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Without wishing to get too philosophical or, worse, pretentious, it is fascinating to think about the quirks of fate that lead us through life’s turns. No matter how mapped out our future may seem, somehow life always keeps a few surprises up its sleeve. For professional cyclists the progression of their careers is usually inflexible and rooted in where they are from. French riders are brought up to dream of le maillot jaune…Flemish riders think the Ronde van Vlaanderen is the most important race on the calendar…and Italian riders? Imagine the pleasurable shock of discovering that the race you love is actually on the other side of the Continent, in a place you barely knew existed before you became a cyclist. For a band of very special Italians, spread across the generations but united in their qualities, the cobblestone roads of northern Europe became their home away from home.
Francesco Moser was born and raised in a tiny village high in the Trentino hills, an area rich in cycling tradition. One of 11 children, he had three brothers who also became professional cyclists, with two of them, Aldo and Enzo Moser, good enough to wear the maglia rosa of the Giro d’Italia. The Mosers were brought up on the legends of the Giro. Francesco has recalled being taken by his father to see the race pass along his native Trentino roads, and the lasting impression of seeing the stars of the 1960s. Moser was to eventually win the race of his childhood dreams, though he had to wait until the end of his career to do so.
In 1984, when Moser was 33, the organizers created a route with so much time trialing that Moser, who had broken the world hour record earlier in the year, had an outside chance against the favorite Laurent Fignon. It was rather like Fabian Cancellara taking on Alberto Contador for a grand tour, but Moser stepped into the role, and the organizers abetted him by conveniently cancelling the crossing of the Stelvio, turning a blind eye to allegations that Moser was being pushed up the mountains and was drafting his team car elsewhere in the race.
The final stage was a 42-kilometer time trial into Verona, the fourth time trial of the race, and in an uncanny precursor of the infamous 1989 Tour de France TT finale, Moser deposed the pink jersey of Fignon, running out the eventual winner by over a minute. The fact that Moser had a helicopter behind him, flying so that its downdraft pushed him along, and Fignon had a helicopter in front of him working in opposition to the Frenchman, had absolutely nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing at all.
But while the Giro was Moser’s first love, it was Paris–Roubaix that became his favorite race. There’s a moment in the legendary “A Sunday in Hell” documentary when Raymond Poulidor and another rider are riding full tilt, desperately trying to join the leading group, and a third rider flashes between them and away. In the words of the English narrator: “It’s Francesco Moser, with his distinctive style, his still, aerodynamic position on the bicycle, he’s an imposing sight of almost effortless rotary action.”
Not the kind of commentary we hear these days, but a perfect description of the Italian’s posture: high in the saddle, powerful through the core of his body, absorbing the cobbles’ demonic vibrations through bent elbows. His nickname, The Sheriff, is said to have come from his authoritative position on the bike, as well as the way he tactically controlled his rivals. But back to the Hell of the North….
In 1976 Moser joined the decisive move and narrowly lost the final sprint to surprise winner Marc Demeyer. It was the second time he’d finished runner-up, having lost to Roger De Vlaeminck two years earlier. Moser learned from these experiences. In 1978 he came to a warm and dusty Paris–Roubaix in the rainbow jersey, and on the same team as his former rival De Vlaeminck. They made a pact not to attack each other, but on the Wannehain cobbled sector Moser got his attack in first, leaving De Vlaeminck to watch the Italian ride away to a solo victory. Perhaps traumatized by this experience, De Vlaeminck left Moser’s Sanson team for the 1979 season, but was still unable to do much about Moser’s rampaging attacks. The margin was smaller, but Moser again won alone. Concluding a remarkable hat-trick, Moser won in similar style in 1980, leaving Dietrich Thurau, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and De Vlaeminck floundering in his wake. Moser had further successes, including that 1984 Giro d’Italia, and carried on racing until 1988, but nothing could top those three years at Roubaix.
The Italian most closely associated with that other great cobbled classic, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, is Fiorenzo Magni. Like Moser, Magni hailed from a famous cycling region, Tuscany. His first major win came in the 1948 Giro d’Italia but the manner of the victory made Magni deeply unpopular across Italy. Coming into the final few mountainous days, Magni had a two-minute lead but Fausto Coppi, the public’s hero, was resurgent. When Coppi was within striking distance of Magni a complaint against the race leader was submitted that he’d been “helped” in the high mountains. Riders, fans and officials all testified to the race jury that Magni had received numerous pushes from spectators—indeed, that whole busloads of fans had been brought to the race and positioned strategically on the toughest climbs to help their man. Magni was penalized, but only two minutes, leaving him still in pink by a mere 11 seconds.
In protest at what he felt was an insufficient penalty, Coppi pulled himself and his entire team out of the race. Italy was shocked and incensed. Magni held onto his slim lead all the way to Milan, but instead of being cheered into the finish at the Vigorelli Velodrome, he was booed and pelted with fruit. The antipathy toward the Tuscan was partly political. During the war Magni had fought on the side of the Fascists and been implicated in a massacre of Italian partisans that happened at the Battle of Valibona in 1944. After the war he stood trial for his supposed role in the massacre, but the court was unable to prove conclusively that he had actively taken part. Compared to partisan hero Gino Bartali and the saintly Coppi, Magni was widely disliked in his native Italy in the years after the war. It took a long time, and a lot of heroic riding, for Magni to redeem himself in the eyes of the tifosi.
