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Editor’s note: This excerpt republished from Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore with permission of VeloPress.
July 18, 1992
Stage 13: Saint-Gervais to Sestriere
Casa Chiappucci is a three-story building on the edge of a small village in northern Italy, near Lake Como. At the entrance, three buzzers, each labeled “Chiappucci.” But it would appear that Claudio, the dazzling little climber of the 1990s, is not at home. A man appears on the balcony of the first floor, introducing himself as Claudio’s older brother. He says he doesn’t know where Claudio is. He adds that he never knows where Claudio is.
“You can wait,” he says. “He’ll be back soon.”
Ten minutes later, the electronic gate clicks and whirrs and begins to slide open. Instantly recognizable, the cyclist once known as “El Diablo” (the devil) appears behind the wheel of an SUV with a 20-something girl in the passenger seat. He is 50 but looks and dresses about 30 years younger: distressed jeans, tight black shirt, chunky white watch, and sunglasses perched on his head, acting as a hairband for his glossy black mane.
“Ciao, ciao, ciao,” a smiling Claudio leads us into the building then bounds up three flights of stairs. At the top, we are greeted by Mama Chiappucci, a small, hunched woman in her late seventies wrapped in an apron. She offers a warm welcome and shows us into the living room, or shrine. Everywhere you look there are trophies, trinkets, and photographs of Claudio riding and winning races, as well as one of him meeting the Pope. There is no escape: On the sofa, the cushions are adorned with his image. Which is ironic, because Claudio himself has disappeared again.
When he reappears, he explains that he has been checking on his new girlfriend, who is in his apartment on the ground floor. “She’s 25, from Lille.” Chiappucci picks up one of the cushions: The picture on this one shows the happy couple. “When you feel like this with someone” — he pats his chest — “the age doesn’t matter.”
Sitting down on his own face (on another cushion), Chiappucci explains that he’s just back from riding a gran fondo held in honor of … himself. “I finished fifth. I’m still riding well. The rest were amateurs, but it was a good level. I’m 50, so to finish with guys who are 20 or 25 years old …”
But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about Sestriere in 1992 and one of the most extraordinary, almost unbelievable, performances in Tour history.
CHIAPPUCCI TURNED PROFESSIONAL IN 1985 and for five years seemed destined to be a journeyman. It took him four years to win his first race. Then in 1990 he featured in a bizarre breakaway on day one of the Tour de France — bizarre because it gained 10 minutes. The yellow jersey passed between three of the four riders who had been in the break, but Chiappucci was, to everyone’s surprise, the last to wear it and the most reluctant to give it up. For three weeks Greg LeMond chipped away at his lead, but Chiappucci, at the relatively late age of 27, was a man transformed, who, even while in yellow, attacked LeMond in the mountains. It took LeMond until one day before Paris, and a time trial, to finally wrest the yellow jersey from the little Italian’s shoulders. LeMond regarded Chiappucci as a pest, dubbing him “Cappuccino.”
But for Chiappucci, who finished second, it was only the start. The 1990 Tour made him a star, a celebrity. He was busy that winter. “Anybody who invited me, I showed up” — at schools, dinners, old folks’ homes, orphanages.
The following year, he won Milan–San Remo after a long, lone breakaway, and then he finished second in the Giro and third in the Tour, where he was crowned King of the Mountains. Against the steady, stoic, unflashy Miguel Indurain, Chiappucci was everything the Spaniard was not: unpredictable, aggressive, exciting. He was El Diablo, who so fully embraced his nickname that he rode time trials with a cartoon devil on his helmet.
He acquired the name in South America. “I raced there at the start of my career, and I’d always attack. They started calling me El Diablo because of it. For them, it was strange to see a European racing that way. When I returned home, I told the story, that they called me the devil, and the name started to stick. Even today, it’s incredible, I get people calling me Diablo instead of Claudio.”
