Windsor’s main commercial rivalry was with Benotto, an Italian bike firm well established in South America by the 1970s. Giacinto and Felice Benotto founded their bike company in 1931 in Turin but ventured to Venezuela after the war, lured by the discovery of oil and its attendant riches. The gamble paid off. By 1953 Benotto had expanded to Mexico and become one of the country’s most popular brands for serious cyclists. Ole Ritter rode a Benotto to his 1968 Hour Record and Benotto wanted to sponsor Merckx’s record too; but in the end Windsor stumped up the most cash. In professional cycling, money talks. So Benotto missed out on Merckx but it didn’t hold the company back. By 1985 it had transferred all of its manufacturing to Mexico and continued to be a force in both European road racing and Mexican bike shops. One of its bikes even managed to wind its way to my little sister in deepest Oxfordshire, England.
Before Merckx took to the start line in his hour record attempt on his Colnago dream machine, his crew had washed the entire track with sponges—marginal gains before anyone had thought of marginal gains. This was a high-stakes moment in Merckx’s career. If his attempt failed the flotilla of journalists that had traveled with him to Mexico City would report that Merckx’s domination was faltering, or worse—that this absolute test had exposed his weaknesses. Between arriving in Mexico and the day of the record attempt, the atmosphere in the Merckx camp was febrile. The venue had the significant advantage of its 2,2235-meter (7,333-foot) elevation, but so many unknown factors made it risky.
The influence of European cycling, and in particular Italian cycling, on the Latin American cycling world was not widespread but it made a big impact. And crucially it went beyond frame builders. Merckx’ team needed someone local to arrange the velodrome facilities, coordinate with the local authorities and generally make life easier so that they could focus on the record attempt. Step in Luigi Casola.
Fifteen years earlier, just before Christmas, the great Fausto Coppi flew into Bogotá, Colombia, welcomed by a huge crowd. In 1957, Coppi was 38 years old and past his best. But his style and charisma were as forceful as ever. A Colombian entrepreneur arranged for him to ride some exhibition track races for a fee, and Coppi planned to also travel to Argentina to promote his bicycle frame business. Matt Rendell’s excellent book on the history of Colombian cycling, “Kings of the Mountains,” conveys the sense of awe that the Colombian cycling world felt when Il Campionissimo arrived. In a country where cycling was hugely popular, if technically undeveloped, Coppi was a legend. That he came from Italy, home to the Pope, only accentuated his status. But, as Eddy Merckx knew, legends are there to be brought back to earth.
Between the track races Coppi went out for a ride with local professionals, taking in the villages around Bogotá. On the flat, Coppi easily outpaced the Colombian contingent, which included Jorge Luque, one of the country’s top riders. Luque felt aggrieved at this show of Italian class, and took the group up a tough 7-kilometer climb on the outskirts of the city. Luque and pals attacked their home gradient and Coppi fell back, later expressing his amazement at the climbing prowess of the local riders.
After his business trip to Argentina, Coppi returned to Colombia in early January for another series of track races and a road race, El Colombiano Classic. For these races Coppi recruited his distinguished domestiques Ettore Milano and Luigi Casola plus another fading star, Hugo Koblet. The Europeans held their own in the track racing but in the road race were utterly undone by the intense heat and severe climbs. On the climb to La Pintada Coppi came to a wobbling halt and collapsed at the roadside. Sunstroke claimed his three teammates too, and all of them abandoned the race.
The experience didn’t deter Coppi or his teammates from traveling to other engagements in Latin America. In 1958, Oscar Hernández, the same entrepreneur who had brought Coppi to Colombia, arranged another exhibition race in Mexico. It ended in disaster when it transpired the race had not been sanctioned by the Mexican cycling federation and Hernández disappeared without paying the riders; but for Casola the trip was to prove a happy event. He fell in love.
Born near Varese in 1921, Casola was a professional cyclist from 1946 to 1958; his biggest successes were the 1949 Milan–Turin, four stages of the Giro d’Italia and the 1951 Coppa Bernocchi. A sprinter, Casola excelled on the track and made a good living on the six-day circuit, and was known as a jovial character, prone to intense outbursts of emotion. Though he came to Mexico for cash, he stayed for love, building a life in his adopted home. Casola took over the administration of the Olympic Velodrome, coached the national team and organized several editions of the Tour of Mexico.
Before he eventually returned to Italy in 2003, just six years before passing away, Casola reflected on the state of Mexican cycling. It was a constant frustration for him that the country’s federation seemed ill-equipped to capitalize on the talented young riders he saw coming through the ranks. Everything, he said, was improvised, so riders couldn’t plan their races or training. The coaches did not have the expertise of their peers in Europe, and a lack of corporate sponsors meant the national federation was hopelessly underfunded. Mexico, Casola said, has the natural talent to put it on the same level with the best American cyclists, and even to challenge the European professional ranks.
It must have felt bittersweet for Casola to help Merckx break the World Hour Record in Mexico City. Much like Coppi flying into Bogotá, Merckx came as a god and left good memories for everyone involved. But the legacies of both trips were little more than that: memories. For Colombia, the 1980s saw a whole generation of riders bold enough to come and ride the Tour de France. For Mexico, other than the U.S.-formed Raúl Alcalá, that kind of success has yet to materialize.
From issue 88. Buy it here.