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

the Story of the Giro d'Italia Volume Two

Title: The Story of the Giro d'Italia - A Year-by-Year History of the Tour of Italy: Volume Two - 1971-2011
Author: Bill and Carol McGann
Publisher: McGann Publishing
Year: 2012
Pages: 312
Order: McGann Publishing
What it is: What it says on the tin - the second part of a two volume year-by-year history of the Giro d'Italia (volume one landed last year), 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 1971 and 2011. The McGanns are also good at trying to place the race within the wider context of Italian history and shining some light on the evolving business side of the Giro.
Weaknesses: The usual - so many years, so few pages.

Volume two of Bill and Carol McGann's The Story of the Giro d'Italia begins and ends with the same topic. From the busting of Gianni Motta at the 1971 Giro while clad in the maglia rosa to the stripping of the pink jumper from the shoulders of Alberto Contador six or seven months after the 2011 Corsa Rosa ended, the second half of the Giro d'Italia's history has largely been about one subject: doping. It's not all about the drugs, not by a long shot. But doping is a story that figures prominently in the second volume of The Story of the Giro d'Italia. Rather than telling you about the book, let's just look at one year and spin a story around it.

* * * * *

Some people called him the Cowboy. Just the Cowboy, no Space in front of it, not that you can ever imagine him seeking the pompatus of love. Others called him the Gypsy. That's the nickname that has really stuck. Apparently someone simply rode up to him in the peloton one day and said You're the Gypsy and that was that. He was the Gypsy ever after. His parents, of course, called him Roger. And a respectful Belgian media called him Mr de Vlaeminck.

The story goes that the young Gypsy was once approached by Eddy Merckx personally, at the amateur Tour de Belgium. Hey kid, how would you feel like coming to work for me? The story goes that the Gypsy told the Cannibal he could stuff his offer somewhere where the sun doesn't shine. And since the sun was already shining out of Eddy Merckx's posterior orifice one can only presume that De Vlaeminck intended somewhere else.

Merckx had been right to offer the young Gypsy a gig with his team. Right in that keeping your enemies closer than your friends is right. Because De Vlaeminck became an enemy of Eddy Merckx. The worst kind of enemy too. Like Merckx, De Vlaeminck was a Belgian. Like Merckx, he was Flanders born. Unlike Merckx he was also Flanders bred. The man was a lion. A lion of Flanders. He was also bloody good. De Vlaeminck is generally considered as a one-day specialist. His Tour record is hardly of note, a few stage wins here and there, but he was never really a challenger for the maillot jaune. But, in the 1975 Giro d'Italia, he almost became a Grand Tour champion.

The 1975 Giro was a grand cru year. Interregnum years often are and 1975 was - though few knew it at the time - an interregnum year. Merckx was in decline, a decline Bernard Thévenet would prove spectacularly at the Tour de France a few weeks after the Giro ended. That, though, was in the future and Merck's reign of terror in the Giro - begun in style on the Blockhaus in 1967 and running through overall victories in 1968, 1970, 1972, 1973 and 1974 - ended in a style fans of TS Eliot would appreciate: with a whimper, not a bang. By the time he returned to the Giro in 1976 he was already a shadow of the man he used to be. The given reason for his 1975 absence? The Cannibal caught something at the pre-Giro leg-loosener, the Tour de Romandie, and the whole of the Molteni team opted out of the Italian Grand Tour. Whatever the illness was, it was expensive.

With him and Molteni side-kicks Merckx took most of the Belgian media too. They couldn't be arsed with a three-week Spring-break tear-arsing over the roads of Italy - and (in their minds, if not in reality) dodging bombs and bullets as Italy's troubled years of lead really got into swing - if they didn't have reports to send home singing the glory of Belgian cycling. I know, it's pretty petty, it would be like the British or the American media forgetting about a race just because one of theirs wasn't winning. Childish stuff. But it happened nonetheless. And it made the Gypsy a little bit sad. But the man from Eeklo turned his frown upside down and decided the give those who did stay something special to write home about, and those who didn't something to regret. He was going to win the Giro d'Italia.

The Belgian media weren't the only one who didn't want to cover a story unless it had parochial interest. Italian television had by this stage in the Giro's history more or less forgotten about the corsa rosa. Watching the peloton play piano for most of the day and then one of the stranieri ride away with the maglia rosa displeased them. Unlike France Télévisions in more recent years they didn't call in the head of the UCI - the Italian Adriano Rodoni - and tell him to buck up. Not that Rodoni would have been able to do much about the problem if they did, back then the UCI was a toothless tiger. No, Italian television simply pulled the plug on the Giro. Stopped their live coverage and relegated the race to an evening round-up results programme.

