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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Europe bound

Earlier this week, on this site, Peter Nye told the fascinating story of Joseph Magnani, an American pioneer whose European racing career was virtually unknown back home. That’s because Magnani moved to Europe in his mid-teens and learned how to race in France, where he lived from 1928 until the end of his cycling career 20 years later. Magnani’s impoverished Illinois family sent him to live with friends in the south of France, where he took up bike racing at age 16. He turned pro seven years later because he could make more money racing bikes than he could in his job of delivering coal and

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By John Wilcockson

Eighteen-year-old Michael Hiltner in 1959 at Canada’s Tour du St. Laurent, which a newspaper said he won with …

Photo: courtesy of Victor Vincente of America

Earlier this week, on this site, Peter Nye told the fascinating story of Joseph Magnani, an American pioneer whose European racing career was virtually unknown back home. That’s because Magnani moved to Europe in his mid-teens and learned how to race in France, where he lived from 1928 until the end of his cycling career 20 years later.

Magnani’s impoverished Illinois family sent him to live with friends in the south of France, where he took up bike racing at age 16. He turned pro seven years later because he could make more money racing bikes than he could in his job of delivering coal and wood.

Aside from his incarceration by the Germans in World War II, Magnani raced as a pro from 1935 to 1948. He won 11 races, competed in famous events like Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Italia (but never the Tour de France), and rode the world pro road championship four times (DNF in 1936, 1938 and 1946; seventh and final finisher in 1947, 10:40 behind winner Theo Middelkamp).

The same year that Joseph Magnani was ending his “unknown” continental career with a DNF at the 1948 Tour of Switzerland, American domestic racing was still in the dark ages. There were fewer than a thousand racers nationwide, but this didn’t deter the Amateur Bicycle League of America from organizing national trials to send a team to the first postwar Olympics being held in London.

Ted Smith, a 20-year-old from Buffalo, New York – who was the three-time national omnium champion (a series of four road criteriums from 1 to 20 miles) – won the 138-mile Olympic trials road race in a solo break. He was the top U.S. hope for a breakthrough in the 1948 Olympic road race at London’s Windsor Great Park, but the ABL officials dropped him from the road-race team when Smith competed in some local British road events against their instructions — they said they didn’t want him to risk injury, while Smith said he needed the races to accustom himself to the derailleur gears that were still not used in U.S. racing.

Smith turned pro after the Olympic disappointment to compete in North American six-day races, taking fourth, fifth and sixth places at New York sixes before heading to Europe in the spring of 1950. He competed in the long season of kermesse races in Belgium, culminating in his appearance (three years after Magnani’s seventh-place finish) at the world pro road championship, held that year at Moorslede in Flanders.

Smith flatted after 160km of the world’s course, which took in parts of the rugged Tour of Flanders route, and he didn’t finish the 284km race. On his return home that winter, Smith was recruited into the Army Air Corps and was sent off to the Korean War. He only returned to cycling, as a domestic amateur racer, in 1956.

That was the year that the latest American phenom Art Longsjo, winner of the 1954 Québec-Montréal race, competed at the Winter and Summer Olympics. Longsjo went on to win the 1958 Tour du St. Laurent stage race in Canada, then collect a second victory in the Québec-Montréal classic. As I wrote last week, he would never get a chance to turn pro and race in Europe; the day after his Montréal win, Longsjo died in an auto accident.

Coincidentally, less than a year after Longsjo’s death, another American traveled to Canada’s Tour du St. Laurent: an 18-year-old Californian named Michael Hiltner. He won four of the event’s 10 stages, winning with what a reporter from Québec’s L’Action Catholique newspaper called “sensational brilliance.” Hiltner took the race by four minutes over another American, Tom Montemage of Williamsville, New York.

Hiltner, who grew up in Los Angeles, was part of the emerging California cycling scene that in the following 20 years would produce such significant riders as Mike Neel, Jonathan Boyer and Greg LeMond. Back in the 1950s, the California riders were already using derailleur gears (unlike their East Coast brethren). They dreamed of riding like their biggest hero, Fausto Coppi, and after a 1956 racing trip to Italy, two Bay Area riders Rick Bronson and George Koenig founded a cycling club called the Pedali Alpini.

Hiltner moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains where he roomed with another Pedali Alpini team member, Lars Zebroski. The two of them, along with Koenig, qualified for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team and competed in both the road race and 100km team time trial in Rome. They finished 11th in the TTT, while Hiltner made it into the 31-man winning break in the road race, taking 23rd place.

The three Pedali Alpini Olympians, along with clubmate Peter Rich, stayed on in Italy after the Games and eventually based themselves in Florence. Racing for an Italian amateur team in 1961, Hiltner – who packed a hefty sprint and great uphill acceleration in his 5-foot-5 frame – won four races that year in Tuscany: a criterium in March and hilly road races in April, July and August. Three were taken in small-group sprints, the last in a solo break five minutes ahead of the field.

If an Italian 20-year-old had had similar success, he would probably have been snapped up by a pro team, but Hiltner’s raw talent was not enough. He went on to race for the U.S. national team at the world’s in Switzerland (1961) and Germany (1962), the Pan Am Games in Brazil (1963) and the Tokyo Olympics (1964). In 1965, he won the first true national road race championship (a hilly 100-miler at Encino, California) and the hill climb title (on Mount Evans, Colorado); his prize for winning the road race was a roundtrip ticket to compete at the world’s in San Sebastian, Spain.

Still only 24, Hiltner flew to Europe with his Brazilian wife. After the world’s, they headed to races in Belgium and Germany, and then on to Italy. Hiltner raced from March to October 1966 in Tuscany, taking 10 top-five placings, including two more victories, but it wasn’t enough to make a living, nor obtain a coveted pro team slot. The Hiltners moved to Brazil in 1967, where Hiltner competed in his final road race.

Hiltner eventually returned to the U.S., became a clothing and coin art designer and mountain-bike inventor, and, after setting a double-transcontinental bicycle record of 36 days and 8 hours (Santa Monica to Atlantic City and back) in 1975 at age 34, he changed his name to Victor Vincente of America. He was inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2001.