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Interview: Bill McGann

Bill McGann pops into the Podium Café to talk about his two-volume history of the Giro d'Italia.

Three for a penny
Three for a penny

Podium Café: The Story of the Giro d'Italia tells the story of every single edition of the Giro - that's a lot of work. I think you've said it was five years in the writing, is that right?

Bill McGann: Yes. It was a big job. And I write slowly.

The first Giro was in 1909 and between then and now there were derailleurs, Mussolini, 400-kilometer stages, snow, amphetamines, Costante Girardengo, Russians, water buffalo, tifosi, the Stelvio Pass and more; a lot of ground.

But work? I'm sure your readers are a lot like me. I'm a bike nut and have been since I was five years old. I was diving into a story that started with a trio of journalists who decided to launch the Giro d'Italia when they had trouble just making payroll for their newspaper, a completely insane idea.

Along the way I've had the pleasure of talking with champions like Freddy Maertens and Franco Bitossi as well gregari Celestino Vercelli and Jac van Meer. It was pure fun from the gun and stayed that way to the end. I hope the joy of the sport shows in the book.

The Story of the Giro d'Italia, Volume 1, by Bill McGann

PdC: Volume one of The Story of the Giro d'Italia took the story up to mid-way through the Merckx era. While I imagine the research for this part was hardest, in some ways telling the story is easier because so much of it is grounded in the stories of the campionissimi. You can take your time drawing the portraits of Binda and Bartali and Coppi, because they had such long careers. You have time to build up a story of the riders, yes?

BMG: That is the frustrating part of telling a tale that will be on its 96th chapter this May. One is faced with either going deep into the careers of every important protagonist and felling all the forests of Norway to print enough pages or setting limits.

The early champions are fascinating. Girardengo's anger cost him at least one Giro. Coppi's morose complexity belied his stone-cold approach to the business of professional racing. Bartali was supremely human. In him resided an easy willingness to welsh on deals and selfishly force Yellow Jersey'd Fiorenzo Magni to quit the Tour de France alongside overt piety and undeniable courage.

The Story of the Giro d'Italia, Volume Two, by Bill McGann

PdC: After the campionissimi came a few decades of shooting stars - Magni, Nencini, Baldini, Pambianco, Balmamion, Adorni, Motta, Gimondi and so forth. Good riders in their own right, but passing quickly. I'm guessing it's harder to tell these stories as almost every year you have to introduce new major character to the story?

BMG: Although I tried to make each year's race the story, the more a reader knows about the protagonists, the more sense each edition of the race makes.

I especially wish I could have given Magni more space. He was one of cycling's most complete riders. He possessed a superb engine and could simply bludgeon his opponents into submission. Yet, it might be said, he won the 1951 Giro by virtue of his excellent bike handling and raw courage. His 1955 Giro victory was the result of astonishing tactical and strategic savvy (and raw horsepower). Plus, he re-shaped cycling's economics by being the first major rider to seek an extra-sportif sponsor when the post-war bike boom slowed and bike makers had trouble affording their teams. Add in Magni's membership in a fascist militia and you have a fascinating man with a lot a gray around the edges of his life.

PdC: If you could expand the story of just one Giro into full book length, which one would it be? Actually, seeing as you have two volumes to The Story of the Giro d'Italia, pick two, one from each half of the story.

BMG: From Volume One, I would choose 1939, the great duel between Gino Bartali and Giovanni Valetti.

Giro d'Italia, 1939, Valetti on the Ghisallo

I think it was historian Liddell-Hart who said that, in all military history, there has been only one battle fought between good generals on even ground with evenly balanced forces: the battle of Zama, between the Roman Scipio Africanus and Carthaginian Hannibal (Scipio won). I think such balanced meetings in grand tours are nearly as rare but in 1939 Giro fans got to watch such a superb duel.

Because the Italian government wanted Bartali to concentrate on the Tour de France, he did not ride the 1938 Giro and Valetti, who is unjustly forgotten today, had the race almost to himself. But in 1939 the two met. Both were in superb condition and rode for top teams. Both competed like the champions they were. After Valetti had the race in the bag Bartali was still punching.