Vincenzo Torriani, the Giro's direttore di corsa, was resolved to right that wrong. So he took a gamble. He set out a percorso that would culminate with a nail-biting mountain top finish on the Passo Stelvio on the last day of the race. No promenade victory ride into Milan, this was a Giro Torriani designed to go out on a high. Gambling on the Stelvio was, of course, a high-stakes bet. The race could have been blown apart well before then and the stage a dead rubber. Or - more likely - the weather could close the roads. Snow in the Dolomites in the late Spring was not unusual. Planning for this, Torriani had the snow ploughs on hand, keeping the pass open. He also had a Plan B: a last minute switch to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo just in case the weather gods decided to piss - or snow - on his parade. Here in Ireland all we'd have done is stick the statue of St Anthony in the garden and utter a few prayers, but they do things differently in Catholic Italy.

De Vlaeminck's bubblegum-sponsored Brooklyn team-mate - and some-time track partner of Eddy Merckx in Six Day and Madison races - Patrick Sercu almost opened the Giro with a stage win for the bubblegum boys. Almost, except that Marino Basso (Magniflex) grabbed a hold of his jersey and held him back, the victory going to Knud Jnudsen (Jolly Ceramica). The next day Sercu set things straight and took the stage win.

And then the Gypsy went and mucked it all up. With the stage finishing atop the Prati di Tovo, down near Rome, De Vlaeminck started farting around with his seat height. That's his excuse for losing four minutes three days into a Giro he was going to win.

The bubblegum boys may have blown their chances of winning the maglia rosa but they were still going to shake things up. De Vlaeminck bounced back on the fourth stage and took the stage win. And again on the sixth stage. On the eight day he rested (as did the whole Giro) and the next day sent his team-mate Marcello Osler up the road for a long one. After being away for 160 kilometres Osler rolled into Sorrento nine minutes up on the day.

The next day it was again the bubblegum boys having fun off the front of the race, De Vlaeminck himself breaking away with two others - Javier Elorriaga (KAS) and Enrico Paolini (SCIC) - and staying away until the finish in Frosinone. Alas, alack and all that, while the Belgian and the Spaniard had done all the spade work, it was the Italian who took the stage, having allowed the other two to tow him along and then buggering off before the Gypsy could unleash his sprint.

Paolini was clearly puffed up after his little exploit and again tried to escape the next day. Each time he tried to launch himself off the front of the peloton De Vlaeminck personally brought him back. You get the feeling that the Belgian was a little bit pissed off at the profiteur's behaviour the day before? When a beak did get away it didn't contain Paolini. But it did contain the Gypsy. Kerching! Stage win number four for the Gypsy.

Two years before, in 1973, Merckx had romped home to overall victory with six stage wins under his wheels. Only half of Alfredo Binda's haul of twelve in 1927 but still an impressive tally. La Gazzetta dello Sport's Rino Negri wondered if De Vlaeminck could better Merckx' total. Seven stage wins? De Vlaeminck asked rhetorically. No. Not possible. Negri decided to incentivise him. Would 100,000 lire make it possible? The Gypsy, a man who liked to gamble, shook Negri's hand. You're probably wondering what Negri was up to, encouraging yet another of the stranieri to pillage the corsa rosa. Me, I'm wondering how the hell you put a thing like that down on expenses and get away with it. (Sorry, it's my inner accountant, I just can't keep the bugger down.) The next day the Gypsy extended his tally of stage wins out to five.

Negri, of course, didn't care if the stranieri won the stages. Because up at the pointy end of the race Torriani's epic gamble for a final day showdown on the Stelvio was looking like it might just come off. Francisco Galdós (KAS) was in the pink but and Giovanni Battaglin was close enough to almost touch it. And his Jolly Ceramica gregario, Fausto Bertoglio, was barrelling up quick on the blindside. After five years in which the final maglia rosa had gone home to Belgium or Sweden (yes, Sweden - Gösta Petterson won in Merckx's absence in 1971), the Italians actually had a chance - two of them - of winning their own race. And this time those two chances weren't slim and none. Nothing could go wrong now with Torriani's grand plan.

On the thirty-eight kilometre cronometro, which followed another stage won by the Brooklyn boys, Sercu again, bringing their tally so far to eight, Battaglin - taking advantage of the slipstream of his police out-rider - landed in the maglia rosa, which the inept Galdós had effectively vacated by crashing at the start of the crono. And you wonder why people back then said the Spaniards didn't know how to ride?

The next stage was another race against the clock, this time a cronoscalta. At the top of Monte Ciocco the Gods laughed long and loud: the leader lost nearly two minutes to his water-carrier and the gregario, Bertoglio held the maglia rosa by six seconds over his boss, Battaglin. Battaglin proclaimed his own seniority to the massed media. But his own direttore sportivo didn't seem to be listening. He said the Jolly Ceramicas would now take a two-leaders approach. Bertoglio's maglia rosa would be defended. Battaglin was not a happy camper on hearing this. Would you be if you were asked - told - to play gregario di lusso to your own gregario?

