May 6, 2016 – Cycling’s penchant to relive its own history is well known. Books and magazines celebrate exploits of champions of yesteryear, while races love to nod to the champions that contributed to their own history. And the Giro d’Italia, which starts this Friday, is no exception. This year’s guest of honor, however, is not one of the sport’s historic champions. It’s not one of the events patented stars like Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali or Eddy Merckx. Instead it is the more modest hero, Gianni Motta.

Words by James Startt: Image: Yuzuru Sunada

This year marks that 50th anniversary of Motta’s historic Giro victory in 1966. Only 23, Motta’s turned in one of the most promising performances of the decade. Fresh on the heels of a third-place Tour de France performance only one year earlier, his victory in the Giro seemingly destined him for greatness. But while true greatness—that of contemporaries like Jacques Anqetil, Felice Gimondi or Merckx—escaped him, Motta has remained an endearing champion.

Now 73 Motta is one of the race’s guests of honor this year. Present throughout the race, Motta will ride 50-60 kilometers daily with VIP’s. And later, in the final week of the race, the Giro will hold a stage finish in Cassano d’Addo, where Motta was born and still lives today.

“I remember it well,” Motta told peloton magazine as he prepared for this year’s race, which starts in Apeldoorn, Holland. “I wasn’t a heavy favorite. They were Jacques Anquetil and Felice Gimondi. But I had finished third in the Tour the year before without really focusing on it. So I knew I had a chance. And that was my year. I won two stages, but I also won the points category. I don’t think I quit the top 15 in the whole race.”

By all standards Motta was in a state of grace in 1966. « He won everything in the first three years ! » says Pier Bergonzi, deputy editor at the Italian sports daily Gazetta dello Sport.” He won the Tour of Flanders in his first year, finished third in the Tour de France in his second and then won the Giro in 1966. But that was it! »

Indeed, while Motta was hailed as a future great, he would instead be remembered as one of the sport’s meteor’s, as he would soon be confronted with two overwhelming hurdles—a nagging injury and a certain Eddy Merckx.

Within a year after his Giro victory, Motta struggled to regain his winning condition as he suffered from a mysterious leg ailment. In was only in 1969 that he was finally diagnosed for a blood clot in his femur. But by then Motta had to contend with something much worse than a blood clot, he had to contend with “The Cannibal,” Eddy Merckx. The Belgian literally hit the pro ranks running, and snubbed out more than one promising career. “Nothing was easy with that guy!” Motta says concisely when speaking of Merckx.

Finally retiring from the professional ranks in 1976, Motta then focused on a clothing and bike line in his name. Finding success in the burgeoning American market, Motta then pioneered the first American professional team and made history when he entered them in the 1984 Giro d’Italia. The team, headlined by John Eustice, who had raced a number of years in Europe, also included promising US riders like Mike Carter, Greg Saunders and Karl Maxon. And breaking even more ground, he hired Philadelphia native Robin Morten as the first female team manager.

“Before 7-11, before Motorola, there was Gianni Motta. He was just such a pioneer,” remembers Morton. “He was just very engaging and dynamic and the public liked really liked him. Sometimes we would go to an event in his Volkswagon Beetle with the top down and all of the tifosi would come running up to him. He was just very popular. And he was a pioneer.”

But while Motta was popular, his initiative to invest in the “new continent,” as the European cycling world often referred to the United States, met with mixed reviews. “I remember the team directors had to vote at the beginning of the Giro if I could even be in the race,” remembers Morton when speaking of the sport of cycling that was very much “A Man’s World,” at the time.

“He was a real precurser to getting an American team racing in Europe,” adds Morton. “He took a chance on American racers and he took a chance on me.”

Motta remembers the 1984 Italian race fondly. “We didn’t win a stage, but we sure had a lot of fun. And I really liked the American spirit. It was a great experience. America is America. It’s just a little bit bigger than Italy!”

Today, Motta is far removed from the bike industry. But he still rides regularly. “Every day if I can.” Averaging well over 10,000 kilometers per year, one can still recognize the silhouette of a champion. And those that hope to keep up with him on the VIP rides during this year’s Giro best come prepared.

Postale is presented by Bianchi