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Classic jerseys: No.4 Molteni

Giles Belbin
26 Nov 2018

Made famous by Eddy Merckx, this orange and black jersey was frequently seen atop the podium between 1958 and 1976

This article was first published in Issue 77 of Cyclist magazine

In October 15th 1970 Italian daily La Stampa ran a story that would transform the profile of the Molteni cycling team. Under the headline, ‘Merckx: the best sandwich-board man’, the journalist Gianni Pignata reported that winning machine Eddy Merckx, who had recorded 52 wins during 1970 for Italian coffee machine-sponsored team Faemino, had agreed a move to Molteni.

‘At the end of a record season, the Belgian swaps coffee for salami,’ reported the paper.

Father and son duo Pietro and Ambrogio Molteni, producers of cold meat products, first backed a cycling team in 1958. A year later the team recorded their first major win on the final day of the Giro d’Italia.

Switzerland’s Rolf Graf, a pursuit specialist, escaped the peloton 10km from Milan to register an eight-second win over Rik Van Looy and an 80-strong pack of chasers that featured other such luminaries as Jacques Anquetil, Charly Gaul and Ercole Baldini.

Under the management of former national champion Giorgio Albani, who would earn the nickname of ‘the Professor’ for his skilful directing, Molteni’s fortunes continued to rise through the 1960s as Gianni Motta, Rudi Altig and Michele Dancelli all signed up.

Motta won the Tour of Lombardy in 1964, his first season as a pro, escaping early alongside Tom Simpson and riding away when the British rider tired to record the team’s first Monument.

The following year Dancelli claimed Molteni’s first national title, and in 1966 Motta won the Giro.

Motta claimed two mountain stages en route to his win and reportedly benefitted from assistance from the Ford team.

They were led by Anquetil, whose own chances had disappeared when he lost three minutes on the first stage after riding over broken glass and puncturing both tyres on the day’s only climb.

According to Philippe Brunel, a journalist at L’Equipe, the Frenchman decided that while he couldn’t win himself he could still have a say in who did.

So Anquetil rode for Motta, his motivation being to prevent Felice Gimondi adding the Giro to the Tour title he’d won the previous year, which would threaten Anquetil’s place at the head of the peloton.

The Frenchman’s support apparently even stretched to him waiting for Motta on a climb after he’d mistakenly dropped the Italian.

Later that year Altig won the rainbow jersey at the Nürburgring circuit, catching a break that contained Anquetil and his French ‘teammate’ and bitter rival Raymond Poulidor.

Altig made his move early and held on to become another beneficiary of Anquetil’s apparent preference to deny a rival a win rather than commit 100% to the bid for victory himself.

Thanks to Altig, the Molteni logo was splashed across the rainbow jersey for the 1967 season.

Enter the Cannibal

While Molteni enjoyed success before the arrival of Merckx, winning the Belgian’s signature for the 1971 season transformed the team.

The company had long realised the benefit of increased exposure through cycling sponsorship, with the management stating that a TV advert lasted only seconds and then disappeared from the memory while a cyclist at the front of a race could be on TV for hours.

Merckx – ‘the best sandwich-board man’ in the business – brought with him 10 other Belgian riders and his director at Faemino, Guillaume Driessens.

With Martin Van Den Bossche already at the team, Molteni now had 12 Belgian riders, completely changing the identity of the squad. And so from 1971 the team was registered in Belgium rather than Italy.

Merckx won every major race in his six years at Molteni. His opening season, while hugely successful on paper, was not all plain sailing.

Among other races, Merckx won Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo, Omloop Het Volk, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour and the Worlds. But his Tour win left a bitter taste.

Lying seven minutes behind Spain’s Luis Ocaña when the race reached the Pyrenees, Merckx attacked in a severe hailstorm. Ocaña matched him but fell on the descent of the Col de Menté.

Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk then smashed into the Spaniard, ending his race. Merckx inherited yellow but refused to wear it the next day and considered abandoning.

After the stage the Belgian said, ‘Whatever happens, I’ve lost the Tour. The doubt will always remain.’

Merckx claimed seven Grand Tours, 12 Monuments and a brace of World Championships while riding for Molteni, among an incredible 246 race wins in total.

He was all-conquering, the dominant presence in the peloton. Van Den Bossche later talked about the issues that came with having such a powerful performer and personality within the team, noting that the rest of the squad would take their lead from him, losing their own identity even at the dinner table.

‘If he ordered a Trappist beer, everyone ordered a Trappist beer,’ he said.

A sticky end

Molteni ceased sponsorship at the end of the 1976 season, by which time the team had more than 650 race wins to its name. Molteni’s final major win came courtesy of Jos Bruyère at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

For years Bruyère had been a loyal servant and roommate for Merckx but the roles were reversed when Bruyère escaped on the famous La Redoute climb to win by more than four minutes.

Behind, Merckx disrupted the chase. It was the first Monument won by a Molteni rider other than Merckx since Michele Dancelli took Milan-San Remo in 1970.

By then the company had run into legal trouble. The owners were accused of trying to evade customs duties by falsely claiming to use imported meat to make sausages for export rather than for the domestic market.

The plan came to light when a 50-tonne shipment of ‘sausages’ bound for Greece was found to contain nothing but wrappers filled with dung.

After an investigation that lasted more than four years arrest warrants were issued and management filed for administration. The company finally folded in 1987.

This jersey is part of Paul Van Bommel’s collection of cycling memorabilia, which is on display at the new Bike Experience Centre in Boom, Belgium. For details visit deschorre.be/develodroom.html

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