He doesn’t exactly discourage that. There are devils — sketches and figurines — everywhere in Casa Chiappucci — even a devil-shaped telephone. You wonder if there was a knowingness in his embrace of the “diablo” moniker, given what we now know about this era of cycling, and especially Italian cycling. But, no. Chiappucci simply liked being the protagonist. He saw himself as a benign and popular devil, a showman and source of mischief. “I thought that it was better to have personality and style than a long palmares. I wanted to be different.”
“I had tactics,” Chiappucci continues, “but not the same tactics as everyone else. The majority think there is only one tactic. Who said it has to be that way? You can race a million different ways. I knew my rivals’ tactics, and I’d go and destroy their plans. They think the race could only be raced in one way, like today when everyone just rides to the last climb and the race is made there.” Chiappucci’s approach was popular with the fans but also necessary against a steamroller of an opponent like Indurain. When taking on the Spaniard, it was clear that a more imaginative approach was needed.
Approaching the 1992 Tour, there was one stage that stood out for Chiappucci: Saint-Gervais to Sestriere. It was brutally mountainous and, at 254km, or 158 miles, hideously long. It was a stage that would reward the strong and the brave. It also visited Italy, ending with a summit finish at Sestriere, a climb synonymous with Fausto Coppi, the Italian cyclist whose name was shorthand for panache. Coppi won at Sestriere in 1952; now the Tour was preparing to visit on the 40th anniversary.
There was even a Chiappucci-Coppi family connection. “My dad and [Fausto] Coppi were in the war together in Africa, and my dad would speak with me about that,” Claudio says. In fact, Arduino Chiappucci and Coppi were prisoners of war in Ethiopia. “But,” Claudio adds, “I was closer to [Gino] Bartali.” Bartali was Coppi’s frequently bitter rival in the 1940s and ’50s. “Bartali was still alive in my time, and he was Tuscan, like my family.” In the POW camp, Chiappucci’s father gave up some of his food allowance for Coppi, to help the Campionissimo stay fit and healthy (though Coppi looked painfully thin, even in prime fitness). But that was the extent of their relationship, says Claudio. “My dad and Coppi never saw each other after the war.” Arduino talked about Coppi to young Claudio, though. And his first racing bike, bought by his father when he was fourteen, was a Bianchi, as ridden by Coppi. Sadly, Arduino died in 1985, just as his son was turning professional. He never saw Claudio’s metamorphosis into Campione, if not Campionissimo.
After finishing second in the 1992 Giro (again to Indurain), Chiappucci began to prepare for the Tour. And in particular for Sestriere. “I’ve always studied stages in advance,” he says. “Many things can change: the weather, your rivals, a crash, a mechanical, a team attacking. However, beforehand, I try to have an idea of what I want to do. That stage to Sestriere, I prepared for months in advance. I wanted to do something, I wanted to confirm what I had done at the Tour in 1990 and 1991. That would be a confirmation, a Tour de France stage in Italy. I wanted to win that stage.”
After the Giro, in the company of two Carrera domestiques, Mario Chiesa and Fabio Roscioli, as well as his “favorite” directeur sportif, Sandro Quintarelli, Chiappucci went to ride the route. The reconnaissance ride has become commonplace today, but it wasn’t in 1992 (not least because the riders raced so much; Chiappucci points out that in 1991 he raced 143 days, more than any other rider). Indurain also attempted to scout out the stage to Sestriere, but was denied by snow blocking the third of the five climbs on the route, the Col d’Iseran.
Chiappucci and his teammates’ ride was an intelligence mission with a difference. The stage was so long that they decided to do it over two days, staying overnight in Megève, the small and exclusive ski town close to Mont Blanc and the Italian border. Riding the stage over the two days, Chiappucci was flying; he reckoned he had never felt so strong. “In training, I was doing more gregario [domestique] work for Chiesa and Roscioli than they were for me,” he recalls. “They weren’t able to stay with me.”
