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The Eagle of the Canavese, by Herbie Sykes

The Eagle of the Canavese Title: The Eagle of the Canavese: Franco Balmamion and the Giro d'Italia
Author: Herbie Sykes
Publisher: Mousehold Press 
Pages: 195
Year: 2008
Order: Mousehold Press
What it is: A biography of sorts of Franco Balmamion, the last Italian to win back-to-back maglie rose in the Giro d'Italia, framed through the story of the 1962 edition of the Corsa Rosa. Maglia Rosa author Sykes though goes well beyond the story of Balmamion, well beyond the story of that one Giro, and paints a picture of 1960s Italian cycling and the men who made it a decade that doesn't deserve to languish in the long shadow cast by the era of Coppi and Bartali.
Strengths: Sykes writes with passion - love, respect - about a group of men most of us know too little about. Deals, doping, death, none of these have been airbrushed from the story. This is a proper warts-and-all appreciation of our sport.
Weaknesses: So many stories, so little space.

After reviewing the last of this year's newly-minted trio of Giro-related books, I was asked what a book that takes the best of all three would look like. I dodged the answer as best I could. Having now read Herbie Sykes' The Eagle of the Canavese I'll tell you what I think one chapter of that that book should look like.

It would tell the story of one edition of the Giro, of how the race was won and how the race was lost. It would paint for you a picture of the Italy that race took place in, not just the geography, but also the society. Along the way, it would tell you the story not just of the man who won the race but also the stories of some of the other girini and their contributions to this sport. And it would not just tell you about the cyclists, but would move beyond the peloton to tell you something about what was happening behind the scenes too.

In short, it would look a little bit like The Eagle of the Canavese.

* * * * *

Franco Balmamion, image courtesy RouleurWho was Franco Balmamion? Ask a statto and you'll be told he was man who won two Giri d'Italia without once winning a single stage. That he won Milan-Turin, the Tour of the Apennines, the Championship of Zurich and the Italian road race championship. That, of his podium finishes, the most notable were a third in Milan-Sanremo, a second in the Giro and a third in the Tour de France. Maybe the statto, keen to show off the depth and breadth of his knowledge, would point out that he was the last Italian to win back-to-back victories in the Giro, and that since he did this only Eddy Merckx and Miguel Induráin have matched that feat.

Here's how Herbie Sykes describes him:

"For eleven years between 1961 and 1972 Franco Balmamion, the silent champion of Nole Canavese, was simply a racing cyclist, intermittently brilliant, for the most part very good, sometimes by his own admission mediocre. For three weeks in the early summer of 1962, despite overwhelming odds to the contrary, he was the best, the hardest, the bravest cyclist in Italy. But still just a cyclist, no more and no less."

Franco Balmamion was born in January 1940 in the village of Nole Canavese, twenty-five kilometres north of Turin. His father was killed by the Allies during the war, a fire officer doing his duty as Turin was blitzed. His mother, Giovanna, raised Balmamion and his sister Michelina, three years his senior. His father's brothers, Francesco and Ettore, helped where they could. Ettore himself was a girini, finishing fifth in the 1931 edition of the Corsa Rosa. Was Balmamion then blessed with a genetic inheritance?

Maybe. But eight kilometres south of Nole Canavese lies San Maurizio, from whence came Giovanni Brunero, who won back-to-back Giro victories in 1921-22, and won again in 1926, just as Alfredo Binda was getting into his stride. And between Nole Canavese and San Mauriozio you will find Cirie, from whence came the American-born Giuseppe Enrici, who won the Giro the year before Binda started his reign over the Giro. Whack those three villages into Google Maps, and then zoom out a bit. You're looking at Piedmont. One of the bulwarks of Italian cycling.

Balmamion then was born and grew up in Italian cycling's heartland. The standard script in these stories is that the kid gets a bike - this being poor, war-ravaged Italy, it won't be much of a bike - and he romps to victory after victory in his first few races. In his first two years, Balmamion won once. In his third year - 1959 - he won three times.

Malcolm Gladwell - or is it the Freakenomics guys? - would tell you that what happened next was down to Balmamion being born at the right end of the year and thus being bigger and stronger than those among his peers born later in the year. Because in his last year as a junior, Balmamion won and won and won and won. But the ten-thousand hours rule popularised by Gladwell would be closer to the truth, for Balmamion trained and trained and trained and trained. In his own words, he "just trained longer and harder, often alone, sometimes behind Ettore's moped, which was quite hard. On the valley roads, or up into the hills if the weather permitted. Thousand of kilometres that winter. I wanted to be a cyclist."

