clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Story of the Giro d'Italia, by Bill and Carol McGann

Maurizio Lagana

The Story of the Giro d'Italia - Volume One - Bill McGann

Title: The Story of the Giro d'Italia - A Year-by-Year History of the Tour of Italy: Volume One - 1909-1970
Author: Bill and Carol McGann
Publisher: McGann Publishing
Year: 2011
Pages: 309
Order: McGann Publishing
What it is: What it says on the tin - the first part of a two volume year-by-year history of the Giro d'Italia (volume two due 2012), from the people who brought you the two volume year-by-year history of the Tour de France.
Strengths: Makes for a great reference work, having something to say about every Giro between 1909 and 1970. The McGanns are also good at trying to place the race within the wider context of Italian history and shining some light on the evolution of the bicycle over the course of the Giro's history.
Weaknesses: The usual - so many years, so few pages.

Fans of the website will know who Chairman Bill is and will probably be familiar with the McGanns' two-volume history of the Tour de France, The Story of the Tour de France. Now the McGanns - husband and wife Bill and Carol - have turned their eyes to the Giro d'Italia and produced ... well I was going to say the first English-language history of the Giro except that it's been a bloody odd year and over the last month or so I've now read three different - each distinctly different - histories of the Corsa Rosa, all claiming to have been first.

Where then does this one fit in the trio of Giro texts to have landed this year? Herbie Sykes' Maglia Rosa tells a history of the Giro by telling stories about the men who've ridden the race, humanising the story. John Foot's Pedalare! Pedalare! looks at the Giro and it's place within Italian society and history. Bill and Carol McGann's The Story of the Giro d'Italia goes straight for the jugular and tells the history of the Giro by looking at each edition of the Corsa Rosa and summarising the main stories arising each year.

One of the downsides of such a collection of tales is that it doesn't always make for easy reading, sprinting through marathons and the name of one winner quickly giving way to the name of another. One of the odd things about the Giro though is that, between about 1919 and 1955, there was a continuity within Italian cycling, one generation almost seamlessly passing the torch to the next.

You went from the first campionissimo, Costante Giradengo, to Alfredo Binda to Learco Guerra to Gino Bartali to Fausto Coppi, all without any gap years. Oh, for sure, those four decades or so between 1919 and 1955 often - half the time, actually - other riders rose up and won the Giro. But for the thirty-five years or so of their reign, those five men underpin - ground - the Giro for you. You always know where you are when one of them is around. You've always got someone to root for.

* * * * *

While such histories don't always make the ideal book to curl up with a read cover to cover, one of the delights of The Story of the Giro d'Italia is the gems of information it contains. Try this one for instance: who was the first American-born winner of a Grand Tour? Hands up all those who said Greg LeMond ... that's quite a few of you. Hands up how many said Marianne Martin? I like the way you're thinking, but no, this is not about knowing that an American woman won the Tour de France before an American man did. The answer? Giuseppe Enrici. What do you mean 'who the fuck is Giuseppe Enrici?'?

Enrici was born in Pittsburgh of Italian immigrant stock but his family decided that Piedmont held more charm and emigrated back to the auld sod. At this time in history, Piedmont was the heart of Italian cycling. Enrici became a cyclist and - in the absence of big name riders (who were missing in a row about appearance fees) - won the 1924 Giro. Alas for America, Enrici was by now an Italian citizen. Even then, the Giro had a thing against foreign winners.

Actually, even before then the Giro had a thing against foreign winners. As early as the second Giro, 1910, French riders - Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq, Constant Ménager and Lucian Petit-Breton - were given a ... well, a hostile reception by the tifosi. Just because they were within spitting distance of the race lead. So whenever the French riders were within spitting distance of the tifosi ... use your imagination. The Italian riders, quickly catching which way the wind was blowing, united against the stranieri and only once they'd put them to the sword fought among themselves for overall victory. This unity of the Italian peloton lasted all the way through to 1950, when Hugo Koblet became the first non-Italian to win the Corsa Rosa.