THE DAY, JULY 18, 1992, dawned clear and sunny, especially at the summit of the ski station at Sestriere. “A tranquil haven under a piercing blue sky with air that could bring back the dead,” wrote the doyen of Italian journalists, Gianni Mura, in La Repubblica. “This is Sestriere.”
This stage, with its five climbs, was a “Death March,” according to some. Unusually, it was also, almost two weeks into the Tour, the first major mountain stage. In honor of the Maastricht Treaty, this was a Tour of the European Community: It started in San Sebastián, Spain, then all but missed the Pyrenees before visiting Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Germany, and now Italy. It had witnessed some extraordinary stages, not least Indurain bludgeoning the field in the 65km stage 9 time trial, where he won by three minutes, a margin so enormous that it teetered on the edge of improbability. There were other notable days: Gilles Delion, always an outsider (who a few years later would make a premature exit from the sport after complaining that the use of EPO was rampant), winning a thrilling stage 7 into Valkenburg; Laurent Fignon, humiliated by Indurain in the Luxembourg time trial, raging against the dying of the light with a solo victory in Mulhouse.
Chiappucci, who finished five minutes behind Indurain in Luxembourg, was determined to prove that the 1992 Tour was not the Indurain show. But what could he do? Beat him to Paris? Perhaps not. Indurain seemed unbeatable. Make life difficult? Light some fires? He had nothing to lose.
Sestriere was the day. Chiappucci and the other climbers had waited so long for the high mountains that they were itching to go. But Claudio, in particular, had big plans. Not that you would have guessed from his horseplay in Saint-Gervais, when he traveled to the sign-on stage on the back of a teammate’s bike. He explains that such stunts, which were always part of his act, could be misleading. “I was very tense ahead of the stage,” Chiappucci insists. “I was focused, more than for any of the other stages, because I was prepared, I held it dear to me. I was heading into Italy and I knew there’d be so many fans waiting. I was worried about messing up.”
Chiappucci is interviewed by French TV as he is getting ready, perched on the hood of a team car, fastening the Velcro straps on his shoes. “Today, I want to do something good,” he tells them. “I feel great.”
He is asked if he will attack from the start. He shrugs. “I hope the race will be hard.”
Is he scared, or worried the race will be fast? “I prefer a fast race. For me it’s easier when there aren’t many left.”
The stage began to climb immediately, with the difficult category 2 Col des Saisies. After 14km, Chiappucci attacked. At the top, he sprinted for King of the Mountains points — he was already in the polka-dot jersey. The impression was that Claudio was restless and impatient. Soon he was accelerating again, this time at the foot of the category 1 Cormet de Roselend, 50km into the stage. Nine riders went with him, including a young Frenchman, Richard Virenque, and the veteran Irishman Sean Kelly. They had two minutes at the summit, with Sean Yates, the peloton’s most fearless descender, joining on the way down. But the climbing was relentless. Soon they hit the third climb, the Col d’Iseran, 37km long — almost 23 miles — soaring to more than 9,000 feet, the highest pass in the Alps.
Chiappucci tackled the Iseran as though the finish was at the summit, hands on top of the bars, face contorted with the effort, legs churning. Only Virenque could stay with him. But after repeated efforts to close a gap that kept opening, Virenque’s head dropped; then he was gone. Chiappucci was oblivious. On he climbed, past huge snowdrifts, to the icy summit. By the top, Virenque was two minutes down. Further back, Indurain was in the main group, whittled down to just 35 riders, and three minutes, 45 seconds in arrears. There was carnage, with one of the big losers LeMond, who had been dropped and was almost 20 minutes down at the summit. Now Chiappucci was on his own; there were still over 100km left of the stage.
He couldn’t maintain this, could he? It was so improbable, or impossible, that journalists in the press room crowded around the television monitors, urging him on. “It was a brave act, to the point of insanity,” wrote Mura later. “But it’s nice to be so crazy, and to hell with the calculations and tac- tics! After all, is it or is it not El Diablo? So who better than him?”
