RIP: Felice Gimondi, The last Campionissimo From issue 31 • Words by John Wilcockson with images from Horton Collection

Fausto Coppi, perhaps the greatest Italian cyclist ever, died in January 1960. Sixteen months earlier, il campionissimo as he was called, the champion of champions, came to London to ride some exhibition track races at Herne Hill velodrome. A standing-room-only crowd of 12,000 packed the venerable outdoor track at a time when British cyclists rarely got to see European stars in action—this was decades before continental classics and grand tours were televised in the UK. I missed seeing the long-limbed, deep-chested rider who won the Tour de France twice, the Giro d’Italia fives times, along with a world title and victories at Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Lombardy monuments. Coppi died before I became hooked on bike racing.

Almost 20 years after the famous Coppi Meet, another campionissimo came to race in London. It was April 1978, and the new super-champ was Felice Gimondi, then 36, who was nearing the end of his great career. He competed in a circuit race at the Crystal Palace, a former motor racing venue, and also drew a massive crowd. By then I was writing for The Sunday Times of London, and to mark Gimondi’s historic visit, I managed to secure an interview with him at his hotel the day before the race.

I’d seen Gimondi race many times over the previous 14 seasons, at world championships, major time trials, classics and grand tours; but this was a first one-on-one interview. We spoke in French, our only common language. He was unusually gracious, greeting me with a firm handshake and a wide smile; and he patiently answered my questions in a deeply resonant baritone. He said he enjoyed talking about his racing career, remembering incidents from major successes (and defeats) in far more detail than most racers I’ve interviewed.

I asked him about growing up in the small town of Sedrina, set in the countryside, not far from the mountains, a few kilometers north of Bergamo. He recalled his first race: “It was in Treviglio, a race for school kids. I rode there on my rickety three-wheeler, and the race was already over.” And his first bike: “It was bright red, a gift for graduating to fifth grade.”

Gimondi led a simple early life: “I grew up in a house where there was everything we needed but there was nothing superfluous.” His mom delivered mail, and he sometimes rode alongside her post office bike on her rounds. That upbringing was similar to Coppi’s. He too came from a small country village and one of his first jobs as a teenager was working for a butcher, delivering meat on his bicycle.

It’s hard to compare the life of Coppi, who grew up in an impoverished Italy of the 1930s, with Gimondi’s postwar upbringing. But it’s safe to say that neither of them set out expecting to be the best of the best….

Starting Out
The year was 1965. It was five years after Coppi died, still a racer at age 40, following an undiagnosed bout of malaria. Italy needed a new campionissimo. The only likely candidates as the country’s next superstar seemed to be Vittorio Adorni or Gianni Motta. Adorni, 27, was starting his fifth pro season and was regarded as a good all-around leader for the Salvarani team. He’d had five stage wins and three top-five overall finishes at the Giro d’Italia and two podiums at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Motta, at 22, in only his second pro season, was the more exciting prospect. He’d already taken stage wins at the Giro and Tour de Romandie and, notably, in his rookie year, he scored a solo victory at the Giro di Lombardia classic.

As yet, no one had paid much attention to a young man about to make his pro debut: Felice Gimondi. He was starting out with the Salvarani team as an understudy to Adorni and, like most young riders, he’d had some promising results in the amateur ranks—though most such riders have a hard time converting such results into success as a pro.

Gimondi’s most significant performance as an amateur came at the 1964 Tour de l’Avenir, then a two-week stage race held in conjunction with the Tour de France, with shorter stages, ending at the same towns a few hours before the pro race. Gimondi won the opening stage into Nice, lost the lead the next day to Spanish rider Gines Garcia—who wore the yellow jersey on all the remaining stages, only to miss a key breakaway on the final day into Paris. Gimondi—who stayed close to the leader on the mountain climbs of the Pyrénées and Massif Central—took the final victory by 42 seconds over Frenchman Lucien Aimar, with Garcia in third. Some said it was a lucky win for the Italian, but it was one that showed he had the confidence, endurance and climbing skills he’d need in the pro ranks.

