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The Glory Days: Italian Cycling in 1983

Italian racing was at a peak in 1983

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Despite the global renown of the Giro d’Italia, Tirreno–Adriatico, Milan–San Remo and Il Lombardia, Italian bike racing is at a low ebb today. None of the 18 teams in the UCI WorldTour are registered in Italy; only one Italian racer has won the Giro, San Remo, or Lombardia in the past decade (Vincenzo Nibali); and only three (second-tier) Italian teams will take part in this year’s Giro. There are many reasons for this slump, including a failure to revive the sport’s image after it was traumatized by EPO and blood doping in the 1990s, the overwhelming popularity of soccer, and the growing interest in basketball, volleyball, and water sports that have demoted cycling to fifth most popular sport in Italy.

Visentini. Illustration: Matthew Burton.

Nibali is the only current Italian cyclist to be a household name (far ahead of world time trial champion Filippo Ganna or European road champion Sonny Colbrelli), in sharp contrast to the situation four decades ago when Moreno Argentin, Francesco Moser, Giuseppe Saronni and Roberto Visentini were all hitting the headlines. When I reported Tirreno–Adriatico and Milan–San Remo in 1983, Italy was regarded as the epicenter of world cycling. It had 13 elite-level teams (all of which would ride that year’s Giro!) whereas, after a worldwide recession, Belgium depended on minor sponsors to keep its leading teams going and French squads operated on restricted budgets.

An estimated 1.5 million spectators lined the route of Milan–San Remo—perhaps the largest since the halcyon days of Fausto Coppi—and with two hours of live television (rare for the time), there was huge incentive to win the March classic. Anyone cherishing that hope competed in Tirreno–Adriatico, which finished three days earlier. Then in its 18th year, the Race of the Two Seas (from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic coast of central Italy) had displaced Paris–Nice as the top preparation race for San Remo.

Besides having a dozen top teams during the early ’80s Italy also had far more high-level races than today. Most were organized by cycling clubs, not, as is the case today, by RCS, the parent company of sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport that owns all of Italy’s major events. In fact, 16 Italian pro races that existed in 1983 are no longer held. Two of them, the Tours of Puglia and Lazio, were organized by the Velo Club Forze Sportive Romane—the Rome-based club that then owned Tirreno–Adriatico.

When I traveled to Rome in ’83, Tirreno was supported by Il Messagero, the capital’s main newspaper, and the regions through which the race passed. “If I were to accept all the offers of towns wanting stage finishes, I could organize a Tour of Italy,” said race director Franco Mealli. Like the actual Giro d’Italia organizer, the chain-smoking Vincenzo Torriani, Mealli was a godfather-like figure. Heavily built, with greased-back dark hair, a charming smile, and a deep-throated, gravelly voice. To start Tirreno’s 1983 edition, he chose the small beach town of Santa Martinella, 60 kilometers northwest of Rome. It was a favored resort of Italy’s last true king, Victor Emmanuel III…and for this race, it had attracted most of the kings of cycling.

LeMond. Illustration: Matthew Burton.

The prologue, a 9.5-kilometer time trial, was point-to-point along the coast. It turned off the main road in the final kilometer to a medieval castle, Santa Severa, approached by a narrow private road that took the riders beneath an arched gateway and over cobblestones to the castle’s inner sanctum. Moser, fresh from winning the Milan–Turin classic, was an early starter, setting the fastest time of 11:07. Two hours later, using an identical 53×12 gearing, Greg LeMond twiddled his Gitane road bike (this was years before specialist time-trial machines became the norm) to a time six seconds slower. “I was spinning like a junior,” he told me. “It was much faster than I thought.” He said that with a 55-tooth chainring 20 seconds faster would be possible.