Chiappucci says now that his attack was an “accident.” “I found myself ahead on the second climb. At first, I didn’t realize it. Those behind didn’t realize that I was up front, and those up front didn’t realize right away that I was there with them. In that time, the advantage grew as we were starting the Roselend.
“Virenque was there but didn’t want to work because [his RMO teammate] Pascal Lino was in yellow. At first everyone wanted to work, but then nobody. So I had to lift the pace to form a smaller group to see who could help. Also, I heard that Banesto [Indurain’s team] and Bugno’s team [Gatorade] were working. The fact that Bugno and his men were working upset me a bit.” Bugno, the world champion, was a fellow Italian. “I had to lift the pace on the climbs to see what happened,” Chiappucci continues. “Behind, they kept pulling, but it was getting strung out. Virenque was the last on my wheel. Before the Iseran, I asked him if he wanted to help. I told him Lino was going to lose the yellow jersey that day anyway. He said, ‘No, no, I can’t, Lino is still in yellow.’ So I lifted the pace.” And he got rid of Virenque. “I preferred to be on my own.”
It meant losing some of the advantages of being in a group, mainly the shelter from sitting on others’ wheels. But there were compensations, says Chiappucci. “When you’re in a group, you can’t think about how to manage the effort because you have to battle and attack with the others. It was better to be alone to manage myself the way I wanted to, not to suffer or be forced to follow the others’ attacks.
“On the descent of the Iseran, I gained more time. I wanted to see how they reacted behind, if I’d pull out the GC favorites, but nothing happened. So I continued on my way to Cenisio [Mont Cenis], and on that climb the advantage stayed at three to four minutes. But still I kept thinking they would come.”
For Chiappucci, “this was not how I imagined it” — riding at or near the front for over 200km, having been on the attack from 14km. “I remembered the road, what I had done in training, but it was not the same, it was another story. That day in training, I was going well because I saw my teammates couldn’t stay with me. But here …” Here he was alone, riding on feel, unsure whether he would pay for his efforts on the final climb. He knew enough from the reconnaissance to realize that a major test lay ahead, not the climb to Sestriere but in the Susa Valley, before the mountain, where the road climbed deceptively and the wind swirled mercilessly.
In the valley, “I managed my effort by not going above myself, by watching my heart rate.” It is a little surprising to learn that this talented, impetuous rider did not do everything on instinct and feel. In fact, he was an early adopter of heart rate monitors, with chest strap and handlebar- mounted computer. “I had one of the first Polars and I watched my heart rate in the valley. When I saw it going too high, I eased up. I never went at my maximum. It seems strange, but I always went at my maximum on the descents, where it was easier for me and where I could gain more on my rivals.”
His heart rate in the valley, says Chiappucci, was below the red line: “160, 170—180 maximum. I always had a low heart rate, never up to 200. In the valley, if it started to rise, I backed off.”
Quintarelli offered a slightly different version of events afterward, say- ing that Chiappucci had repeatedly asked him for reassurance. “The times! The times!” Chiappucci implored.
“You’re killing him!” Quintarelli told him. “You’re slaughtering Indurain!” Like a lion waking from a long sleep and feeling pangs of hunger, Indurain was beginning to stir. When he forced the pace, the chasing group rapidly boiled down to four: Bugno, Andy Hampsten, Franco Vona, and Indurain himself. Up ahead, Chiappucci was suffering. “I thought in the Valle di Susa that they’d come up to me. I gained time on the descents but in the valleys that [time] was important, because I thought, on the straight roads, they’d be able to see me and come and get me. But they weren’t gaining on me, though at one point I had only a minute. That was hard, that was a crisis moment for me. I was thinking, what are they doing? Are they going to come and get me or what?”
From the following car, Quintarelli was “telling me to hold tight, not to give up. But I was cracking, practically in tears. It was very hot, I couldn’t eat anymore, just drink. I got rid of my helmet, it was so hot. I was afraid that on Sestriere I’d fall apart, after all I had done. The closer I got, the more tense I became.
