Cheering on the Giro d’Italia’s dreamers
Journalist Marco Pastonesi recounts the tales of breakaway riders who dreamed of victory at the Giro d'Italia.
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Throughout the 2021 Giro d’Italia we will be running columns from La Course En Tête.
A dream coming true. A dream dreamt with open eyes. A dream from when they were kids. Winners like Tim Merlier and Taco van der Hoorn dream. All the others on the hunt for a victory of any kind dream as well. The spectators and the die-hard fans dream. It’s the job of writers to dream, and even the journalists dream sometimes, although they need to remain solidly anchored to reality. The Giro d’Italia is a dream factory.
One of the men with a dream was Giuseppe Ticozzelli, born in 1894 in Castelnovetto, near Pavia. He was naturally strong, played soccer and raced a bike, but could have been great at athletics (he managed 12 seconds for 100m dash) or as a boxer. For that time he was a giant: 1m 87cm, not far off 100 kilos, and thighs that were 84cm in circumference.
He didn’t pull on the front, he fired huge salvos. And every pedal stroke threatened to smash the bottom bracket apart. In 1912, he was rider manager at the Alessandria team, as he rode on a bike branded Maino, made in the town; his jersey was ashen-grey.
“Tico” was a graduate in book-keeping and geometry; in the First World War, he was a lieutenant in the mountain artillery, earning three crosses for bravery and a bronze medal. Afterward, he started to enjoy himself: he played right-back (ed., soccer position) for Alessandria, and became one of the great rouleurs – it was rumored that not even Costante Girardengo could hold “Tico” when he got going on the flat.
In 1926 he rode the Giro as an independent, a rider who hadn’t been signed up by one of the teams. The first selection was made even before the race began, as 42 riders didn’t turn up to sign on and have their bikes checked. On stage three, Genoa-Florence,
“Tico” got in a break, gained an hour, and finding he had no food in his pockets when he got to the foot of the Passo del Bracco, he stopped in a trattoria, set up a table by the roadside so that he could keep an eye open for the chasing group and filled his boots until the bunch appeared. Near the finish, he was knocked off his bike by a motorcyclist; the next day, his injuries prevented him from starting, but no one has ever matched his personal record – playing soccer for the Italian national side (a 9-4 win against France in 1920) and riding the Giro.
Another dreamer was Giancarlo Polidori, born in the Marche, in Sassoferrato, in 1943. I could see him in my mind’s eye, heroically battling through a snowstorm. One day I asked him to tell me the story behind the iconic picture, and he gave me this reply as if he’d written it in a novel.
“Giro d’Italia 1968, Gorizia-Tre Cime di Lavaredo, 213 kilometers. We set off in a downpour. 12 of us got away, including Franco Bitossi. The gruppo let us go; we got a good lead, but I didn’t know how much: my team car had stayed behind the bunch to look after Michele Dancelli, who was wearing the maglia rosa. Behind me was the second car, driven by Gino Bartali, who was the poster boy for the Pepsi-Cola team – not only did he have no idea what the time gap was, he didn’t have any food or drink either. I just envied the other riders: their direttori sportivi took turns driving alongside to hand up gloves, casquettes, rain capes, or a bottle of hot tea.”
“First we went up the Passo Sant’Osvaldo, then Tre Croci. I got away alone to take the mountains points, kept going on my own, rode solo up the Lago di Misurina and at the bottom of the Tre Cime, I was caught by the Spaniard Galera — one of the riders who’d been with me in the break. I was afraid of him; all the Spaniards were good climbers, poor and hungry. The rain turned into snow and the dirt road into gooey mud. The two of us climbed up side by side, without attacking each other, one on the left, one on the right, trying to steer our wheels between the holes, the rocks, and the streams of water. Every now and then I turned round to see if anyone was coming up behind, but the fog was so thick you could barely see 20 meters back. With two kilometers left, [Gino] Bartali, came past us rather suddenly and headed for the finish, and at 500 meters to the line, Eddy Merckx flew past. That was the end of the dream.”
“Galera sat up, but I reacted. I got onto Merckx’s wheel. When he realized, he jumped again. I gritted my teeth and clung on. When he got wind of that, he attacked a third time. I leaped on the pedals, but this time I fell back onto the saddle, my legs as swollen and hard as blocks of wood. There were 150 meters to the finish, and in those 150 meters, Merckx put 40 seconds into me, and 54 into Adorni, who had been with him until the final few kilometers. He put 1:04 into Galera, and more than six [minutes] into Gimondi. They threw a horse blanket over Merckx at the finish, but there was nothing for me.”
Another of the men with a dream was Massimo Podenzana, born in 1961 in La Spezia. I called him up yesterday, as he drove to the Tour of Hungary with his team, Novo-Nordisk. In 1988, in his second year as a pro, his direttore sportivo Franco Cribiori gave him permission to go on the attack. He managed it on day four, 123km from Vasto to Rodi Garganico in the morning, and a 40-kilometer team time trial to Vieste in the afternoon. “Attack, counter, attack, counter, until I got away on my own and the gruppo just left me to my fate. One minute’s lead, two, three, four, then five. I pushed hard, I believed in myself, the legs whirled, I hoped, I wanted it so much. A host of motorbikes in front, the car of the boss of the race, Vincenzo Torriani behind me. I kept pressing hard to the final meter. I crossed the line with my arms in the air, blowing kisses to all and sundry. I was happy to have the stage win, but I got the maglia rosa too. And it seemed a lot, so much, maybe too much.”
It’s funny to think that Podenzana preferred calcio to ciclismo as a lad, but his father had raced, and he caught the bug. “I can still remember that day in the sun, the podium, the flowers, the kisses, the jersey, the television with Adriano de Zan. That night, in my room with Mario Noris, I couldn’t close my eyes. I held the maglia rosa close, as if it might run away, as if someone might nick it. [The] next day everyone was looking at me: everyone on the Giro, in Italy, in the whole world. I was the maglia rosa. People looked at me, clapped, called my name. I know it would be impossible to keep the jersey to the end. But inside, I kept on dreaming.”
Marco Pastonesi spent 24 years as a writer on cycling at La Gazzetta dello Sport, and has written numerous books on the sport.