In a continuing series, running alongside the magazine, I'm looking at conquerors, or “Conquistadores” of the sport of cycling. As you can imagine, this is bloody hard. How do you narrow over a hundred years of heroes down into a thousand or so words?
Today, in this particular piece, I'm looking at Giro d'Italia riders to coincide with – funnily enough – the Giro d'Italia. The race began in 1909 and 2017 is its hundredth edition, taking into account the nine editions cancelled over the two world wars. Over those 99 epic bike races, nearly 65 different people have won the GC, and countless others have brought intrigue and excitement to the race, and I'm supposed to condense it into a readable article.
It's impossible. So, let's narrow it down. First off, I don't need to tell you how great Contador, Nibali and Quintana are to watch. You can watch them yourselves for the next three weeks. Also, there's been so much written about Pantani, Indurain, Hinault, Merckx or Anquetil over the years, you probably don't need me to extend on that. Coppi and Bartali are Italian god-like legends who I wouldn't even begin to fit into a word limit like this, and shall we just draw a veil over what the comic called the “Decade of Doping” of the noughties?
I'm biased as my interest in the history of the sport immediately draws me back to grainy sepia photos and fantastic moustaches, when a single stage could reach 430km long and the peloton would consist of a little as 8 people on the final day. Are these the conquerors of the Giro though? They certainly achieved some amazing physical feats but the Giros of the turn of the century must have lacked some of the tactics and nuances of the later editions. Is brute strength the sign of a true conqueror? Or is it, as King Kelly would say, riders that can “make the calculation” in the spur of the moment? The difference between a cannonball and a sniper’s bullet? Ooh, it's all getting a bit deep isn't it...
I started off by looking at the riders that had won the Giro the most. Taking away Coppi, Merckx, Bartali and Hinault as mentioned above, that leaves us with four other riders who have won the Italian tour more than twice – they're all Italian and none of them have moustaches.
Felice Gimondi, perhaps the most familiar to modern viewers, won the Giro in 1967, 1969 and 1976, as well as the first Italian to win all three Grand Tours. His mother was a postal carrier, riding her bike around to make deliveries and taking her young son along with her. As his strength and capacity as a bike rider grew, she would send him off to make any deliveries uphill. Tall and dark with a long Roman nose and boyish smile, Gimondi was once described by Gazzetta dello Sport as having the manners of an English schoolboy – presumably because of his good behaviour, and not some artistic swears and a constant stream of snot or anything.
Giovanni Brunero won the Giro in 1921, 1922, and 1926 (as well as Milan-San Remo and Lombardia a couple of times). Brunero lost both of his parents within a few weeks of each other, unbeknownst to him, while he was in the army in 1915. Traumatised upon his return, he moved a few miles out of Turin, got a job in a bike shop and began the 100km commute to work. It was this training that paid off and made Brunero the great climber he was – but not a sprinter, as his DS called him “the only rider I ever know who could come tenth in a nine-man gallop.” Brunero was small and shy, hidden in the shadow of the Italian legend Costante Girardengo, but very popular among his peers. When he died of TB aged only 39, Alfredo Binda and 1920 Giro winner Gaetano Belloni were pallbearers.
Fiorenzo Magni was a hard man of the sport. Up there with Gino Bartali in the “I could murder you and your family” look, he won the Giro in 1948, 1951 and 1955, but it's the 1956 Giro where he finished second that earns him the title of “conqueror”. Having announced his retirement, Magni was determined to race one final Giro d'Italia. On Stage 12, he crashed heavily and broke his collarbone. No longer able to apply pressure to the handlebars with his left hand, at the suggestion of a mechanic, he tied a piece of inner tube to the handlebars and gripped it between his teeth for the next four stages. Unfortunately, the inner tube couldn't break or steer for him, and he decked it on a descent on Stage 16, breaking his arm as well. As he regained consciousness in the ambulance, Magni demanded to be let out, grabbed his bike and made his way back to the peloton that had waited for him. Just five days later he made it up the Monte Bondone in the infamous snowstorm that saw 60 riders abandon, and finished second behind stage winner Charly Gaul. He held on to finish second in the overall GC with two broken bones and no power in his left arm. Not bad at all.
Alfredo Binda is the daddy of Italian cycling. The only rider other than Coppi and Merckx to win the Giro five times, he took the victory in 1925, 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1933. He didn't just win the Giro five times, but he then went on to coach the Italian national team and help Coppi win the Giro five times. An Italian living in Nice, he began racing at 19, entered the Tour of Lombardy at 22, finishing fourth and winning the King of the Mountains. We've already heard how the Italian public seemed to believe the sun rose and set in the saddle-worn derrière of Constante Girardengo – so imagine how they felt when, in Girardengo's last Giro before he retired, 23-year-old Binda stole the victory out from under his nose. It spurred Girardengo on to keep racing and, as his talent waned, he declared 29 year old Learco Guerra his heir apparent in the hearts of Italians. They agreed with their hero and turned their attentions to Guerra, who, thanks partly to massive support from the Italian Fascist Party, became the face of Italian cycling. Binda didn't care – he was never one for publicity anyway, famously saying he wasn't interested in producing a “spectacle” – he just kept his head down and kept cycling. In 1930, the Gazzetta dello Sport offered Binda 22,500 lira to skip the Giro. Just let that sink in.
They offered him the same amount the winner got, to skip the race, because he was unpopular but had the annoying habit of repeatedly winning. Binda accepted and went off to do the Tour de France instead where he won two stages. Finally, after his third world championships win (Oh yeah, he won the worlds three times) in 1932, the public began to warm to him and see him for the innovator and record-breaker he was. And his nickname was the Trumpeter of Cittiglio, which wins extra points.
So – there are four legends of Italian cycling. Binda, probably one of the greatest cyclists the world has ever seen; Magni with three Giro wins and a determination the likes of which haven't been seen since; The tragic, mild mannered Brunero with his homespun talent and underrated ability; and the suave Gimondi, still a regular face in cycling magazines the world over. It's hard to define a conqueror, but I'd say any one of those four hit the target.
Although Ivan Gotti, who won the Giro in 1997 and 1999, now works as a distributor for Nutella – so who's the real hero?