“I thought, if they catch me on the climb, it’s going to be bad.”
HALF OF ITALY HAD MADE a pilgrimage to Sestriere, or so it seemed. The tifosi (fans), keen to celebrate the exploits of Chiappucci and Bugno as they had once rejoiced in those of Coppi and Bartali, were packed so deep toward the top that the road disappeared. Assuming he made it that far, threading his way through would be Claudio’s next challenge.
Sestriere was almost a shrine to Italian cycling, having first appeared in the Giro d’Italia in 1911. It was introduced after the Tour de France visited the Pyrenees the previous year; if the French could climb 6,500 ft mountains, so could the Italians. There were three ways up the mountain — two from the West, one from the East. The Tour had only approached from the West, Coppi climbing from Montgenèvre in 1952. Forty years later, Chiappucci would approach from Oulx, but the two routes — the Coppi route and the Chiappucci route — merge in Cesana Torinese. Then the road curls up in hairpins, rising out of the valley, into the rarefied mountain air, surrounded by 9,800 ft peaks. Monte Fraiteve stands to one side, Monte Sises to the other. On it goes for 11km, or nearly 7 miles, climbing to 6,670 feet.
The crowd, hundreds of thousands strong, mainly Italians, are waiting for Chiappucci and for their world champion and world No. 1, Bugno. They know Claudio has been out in front for 200km, that he has embarked on a crazy adventure, a move that defies logic and common sense, but, with transistor radios pressed to ears, they follow his progress through the valley, scarcely believing that he is holding off a group led by the great Indurain. It’s a David-versus-Goliath encounter, with the added tension for the tifosi of David being Italian. The heat is stifling and the atmosphere on the mountain frenzied. They know Chiappucci’s lead has tumbled in the valley, falling from five minutes to barely one.
Chiappucci began climbing and “at the start I saw the 10km to go sign, and thought this is going to be my hardest 10km ever. At that point, I just didn’t know how I’d manage the climb, how I’d face it. I tried to stay calm. I lost some time in the first part. But I knew there was a slight false flat in the first part of the climb.”
Working his way up, Chiappucci is accompanied by one, sometimes two, sometimes three bare-chested tifosi, running alongside, pouring water on his head, offering a brief push then skipping out of the way of the following motorbikes. Behind, Indurain and Bugno steadily advance, eating into his lead. In contrast, Chiappucci is punchy, his body rocking with the effort of pushing the pedals. He is stocky, too. “He always had very heavy muscles,” as Stephen Roche says of Chiappucci. “He was built like the trunk of a tree.” Indurain and Bugno are rejoined by Hampsten and Vona, who instantly attacks. Bugno slides off the back. So steady is the world champion, his upper body rock solid, that it is hard to tell how tired Bugno is. But he is cooked. Hampsten is next. Now Indurain is alone, tapping out his infernal rhythm — always in the saddle. He grimaces slightly beneath his cap and behind his sunglasses, while up ahead Chiappucci’s sweat-dampened black hair frames his impish face. He is also grimacing, but while Indurain seems impassive (wearing “a look of unemotional determination,” in Sam Abt’s description), it appears as though Chiappucci is grinning from ear to ear. And riding not through the crowds, but into them. He bounces off them, like a bumper car, weaving left and right. It means Chiappucci is part of the crowd, too. There’s an electric connection between them. You can see it. They respond in a way they don’t to those who follow. They are cool toward Indurain and hostile toward the struggling Bugno, who is booed and whistled at. Chiappucci is adored.
Then, just ahead of Chiappucci, the flotilla of motorbikes — TV, press photographers, police, officials — becomes clogged up. They can’t get through the crowds. Horns are blasted, engines revved, but it’s no good. “I was nearly at a standstill,” Chiappucci recalls. In front of him, a cacophony of noise and the stench of toxic exhaust fumes; a maelstrom that mocks Mura’s poetic description of Sestriere as a tranquil haven.