It’s a big step-up from amateur to pro, and the Salvarani team directors thought they’d have to be patient with their new signing. But, just as with Coppi before him, Gimondi was immediately competitive. He placed second at Belgium’s Flèche Wallonne classic, then took fourth overall at Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie—the team’s last preparation race for the Giro d’Italia. As a result, Salvarani selected Gimondi for its Giro team only four months into his first pro season.

Not only did Gimondi help his team leader win that 1965 Giro, he placed second (to Adorni) in its 50-kilometer time-trial stage, and he finished third overall. So pleased were his sponsors, the Salvarani brothers, whose company made kitchen equipment, they said they were keen for Gimondi to ride the Tour de France too—even though it started only 16 days after the Giro finished. Before making a decision, Gimondi raced the 65-kilometer Forli time trial, where he was an excellent runner-up to five-time Tour champ Jacques Anquetil—who’d decided not to defend his Tour title that year. Then, with the race only days away, Salvarani support rider Bruno Fantinato was injured—and Gimondi confidently took the empty spot on the team.

Tour Upset
With Anquetil absent, the pre-race favorites for the 1965 Tour included multi-time runner-up Raymond Poulidor and rival Frenchman Henri Anglade, the Spanish climbers José Pérez Francés and Julio Jimenez, the Italians Adorni and Motta, and perhaps the Belgians Ferdinand Bracke and Rik Van Looy. As a late entry and Adorni’s lieutenant, Gimondi the rookie wasn’t on anyone’s danger list. But that soon changed….

The second day of the Tour saw a 200-kilometer stage across Belgium from Liège to Roubaix in northern France, with some long sections of cobblestones. It wasn’t the sort of stage that a Tour rookie from Italy could be expected to master, but Gimondi infiltrated a dozen-strong break with team leader Adorni that went clear near the end. And in the final kilometers, Gimondi—still holding the fitness he’d gained at the Giro—followed two Belgian attackers, to take second on the stage, 14 seconds ahead of Adorni’s chase group and more than a minute ahead of the main pack.

With the yellow jersey on the back of Van Looy’s teammate Bernard Vandekerkhove, the media was focused on the Belgians. That was still the case the following day, on a rolling, seven-hour stage across Normandy, when Bracke got away in a 10-man on the run-in to Rouen. Also in the break were two renowned sprinters, Frenchman André Darrigade and Belgian-domiciled Brit Michael Wright. So the world was shocked on two counts when Gimondi attacked hard on the gradual uphill to the finish to win this third stage by two seconds over Wright, with the peloton 32 seconds back; and, with his one-minute victory time bonus, the young Italian also took over the yellow jersey!

Immediately, similarities were drawn between Gimondi and a young Jacques Anquetil—who in his Tour debut at age 23 also won the third stage, also in Rouen. The Frenchman went on to win that 1957 Tour to confirm his precocious talent. Could Gimondi do the same?

The answer to that question came in bits and pieces. The first challenge came two days after his Rouen win in a 26.7-kilometer time trial at Châteaulin in western Brittany. Poulidor won the TT—and Gimondi was second, only seven seconds behind, with Motta third, Bracke fourth and Adorni fifth. Overall, Gimondi was now 2:20 ahead of second-place Vandekerkhove (a burly sprinter who’d lose time in the mountains) and 2:49 up on team leader Adorni in third. Poulidor was already three minutes back (in fifth), but the French star remained confident that he could make up time on the key climbing stages ahead: a finish atop Mont Ventoux on stage 14 and a time trial to the summit of Mont Révard four days later.

Before that, though, Adorni pulled out of the Tour in the Pyrénées, depriving Gimondi of his mentor. Going into the Ventoux stage, the young Italian, only 22, remained 3:12 ahead of Poulidor, who was now in second place.