But back to Americans in the Giro for a moment and another pointless factoid. If Enrici wasn't the first American to start the Giro - he was only born in America - who was? How many of you think this is a trick question and are trying to work out which 7-Eleven rider started the 1985 prologue first? Good guess but wrong. How many thought something similar only had Robin Morton's 1984 Gianni Motta squadra instead of the 7-Elevens? Well you're wrong too, so stop feeling smug about knowing who the first American team in a Grand Tour was. How many said Jock Boyer? Good guess, but nope. Who had Smilin' George Mount? Well done you, you know your onions. But you're still wrong. The correct answer apparently is Joseph Magnani.

Magnani was born in Illinois and when the US got the blues in the late twenties was sent to France, where the family had relations. There he discovered cycling, winning Marseilles-Nice during the 1930s. During the war, the Germans sent him to a concentration camp, where he survived for two years before being liberated. He returned to cycling, getting a berth with Giuseppe Olmo's new squadra for the 1946 Giro. Making him not only the first American to enter the Giro, but - quite probably - the first American in any of the three Grand Tours.

In case the Brits are feeling left out here - who was the first Briton to start a Grand Tour? James Moore? No, I don't think he lasted through to the GT era. Nor did the Lintons or Jimmy Michael. It was surprisingly early though - the 1914 Giro. The man's name? Frederick Henry Grubb. Freddie was, according to the McGanns, yet another British Olympic gold-digger (two silvers at the 1912 Games in Stockholm).

* * * * *

Books such as this then are troves of little treasures like the above. Which, for me, makes mining them a worthwhile experience. But of course you will know by now that I really don't care who the first American or Briton to do this that or the other was. I don't even really care who the first Irish rider in the Giro was (the McGanns don't say but chances are it was Shay Elliott - it's not like we produced many). I'm looking for stories.

One story I touched upon recently, when looking at the 1985 Vuelta a España and the murky world of deals, alliances and coalitions, was a 1946 deal between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali to stop a young upstart, Vito Ortelli, stealing their limelight. A couple of stories from the McGanns add extra context to that deal.

The first concerns something that happened at the Championship of Zurich, shortly before the 1946 Giro at which the two champions ganged up on the young pretender. Bartali and Coppi were away on their own in Zurich, but Bartali seemed to be having an off day. He offered Coppi a deal - tow him to the line and he wouldn't contest the sprint. Coppi agreed. Sometimes beating Bartali narrowly looked better than beating him by a country mile. But ... well, Bartali welshed on the deal, contested the sprint, won the race and pissed Coppi off right royally. Apparently Bartali had something of a reputation for not exactly honouring his end of bargains. So much for Bartali being il pio.

The second story featuring Ortelli concerns the 1948 Giro. The McGanns describe this edition of the Corsa Rosa as being a race of a mille polemiche, a thousand arguments. What's a Giro without a little bit of polemica, eh? It's like toast without cheese, that's what - incomplete.

One of the stories of the 1948 Giro was of a deal done between Coppi and Bartali. They had decided to decide the race in the Dolomites, during the last week of the race. Alas, alack and ochón agus ochón ó, but this cunning plan overlooked something rather obvious: the other girini. Here's what happened: on the ninth stage, a three hundred and six kilometre haul over the Apennines from Bari to Naples, a fuga di bidone got away. This, in Italian cycling, is an early break that looks harmless but actually has some serious GC contenders in it. And succeeds in staying away. In this case the contenders were Vito Ortelli and Fiorenzo Magni. By the time the race reached Naples Ortelli was in the maglia rosa and Coppi and Bartali were all but written off.

Over the next few days the lead passed from Ortelli to Magni to Enzio Cecchi and then - on the Giro's tappone, or Queen stage - back to Magni. Coppi had, over the previous few days, and then over the course of the tappone, over the Falzarego and the Pordoi, clawed himself back to being within eighty seconds of the race lead. But when the tappone finished in Trentino Coppi was not a happy camper. He was actually incandescent with fury. Why? Because all along the Pordoi Magni's sponsors had positioned tifosi who pushed their man up the mountain.