Perhaps it was the experience of the 1948 Giro that pushed him to seek glory elsewhere, among the cobbled bergs of Flanders. Magni took a train to Ghent, accompanied only by a single loyal domestique and an Italian journalist—a thin operation, but Magni had prepared well technically. For the 1949 Ronde he rode a bike with wooden rims to better absorb the juddering from the cobblestones. Although the Ronde was very different from the Giro, Magni was well suited to its challenges—he loved tough racing and bad weather, and was motivated to prove himself both to the locals and to his doubters back home. Magni lost his teammate early in the race but seeing as he only really had one tactical strategy—to attack early then try to hold on—it didn’t really matter. After 260 kilometers in the wet and cold, alone in the lead for much of the race, Magni arrived at the finish in Wetteren in an 18-man group, and outsprinted them.
The following year the weather was even worse. Snow lined the course. Magni won alone, more than two minutes ahead of the Flemish legend Briek Schotte. This impressive victory, together with impressed quotes from Schotte and other Belgians, garnered much attention in the Italian newspapers. The Lion of Flanders had been born. In 1951 Magni won alone by some five minutes and once over the line he told journalists he would never ride the race again. And he never did. In later years Magni won the Giro twice more, and won the affections of the tifosi through his courage, his brute strength and his patriotic commitment to helping Coppi and Bartali at the world championships.
The closest Magni came to winning Paris–Roubaix was in 1950. He came in third—but more than five minutes behind the winner, Fausto Coppi! By that point in his career, Coppi had already won four grand tours and five monuments, so adding Roubaix was just another notch in his palmarès. More astonishing was the Roubaix performance in 1966 by a youthful Felice Gimondi—who’d already shocked the cycling world by winning the Tour de France in his rookie season. Now, at 23, the elegant Italian was expected to have a hard time adjusting to the rough roads and wet weather of northern France. Instead, Gimondi attacked on the cobbled hill at Mons-en-Pévèle and rode alone over the final 35 kilometers to win by more than four minutes from a chase group of tough Dutch and Belgian classics specialists.
The next Italian winner at Roubaix was Moser, but then came a bleak spell as the cobbled classics in the 1980s belonged to Sean Kelly and a generation of Dutch and Belgian riders such as Eric Vanderaerden, Eddy Planckaert, Adrie van der Poel, Jan Raas and Edwig Van Hooydonck. Italian focus switched to the Ardennes classics, where Moreno “Il Capo” Argentin notched up four wins in Liège–Bastogne–Liège and three wins in the Flèche Wallonne, as discussed in issue #65 of Peloton.
While Magni was true to his word not to return to Flanders, Franco Ballerini’s comments after the 1993 Paris–Roubaix were to be taken more lightly. After all, the poor guy had just lost a monument by 8 centimeters. He claimed that becoming a bike racer was a mistake, and that he would never come back. But two years later he returned—and in some style. His Mapei team was an unusual Belgian-Italian conglomeration, but the sponsors had deep pockets and the team boss Patrick Lefevere ran a slick operation. They were dominant in the cobbled classics and if the leader, Johan Museeuw, wasn’t on a good day there were plenty of understudies ready to take the limelight.
In 1995, Ballerini rode into Roubaix alone for a redemptive victory, and the following year the Mapei team underlined its strength by putting three riders into the winning breakaway of, well, three. Museeuw, Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi had to go back to their team car to ask who should win. The team car had to phone the sponsor, back in Italy, who chose Museeuw, and television audiences around the world weren’t sure whether to be impressed or frustrated at the rather anti-climactic ending.
In 1998 Ballerini took another win in Roubaix, finishing four minutes clear of his pursuers; then in 1999 it was Tafi’s turn. In the national champion’s tricolore jersey, the rangy rider from Florence in Tuscany escaped from a seven-man break with 29 kilometers to go and won by over two minutes. His Mapei teammates Wilfred Peeters and Tom Steels took second and third places. Tafi, who also won the Ronde in 2002, had a deep love for Paris–Roubaix. His hero, whom he sought to emulate: Francesco Moser.
It has been 10 years since Alessandro Ballan posted Italy’s last win in a cobbled monument, at Flanders, but there are signs of a renaissance. Fifth in this year’s Paris–Roubaix, and not yet 23, was Team Sky’s shining new hope Gianni Moscon. An impressive all-rounder, Moscon has shown a particular aptitude for the cobbled classics. He recently told La Gazzetta dello Sport: “It was love at first sight when I saw the pavé.” And perhaps a lucky future on the pavé is written in the stars—just two weeks after Moscon was born, in 1994, Gianni Bugno won the Ronde van Vlaanderen, outsprinting Belgian hero Johan Museeuw. But the verdict came only after the judges had studied the photo-finish for 10 minutes before deciding that the Italian, who raised his arms prematurely, had won by 7 millimeters!