His prediction was confirmed when Dutch TT specialist Bert Oosterbosch was 21 seconds faster than LeMond on a 55×12, using a small front wheel to get more aero. Oosterbosch chatted with the Dutch press, confident he would win. A little too confident it seemed when Bernard Hinault came in a split-second slower. Shockingly, neither came close to the eventual best time. Saronni went six seconds faster with a 10:45—and he’d finish only fifth! Nine seconds faster came the gold-bangled, long-haired Visentini, whose immense talent was often dimmed by lack of application. But that earned him only third place because Dutchman Gerrie Knetemann—who said, “I don’t believe in special bikes like [my teammate] Oosterbosch”—powered to a 10:33. And then a 10:29 was set by Czeslaw Lang!

Reporters knew little about Lang, the first Polish cyclist to turn pro (in 1982). He was best remembered for his silver medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics road race. Curious to know more about this unassuming 27-year-old’s ride, I asked him, “What top gear did you use?” “53×12” he replied in Italian, showing the requisite number of fingers. He twiddled that gear 44 seconds faster than LeMond. It was the first of many surprises that week.

Lang was confident of defending his lead on the opening road stage. A headwind for the opening three hours slowed the peloton to a pedestrian gait, so we had time to enjoy the music played on the race radio, a mix that included violin concertos and “John Brown’s Body.” The only classified climb split the peloton and 50 riders came together in Lago di Vico before a 22-kilometer lap of the lake. The last kilometer, all downhill, was perfect for the bulky Italian Guido Bontempi, who held off a desperately sprinting Saronni for the win. While the riders pedaled to hotels around the lake, we headed to the race headquarters at a Renaissance-era building in Viterbo, sat down at our typewriters, and reported that Lang finished 28th to keep his overall lead.

The stocky Lang would have a harder time on stage 2, which ended with two laps of a hilly 18-kilometer circuit at Monte San Pietrangeli. After a long haul across the Italian peninsula, the racing didn’t open up until an area of folding hills and valleys of which Monte San Pietrangeli was the center. At the hilltop town of Monte San Giusto, Saronni burst through to take a time bonus sprint ahead of Moser. And more than 100 riders came together at the finish town of Monte San Pietrangeli, packed on this brisk Sunday afternoon.

Some were predicting a stage win for the 1982 winner here, LeMond, and the American was among the attackers on a finishing circuit that featured two other hilltop towns before a zigzag climb to the finish. “This would make a superb world championship course,” said a Belgian colleague, “but the road at the finish is perhaps too narrow.” That narrowness didn’t matter because the 22-year-old Argentin, a stage winner in the preceding Tour of Sardinia, attacked early and coasted across the line, three seconds ahead of Saronni and Moser.

A red-faced Lang couldn’t stay with the leaders and, just beyond the line, he tried to explain to team captain Moser why he’d been dropped. His Gis team’s loss was the Raleigh team’s gain as an equally flushed Knetemann succeeded where Lang failed, and the bespectacled Dutchman took ownership of the red-and-yellow leader’s jersey.

Saronni. Illustration: Matthew Burton.

The next stage closed with two climbs of a hair-pinned hill to Paglieta, where Argentin repeated his stage 2 attack. Spanish climber Juan Fernandez stayed on his wheel, but the Italian easily took the win. Knetemann saved his race leadership with 17th place in the same time as Visentini (13th) and Saronni (33rd), while Argentin moved up to fourth, six seconds down on Knetemann—with another hilltop finish to come.

“It will be okay to lose up to 30 seconds today and still win the race,” Knetemann said the next morning. “But it will be absolutely impossible to regain more than 30 seconds in the 18 kilometers against the clock tomorrow.” Again, the riders had to complete two ascents to the finish, this one in Acquaviva, which climbed from the coast to 1,117 feet elevation in less than 7 kilometers. The first time up, Saronni surprised the climbers to earn a two-second time bonus that lifted him a second ahead of Knetemann on GC. Knetemann clung to the 30-strong lead group until conceding on the last steep gradient, losing 14 seconds to Saronni and Visentini—less than half the time he’d feared. Fernandez repeated his strong climb of the previous stage, but with 2 kilometers to go, the 22-year-old Laurent Fignon made a perfect counterattack to take the stage.

