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Felice “The Phoenix” Gimondi

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By most standards, the long line of Italian cycling champions is led by Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, whose chivalrous rivalry inspired a generation after World War II. And then of course, there is Felice Gimondi, the champion brimming with class, who seemed to pick up where Bartali and Coppi left off when he burst onto cycling’s center stage in the mid-1960’s, winning most of the sport’s great races.

By James STARTT, European Associate to Peloton Magazine

Undoubtedly the greatest Italian rider of his generation, Gimondi stormed to victory in his first Tour de France in 1965. Only a neo-pro, he won three stages on his way to upsetting French legend Raymond Poulidor. “I went into the Tour not really knowing what I could do,” Gimondi recalls. “Certainly I wasn’t thinking of winning. But from the beginning of the race I rode well and I took over the yellow jersey on stage three. Then I started to think that maybe I could win. And I just rode really consistently throughout the whole race and won the final two time trials.”

Gimondi, who is visiting the Giro d’Italia this year in the final week, admits that he expected to win other Tours de France. “But the main reason I didn’t win another Tour was called ‘Eddy!’” Gimondi says, referring to his long-time rival, Belgian Eddy Merckx.

Merckx’s domination, of course, eclipsed the careers of many promising riders. But many consider Gimondi to be the champion that suffered the most from the wrath of “The Cannibal,” since he was the most complete champion in Merckx’s shadow, and his own career paralleled Merckx’s to the year.

In 1965, however, Gimondi had no way of knowing that his greatest rival was another neo-pro. He was far too concerned with the great champions of his day, rather than a rider that was not even present in the race when he won the Tour. In 1966 Gimondi continued his roll with an impressive double in Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Brussels. And late in the year he finished a close second to five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil in the Grand Prix des Nations, a reference for generations as the sport’s most coveted time trial. Perhaps Gimondi was so focused on Anquetil that day, that he did not even notice that the young Belgian finished an impressive third as well.

“Eddy was very difficult to beat,” Gimondi recalls. “I had to change my tactics and change my approach. With Eddy my first concern was not getting dropped, and then I had to find the few opportunities that were left to attack.”

But while Merckx closed the door on Gimondi’s Tour opportunities, the elegant Italian managed to find other opportunities. He won the world championships, Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Lombardy, the Vuelta a Espagne. And some of his most memorable victories came in his native Giro d’Italia, a race he managed to win on three occasions (ed. 1967, 1969, 1976).

Ironically Gimondi says, “To be honest, the Tour was easier for me than the Giro d’Italia. It was more even. The Giro was much harder to control and the rhythm changed all the time. It was more tactical. And then I’m Italian so I always had a lot of pressure in the the Giro.”

Gimondi has no sentimental favorite when comes to his long list of victories. Instead he is proudest of the variety of wins he managed to score. “You know today riders are so focused. They focus on the classics, or on the Giro or on the Tour. We focused on them all.”

But the 73-year old also remains interested in today’s racing. And he is quite enjoying his current visit to the Giro. “This year’s race is great! The lead changed a lot in the race and that is always more interesting. Back when I was racing Eddy could take the jersey in the beginning of the race and keep it until the end. Now the level of racing is much more even. That makes it interesting.”