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From Rainbow to Pink

From Issue 94 • Words/Images by Paolo Ciaberta

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I visited the home of Guido Messina and his wife Bruna last June. Guido was one of the world’s strongest cyclists in the years following World War II. In fact, he told me: “I was as famous as Coppi; he won on the road, I won on the track.”

PELOTON

Guido may have been the cyclist, but Bruna was the historian. She showed me his hard-earned rainbow, pink and national champion jerseys, unfolding them carefully, and she laid out the photos on the table, listing off all the trophies her husband won and proudly telling me when and where her husband beat Coppi, Koblet and Anquetil, and when he rode with Bartali. Between the couple, you could sense a lifetime of love.

Before the interview, Bruna offered me an ice cream, which, in a funny way, was a sign of a warm welcome. After we were done, I offered to send the couple some of my photos, but she told me not to bother; they already had too many. There was only one Bruna wanted: this portrait of Guido with all of his jerseys.

I offered to send the photo by email but, of course, the couple had no use for such things, so I told them I’d print it and mail it to them. Guido kindly replied: “If you want to bring it yourself, you can come in for a coffee.” (I love this traditional courtesy.)

Guido lived in Turin but was originally from Sicily where he was born on January 4, 1931. When he was 16, he arrived in Turin with a cardboard suitcase and a broken-down bike. “My father was a miller and my mother a housewife with four children,” he said. “I worked with my father pulling up and down 50-kilogram sacks of flour from a cart, but during that time I won all my cycling races. Then one of my fellow countrymen who had emigrated to Turin convinced me to contact him to look for a better situation, offering me food and accommodation in exchange for help in his cycling shop. I moved to Turin by train—third class and four days of travel. We called them the Treni della Speranza, the ‘Trains of Hope,’ running from the poor and rural South to the rich and industrialized North.”

Messina’s first road bike was a Benotto. He was very fast, a very good pursuit racer and, at the beginning, a strong road racer too; but he soon focused on the track. “On the velodrome in Turin I did some warm-up laps, then made an unofficial test, setting a good time,” he said. “I was noticed by the coach of the Italian national team, Giovanni Proietti, who picked me for the 1948 world championships in Amsterdam. I was underage and to get me enrolled as an amateur, a federation secretary had to make up my ID card, from 17 to 18. I traveled by train, from Rome to Amsterdam, with a masseur who didn’t know a single foreign word: we were without tickets, and when they asked for them, he cursed. We arrived miraculously.

“In the 4,000-meter amateur pursuit semifinal I overtook the Frenchman Charles Coste, and in the final I played with the other Frenchman, Jacques Dupont, to win the race. I was thrilled. When a journalist, suspicious, asked me how old I was, without thinking about it I answered 17. A case broke out, with the French making an official complaint. Proietti almost killed me; and it seemed that all the race commissaires agreed with my disqualification when the president of the International Cycling Union, who was French, said, ‘But aren’t we ashamed?’ And that’s how I was confirmed as world champion.”

He confirmed that triumph five years later in Zürich when he beat fellow Italian Loris Campana in the final. And with Campana, Marino Morettini and Mino de Rossi, Messina won a gold medal in the team pursuit at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. With such significant successes, the Sicilian turned professional in 1954 and soon consolidated his fame by taking three consecutive world 5,0000-meter pursuit titles—defeating Hugo Koblet in a thrilling clash in Cologne, followed by victories over another Swiss, René Strehler, in Milan and over Jacques Anquetil in Copenhagen. With a total of five world titles and one Olympic gold, Messina carved a truly important place in the history of Italian cycling. His palmarès as a pursuit racer was completed by three national titles and third place at the track worlds in 1957.

Messina also had a limited career as a road racer, managing to win the Banfi Trophy in Turin in 1954 and the opening stage of the 1955 Giro d’Italia, from Milan to Turin, which saw him wear the pink jersey. “That day at the Giro I did the pursuit on the road, more chased than pursuer,” he said. “Like a hare running away from a pack of dogs. In cycling, breaking away is not an act of cowardice, it is an act of courage. You have to take up the challenge, manage your strengths, legs and lungs, heart and head, never turn around and believe in it. Now I keep that pink jersey in a drawer; we often keep dreams in the drawer and, well, that pink jersey is one my dreams come true.”

As a professional from 1954 to 1962, he defended the team colors of Frejus, Asborno, Ignis and Molteni. The flagship of his extraordinary career dates to October 9, 1955, at Milan’s Vigorelli Velodrome in what was called “the challenge of the century.” His opponent was the legendary Fausto Coppi but that day the Campionissimo was forced to surrender to the strength of Guido Messina.

He lived through the golden age of cycling and raced with the greatest champions. “Coppi was shy and reserved but friendly, Koblet elegant, Anquetil refined,” he remembered. Messina ended his cycling career in 1962 and for a while was a good coach of young cyclists; he was also the recruiter of Italian pursuit racers.

Messina died at his home on January 10 this year at age 89. He enjoyed a good and long life studded with many victories. He can’t offer me that coffee any longer but I hope his wife Bruna will be pleased to receive this copy of Peloton magazine and the photos of her husband-champion, because he who gives emotions never dies and lives in our memory forever.

From issue 94, get your copy here.