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Felice Gimondi interview

Mark Bailey
25 Aug 2015

Felice Gimondi won all three of the Grand Tours yet the man who was revered for his grace is also humble in defeat.

The elegant Italian cyclist Felice Gimondi is sitting beneath the shade of a stone colonnade at the 16th century Lazzaretto square in Bergamo, Lombardy. To the people strolling past in the early summer sunshine, Gimondi could be mistaken for any other well-groomed Italian retiree contentedly embracing la dolce vita. But half a century ago this year, at the age of just 22, Gimondi battled through 4,177km of pain and suffering to claim an improbable victory at the 1965 Tour de France in his debut year as a pro cyclist. The victory ignited a remarkable career in which Gimondi also won three Giro d’Italia titles (1967, 1969 and 1976), the Vuelta a Espana (1968), Paris-Roubaix (1966), the World Road Race Championships (1973) and Milan-San Remo (1974). He was the first Italian to win all three Grand Tours and one of only three riders to win the top five races in cycling (all three Grand Tours, plus the World Road Race and Paris-Roubaix), along with his contemporary Eddy Merckx and, later, Bernard Hinault. 

Today Gimondi looks tanned and healthy at the age of 72. His silver hair and long, graceful limbs give him a patrician air. When we start talking about his career, his twinkling eyes and deep chuckles suggest he still treasures every moment of his life in cycling. I have barely had time to announce that I am from a British cycling magazine before he launches into a spontaneous appreciation of the world of British cycling that leaves our translator David desperately trying to catch up, like an exhausted rider attempting to hunt down a Felice Gimondi breakaway.

‘Britain is now a wonderful cycling nation and I’m very impressed with what the country is doing,’ he begins. ‘I’ve heard great things about the British Cycling school, and how young riders are given three to four years of training to help them progress. If the world wants to know about the strength of cycling in Britain you only had to watch the Tour de France last year in Yorkshire. It was incredible.’

The translator is heroically hanging on, but Gimondi is rampaging ahead, declaring that he wants to use this interview to wish Sir Bradley Wiggins luck in his Hour world record bid (successful as it turned out) and Hopes Chris Froome achieves ‘every success’ in the Tour de France. ‘I also like Mark Cavendish, who is a fantastic sprinter,’ he adds, as David finally closes the gap and – figuratively speaking – tags onto Gimondi’s back wheel. David is in for a tough but entertaining hour. ‘Cavendish reminds me of my old teammate Rik Van Linden [the Belgian rider who won the points classification in the 1975 Tour de France] because of that final burst in the final metres when he has double the speed of everyone else.’ Gimondi gesticulates and makes a whooshing sound, visibly delighted by the thought of Cavendish in full flow.

After several minutes of rejoicing about British cycling, a cloud appears to fall across Gimondi’s face. ‘I had many English friends when I was a cyclist and so talking about this brings to mind the story of Tommy Simpson,’ he says. Simpson, Britain’s 1965 World Road Race Champion who died from a cocktail of amphetamines, alcohol and heatstroke on Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour de France, was due to join Gimondi’s Salvarani team the following year. ‘That night was one of the worst of my life. I remember the day very clearly. There were five or six of us on Ventoux and I just turned back and saw Tommy had fallen 100-150 metres behind. But we were racing and it was only during the massage session back at the hotel that I began to realise what had happened. I had started to understand French and I was hearing bits of conversation. When I learned about the bad news I was devastated. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was about to call it quits and go home. I didn’t want to continue.’

Gimondi says it was Simpson’s talent and manners that made such an impression on him. ‘He was a good friend, a fantastic person, always smiling, with a great spirit. I always enjoyed his company best during criteriums. During the Tour there are lots of pressures – I don’t want to get dropped, I have to look after the classification – but at the criteriums I could enjoy Tommy’s company. He always treated me fairly and with respect. We all miss him.’