The commissaires, faced with complaints from Coppi and Cecchi, tut-tutted and stroked their chins, consulted the rule book, drank some coffee, tut-tutted a bit more and then gave Magni a two minute time penalty. Coppi threw his toys from the pram - Magni was more than six minutes behind him at the base of the Pordoi and barely two-and-a-half minutes at the top - and withdrew the whole of his Bianchi squad from the Giro. The Italian cycling federation saw fit to intervene - Coppi was suspended for a month for pulling out of the Giro so close to the finish and for no good reason. Magni? He finished the Giro eleven seconds ahead of Cecchi, the smallest ever winning margin in Giro history.

* * * * *

This volume of The Story of the Giro d'Italia ends in 1970, three years into Eddy Merckx's domination of the Corsa Rosa (two victories and one DQ) with another three victories still to come. It also sees us at the birth of the era of anti-doping. And if you want to know what that meant to the Giro, look at the 1968 race.

After the first stage of the 1968 Giro, three riders were found to have tested positive: Peter Abt, Raymond Delisle and Gianni Motta. Stage four saw Franco Bodrero busted. On stage thirteen it was the turn of Franco Balmamion. On the nineteenth stage, Joacquin Galera and Victor van Schil were added to the list of offenders. The twenty-second stage added Mariano Diaz and Felice Gimondi to the still growing list, along with Mario di Toro who refused to be tested. (Vittorio Adorni also seems to have caught the attention of the dope testers somewhere during the race.) All told the 1968 Giro produced eight positives, two attempts at fraud and one refusal to be tested. With four previous winners on the list of offenders - Balmamion (1962/63), Adorni (1965), Motta (1966) and Gimondi (1967) - questions had to be asked.

Even more questions had to be asked the following year when the maglia rosa tripped a positive. The man of course was Eddy Merckx. And, naturally, he was innocent. He'd never tested positive before. Why would he have doped for such an insignificant stage? How come samples he provided after being informed of his misdemeanour didn't also test positive? The only explanation possible was dark forces who wanted shot of him.

Presumably these were the same dark forces who wanted shot of Merckx in 1973 when he tested positive at the Giro di Lombardia, for which a team doctor took the fall, saying he'd mis-prescribed a cough medicine containing a banned substance.

And - presumably - these were also the same dark forces who wanted shot of Merckx in 1977 when he tested positive at the Fléche Wallonne for which he blamed ... well the controls themselves, as David Walsh quoted him saying: "I do not believe any more in these controls; it is all becoming ridiculous and hypocritical. I haven't even asked for a second analysis. I am going to make a list of all that is wrong with these controls. As things are nobody could have confidence in them."

The truth is, Eddy Merckx was too damned good to need doping. Except for the unspecified doping he confessed to in 1988. And the (successful) attempt to cheat a control he confessed to in 1993. (Both of these confessions are listed on Cyclisme Dopage).

One of the questions being asked in 1969 when Merckx tripped that positive was 'what the hell do we do?' Vincenzo Torriani, the Giro's direttore corsa, didn't want to have to make the decision and so tried to pass the buck to the head of the UCI, Adriano Rodoni. Who, wisely, managed to make himself scarce. Torriani was left with no choice but to apply the new rules: Merckx was off the race and suspended for one month. One consequence of which was he would miss the Tour de France.

Merckx appealed. Belgian fans picketed the headquarters of the Belgian cycling federation. One Swiss newspaper reported that the Belgians had sent a plane to collect Merckx - a plane loaded with Belgian paratroopers. Questions were asked in parliament. There was a call for immigrant Italian workers in Belgium to be repatriated. This was not just a sporting trifle. It convulsed a nation.

In the end a compromise was reached. The one month suspension was over-turned for some reason or another. Merckx started the Tour. Which he won. The following year he came back to the Giro. And won.

* * * * *

Such then are the stories you'll find in The Story of the Giro d'Italia. This is the first of two volumes which will bring the history of the Corsa Rosa up to 2011. This volume covers the first fifty-three Giri. You'll have to wait until Spring next year to catch volume two, covering the remaining forty-one races. How the McGanns deal with an era of Italian cycling that mired itself deeper and deeper in doping is certainly going to be worth looking forward to.