Taco van der Horn and Tim Merlier’s first stage wins. Victor Lafay’s first win as a professional cyclist. Alessandro de Marchi’s first time in the pink jersey. Attila Valter: the first Hungarian to lead the Giro.
The Giro is all about first times. Cyclists making their grand tour debuts, leading their teams for the first time, being baptized as conquerors and commanders. If the Tour de France seems more exclusively about established champions, the Giro has always seemed more open to the greats of the future, and to champions of one stage, one day, even if that’s the only day they ever shine. It’s a day of revelation.
The roads of Italy was where Fausto Coppi first made waves, in 1940, when he was just 20, and riding as a gregario to Gino Bartali. That’s as if Raymond Poulidor had started out working for Jacques Anquetil, Luis Ocaña had been signed up as a domestique for Eddy Merckx, or Giuseppe Saronni had had to learn the ropes while saying “yes sir” to Francesco Moser. That only lasted as far as the stage from Firenze to Modena, when – helped by an issue with Bartali’s bottom bracket, and given the go-ahead by team manager Eberardo Pavesi – Coppi revealed himself to the world.
Orio Vergani, who was following the race for Il Corriere della Sera, wrote, “I had seen Binda, Girardengo, Verwaecke and Bartali, all legendary champions. But on the climbs of the Abetone and Barigazzo I saw something new: an eagle, a swallow, I don’t know what. Under the lashing rain and the drumming of the hailstones, his hands sat high and light on the bars, his knees turned implacably, his legs compensating perfectly on the hairpins as if they didn’t know what fatigue was. He was flying, flying up those tough climbs. Coppi rode through a silent crowd, who didn’t know who he was but just applauded and kept applauding.”
Coppi wrote himself a place in cycling history, and Italian history. But there are those who enter the limelight only once, to achieve one single feat, to find glory between dawn and dusk and then fade away as the days pass. So it was that on the roads of the Giro Franco Magnani appeared like a shooting star. Today he’s 83, lives in Cesena, and pedals happily around on an electric bike. He only complains about the tiny degree of liberty he enjoyed, and how little it was, pulling painfully against the directions he was given by his team.
“I’d looked at the Mantua-Treviso stage, prepared for it, but it went wrong at the start. Just as the flag dropped, one of my teammates at Salvarani, Battista Babini, had a puncture. Our manager Luciano Pezzi told me to stop and wait for him. The group was heading up the road at 50 kilometres per hour, but I towed Babini back. A break of 15 had gone up the road in the meantime, so I got away from the bunch and caught them. That wasn’t good enough for me, as I knew I wouldn’t have a chance in a sprint, so I tried to get away several times, and escaped with Nelvio Vitali, who rode for Springoli.”
“It was a two-up finish, with the others closing on us. I knew there was a dodgy corner at 300m to go, so I let Vitali lead into it – he went too fast, overshot the corner, and I went inside him. I had my arms in the air, but that evening at the dinner table, with the telly on, my teammates didn’t say a word. They had long faces. I was the only one watching the review of the stage, until Arnaldo Pambianco broke the silence: What’s wrong with you? Didn’t one of us win today?”
Even the first-timers get unforgettable experiences on the Giro, good and bad, joy and pain. I asked Pino Petito, who these days drives an ambulance in Civitavecchia, to tell me about going through heaven and hell. He opted for hell: the Gavia in the 1988 Giro. “We went up the climb from Ponte de Legno, hit the hairpins at Sant’Appollonia and the tragedy came just as we came out of the wooded bit. The road was nothing but mud and snow so we rode through the tracks left by the motorbikes. The rest was invisible: snow and mud, wind and ice and the torment of the freezing water. We all went up at our own speed, like men condemned to death. I had 41×23, and just rode blindly on what strength I had.
“At the top of the Gavia — 2,652m high — I had no idea where I was. The riders were getting into any vehicle they could find. I had leg warmers, arm warmers and a woolly hat. I began going down, carefully, afraid I would end up flying off into the abyss. A kilometre down the slope I was overtaken by Guido Bontempi and Paolo Rosola; they’d changed and warmed up and were descending like madmen. I saw a policeman, stopped and burst into tears. Halfway down, I got some whisky and drank half the bottle. Five or six kilometres from the finish I saw the Alfa-Lum team car with the heating full on and the fans blasting. I dropped my bike and got in, took five or six minutes to regain my faculties, then tried two or three times to get out until finally, I managed it. I was 143rd, and last at the finish, along with three others: Longo, Zen, and Cipollini – Cesare, Mario’s brother. We were outside the time limit but they let us stay in the race.”
The first Giro I covered for La Gazzetta dello Sport began when I had to wait for the riders at the airport in Groningen, because that year’s Giro started from Holland. I was waiting for Michele Scarponi; I wanted to suggest that we worked on a race diary together, the diary of a gregario. He was working for Mario Cipollini. He said yes at once, and we had a crazy time writing about all his first times; getting on the podium, talking to television, and so on. On the rest day, for the newspaper, I asked Cipollini what he and his loyal servitors had done. “A 50-kilometer ride to keep the legs moving,” he answered. Then for our diary, I asked Scarponi the same question. He replied that they had ridden to the first bar they could find, stopped for a coffee and a bit of a natter, then turned around and gone back to the hotel. That day, we both learned a lesson: mine was that you should never blindly believe what the bike riders tell you. His was that you should always ask your boss what the right answer is.
Marco Pastonesi spent 24 years as a writer on cycling at La Gazzetta dello Sport, and has written numerous books on the sport.