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Cycling is a strange sport. To the uninitiated it must seem downright baffling. In theory so simple, in reality deeply complex. And naturally that’s why its appeal is so enduring. Take those unwritten rules that become the subject of social-media chatter from time to time. These rules, which are really more of a code of conduct, are bound up in the tradition of the sport. Young riders learn them early and rise up through the ranks already observing them. If the professional peloton is a micro-society, as many journalists have noted, its unwritten rules represent a morality system that applies to its very specific universe. The basic tenet of this morality system is not to take advantage of another’s misfortune or basic human need. So, don’t attack while your rival is feeding or urinating, nor when he has had a mechanical failure or crashed.
This mutual understanding among the members of the professional peloton developed as soon as cycling coalesced into an organized sport in the first half of the 20th century; and it’s easy to see why. When a group of men are being asked to ride for seven hours through the Alps in all kinds of weather, they will form a collective view about how best to protect their fundamental needs. Like industrial-era working-class men, the riders looked out for each other as they faced their abominable working conditions. Survival came before competition.
Yet all systems of ethics are open to question. Cycling’s unwritten rules are fun because they give us those moments when we sit forward on our armchairs and say, “Oh, crikey. He just attacked through the feed zone, the cad!” (Even I don’t really sound that English). It seems that increasingly we are seeing the rules ignored—perhaps racing a bike doesn’t seem such a feat of endurance anymore or, more likely, perhaps the pressure on riders is so great that they feel the risk of getting a rollicking from their elders is worth it.
It would be convenient to call this a modern phenomenon, somehow connected to a broader breakdown in social respect, but in truth the code has always been flouted. Ask any ex-rider and they will invariably shrug a degree of ambivalence about when the “rules” might be broken. Indeed it was easier to get away with it when the media gaze wasn’t so all-enveloping as it is today. There are times when behaving immorally is excusable. Such is the morality of a society consisting only of athletic young men being paid a lot of money and cheered by thousands of adoring fans—as in elite soccer with the players’ so-called professional fouls and theatrical dives.
In pro cycling, many decades ago, an incident unfolded on stage 19 of the 1957 Giro d’Italia that helped to decide the outcome not only of that entire race, but also the following year’s Tour de France. The stage took in the fabled climb of Monte Bondone. Frenchman Louison Bobet (France-Mercier) was sitting in third overall, well positioned to attack the maglia rosa of Luxembourger Charly Gaul (Faema-Guerra). Already a triple winner of the Tour de France, with victories in the world road championship, Paris–Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, Tour of Lombardy and Milan–San Remo, Bobet was a superstar. At the age of 32, the Giro d’Italia had so far escaped him, and so he had come to the start line in Milan fully intent on winning Italy’s grand tour. But the race hadn’t gone as he’d hoped.
Stage 2 had been a hilly 28-kilometer hilly time-trial, finishing uphill to Bosco Chiesanuova, just outside Verona. Gaul won the stage, 1:15 ahead of fourth-placed Bobet, but thanks to being a breakaway the first day the Frenchman found himself in the maglia rosa by half a minute. It was a great start, but with 20 stages to go in a field dominated by Italian teams, it was much too soon to speculate on the outcome. However, displaying over-confidence in his team, Bobet decided to defend the jersey.
Over the next two weeks a draining battle ensued between Bobet’s French squad and the Italian team leaders—namely Gastone Nencini, Nino Defilippis, Ercole Baldini and Pasquale Fornara. And the tifosi, the Italian fans, played their part by shoving some of their men up the hills while throwing punches at their French rivals. The strain of defending his lead began to take its toll on Bobet and, a week into the race, he announced to the press that he would not compete in that year’s Tour de France, because he would not be able to sufficiently recover from this Giro.
Bobet lost the pink jersey to Defilippis on stage 8, took it back on the stage 12 time trial, then lost it to Gaul in the Alps. By the start of stage 19, he was in third place, 21 seconds behind runner-up Nencini and 1:17 down on Gaul. Midway through that 242-kilometer stage 19 from Como to Monte Bondone, Bobet and his whole team stopped by the roadside to relieve themselves. Nencini also stopped. Gaul, who hated Bobet, rode past, then stopped a little farther on for the same reason. The French riders remounted and rode past Gaul, who made an indecent gesture at them with—as Bobet’s friend and teammate Raphaël Géminiani put it—”his organ of virility.”
It may have seemed a good idea at the time, but Charly Gaul was soon cursing his own bravado. Bobet shouted at Nencini and his own team to ride hard. Gaul gave chase and held them to a few seconds for a while, but without team firepower and with few friends in the peloton, his fate was sealed. After a furious chase in the valleys, Gaul cracked on the climb to Monte Bondone—ironically, given that he’d told the press this was where he would attack and win the Giro. A year earlier, he’d soloed through the snow on this mountain to a legendary stage win and the maglia rosa. Now, he would lose more than eight minutes to Bobet, putting him out of contention. One can only imagine the stream of bile that must have spewed from the lips of the diminutive climber that evening. Gaul was not renowned for his magnanimous and philosophical nature.