The weather was not usually a major subject of conversation at Tirreno. Sunshine was typical. So it was a shock on the final morning to hear rain pelting the windowpanes of San Benedetto del Tronto. A southeasterly wind strengthened overnight, pounding the Adriatic into roller-coaster waves that smashed against the seawall and spilled onto the TT course. The conditions placed a question mark against Saronni, the race leader and defending champion, who disliked wet, cold conditions. “I don’t want to prejudice my chances for Milan–San Remo,” he said. “If I fall on one of the corners, I could injure myself.”

Early starters faced teeming rain, which gave way to a sea mist before spotting rain accompanied Saronni and the other late starters. It was soon clear that Saronni was going through the motions. He adopted an upright position on the bike, took no risks, pedaled to a slow 25:15, was penalized 20 seconds for sheltering alongside his team car, and slipped out of the top 10. San Remo was only 72 hours away.

The battle for Tirreno victory was now down to Visentini and Knetemann. After the first leg, north to Grottamare and back, the advantage was with Knetemann. Visentini then fought hard into the wind to the second U-turn at Porto d’Ascoli and scorched back to the finish. The speaker shouted, “Twenty-two, fifty…fifth-best time!” It was 16 seconds slower than the fastest set by Oosterbosch three hours earlier. Knetemann needed a 22:40 to win overall—but fell five seconds short. Visentini had won the race without winning a stage.

Three days later, on St. Joseph’s Day, when Milan–San Remo was traditionally held, we’d find out whether the riders from Tirreno or Paris–Nice (won by Irishman Sean Kelly) had the best preparation. The Italian classic was often described as a lottery because of mass-sprint finishes. As a result, race director Torriani inserted the Poggio climb in 1960 and the more difficult Cipressa in 1982. After an early breakaway succeeded that year, a true test of the modified 294-kilometer route would come in ’83.

Spring sunshine greeted the enormous 227-strong field. After a strong pace split the peloton in two on the gradual ascent to the snow-speckled Turchino summit, and after a partial regrouping, riders found it tough to stay near the front on the following coastal road. One first-time San Remo rider, Allan Peiper of Australia, said, “I drifted back through the bunch…and knew I’d have to get upfront before the Cipressa. But I was too far back.”

Peiper’s tactical lesson was one Moser learned years before. On the long false flat before the Cipressa summit, Moser pulled the group at breakneck speed to instigate a crucial break. Saronni followed at a respectful distance, knowing that the previous evening he’d told his Del Tongo teammates: “If you protect me as far as the last two climbs, I will do the rest.” Now, as the leaders clattered down the Cipressa, just 12 men remained with Moser and Saronni, including fast-finishers Bontempi, Kelly, Jan Raas, and Erik Vanderaerden (who’d won two stages of Paris–Nice). The young Belgian’s teammate Guy Nulens led the break onto the Poggio with a 45-second lead and continued his effort up the 3.6-kilometer hill.

Fernandez, the most active climber at Tirreno, made one of his signature attacks, but it was countered by Kelly’s French teammate René Bittinger. Then, just as the gap closed, a white blur shot from the fourth or fifth spot. It was Saronni in the rainbow jersey. His sprint for victory had come 6 kilometers before anyone expected.

Across an open curve, from our press car, we could see Moser and Raas exchange glances while Kelly seemed trapped. “I thought one of them would chase,” Kelly later said. “It wasn’t up to us to go again. Bittinger had just brought the Spaniard back.” So, Saronni had chosen the perfect moment for his move. After the crest, he aimed his red Colnago down the steep, swooping drop and then made the time-trial effort he’d avoided at San Benedetto. The world champ cruised through a canyon of cheers along the Via Roma to win, 44 seconds ahead of two other Tirreno alumni, Bontempi and Raas.

Saronni went on to win that year’s Giro (with Visentini in second); Moser won the following year, and Visentini took it in ’86. But the glory days of Italian cycling were already starting to fade….