There is nowhere for him to go other than to try to squeeze past the motorbikes, overtaking the convoy that was supposed to clear the way. With a bit of quick thinking and improvisation this is what Chiappucci does, sitting up, shouting, and waving his arm to clear the road. Then he presses on. “On the one hand, it bugged me,” Chiappucci says of the moment he almost came to a stop. “But on the other, it gave me a lot of motivation and strength. At that moment, I regained energy. If the road was empty, I would’ve just cracked, but instead I took on their energy. I felt they wanted something, and they contributed a lot. I think they understood my undertaking.”
Chiappucci continues his monologue, his mythologizing of his great exploit. “This was an escape in the Tour where my rivals didn’t give me any favors. I wasn’t let loose like an unknown domestique” — like 1990, in other words. “They knew who I was and that they couldn’t give me space because it’d be difficult to catch me. They thought that I wouldn’t be able to make it. They thought that I’d crack.
“But,” Chiappucci adds, “my legs and the fans were my salvation.” With 5km to the summit, before he escaped his cocoon and overtook the motorbikes, Chiappucci led by one minute, 25 seconds. Behind him, Indurain was revving his engine. Now he would surely haul Chiappucci back. Everybody thought so. Chiappucci had been riding like this — hard, recklessly, but without fear — for 200km and more than seven hours. With 3km to go, his lead over Indurain was 57 seconds. That was well within Indurain’s range.
Chiappucci knew Indurain was closing. “I thought, oh boy, here he comes. In those last 2 m, I risked losing everything that’d I’d done in the 250km before. I touched bottom. I probably wasn’t feeling anything, just the fans that were all over me; the whole time, a loud roar, but it gave me a lot of encouragement. I thought, no, Indurain can’t come and get me.” He had no way of knowing exactly how close Indurain was. “We didn’t have ear-pieces then, so it was ciclismo naturale, based on instincts. My DS was yelling that I was losing time. But I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I thought he said the gap came down to 30 seconds.”
One big effort and Indurain would gobble Chiappucci up. Then the impossible: The strain began to tell on Indurain. His shoulders gently rocked, the suppleness went from his legs, the grimace became a frown. He was caught and passed by Vona. Now, as Chiappucci headed into the relative tranquility of the final 500m, where barriers kept the fans at bay, his lead began to increase again. “I thought, if Indurain caught me, I was faster, maybe I could outsprint him? Then he cracked! And I took more time.”
In the final meters, Chiappucci raised one arm, though the effort looked as though it might cause him to topple over. Then, just before the line, he managed to lift both arms before wobbling across the line, where his mother was waiting. As he was mobbed by reporters, Renata Chiappucci screamed, “Let him through, let him through, he’s my son!”
Somehow she found him, or Chiappucci found her. She cradled his head in her arms. It was Renata, not Claudio, who gave the first interview. “I was sure that they wouldn’t catch him. Everyone kept telling me, ‘Stay calm, signora, stay calm! This is how Coppi won 40 years ago.’
“Now I’m calm,” she added, “now I’m calm.”
Chiappucci lifted his head and addressed her. “Mamma, off you go and rest now.”
WHEN HE COULD SPEAK, CHIAPPUCCI said to the reporters who surrounded him, “When I heard that Indurain had dropped Bugno and was chasing me — him, Miguel, chasing me — I felt twice the size, like three Chiappuccis in one, a cooperative of Chiappuccis!”
Vona made it an Italian one-two, 1:34 down on Chiappucci, with Indurain third, another nine seconds later. “I finished this stage very tired,” said Indurain. “The hard course, the rhythm of the race and the heat exhausted me.” Indurain usually finished stages looking barely out of breath. Not today. “It’s the only day that I ever saw Indurain have trouble climbing the stairs in the hotel,” said his teammate Jean-François Bernard.
