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Classic jerseys: No.8 Brooklyn

15 Feb 2019

This article was originally published in issue 81 of Cyclist magazine

Words Giles Belbin Photography Danny Bird

It took the Brooklyn cycling team only a matter of weeks to stamp their authority on cycling’s biggest races.

In the 1973 Milan-San Remo, the first Monument of the year, Roger De Vlaeminck escaped on the Poggio alongside Italian rider Wilmo Francioni.

The Belgian pulled away on the final straight, stomping on the pedals and turning a huge gear, just as Italy’s favourite son Felice Gimondi threatened to catch the two leaders.

But De Vlaeminck was determined and held on to win by only two seconds.

‘On the finish line of Via Roma, Roger De Vlaeminck’s jersey of stars and stripes was first to cross,’ wrote Gianni Pignata in of La Stampa.

De Vlaeminck had apparently been promised a car by the team owner if he won. ‘I hope he’s got the keys in the ignition,’ De Vlaeminck is said to have commented after his victory.

Despite the tight finish, it had not been a memorable Primavera. Eddy Merckx was home nursing a cold but those hoping for more open and exciting racing in his absence were left disappointed.

‘It was 280km of promenade and 8km of real racing, from the Poggio to the finish line,’ complained Pignata.

Nevertheless, the 1973 edition of Milan-San Remo would enter history as the first major race claimed by the Brooklyn team.

De Vlaeminck was Brooklyn’s star rider. One month earlier he had won the GP Monaco to record the team’s maiden win and the Classics supremo would ride for Brooklyn in every one of the five seasons in which it graced the sport, becoming synonymous with the distinctive ‘Captain America’ jersey.

Sweet beginnings

The story of the Brooklyn team begins in 1946 when brothers Ambrogio and Egidio Perfetti founded Dolficio Lombardo in Lainate, near Milan, to produce confectionery for post-war Italy.

Ten years later they launched a chewing gum, the first to be made entirely within their country but evoking the glamour of 1950s New York.

With packaging that featured the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, and carrying the strapline ‘La Gomma Del Ponte’ (the gum of the bridge), Brooklyn Chewing Gum was born.

With the brand thriving, Ambrogio’s son, Giorgio, visited the Milan Trade Show in 1971.

There he came across the Gios bicycle stand, decided that their ‘Easy Rider’ bike would make the perfect prize in a cycling competition the chewing gum sponsored and immediately placed a large order.

It was the start of a key relationship because when Brooklyn took on title sponsorship of the Dreher cycling team, it was Gios they chose as their bike supplier.

Brooklyn developed a reputation as a team of one-day specialists. While that’s hardly a surprise given that De Vlaeminck claimed no fewer than seven Monument wins while wearing the famous jersey, it does a disservice to the team’s performances in stage races.

De Vlaeminck himself won a number of week-long races, including Tirreno-Adriatico a record five times, and also twice claimed the points competition at the Giro d’Italia.

Giancarlo Bellini won the polka dot jersey at the Tour de France in 1976, while Patrick Sercu claimed multiple stages at the Giro and won three stages and the points jersey at the 1974 Tour de France.

Sercu might have expected to defend the jersey but a dramatic turn of events put paid to that.

Egidio Perfetti was returning home for lunch on a foggy day in January 1975 when he was seized from outside the gates of his villa. 

A chloroform-dowsed rag was held over his face as he was bundled into a car. Perfetti awoke in a darkened room and was held captive for days until a reported ransom of two billion lire (around £10.3 million today) was paid to secure his release.

With the company’s finances taking a hit, it meant a paring back of Brooklyn’s race programme. That meant no Tour in 1975.

The closest the team came to overall success in a Grand Tour was in 1976, when Belgian Johan De Muynck finished second at the Giro by just 19 seconds.

It is widely thought that De Muynck would have won but for serious infighting within the team.

He’d won the Tour de Romandie earlier in the month, apparently annoying the leaders on his team who saw him as nothing more than a gregario (helper).

Frustration peaked on Stage 6 of the Giro when De Muynck benefitted from a crash that held up some riders to take the pink jersey from his leader De Vlaeminck.

Over the following two weeks a battle raged between De Muynck and Felice Gimondi for the race lead, but while Gimondi could count on the support of his team, De Muynck was effectively riding alone.

Indeed, in the book Maglia Rosa, Herbie Sykes writes that when Brooklyn’s manager Franco Cribiori tried to unite his team behind De Muynck, De Vlaeminck flatly refused and later abandoned by throwing his bike away and running into a forest on the Passo Manghen.

Ronald De Witte then followed his leader’s example in going home on the same stage.

The Brooklyn team were described by the Italian press as being ‘in pieces’.

‘I’m sorry to use this word but I think it’s a betrayal,’ said De Muynck. ‘In my opinion, De Vlaeminck and De Witte could have completed the stage. Maybe suffering, but they could and did not.’

De Muynck would go on to win the Giro in 1978 for Bianchi, by which time Brooklyn had departed the peloton.

The team has retained a cult following, however, with Brooklyn-branded apparel still much in demand today.

Indeed, in the 1980s, when filmmaker Spike Lee created the Mars Blackmon character, who featured in his film She’s Gotta Have It and later in a series of Nike TV adverts alongside basketball legend Michael Jordan, Lee had him wear a Brooklyn cycling cap.

An Italian cycling team of the 1970s appearing in the most celebrated of American commercials? Proof enough of the impact the team had during its brief but remarkable time in cycling.