The delivery boy

Respect is important to Felice Gimondi. He is celebrated for his elegance on a bike (British fashion designer and cycling aesthete Paul Smith was a huge fan) but also for his humble response to success and his natural grace in defeat. In the book Pedalare! Pedalare! A History Of Italian Cycling, the author John Foot recalls how La Gazzetta Dello Sport journalist Luigi Gianoli likened Gimondi’s sense of fair play and natural aplomb to the ethos of an English public schoolboy. 

Gimondi says any personal characteristics must be attributed to his family. Born in Sedrina, 10km northwest of Bergamo, on 29 September 1942, he enjoyed a modest upbringing. His father, Mose, was a lorry driver and his mother, Angela, was the first postie in the region to use a bike. As a boy he would borrow his mum’s bike – at first in secret and later with permission – to ride around the local roads. Eventually, as his strength grew, she would send him off to post letters to any houses that were located uphill. ‘My parents’ philosophy was always: let the boy go, let him be free and follow his instincts,’ says Gimondi.

If his mother armed Gimondi with his first bike, it was his father who provided him with his racing spirit. A cycling aficionado, Mose would take the young Felice to local races and his passion for cycling soon grew. He couldn’t afford his own bike until his father arranged for a work invoice to be paid in the form of a bicycle instead of money. 

Gimondi’s talent was obvious and he had great success in regional races, although he didn’t always get things right. ‘I remember being in a solo breakaway near here in Lombardy and there was a big climb to make,’ he recalls. ‘I went solo but halfway up I simply stopped because I felt like my legs were empty. The peloton just breezed through.’ 

The Italian has enjoyed a lifelong association with his local bike manufacturer Bianchi. He can remember getting his first bike from them in 1963. ‘It was about a week before the world championships for amateurs and I must have looked good in a race because I was fastening my shoes and a voice said to me, “Would you like to ride a Bianchi?” I said, “Sure I would!” And I still do today.’ 

In 1964 Gimondi won the prestigious Tour de l’Avenir, an amateur ride viewed as a testing ground for future Tour de France champions. His success earned him a deal with the Italian Salvarani team. In his debut year he finished third in the Giro d’Italia but was not expected to ride the Tour so soon – let alone win it. But his team leader Vittorio Adorni was forced out with a stomach illness on Stage 9 and Gimondi took charge, beating Raymond Poulidor and Gianni Motta into second and third places. En route he won the 240km Stage 3 from Roubaix to Rouen, the 26.9km time-trial on stage 18 from Aix-les-Bains to Le Revard, and the 37.8km time-trial from Versailles to Paris on the final day. His yellow jersey now resides in the iconic Madonna del Ghisallo church close to Lake Como.

‘Winning the Tour de France was a big surprise,’ he says. ‘But I had just won the Tour de l’Avenir, which was an indication that I was a stage racer. I had also won the Giro de Lazio and other events as an amateur so everybody knew I was a good rider. I remember the Salvarani brothers, who were the sponsors of the team, asking me if I would like to ride the Tour. The terms of my contract stated that I only had to do one Grand Tour and I had already done the Giro. I said I would go home and ask my father but the truth is I had already decided I would love to do the Tour. The plan was for me to do just seven or eight days but of course I was still there in Paris – by then very happy and with a big head. It was my most special career win in terms of my physical freshness and instinctiveness.’

The Merckx factor

It was the Giro d’Italia that served up some of Gimondi’s most flavoursome memories, however. He’s convinced he would have won more Grand Tours if his career had not run parallel to that of Eddy Merckx, who won the Tour in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1974 and the Giro in 1968, 1970, 1972, 1973 and 1974. ‘I am still the record holder for the number of podiums at the Giro, which makes me very proud,’ says Gimondi. ‘Nobody else has stood on the podium nine times like I did. Even though my career ran parallel to Eddy Merckx, who strangled me in a couple of Giros, I won three Giros. But I think if Merckx was not there in my best years I could have won five Giros and two Tours de France like Fausto Coppi. During my career Eddy won five Giros and five Tours so I think it was possible.’

Gimondi reveals that, despite their rivalry, he was always good friends with Merckx. ‘We were very close, yes,’ he says. ‘But I always say it is better to win without Merckx than to finish second with Merckx. That’s it. Simple.’