Behind Chiappucci, there was devastation. The crowds, high on Chiappucci’s epic victory, did not calm down after he had passed. “I remember asking Jean-François Pescheux, who was in the lead car, to do something about the crowds, to try and open up the roads,” said Laurent Fignon. “It was the first time I ever saw anything like it. They scared me. Perhaps it was Chiappucci’s exploit that made them like that.”
“When people ask me what was the hardest day on my bike, I say Sestriere,” said Stephen Roche, Chiappucci’s Carrera teammate. “I’ve never been so exhausted. I spent 150km in the gruppetto. I’ll never forget Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle’s face. He said to me, ‘I can’t see the 20km to go sign — where is it?’ I dared not tell him that we still had 70km to do.”
Most poignant of all was the fate of LeMond, who hadn’t even started climbing to Sestriere when Chiappucci was reaching the summit with his arms in the air. The three-time Tour winner was one of 18 riders to finish outside the time limit; he was 130th, almost 50 minutes down. Did Chiappucci, once dubbed “Cappuccino” by LeMond, enjoy that? “I was already finished with him. After the 1990 Tour, he just didn’t exist in my book. But it gave me a bit of pleasure to force him out. Yeah.”
He wasn’t particularly enamored with Bugno after Sestriere, either. Now he says, “He gave Indurain a hand to chase. Indurain was on his own after Cenisio, but then they brought him back into the race. Why? I don’t know, I’ve always wondered that. Maybe because I was Italian as well; maybe he thought, ‘It’d be better if a foreigner, a Spaniard, wins in Sestriere — at least that way he won’t take any of my fame.’ I don’t know. People were very upset with him. We never really had a chance to speak about it. For a long time we weren’t talking, but now we hear from each other quite often. However, we have never talked about that day.”
Bugno’s comments, immediately after the stage, sounded an oddly discordant note. “Chiappucci’s break is great but hard to believe in,” he said.
Gradually Chiappucci’s ride and its implications were digested. In the short term, he was up to second overall in the 1992 Tour, behind Indurain. But the significance went beyond that. “I didn’t think it was possible to do such things in modern cycling,” said Felice Gimondi, the last Italian winner of the Tour, in 1965. “It deserves to go down in the history of the Tour and of cycling.”
And yet against Indurain it was not enough. The Spaniard won in Paris, for the second of his five consecutive victories, while Chiappucci held on to second. But for Gianni Mura, writing in La Repubblica, “Indurain is the winner but Chiappucci is the hero of the Tour … the rider who lit up the race.” He had previously considered Chiappucci a glorious loser, another Raymond Poulidor, the so-called Eternal Second of the 1960s and ’70s. “Now I take off my hat and bow,” wrote Mura. “What Chiappucci did on the stage to Sestriere is at the limits of credibility [and] is one of the greatest feats in cycling.” Little Claudio left the Tour “enlarged by it.”
HE HAD WON STAGE 19, but Chiappucci looks reflective now. “If there was one or two kilometers more, I could’ve won the Tour.”
Typical Claudio, getting carried away. Always wanting more. Was the stage win, achieved in such extraordinary fashion, after seven hours, 44 minutes, and 51 seconds in the saddle, mostly alone, not enough?
He springs out of the sofa, heads for one of his mother’s cabinets and opens a drawer. “Here, look at this photo,” he says. “A fan took it from behind, as I’m crossing the line.” There he is, arms in the air, the vivid red polka-dots of his jersey standing out against the bright blue sky. “It’s beautiful, this shot. Not even taken by a professional.”
Not that you would know it now, in meeting the effervescent Chiappucci, but El Diablo’s career ended ignominiously. In 1997, he twice failed the UCI’s new “health check,” designed to control the scourge of EPO abuse in the absence of a test for the drug.
The exact date at which EPO, which gave the body a magical infusion of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, entered the peloton is not clear, but most put it at some point in the early 1990s, and, if they were to identify a country of origin, it would be Italy.