Everyone knew that Poulidor had to attack on the Ventoux—which then had a far rougher surface than today’s smooth blacktop—and I was among the thousands who climbed the Giant of Provence that blazing afternoon to watch the action. From a viewpoint at Chalet Reynard, about 5 kilometers from the top, we saw Poulidor going clear with Jimenez, the Spanish climber who was only interested in the King of the Mountains title. The French fans were thrilled that their hero was riding so strongly and that race leader Gimondi appeared to be struggling in a chase group of seven, almost two minutes back, that also included Britain’s Tom Simpson. But by the finish, where Poulidor outkicked Jimenez to win the stage, Gimondi had recovered his composure to cross the line in fourth, 1:38 back.

Poulidor’s gains weren’t enough to give him the yellow jersey, but he was only 34 seconds behind Gimondi and confident he could regain that amount on the Révard. It’d be a daunting task for the young Italian to stay in yellow. Watching from the start ramp of the 26.9-kilometer TT in Aix-les-Bains, we could see all the way up the Révard, which loomed straight ahead like a misty green whale. Few observers believed that Gimondi, starting two minutes behind his rival, could hold off Poulidor on such a specialist stage; but he kept the Frenchman in sight on the steepest part of the climb, and reached the finish in just under one hour. Gimondi was 23 seconds faster than Poulidor, and he wrapped up that Tour by also winning the closing TT in Paris. His brilliant career was truly underway!

Classics Too
Winning the Tour was an extraordinary start to that career, but Gimondi was still regarded as a newcomer who had yet to prove himself. Those skeptics didn’t have to wait too long. The following spring, Gimondi lined up at Paris-Roubaix alongside Adorni—who three days’ earlier won the Tour of Belgium, a four-day race that included plenty of cobblestones. On a messy day of rain showers, the favorites were the Belgian and Dutch veterans such as Van Looy and Jan Janssen, not a 23-year-old Italian neophyte.

And yet, on the greasy cobbles of the hill leading to the village of Mons-en-Pévèle, with almost 50 kilometers to go, Gimondi accelerated in the smooth, well-balanced style that we’d come to recognize. Wearing wool gloves and a cotton racing cap, the flap turned down, his light-blue woolen Salvarani jersey splatterd with mud, Gimondi sped clear…and arrived at the Roubaix velodrome 4:08 ahead of runner-up Janssen!

A week later, at the 286-kilometer Paris-Brussels, then a major classic, Gimondi did it again. He waited until late in the race, but made another successful solo break to win by 25 seconds ahead of the best Belgian classics riders of the day: Willy Planckaert, Van Looy, and Walter Godefroot.

If those two classics wins weren’t enough, Gimondi ended his second pro season by grabbing another monument. This was the Giro di Lombardia, a race that then finished on the wide concrete velodrome in Como. After a race of constant climbing, six men were left in the front: the Italians Gimondi, Adorni and Michele Dancelli, the French superstars Anquetil and Poulidor, and a Belgian upstart named Eddy Merckx. As teammates, Adorni and Gimondi worked over their rivals on the run-in, and Gimondi had a big enough lead coming onto the track to hold off a sprinting Merckx, with Poulidor in third. Maybe it was too soon to call Gimondi the new campionissimo, but the Italian fans now knew that an extraordinary young talent had emerged.

Gimondi became even more of a national hero in 1967, when he won the Giro for the first time before going on to take two stages at a Tour won by Frenchman Roger Pingeon. Gimondi placed seventh overall, but that was of small import compared with losing a good friend, Tom Simpson, in his drug-related death on Mont Ventoux. “I remember the sadness and the tears of the whole caravan the next morning during the service in the church of Avignon,” said Gimondi, a devote Catholic.

