Italian champions have always had a larger-than-life appeal. Their other-worldly achievements on the bike were grounded in working-class upbringings and tinged with a hint of sadness and mortality. Fausto Coppi’s flame burned bright after escaping the butcher’s shop to win multiple Tours de France, Giros, the world championship and classics. The flame sputtered at the end of his career, losing his brother to a bicycle crash and suffering personal scandal before dying of malaria at the age of 40. Gino Bartali grew up among a family of subsistence farmers before finding the bike and becoming the greatest champion of the pre-World War II era. As a young man during the war he smuggled false papers in his bicycle frame to help Italian Jews, and died, without fortune, in 2000. These stories of poverty, success, nationalism and loss serve to sear the memory of these men in the tifosi’s consciousness. What must these men have actually been like, to chat with about life, racing and their amazing careers? There is another great Italian champion of the stature of Coppi or Bartali, a man still enlivened with cycling, still able to talk about his amazing wins and storied career. Felice Gimondi.
Words: Ben Edwards
We got the opportunity to chat with Felice Gimondi about his career, about racing the great Eddy Mercxk and how the racing bicycle has developed into the machine it is today. While the stories were incredible, the thing that stuck with us was a simple gesture Felice made when he said the word, scattante which in Italian means nervous, lively and even to lose one’s temper. When he talked about how a bike responded under power he would say scattante and then make a fist in front of his chest, pumping it in and out. In America we may know the gesture as a fairly crass way of suggesting lovemaking. It was some how fitting that this Italian cycling legend, who first rode a bicycle with his mother on her postal route, describes the bicycle and riding it well as a type of lovemaking—done with passion and intensity. “The Phoenix” did after all win all three Grand Tours, the world championship, Paris Roubaix, Milano-San Remo—and much of it against “the Cannibal” himself, Eddy Merckx.
How did you first reach the professional cycling ranks? My story began almost 50 years ago, the first time I came in contact with Bianchi at the world championship at Salo in 1963. I was there with a small amateur team and at the finish I was approached by Pinello 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?’
Did it mean something extra that your opportunity came with the legendary Bianchi team? 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.
Did you find success right away as a professional? 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 of Romandia, 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 km, which I won in 1977, 12 years after my victory in the Tour de France. Not an easy feat!
What was it like racing against, and sometimes beating, the great Eddy Merckx? 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 km. My most memorable result against Eddy was the world championships in Barcelona where I won ahead of Maartens, Ocana 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].
How have bikes changed from your day to what the pros ride today? 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 [there’s that gesture]. In time we’ve arrived at bikes that responded 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 [the gesture again]. So we continue to adapt, not just yearly but day by day.
(Photo from Pillars of Italian Cycling filmed and directed by Michael Crook for Move Press www.pelotonpresents.com)