If you know the geography of the region, or have that Google Maps window open, you'll know that those hills are not hills, they're Alps. And those 'quite hard' hours behind Uncle Ettore's moped saw Balmamion covering a hundred fifty kilometres at a time. Among the names bestowed upon Balmamion - the Chinaman, the Eagle of Canavese - is the Silent Champion. He is a modest champion. He doesn't gild the lily. Therein lies some of his attraction to Sykes. And therein lies part of the reason for Balmamion's relative anonymity. Here's Sykes:

"Unusually for a high profile professional athlete - and to his eternal credit - Franco Balmamion was unequivocally and unashamedly no bella figura, either on or off a bicycle. [...] That Balmamion was amongst the best bike handlers, climbers, and descenders of his generation was not due in any way to his ability or otherwise to look sophisticated in a sharp suit, or to dazzle journalists with his loquacious insights into the minutiae of stage-racing tactics. He saved his formidable cycling intellect for cycling, specifically for winning bike races."

In other words, Balmamion let his bike do the talking. And for us to know more about him, it has taken for someone like Sykes to come along and listen to what it said.

* * * * *

How good was Balmamion? A story for you, from the 1963 Giro. Balmamion is the defending champion, riding again for Carpano. At the start of the stage sixteen ITT he wore the maglia rosa. At the day's end the pink jumper was being worn by someone else. By the eve of the stage nineteen tappone it was being worn by Vittorio Adorni (Cynar), with Balmamion twenty-two seconds in arrears. For the Giro's Queen stage, the direttore corsa, Vincenzo Torriani, was serving up seven major climbs in the Dolomites: the Passo Duran (10km/1,600m), the Forcella Staulanza (10km/1,773m), the Passo Cereda (1,369m), the Passo di Rolle (20km/1,970m), the Passo di Valles (2,033m) and the Passo di San Pellegrino (6km/1,918m).

This was an exact duplicate of stage fourteen of the previous year's race, which was a day to compare with the Bondone in 1956, a day when weather ravaged the race. Then, the race only made it as far as the summit of the Rolle before Torriani was forced to call a halt because of the weather. Thankfully, mother nature didn't feel like repeating herself in 1963.

The roads themselves are worthy of comment. The Duran was a dirt road, the Staulanza also unpaved. The Cereda was just a track. San Pellegrino was beaten earth. The year before, these roads - and the weather - had sorted the wheat from the chaff (losing some wheat along the way) and set up the final week's racing. Coming later in the 1963 race, they would decide who was going to win and who was going to lose. Vittorio Adorni or Franco Balmamion? But, of course, you already know the outcome. Doesn't matter. It's the how Balmamion done it that's important here.

At the start of the 1963 Giro's tappone Balmamion saw Adorni in conversation with Vito Taccone (Lygia). Taccone was fifteen minutes in arrears and no threat, either to Balmamion or the maglia rosa. He was also, in the words of Sykes, "a southern outcast gobshite; no real holder of the pink jersey would fraternise with his like." So what was Adorni chatting to him about? Were they just swapping addresses so one could visit the other whenever in the area?

Taccone broke away early into the stage, taking with him Balmamion's team-mate Italo Zilioli, and a local kid, Enzo Moser. (Yes, Moser. One of the four Moser brothers. Yes, those Moser brothers. Francesco's.) But forget Moser, he's just a bit of colour in this story (there was four of the buggers!). Zilioli's the man to watch here. Given the mere fact that Adorni and Taccone had been seen in conversation, Carpano's direttore sportivo had assigned someone to watch his wheel. Just in case.

By the time he reached the foot of the Rolle, Taccone had a lead of ten minutes. At which point Adorni could see the script getting out of control. What was supposed to happen was that Balmamion would chase Taccone, knacker himself out, and Adorni could ride away from him. But Balmamion didn't appear to have read that script. So  Adorni had to try prompting him his lines. Balmamion demurred the opportunity Adorni offered him. Adorni was the one in pink, it was his job to chase. Hoist by his own petard is, I think, the expression. And Balmamion, even if not familiar with that bit of Shakespeare, knew the principle. Adorni had to set about closing down the southern outcast gobshite himself, before Taccone stole the maglia rosa from off his back. Balmamion sat in and enjoyed the ride.

Halfway up the Rolle, Balmamion twisted the knife. He stopped sitting in, came to the front and began to wind Adorni up by half-wheeling him. (Which is worse, a wheel-sucker or a half-wheeler? They both do your head in, but there's something worse about half-wheeling, I think. You can kid yourself with a wheel-sucker ('Ha! I ride so hard no one can match my pace!') but a half-wheeler slaps the ego out of you.) The pressure worked and Adorni made a mistake, clipping the road with his pedal on a switchback and losing ten metres to Balmamion. Daylight opened, the elastic snapped and Balmamion rode away from him.

