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Crazy Heart: Franco Bitossi

From issue 40 • Words by Paul Maunder with images from Horton Collection

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The heart is a superb piece of equipment. Simple, elegant and composed of the finest raw materials, it will go on and on. No need for annual upgrades, no fancy branding. You don’t even get a choice of color. What you do get is top-notch design that will last. And what’s more, you’ll never even think about it. As long as you treat it well, the heart will work away quietly in the background, the lynchpin of your whole operation. Rather like a Campagnolo Super Record bottom bracket.

If you’re a finely tuned athlete (and I’m sure you are), there’s further good news. Your heart will enlarge. It will consume and process more oxygen. You’ll get into a virtuous circle—the more training you do, the stronger your heart will get, and the greater the training load you’ll be able to cope with.

But the heart isn’t only a mechanical device. It has electrical impulses. There are four chambers in the heart, forming two pumps. The upper chamber, the atrium, is smaller and less muscular. When it contracts, the lower chamber, the ventricle, fills with blood. When the ventricle contracts it pumps the blood out into the body. The contraction starts when cells in the right atrium send out electrical impulses. Any misfiring in these electrical impulses and the rhythm of the heart is disrupted. The heart is starting to sound more like a Shimano Di2 group set.

Now let’s zoom in on the tough mountain roads of Trentino, Italy. It’s a Saturday in mid-May, 1964. The peloton of the Giro d’Italia is driving hard through the valleys. It’s heading for Riva del Garda where the first stage win of the race, along with the maglia rosa, is up for grabs. In that peloton, there are 130 hearts, pounding away. But one heart is misfiring. Those electrical impulses? All over the place. In Italian, scopata. The owner of this fluttering heart, Franco Bitossi, drifts to the back of the group, pulls over to the side of the road. Team cars, motorcycles, vans and ambulances sweep by him and disappear into the distance. Bitossi doesn’t panic. A tall, handsome Tuscan, he breathes deeply, wipes the sweat from his face, takes a drink. He’s used to this. It’s a condition he’s lived with for many years. It didn’t stop him turning professional three years earlier. Nor did it stop him performing strongly in the previous year’s Giro, strongly enough to get a new contract with his team Spring Oil-Fuchs. It’s not pronounced how you just read it….

A few minutes later, Bitossi’s heartbeat has resumed a regular pattern. He pedals away, rides hard down into Riva, conscious of the time limit, and catches a group of riders who were tailed off much earlier in the stage. And though he could easily sprint away from these riders, he holds back, stays in their wheels. In the finishing straight he coasts, deliberately coming last on the stage. To come last, he believes is a good omen. Three weeks later in Milan, Bitossi has notched up four stage wins and the overall King of the Mountains competition.

Franco Bitossi, known as Crazy Heart for obvious reasons, was a classy rider. He rode in the era of Jacques Anquetil, Gianni Motta, Eddy Merckx and Raymond Poulidor, and on his day he could beat any of them. His specialty was lone attacks. Occasionally he would venture out on a Jens Voigt-style suicide mission, but mostly he waited until the final few kilometers before jumping away from a small group. He was tactically astute, always aware of the rivalries between other riders that could create opportunity. And he could both climb and sprint—a useful combination.

In the 1970 Tour of Lombardy, he attacked on the Intelvi climb, chased down Felice Gimondi and beat him into the finish in Como. It was a smart move. Bitossi knew Merckx was capable of following and beating him, but he also knew that Motta was having a sponsorship dispute with Merckx’s team and would mark the Belgian out of the race. Three years earlier, Bitossi had attacked on the same climb and a group of four chasers —Gimondi, Poulidor, Wladimiro Panizza and Adriano Passuello—could only close to within 30 seconds. Merckx finished a minute down.

But Crazy Heart—Cuore Matto—was most famous for a heart-breaking second place. It was 1972, the world road race championship in Gap, France. Bitossi came into the final kilometers in a group of seven. With 4 kilometers to go, Cyrille Guimard attacked, Bitossi followed but refused to work, hoping to be dragged to the line. Guimard sat up and the rest of the group caught them. Bitossi then counterattacked, reasoning that his two Italian teammates, Michele Dancelli and Marino Basso, wouldn’t chase; Merckx wouldn’t chase because he was a friend of Bitossi’s; and Guimard was tired. That left Leif Mortensen and Joop Zoetemelk, who Bitossi didn’t consider major threats. He got away from the group and flew into the final kilometer with what looked like a race-winning lead. But, behind, Basso was doing some long pulls on the front of the group, and encouraging others to come through too. On the long, windy drag up to the finish line, Bitossi made the fatal error of choosing too high a gear. Basso sprinted after the dying Bitossi and passed him 6 meters from the line. The images show Basso, exultant, full of adrenaline, throwing his hands into the air while Bitossi looks up at his teammate, exhausted and stunned.

During his 17-year career, Franco Bitossi won a total of 171 races, including the Italian road race championship in 1970 and 1978, the Tour of Lombardy in 1967 and 1970, the 1964 Giro d’Italia mountains classification and 1969 Giro points classification. So was he risking his life every time he got on his bike?

When he turned professional for Spring Oil-Fuchs the team sent Bitossi for heart tests but they came back negative. His problem—a type of arrhythmia called tachycardia, in which the heart races as high as 220 bpm—only showed up in race situations. During his amateur career and first year as a professional, he never took part in stage races due to concerns about his heart’s ability to cope with the pressure, but from 1963 he competed in the Giro, Tour de France and other stage races.

Arrhythmias occur in about 1 in 10,000 in the general population. Elite athletes are more at risk, though their arrhythmias tend to be mild and benign. Arrhythmias vary significantly in how dangerous they are. Most can be controlled and the errant heart’s owner will just have an uncomfortable sensation for a few minutes. Others put one at risk of stroke or cardiac arrest. Some will, when put under stress, lead to sudden death.

Bitossi today lives in Empoli, in the Tuscan hills, near the small village of Camaioni di Carmignano, where he grew up. Occasionally, he’ll give an interview to a local television channel during the Giro. He still follows the sport, and looks every bit the contented retired athlete. He still rides his bike through the Tuscan olive groves he loves so much. After all, at 74, his heart has proved a faithful companion. And isn’t that all one can really ask? 

From issue 40. Buy it here.