The 103rd edition of the Giro d’Italia was scheduled to finish in Milan this past Sunday, but due to the coronavirus crisis, it has been postponed until October. So instead of celebrating this year’s winner, we look back 40 years to a historic victory by Frenchman Bernard Hinault—a historic win that just may have saved the race.
1980 was a pretty good year for Bernard Hinault. Or at least it started out that way with his epic victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in blizzard conditions. And on the heels of his success in one of cycling’s monuments, Hinault then decided to make his assault on Italy in an effort to become only the third French rider after Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil to win the storied Giro d’Italia.
But while the Giro was steeped in history and legend, in 1980 it was also struggling with an identity crisis, as it was often accused of favoritism and downright nationalism. Italian riders often benefited from illegal tows and drafts to a degree that made it difficult for foreign riders to match their Italian rivals on a level playing field.
But Hinault also needed the Giro. He was clearly the greatest stage race rider in the world after winning his first two Tours de France in 1978 and 1979 as well as the 1978 Vuelta a España. But if he was truly going to follow in the footsteps of French legends like Bobet and Anquetil, not to mention Belgian Eddy Merckx, well, winning the Giro was essential.
And in the spring of 1980, with his Renault team director Cyril Guimard, the two decided to make their way to Italy.
“You have to remember that foreign riders had been avoiding Giro d’Italia for years after a seriess of irregularities. As a result, the only foreign riders that would go the Giro were on Italian teams,” Guimard told VeloNews in a recent interview. “Vincenzo Torriani, the race director at the time was really struggling to save the race, and he really wanted to have Bernard do the Giro. But I told him flatly that his race was not a race, because it wasn’t fair. But we worked out a deal with a written contract, and I stated very clearly that if there was the least problem where would pack our bags and go home, and we would sue for damages.”
Showing up at the start, Hinault in his Renault team were the only French team. And in fact, with only one German, Belgian, Spanish, and Swiss team at the start, the race remained largely an Italian affair, one that was led by Italian icons like Francesco Moser and Giusseppe Saronni.
Guimard prepared for the race by learning Italian. “It was Jean Bobet, Louison’s brother, who told me, ‘Cyril don’t go to the Giro if you don’t understand Italian!’
“Now he had been there when his brother won it back in the 1950s, and he remembered all of the mafias that existed in the peloton. It made it hard for foreign riders to win. ‘You’ve got to learn Italian,’ he said. ‘Don’t tell anyone there that you speak it really. But you have to understand it.’
Hinault of course, came with only victory in mind. But it did not come easily.
“The Giro was really different than the Tour de France,” Hinault remembers. “The peloton was almost entirely Italian and when you showed up you were the foreigner and everybody rode against you. In addition, there were a lot more time bonuses and guys like Francesco Moser or Giuseppe Saronni really knew how to make the most out of those. It was harder to control. You had to watch everybody. The only solution was to attack. Which is what we did.”
After winning the prologue, Moser managed to keep the distinctive pink jersey for the first five days. Hinaut got his first taste of pink after riding strongly on the stage five time trial to Pisa, but he lost the lead two days later to Roberto Visentini, another perennial favorite. And after controlling the lead for nearly a week, Hinault suddenly seemed cornered.
“We just were not sure how we were going to shake the Italians,” remembers Guimard. “Every time we made a move they were on us.”
“Guys like Moser and Saronni would do everything they could to make the other lose,” remembers Hinault. “But they both did whatever they could to make you lose, too!”
Finally, on stage 14, the Frenchmen found an opening. And after surprising the peloton with an attack in crosswinds, Hinault finally managed to drop Visentini and move within striking distance of the lead.
“We had been looking for the right spot for several days, but the winds just weren’t right” recalls Guimard. “But then finally on that stage, there was a sharp turn just after a bonus sprint onto a narrow road, and I knew the moment was right.”
The Renault team jumped hard just after the sprint before the turn and caught nearly everyone off guard. Visentini was gone immediately and only Wladimiro Panizza managed to hold on to the front group. “He was turning all kinds of colors,” laughs Guimard. “But in the end, he put on the pink jersey, which was perfect for us.”
Entering the final week of racing, Guimard was only too happy to have Panizza’s team controlling the race. Panizza was no match for Hinault in the high mountains and with the Italian Alps on the horizon, Hinault still had ample opportunity to make his final grab for the race lead.
That move finally came on stage 20, on the stage Cles Val di Non to Sondrio. Sending several teammates up the road, Hinault then dropped Panizza on the famed Stelvio Pass before bridging up to his teammate Jean-René Bernadeau. Together the two bombed down the descent and increased their lead through the valley to the finish. And with the Maglia Rosa now a lock, Hinault was only too happy to give his teammate the stage victory.”
With only two days of racing left, Hinault had little trouble controlling the lead into Milan.
Guimard sees the 1980 race as a watershed year in the Giro. “Looking back I have to say that the race was pretty fair. Sure Bernard needed to win the Giro, but it was Torriani who had the most to lose. With Hinault winning, it gave new credibility and grandeur to the race.”
Hinault of course would go on to win the Giro on two other occasions, but he would be just one of a steady stream of foreign riders — including Irishman Stephen Roche, American Andy Hampsten, and Frenchman Laurent Fignon — to win the race in the race in the 1980s. And today while the string of scandals that plagued the race in the late 70s are largely forgotten, the lure of the Giro continues to grow.