Also that year, he won the Grand Prix des Nations, then regarded as the world time trial championship, and the Gran Premio Lugano—another prestigious 75-kilometer TT. Gimondi went on an unbeaten run of victories in time trials, during which he won the Vuelta a España in May of 1968. He then placed third at the Giro (behind Merckx)….and his TT win streak came to sudden end at a Spanish stage race in August.

The Merckx Syndrome
His tormentor was Merckx. “I had several terrible days with Eddy,” Gimondi said. “I found it hard to admit that he was the stronger. It took two years of my career to realize that. I finally understood it when he beat me by 33 seconds in the time trial at the 1968 Volta de Catalunya. I was wearing the leader’s jersey, and it was the first time he beat me in a time trial. That evening, I went for a walk on the beach. I was looking for all the possible excuses, but I knew then that I would have to change my way of thinking.”

To beat Merckx, the über-champion, was a tough proposition for any of his peers in any type of race. But Gimondi did better than most and, in some ways, the rivalry enhanced his career. “Merckx was a freak of nature…absolutely out of the reach of anyone,” Gimondi said. “Yet, in spite of him, and perhaps thanks to him, I became Felice Gimondi. Then again, another great cyclist, Fiorenzo Magni, managed to do what he did with Coppi and Bartali to contend with. I’ve had to race against a guy like Eddy Merckx, who perhaps it was better not to meet, but today I think that Eddy made my fortune. I was lucky to meet someone like Merckx.”

Gimondi didn’t win another Tour (placing second to Merckx in 1972), but he scored two more Giro wins (in ’69 and ’75). He also took two more monuments: the ’74 Milan-San Remo and ’73 Lombardia—a race he won wearing the rainbow jersey of world champion. He had always done well at the worlds. On a flat circuit at Leicester, England, in 1970 he placed third. And in 1971, on a hilly course in Mendrisio, Switzerland, he broke away with Merckx, and took the silver medal in a two-up sprint. Then came the 1973 worlds in Barcelona….

This time, on a similarly tough circuit that included multiple climbs of the notorious Montjuic hill, the race came down to a sprint between four riders: Belgians Merckx and Freddy Maertens, Spanish hero Luis Ocaña, on home turf, and Gimondi. “I made a masterpiece that day,” Gimondi recalled. “I had two Belgians to beat, and when we were down to four, I realized that Eddy wasn’t riding very well. I played the sprint as the big occasion in life, seeing once again that when you get the chance you cannot afford not to find yourself ready.”

As Belgium’s junior team member, Maertens made a long lead-out effort for Merckx, but the Cannibal didn’t have the legs to unleash his usual finishing speed, and Gimondi surged through to take the rainbow jersey—winning it on a Bianchi, just as Coppi did two decades earlier. Gimondi’s 1973 world title shocked the cycling world as much as his debut Tour victory eight years earlier.

When asked what were the happiest moments of his life, Gimondi was very clear: “The day of my wedding to Tiziana, the love of my life, and the birth of my two daughters, Norma and Federica. As a bike racer, when I won the Tour at barely 22 and made my mamma Angela very happy, and when I won the Giro a third time at almost 34 years old. The saddest moments? When I lost my parents. I will never cease to be grateful for their teachings.”

By the end of his career, Gimondi proved that he was indeed the campionissimo Italy had been seeking. He won all three grand tours, the same three monuments as Coppi, the world title, and the longest and most prestigious time trials of his day. In the three decades since, Italians such as Moser, Bugno and, today, Nibali have attempted to follow in Gimondi’s footsteps. But, so far, none has succeeded.

In summarizing what it took for him to become that champion of champions, Gimondi once said, “I was egotistical, but that’s an indispensable trait of a champion. If you’re too altruistic, you can’t be a winner. As it was, Merckx was even more egotistical than me. He once came to ride a criterium in Bergamo, my hometown, and he sprinted for all the lap primes—and also won the race!”

Merckx. Gimondi. Both super-champions. Will we ever see another campionissimo like them?

Follow Wilcockson on Twitter at: @johnwilcockson
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