Throughout the 2021 Giro d’Italia we will be running columns from La Course En Tête.
Between sundown on the penultimate stage at Alpe di Motta and sunup on the final day when the Giro d’Italia reaches Milano, the point at which this article is being written, translated and published, three Italians – Attilio Viviani, Matteo Moschetti and Riccardo Minali – seem destined to contest this particular award. Not the pink jersey, but the black, the one “given” to the last rider in the race – the equivalent of the lanterne rouge in the Tour de France.
The maglia nera is “virtual,” and, in my humble opinion, also virtuous. To tell it straight, the maglia nera existed for a few years, but hasn’t been around for a while. Now we have pink, lilac, white and blue, but not black. But everyone knows that the maglia nera is what the last rider in the overall classification wears, in spirit at least. The maglia nera is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s definitely the case that Minali – who has an “advantage” of seven minutes on Moschetti and seven and a half on Viviani – will be happy to take it. It’s better to come last than second- or third-last, because the last man is in the history books.
The last men in the race give the first their status. Even Eddy Merckx was last sometimes. At the world championship in San Cristobal, Venezuela, in the Andes, in 1977; first in the professional road race, 255 kilometers in the rain, Francesco Moser, 33rd and last of the 89 starters, Eddy Merckx. But everyone knows that Merckx was the greatest, not on that day, but of all time. On that Sunday, September 4 1977, Merckx “the cannibal” gave an extra edge to his hunger, gave extra value to that hunger, and lent an extra degree to his greatness even when he finished last. Ahead of Merckx was Raymond Poulidor, France’s much loved “poupou”, the eternal second who was in his usual place, but starting from the back.
Turning a result sheet, or better still an overall standing, upside down and looking at it back to front, has a certain purity to it.
For everyone, rider, fan or journalist. It’s a good way of mixing up the cards, letting in other points of view and re-evaluating your precedents and priorities. In Italy, and in Italian, the synonym for a maglia nera is Malabrocca. Luigi Malabrocca, a piedmontese from Tortona, and then flying the flag in the southern Swiss province of Ticino, a man who bred fish and was the Italian cyclo-cross champion.
When he understood that he couldn’t match the great champions, Bartali and Coppi, he devised a new way of racing. He would escape behind the peloton, go into bars and never emerge again, he would hide in ravines, in hay-barns and in cellars. Once he hid in a well, a dry one, but a peasant lifted the cover off: “and what are you up to?” “I’m riding the Giro.” Then he got back on his bike, went over the Passo Rolle, the Pordoi, Campolongo and Gardena – this was the mega stage through the Dolomites – and arrived at the finish last. Very much last. He was the blackest of black jerseys. It was the thing he did.
He did it because by finishing last in the standings, he would earn more money than all his fellow pros, apart from Bartali and Coppi. The sportivi – that’s what they called the fans then, not tifosi – would all dip into their pockets to stump up something for him. Someone would modify a hat and turn it into a bag for alms, tips, pocket money. And with a bit of this and a bit of that, Malabrocca would cash in. Last in the 1946 Giro, even more last in the 1947 race, absent in 1948 and in 1949 he ran into a rider who was ruthless enough to finish behind him – Sante Carollo, a builder by trade from the Vicenza area. It was unthinkable: Carollo first (if you read the standings from the back), and second – the pity, the shame, the scandal of it! – Malabrocca.
Often the last man is the most honest. And very often, in a pure and ironic paradox, the last man is also the first: the first to suffer and slip off the back, the first to sit up and wave farewell to the bunch, the first to have a crisis and the first to abandon, the first to get into a team car or the broom wagon, the first to unpin his number and the first to pack his bags and go home.
I have no shame: I’ll always take the side of the guy who finishes last.
The battle between the “favorite” Minali and his rivals Moschetti and Viviani raises my spirits, because the last man is the weakest, the most fragile, the most vulnerable. He’s the most animal, vegetable, mineral. The most generous, solid and human. He’s also the most stubborn when it comes to keeping going, keeping pushing. He’s the most genuine, the most authentic, the truest. He’s given up fighting against and among the others, he’s been left to do battle with himself. And from that point onwards it’s a matter of self-awareness, self-knowledge and self-motivation. It’s a matter of faith.
Marco Pastonesi spent 24 years as a writer on cycling at La Gazzetta dello Sport, and has written numerous books on the sport.