The next stage came and Battaglian was having a giornato no. Felice Gimondo - the two-time Giro winner and one of the men who had suffered (or, as time moves on, gained) most riding in Merckx's shadow - was quick to notice his compatriot's off day. He himself was just three minutes off the maglia rosa. The race was tootling though the hills of Liguria. Time to make mischief. Ten minutes were stuffed into Battaglin at the day's end. Down and out. Bertoglio now had a two-minute cushion over Galdós and Jolly Cermica were back to having just one protected rider.

The 1975 Giro was now drawing to its close. The Gypsy - whose team-mates Sercu and Wladimiro Panizza knocked off another two stages in the final week - still needed to take another stage win to equal Merckx's tally and another after that if he wanted to relieve La Gazzetta's Rino Negri of the weight of 100,000 lire. On Monte Bondone, four days from home, the Gypsy equalled Merckx and surprised everyone. Suddenly people had to look back to that third stage north of Rome when he'd lost four minutes through, he claimed, adjusting his saddle height. The words what and if leaped to lips and minds.

For the Spaniard, Galdós, to win the Giro he still had to close two minutes on Bertoglio. On the penultimate stage he claimed back more than half the two, closing to within forty-two seconds of the Italian as the race laboured over the Staulanza, the Santa Lucia, the Marmolada and the Pordoi before finishing in Alleghe. On the Pordoi Galdós slipped away with another rider. All Bertoglio could do was try to limit his losses. Galdós left the stage win to go to his breakaway companion. Roger de Vlaeminck. His seventh stage win. One more than Merckx. If you're wondering what he spent the 100,000 lire on, it wasn't the llama. That came years later.

The Gypsy wasn't the only man celebrating a gamble paying off. Vincenzo Torriani was also a happy camper. He'd gambled the house on a decisive finale and now the Stelvio was about to deliver. The snow ploughs had done their job and the stage was set, and now, in the shape of Bertoglio, he had a hero the home fans could cheer for.

It was eleven kilometres from the summit before the stage came alive. Galdós attacked. Only a few riders could hold his wheel. Bertoglio was one of the few. Five kilometres later and it was just Galdós and Bertoglio. Galdós kept attacking. Bertoglio kept closing. Bertoglio counter attacked. Galdós closed. Galdós attacked. Bertoglio closed. Nail-biting stuff. But, in the end, Galdós couldn't break the Italian. The Spaniard got the stage win. The Italian kept the maglia rosa. The Giro d'Italia was Italian once more. RAI fell back in love with their race and resumed live broadcasts the following year. Torriani was the real winner.

* * * * *

That's just one of the forty-one Giri tales are told in the second volume of The Story of the Giro d'Italia. The story above doesn't actually end with the return of RAI to the Giro. Roll on from 1975 and into 1976 and you have the tussle between Roger de Vlaeminck and Johan de Muynck over who was the leader of the Brooklyn boys, a tussle that helped deliver a third Giro victory to Felice Gimondi, a victory rooted back to the birth of the Giro and the era of Coppi: Gimondi was wearing the colours of Bianchi. Roll into 1977 and you have Freddy Maertens showing De Vlaeminck how it's really done, rattling off seven stage wins lickety-spit and only failing to challenge Binda's haul of a dozen because he broke his wrist and had to retire during a stage that took place on the Mugello race track, more used to four wheels than two. The race was little more than a week done at that stage.

At the end of the 1975 corsa rosa Bertoglio was at the high point of his career: he never scaled such heights again. Battaglin battled on and, in 1981, finally got his just deserts, a corsa rosa victory. That was the year his direttore sportivo, Davide Boifava, guided him to victory in the Vuelta a España as well as the Giro, with just three days separating the two Grand Tours.

In 1987 Boifava was again the direttore sportivo when Stephen Roche won the Giro, riding a Battaglin bike. Back in 1975 Battaglin and his Jolly Ceramica team-mates had been riding Pinarello's little ponies to their first Grand Tour success. From there the company built by Giovanni Pinarello - the man who won the maglia nera for being the last man home in the 1951 Giro - has gone from strength to strength.

Roll into ... well you may have got the point here already: these were the years when the Giro really built up a head of steam and galloped through some great races. Oh for sure, yeah, it were all a lot better when the dad were a lad, in the days of Girardengo and Binda and Coppi. It always is. But the seventies and the eighties produced some memorable races. And even the not very memorable ones weren't exactly dull.

And then, of course, there was the doping. That moment in the eternal pursuit race where the gap closed swiftly, not through better testing - though that did come later - but through the addition of extra participants to the chase. More so than the Tour the Giro has been damaged by a string of doping stories and a procession of victors who really should have been kicked out of this sport a long time ago. The McGann's don't shirk from telling this part of the story but, you know what, right now it's not something I'm going to bang on about. Maybe another day. And maybe that's one of the good things about volume two of The Story of the Giro d'Italia: if you want on bike-on-bike action, it's got it, aplenty. If you want the down and dirty on the seedier side of the sport, that's there too. Something for everyone.