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Four remarkable stories of the Giro d'Italia's pink jersey

91 years since the first maglia rosa, Cyclist brings you tales of the heroics and heartbreak that have accompanied the pink jersey

Colin O’Brien
19 May 2022

Photography Chris Auld

1. A five-time winner’s only maglia rosa

There are winners, and then there’s Alfredo Binda. The most dominant rider of his age, he was a three-time World Champion and a five-time Giro d’Italia winner. When he raced in his native Lombardy, people joked that he could win, shower and get the train home before the last rider crossed the line.

At the Giro he was particularly ruthless, winning the first edition he took part in and only getting more dominant from there. In 1927 he won 12 stages and led the GC from the first stage to the last.

Such dominance didn’t make him overly popular, and after he took his fourth Giro title in five attempts in 1929, the race’s organisers were desperate, so the following year they paid him a small fortune not to attend.

The maglia rosa made its first appearance in 1931 but Binda had to pull out with a bad back. Poor form ruled him out in 1932 but the following year he was unstoppable. Wearing the rainbow stripes following his third world title win, Binda was in a class of his own. With six stage wins out of 17, it wasn’t the most imperious of Binda’s GC victories, but it was his only Giro win that came in pink.

What many believe to be the first ‘modern’ Giro was the inaugural year of the Gran Premio della Montagna, the mountains classification. In typical Binda fashion, he won it with three times as many points as his nearest rival and won the time-trial – another first that year – by more than a minute.

2. Introducing Il Campionissimo

The 1940 Giro began a week after Germany invaded France, with an almost exclusively Italian peloton. Gino Bartali was the pre-race favourite, but his chances were all but extinguished when he hit a dog on Stage 2 from Turin to Genoa.

He was badly injured and lost more than five minutes, although neither of these problems would have been insurmountable for a rider as tenacious as Bartali. The issue for Gino wasn’t his rivals, but someone on his own team.

Fausto Coppi was only 20, riding his first Giro d’Italia as a gregario for Bartali in the mighty Legnano team. He was there to help, but surprised everyone by almost winning Stage 2, putting himself right up there as joint leader of the GC with five other riders.

Legnano boss Eberardo Pavesi had a tough call to make. He couldn’t upset Bartali, the team’s star, but had a chance to win the Giro with the prodigious Coppi. As sportswriter Gianni Brera later put it, ‘Coppi was a cuckoo, born in the nest of a triumphant dove.’

In the end, Coppi made the call for everyone with one of the most legendary performances in Giro history on Stage 11 in the Apennines. In hellish weather, Coppi let loose a series of merciless attacks that left his rivals breathless and the chasing journalists speechless. He won the stage by almost four minutes and took a clear lead in the GC.

Coppi held his lead for the next few days, but came undone on Stage 16 when he suffered severe stomach problems. Help for the young maglia rosa wearer came in an unlikely guise – his erstwhile leader, Gino Bartali.

The Tuscan talked some sense into the Piedmontese debutant before leading a charge that somehow got them to the finish line just behind Enrico Mollo, Coppi’s only rival for the pink jersey. What could have been a disaster amounted to a loss of just four seconds.

Coppi went on to become the youngest rider ever to win the Giro. Looking at him standing imperious on the podium, it would have been unthinkable to imagine that it would be seven years before he’d do it again.

3. The maglia rosa’s first foreign owner

Switzerland’s handsome and charming Hugo Koblet, le pédaleur de charme, took the maglia rosa on the eighth stage of the 1950 Giro and held it all the way to Milan, becoming the first non-Italian winner. However, the Swiss makes this list not for the maglia rosa he won, but the one he lost.

It was the penultimate day of the 1953 Giro, and the race looked to belong to Koblet. He had a two-minute lead over Fausto Coppi and showed no signs of easing up. Coppi – the Campionissimo but by then nearly 34 – seemed resigned to his fate but was given a boost by one especially resourceful gregario called Ettore Milano.

Milano decided to do some spying and approached Koblet while he was mingling with fans. He asked for a photo with the presumptive champion, requesting that Koblet remove his sunglasses. When he saw Koblet’s eyes sunken and dark in their sockets he knew how exhausted the race leader was. There was hope for Coppi yet.

Stage 20 went over a new climb, the Stelvio, then unknown but soon to be infamous. Coppi’s Bianchi team wasted no time, attacking early and putting Koblet under pressure. With 11km to go to the top, Coppi launched his assault, a do-or-die strike that the newspapers dubbed ‘Coppi’s fifth symphony’.

Even a crash on the descent couldn’t deny Coppi his record-equalling fifth Giro title. The following day, he rode into Milan in pink one final time, with a lead of 89 seconds, and for once it wasn’t a phoenix that had risen from the ashes, but a heron.

4. The year the tifosi saw red

The accepted narrative is that Italy’s cycling fans – the tifosi – are passionate, noisy, but respectful of the race. Try telling that to Ireland’s Stephen Roche.

In 1987 he was arguably put under more pressure by the fans baying for his blood than he was by his rivals. In fact, his closest rival that year didn’t even finish the race, but more than three decades later there are many in Italy who feel that Roche’s teammate, Roberto Visentini, should have gone home with the maglia rosa that year.

The Carrera team had gone into the race talking about dual leadership, but it was clear that no one apart from Roche and his friend Eddy Schepers wanted the Irishman to win. What ensued was two weeks of pure sporting carnage, with Roche’s own team fighting him for victory.

Years later Roche recalled, ‘I looked back and saw the whole Carrera team, 30 or 40 seconds behind, riding on the front trying to catch me. If it hadn’t happened, if you described that same scenario to me and asked me what I’d do, I’d say, “Go home.” But at the time I just thought, “Do or say what you want but I’m not going anywhere.”

‘Things were bad. My masseur was making my food because he was afraid of someone trying to poison me; my mechanic wouldn’t let my bike out of his sight because he was afraid someone would try to sabotage it. It was very tense.

‘Rolling down to the start, I’ll never forget the banners saying “Roche go home!” or “Roche Bastardo”, all kinds of horrible slogans. People were punching me going up the climb. Some fans were putting rice and red wine in their mouths and spitting it at me as I got close. It was terrible.’

It didn’t stop him, of course. Roche held on to the final stage in Saint-Vincent to claim the maglia rosa in spite of all the hatred, before going on to win the Tour de France and the World Championships in the same year, something only Eddy Merckx has managed before or since.

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