He swore revenge, telling Bobet: “Remember, I was a butcher, I know how to use a knife. I will bleed you all, I will open your stomach.”
Bobet, a rather aloof and vain individual prone to sulking when he didn’t get his own way, probably knew that Gaul had worked in a slaughterhouse in Luxembourg before turning pro. Gaul’s ire was further fueled when he found out that other members of the peloton had been calling him “Cheri Pi-Pi”—which translates as “costly pee.”
The next day, on a 199-kilometer stage from Trento to Levico Terme, Gaul was intent on revenge. Bobet was now sitting second overall, just 19 seconds behind Nencini. On the Passo Rolle descent, Nencini punctured, changed a wheel then took stupefying risks downhill to bridge back to Bobet and the other leaders. Nencini was the fastest descender of his day, the Nibali of the 1950s. [It would be Nencini that Roger Rivière was trying to follow in the 1960 Tour de France when the French star crashed on the descent of the Col de Perjuret, breaking his back and ending his career.]
Nencini, on the brink of the biggest result of his career, must have thought his race was cursed when he punctured again. Bobet and Géminiani didn’t wait, seeing an opportunity to take back those 19 seconds. Nencini changed his wheel and started chasing, then saw ahead the familiar red-and-white Faema-Guerra jersey, worn by a small rider spinning the pedals with his characteristic ease. It was Gaul, who had dropped back from the Bobet group to pace Nencini back to them. Gaul’s knives, that famous day, were his legs.
Not only did Gaul bring Nencini up to the group, he also clipped off at the finish to win the stage. Nencini’s lead was safe and with the two remaining stages over less arduous terrain, he was able to bring home the win for his Chlorodont team and, more importantly, for Italy. Bobet finished in second, still trailing by those tantalizing 19 seconds. Baldini (Legnano) was third, almost six minutes back, and in fourth was defending champion Gaul.
The feud didn’t end there. Perhaps understandably, Gaul wasn’t happy with just making Bobet lose the Giro. He wanted to beat him, and beat him on home turf. In the 1958 Tour de France the Luxembourger seemed to be well off the pace, some 16 minutes down on race leader Géminiani after 20 of the 24 stages. But Gaul woke the next morning to find apocalyptic weather conditions for the 219-kilometer stage from Briançon to Aix Les Bains. He was overjoyed, because he loved the cold and wet, and the five major climbs on offer suited his talents too. Before the race set off, Gaul found Bobet, to whom he hadn’t spoken since the previous year’s Giro, and said: “You’re ready, Monsieur Bobet? I’ll give you a chance. I’ll attack on the Luitel climb. I’ll even tell you which hairpin. You want to win the Tour more than I do? Easy. I’ve told you what you need to know.”
This has become something of a famous speech of Gaul’s, but the amusing thing to note is that Bobet was even further behind the race leader than Gaul, so it was essentially a pointless piece of showboating. Still, Gaul’s confidence was clearly high. He attacked on the Luitel, right where he’d told Bobet he would, and rode over the remaining four mountain climbs alone through torrential rain, winning by almost eight minutes from the next rider and over 14 minutes to Géminiani. Bobet finished another five minutes back, alongside Nencini. Two days later, Gaul won the 75-kilometer time trial to Dijon and took the maillot jaune, which he wore into Paris the final day.
And what of Gastone Nencini, the benefactor of this minor Franco-Luxembourg war? Despite winning the Giro and the 1960 Tour de France, Nencini never became quite the household name. Early in his career, the raw talent of this man from Barberino di Mugello, near Florence, was recognized by Fausto Coppi and Fiorenzo Magni. He was known for his integrity and stubbornness and for his Tuscan pride. On the bike, he was a strong all-arounder. In the 1960 Tour he won without winning any stages, and one might argue the crash of favorite Rivière, an excellent time trialist who was poised to attack Nencini’s lead a few days later in the stage 19 race against the clock, has become the defining memory of the race.
Not that Nencini seems to have been too worried about his level of celebrity. He lived by his principles, raced hard, smoked a few cigarettes, drank some red wine every evening and enjoyed the romantic benefits of being a pro cyclist. After retirement he took up painting, opened a bike shop and spent time with his family—until he died of cancer at age 49. Compared to the egoism and spitefulness of the bigger stars around him, Nencini was humble and modest. But he wasn’t stupid. When it suited him, Bobet was his ally; the next day, Gaul was his friend. If the 1957 Giro d’Italia is remembered for an indecent gesture at the roadside, it was Nencini who took the winner’s trophy home to Tuscany.