The Italian says his first Giro triumph was ‘special’ but he is particularly proud of his last Giro win in 1976. ‘I was 33 years old and I had to deal with other riders like Francesco Moser, Fausto Bertoglio and Johan De Muynck.
I wasn’t the same rider so I needed real race management. I finally saw it through when I beat De Muynck in the last time-trial [on Stage 22] so it was a special win.’ The cherry on top was beating Eddy Merckx on the 238km Stage 21 that finished in his local town of Bergamo.

For Gimondi, the level of support he received from locals during the Giro was overwhelming. ‘I remember during time-trials I could barely see the road. The fans were in front of me and then a gap would open up at the very moment I came by them. I could manage to go around the bends because I knew the roads. But I remember once a photographer who was trying to shoot me from the ground didn’t get out the way. I was forced to jump over him with my front wheel but my rear wheel went over his legs.’

When asked to recall his first memory of the Giro, the Italian comes up with a surprising answer. ‘In one of my first Giros Eddy Merckx had been riding strongly and during the night the sponsors came to my room to say they wanted me to attack the next day. I was under too much pressure, I could barely breathe and I lost seven minutes to Merckx that day. When I was struggling on a climb, there were three guys on my left and three guys on my right who were from the same school as me as a boy. They were crying because I had been dropped and I started crying too. That is the only time I ever remember crying at a race. I never cried after a race because the result is final. But to see my friends so upset was a horrible feeling.’

On top of the world 

A talented all-rounder, Gimondi also won Paris-Roubaix in 1966 – by four minutes after a 40km solo breakaway. In 1973 he claimed the World Road Race Championships on a 248km course in Barcelona. And in 1974 he won Milan-San Remo. ‘My favourite one-day win was definitely the World Championships because everybody thought I would be second that day. But after making me lose plenty of races I think Merckx helped me win that race. It wasn’t intentional but we were in a small group at the end and he attacked early and forced Freddy Maertens to launch a long sprint that he couldn’t hold. Because of that I was able to win. I knew Merckx had run out of energy that day too.’  

Intelligence was as important as talent for Gimondi. He would scribble the jersey numbers of his rivals onto his gloves so he knew who he had to watch out for and monitored who was working hard by the bulge of the veins in their legs. ‘It is true I would look at the veins on people’s legs,’ he admits. ‘But you could also tell from the time of their reaction to an attack whether their condition was improving or dropping.’

Gimondi rode in an era when it was normal to tuck into a juicy steak before races. ‘Three hours before the race I would have a breakfast of steak with rice. During the race it was usually sandwiches with meat, honey or jam or a crostata with marmalade.’ He says the longest stage he ever encountered was 360km long, at the Tour de France. ‘Some stages of the Giro were very long too so you would be eating steak for breakfast at 4am. One day I rode from 7am until 5pm so I was on the road for 10 hours.’

After 158 professional victories, Gimondi retired in 1978 halfway through the Giro dell’Emilia. It was pouring with rain, he was 36 years old and – quite simply – he’d had enough. On his retirement he set up an insurance business and he continues to work as an ambassador for Bianchi. On the day of this interview, he is in Bergamo to promote the Felice Gimondi Gran Fondo, happily accepting selfies with fans and chatting to amateur riders. ‘It is beautiful to see so many cyclists enjoying this sport,’ he says. 

Then I hear Gimondi say something about a ‘maratona’, followed by a long and boisterous laugh, and I suspect my time is up. But he says it is always a pleasure to talk about his cycling career to anyone who’s happy to listen. Gimondi tells me he was cycling for two hours in the Bergamo Alps this morning, and that he hopes he never has to stop riding. ‘Cycling is part of our DNA,’ he says, eyes sparkling once more. ‘It is the same for all cyclists. To feel good we need to cycle. When I go out for a ride I feel like a free man. And the best way to feel that beautiful breeze is to take your hands off the handlebars and race with your arms in the sky. Like a winner.’

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