By the mid-1990s it was ubiquitous. But in the absence of a test the authorities were powerless. The health check was a compromise: If a blood test revealed a rider’s hematocrit (red blood cell count) to be over 50 percent, he was forced to take two weeks off racing. It wasn’t a doping ban, but a high hematocrit was prima facie evidence of EPO use. Chiappucci was one of the first to fail, initially at the 1997 Tour of Romandie in May, forcing him to miss the Giro, then again on the eve of the world championships. The test was, he said at the time, “a scandal. I lost half my season because of that. The mentality of the sport has changed.”
Others have claimed that July 18, 1992, was the day the sport changed. A decade after Chiappucci’s win at Sestriere, the French magazine Vélo looked back on “a day of madness,” with Chiappucci cast as “the bionic man.” “Ten years later, what is the legacy of this day?” asked the magazine. “Did it announce a new era, polluted by a miracle drug? Did it symbolize the start of the EPO years?”
“Sestriere symbolized the arrival of the heavy artillery,” was the coded verdict of one of Indurain’s teammates, Jean-François Bernard. “A donkey will never be a racehorse,” said Roche. “If you accuse Chiappucci, you doubt all the achievements of cyclists and athletes in general.” Fignon made the point to Vélo that Chiappucci’s was not the only exceptional performance. “Why not ask about the time trial in Luxembourg, where Indurain takes three minutes out of the second-placed rider, nearly four minutes out of Bugno, and six minutes out of me?” he said. “Nineteen-ninety-two was probably the first year where we see lots of suspicious things and we get clear confirmation in 1993. I will not say that I stopped only because of this [Fignon retired at the end of the 1993 season]. I was finished. But riders who were not as good as me were climbing much better than me. I regularly lost four or five minutes despite riding well. . . . I was becoming just another rider in the peloton.”
In 1997, Chiappucci told an Italian prosecutor, Vincenzo Scolastico, that he had used EPO since 1993, the year after Sestriere. But later he retracted his statement.
Chiappucci was certainly part of what was described, at the time, as an Italian renaissance, when their riders dominated classics and the podiums of Grand Tours; only the presence of Indurain prevented them clogging the top step. It was a remarkable resurgence, one that coincided with the increasing prominence of Italian medics such as Professor Francesco Conconi and Dr. Michele Ferrari, whose methods are now well understood.
How did Chiappucci do it? How could he ride so hard, so long, over five mountains, and hold off Indurain? “Passion, stubbornness, suffering, and willpower. That is how I won on Sestriere,” he says.
In 2012 Chiappucci was invited back to the mountain to mark the 20th anniversary of his defining achievement. With other cyclists, he rode from Cesana Torinese up to Sestriere. “It was a good party, we talked, and they gave me a beautiful wood trophy — you want to take a photograph?”
The trophy is in Chiappucci’s own apartment, so he leads us back down the stairs. “Time passes quickly,” says Claudio. “I realized in my career, if I want to be different, I’ve got to do it this way. Attack, cause trouble. And let me tell you, it’s a lot more tiring. That’s normal, otherwise everyone would be doing the same thing. I had the head for it, however. From the outside it looked like chaos, but it was planned.
“Okay, I could have just stayed and played the game and won many more races,” he adds. “I would have won 150 to 200 races. There are many riders who’ve won that many races, but they lack character.
“I won 80 races; maybe I could have won more, but my victories have more value. And the people remember the way I won races, not the number of races won. The way you win. That’s what’s important.”
1. CLAUDIO CHIAPPUCCI, Italy, Carrera, 7 hours, 44 minutes, 51 seconds
2. FRANCO VONA, Italy, at 1 minute, 34 seconds
3. MIGUEL INDURAIN, Spain, Banesto, at 1 minute, 45 seconds
4. GIANNI BUGNO, Italy, Gatorade, at 2 minutes, 53 seconds
5. ANDY HAMPSTEN, USA, Motorola, at 3 minutes, 27 seconds
6. LAURENT FIGNON, France, Gatorade, at 5 minutes, 51 seconds