But Adorni was not for giving up. He got back into his stride and gave chase. Ahead, he saw a Carpano jersey. He set his sights on his target and inched his way up to it. You know yourself how hard it is to do that and the deals you make with yourself to close the gap. Only when Adorni got up to the Carpano jersey it wasn't Balmamion. It was Italo Zilioli.

Zilioli had dropped back from Taccone before the Rolle, riding his own pace and keeping something in reserve for when Balmamion got up to him. And when Balmamion caught him, he told Zilioli to hang back. He was really going to fuck with Adorni's mind now. And it worked. Adorni had bust a gut to close on what he thought was Balmamion. And when he saw it was just Zilioli - a fucking neo-pro gregario - he cracked. Taccone took the stage by four minutes. Balmamion took the maglia rosa by two.

That story shows that Balmamion didn't just have the legs, he had the head. He saw what was happening at the stage start, put a plan in place, and executed it - and Adorni - perfectly. If I can, I'm going to get around to the story of Sapadda and the 1987 Giro soon. And, in a couple or three weeks, there's going to be the Tour 1986 and Richard Moore's Slaying The Badger. LeMond in the '86 Tour struggled to cope with Hinault's mind-fucking. Roberto Visentini in the '87 Giro came close to matching Balmamion's feat of back-to-back victories but couldn't cope when Stephen Roche put the knife in his back. Balmamion ... he was as cool as a cucumber.

Why that story, why didn't I tell you a story from the Giro at the book's heart, the previous year, 1962? Because the real story of that race was the civil war between two Carpano team-mates, Franco Balmamion and Nino Defilippis. You already know who won. But what you'll enjoy reading The Eagle of the Canavese for is the way Balmamion won. And I'm not giving that away here.

* * * * *

There's more to Sykes' book than just Balmamion. There's Enrico Peracino, the team doctor at Carpano, then Sanson, then Faema and who knew what happened at Savona in 1969. There's il Cit, Nino Defilippis, the kid. There's Vito Taccone, "the Southern stereotype personified." There's Imerio Massignan, the six-foot, sixty-seven kilo climber with one leg shorter than the other. Gamba Secca they called him, before his climbing prowess earned him a better nick, the Spider of the Dolomites. There's Antonio 'Toni' Bailetti and Walter Martin whose stories show just how hard and heartless this sport can be. There's Germano 'Mano' Barale, a gregario loved and respected by his peers for the way he rode, not for what he won. There's Guido Neri, who started eight Giri, finished eight Giri, has on his palmarès just one solitary victory - the Trofeo Laigueglia - and is the embodiment of the selfless gregario. Sykes: "Neri, like the great silent majority of professional bike riders, was a grafter, a fetcher and a carrier, no more and no less. And no less a giant of the road for it."

All these men have stories. And their stories are just the tip of the iceberg, they're just a tiny portion of the men who rode in Italy in the sixties. The stats alone won't tell you what really makes these men matter. For that, you need someone to tell their stories. As much as this sport needs heroes, it needs people to tell their stories. This sport needs people like Franco Balmamion and the men who helped define that generation of Italian cycling. But this sport also needs people like Herbie Sykes, who help to ensure we don't forget the past. It needs publishers like Mousehold Press who help to ensure these stories can be told. It needs books like The Eagle of the Canavese.

* * * * *

The past. I talk a lot about the past in these bookshelf pieces. I'm particularly conscious of this after the last month, when I seem to have been living in parallel worlds, the Giro's past and the Giro's present. I don't spend so much time in the past because I think the past was better, that I wear rose tinted spectacles. Peracino, Defilippis, Taccone, Massignan, Bailetti, Martin, Barale, Neri and yes, even Balmamion himself, people like these still exist today, in both the men's peloton and the women's. All they need is someone to give voice to their stories. All their stories need is time - distance - before they can be properly told.

Yes, cycling has changed, we've moved on and are in a different era, an era defined by doping. But the stories ... the stories are still out there, even today. There will always be stars who hog the limelight. There will always be forgotten champions. And there will always - always - be the grafters, the fetchers and the carriers, and the people behind the scenes making things happen. And they will always need someone to tell their stories. When you read the interviews elsewhere on this site with people like Sep Vanmarcke and Gerard Vrooman and Sharon Laws, you are reading the beginnings of some of those stories.

* * * * *

You'll find three interviews (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) with Herbie Sykes on the Café Bookshelf.