If you want to understand the history of Italian cycling, you could do a lot worse than to look up the list of winners of the Giro dell'Emilia.
First, let's put Italian racing into perspective. Italy's greatest champions are a mix of grand tour riders and uphill classics winners, with somewhat greater emphasis on the latter. Sure, it's a big cycling nation and produces top riders of all shapes and sizes, but arguably nowhere does Italy have a greater impact than in the hilly classics.
So what race best exemplifies Italy's classics contribution? Not really the Giro di Lombardia or Milano-Sanremo; those races belong to the world. Obviously the Giro d'Italia is home to every great Italian racer at some point, but overall wins don't tend to honor the classics guys, and foreigners have owned the race fairly often. Races outside Italy can't possibly tell the story -- not for a nation of boys who seem reluctant at best and often downright allergic to venturing outside the homeland. Tirreno-Adriatico is too early to learn much from.
While imperfect, the Giro dell'Emilia does as good a job telling the story of Italian cycling as a single race can. How so? Bear with me if possible, on the flip...
First, this is a truly Italian race. It wasn't until 1962 -- 53 years into its incarnation -- that a foreigner even made the podium, and another ten years before a foreigner won. [1972: if you can't guess who this was...] As for those Italian greats:
The first few winners of the Gd'E include all of Italy's original cycling stars. Eberardo Pavesi, winner of the first edition, was also the first Italian to finish the Tour de France, as well as a Giro winner and famous coach to Gino Bartali later on. Luigi Ganna, the second Emilia winner, is better known for his victory in the inaugural Giro d'Italia. Ugo Agostoni, winner of edition #4 (and an edition of MSR), was killed in WWII and is honored by the running of the Coppa Ugo Agostoni, a top-level race in August won this year by Giovanni Visconti. Numerous other early winners scored top victories in the Giro and elsewhere.
But the name that jumps out at you is Constante Girardegno, the original Campionissimo. Hailing from Novi Ligure (later home of the other Campionissimo), Girardegno was Italy's first truly prolific winner. Nine times Italian champion, six times winner of Milano-Sanremo (eclipsed only by Merckx), five times winner of Milano-Torino, thrice winner of Lombardia and two time maglia rosa. Girardegno was especially dominant in Emilia, with five victories and a period of twelve years where he made the podium ten times.
There are (at least) two big names from this period missing from the Emilia Honor Roll: Alfredo Binda and Ottavio Bottechia. Binda was more of a sprinter, though he still managed two seconds at Emilia. Bottechia is Italy's first Tour de France winner. I don't know if he attempted Emilia; it seems impossible that he didn't. But for whatever reason -- he was very Tour-focused? -- he doesn't appear on a podium, and his racing career was cut short by his mysterious death/brutal murder at age 32.
The Great Rivals
No race in Italy would be worth much if Fausto Coppi, the second (last?) Campionissimo, hadn't won there. He did, of course, three times in the 1940s, since the race is ideal for him. So too did Gino Bartali, though curiously not til the tail end of his legendary career. In classic Coppi-Bartali tradition, the results are close enough for the coppiani and bartaliani to fight over, with Coppi outdueling Gino the Pious in 1947 while Bartali turned the tables on Fausto (3rd) in 1952. Even Serse Coppi joined the fray, as he occasionally did, with third in 1946.
After Bartali's win, it was Nino DeFilippis' turn. The Turinese was a prominent classics star who also won 18 grand tour stages, albeit in futile pursuit of an overall win, particularly at the Giro d'Italia. He and rival Diego Ronchini each scored two wins in Emilia. Ercole Baldini, winner in 1959, was a world champion, Italian champion, and Giro winner on the Legnano machine. Emilian winners Italo Zilioli and Michele Dancelli were internationally successful classics racers -- the latter winning at Fleche Wallonne, the former at Zurich and in a Tour stage, among others. Three-time Emilia winner Gianni Motta was an even greater international success and champion stage racer, with one Giro, two Romandies and a Tour de Suisse to his name. Francesco Moser -- world and Giro champion -- is perhaps the country's third-most prominent cyclist after the Campionissimi, with victories too numerous and widespread to get into here. He won two Emilia editions in this time, as did Pierino Gavazzi, whose son Mattia is unfortunately not on Serramenti's starting lineup tomorrow. Franco Bitossi, winner in 1970 and 73, was a Tour runner-up.
The biggest name not featured here has to be Felice Gimondi, the first rider anywhere to win all three grand tours, and an occasional winner of big one-day events. Also missing from the Emilia Honors are Imerio Massignan, Gastone Nencini and Franco Balmamion, stars of stage racing in the 50s and 60s.
In Our Time
Well, my time, and probably years remembered first-hand by many of you... the beat goes on with great Emilia winners:
- Gianni Bugno, one of the last crossover stars as winner of both Flanders and the Giro, plus two rainbow jerseys.
- treble winner Davide Cassani, whose respectable career is vastly overshadowed by his becoming the voice of RAI.
- Maurizio Fondriest, world champion and international success (Zurich, la Fleche, MSR, etc.)
- Francesco Casagrande, Giro protagonist (second in 2000) and La Fleche winner.
- Michele Bartoli, one of the country's (and cycling's) greatest classics riders ever
- Gibo Simoni, Ivan Basso, Davide Rebellin, Danilo DiLuca...
Missing are a couple big names like Claudio Chiapucci and Moreno Argentin, plus sprinters like Petacchi and Cipo who had no business here, and the biggest omission of all, Marco Pantani. While the Pantani myth is bigger than his palmares, particularly on the one-day side of the ledger, his omission is startling because of his Emilian roots. Or sort of.. he was from Romagna, which is kind of lumped into the modern Emilia-Romagna region. But he was considered a local, and won the Piccolo Giro dell'Emilia in 1991. I seem to recall him having a tragic relationship to the race, from mishaps depriving him of victory to one event where he broke a leg? Memory fading. Anyway, it's a glaring omission for both the rider and the race, from the perspective of history.
The other big omission is Paolo Bettini. This race is perfect for him, no? Unless that last ramp is a tad too steep. Otherwise I can't explain his lack of results. He never even podium'ed. Perhaps he had to soft-pedal the race, between the Worlds and Lombardia. Not sure.
I am not a historian by day, nor Italian in the actual sense, so feel free to add/subtract/correct the foregoing.