There is a political overlay. Valetti was a member of the Young Fascists which the devoutly Catholic Bartali wouldn't join, being a member of Catholic Action. There are hints Bartali's race might have sabotaged by Mussolini's domestic spy agency.

Were Valetti and Bartali, duelling for athletic supremacy in one of the world's great races, also unknowing proxies of the Fascists and the Catholic Church?

PdC: And the second?

BMG: From Volume Two? The long list would include three:

1976, Gimondi's win over Johan de Muynck. Poisonous Brooklyn team politics left de Muynck without support. He lost to Gimondi by only 19 seconds.

1987, Stephen Roche's rebellion led to his winning the Giro, the first step of his magical Giro-Tour-Worlds year.

And my choice, 1984, Francesco Moser's win over Laurent Fignon. Frenchman Fignon had to face not only determined and capable opposition in Francesco Moser, there were hostile tifosi who would push Italians and hinder foreigners in the hills. Also, Fignon had another opponent, Giro boss Vincenzo Torriani, who wanted quality foreign riders to come to the Giro and lose to Italians.

Fignon argued that besides cancelling an ascent of the Stelvio to favour the poorer climbing Moser, the television helicopter flew in front of him and behind Moser during the final time trial, slowing the Frenchman and helping Moser. Moser says Fignon's arguments are too stupid to be worth discussing.

The complexity and ambiguity screams for treatment in depth.

Crowds at the end of the 1984 Giro d'Italia

PdC: Americans and the Giro. From Robin Morton's first foray to Andy Hampsten's victory, that was just the blink of an eye. But ever since ... well, what happened after Hampsten, where did they all the Americans go?

BMG: Except for a few gifted riders, I don't think they were ever really there in number. LeMond remains the last American winner of the Tour and no American has won the Giro since Hampsten.

I think the proximate cause of that pair becoming racers was the great American bike boom. I remember racing in the late 1970s in southern California. The junior field was so huge that often the field would be halved and two junior races would be run. Today the US is currently number twelve in the UCI rankings, between Ireland and Poland, with fewer than half Colombia's UCI World Tour points. Attaining the commanding heights of cycling requires a huge talent pool so that the Greg LeMonds and Andy Hampstens can pop up more regularly.

When I owned Torelli Imports, every fall I would have the usual disheartening argument with my Italian suppliers, who told me I had not been selling enough of their product. I would be taken to a map and with a grand wave across the US, I would be told, "America is a very big country." Every year I would give the same reply. "There were more registered bike racers in Veneto (the region around Venice) than in all the USA". I don't know if it still true today but it was then.

PdC: Deals feature heavily in the history of the Giro, offers of cash in exchange for victory. This is a complex area, I know, because while we condemn doping we tend to have much loser morals around deals, knowing that, no matter how much money you pay, you can't exactly buy a bike race, you can only load the dice in your favour: you still have to burst your balls to win. When it comes to the Giro, my view is that deals feature heavily, be it the organisers favouring a local hero or someone being bought off to let another one. But is it that such deals are more prevalent in the Giro's history - than, say, in the Tour - or just that they're talked about more?

BMG: I just don't know. I believe buying and selling help to win races is standard operating procedure. It's just as you say and has been told to me over and over by pros: you cannot buy a race from a rider who thinks he has a good chance to win, but you can purchase the assistance of a rider who doesn't have enough suds to win, but can still affect the outcome.

Here's an example. In the 1973 Tour of Flanders the winning break had Freddy Maertens, Eddy Merckx, Willy de Geest and Eric Leman. Maertens wanted to pay De Geest $600 to lead him out but Maertens' manager Briek Schotte was too tight-fisted and preferred to keep the $600 rather than win De Ronde. De Geest's manager, Lomme Driessens, wanted this transaction to happen as well because he wanted to keep Merckx from winning. Everyone knew the drill and no one in the drama was shocked. It was just normal business. By the way, Leman won Flanders in 1973 for the third time.

PdC: Doping. I think you pulled off a difficult task pretty well in volume two of The Story of the Giro d'Italia, the way you handle the doping issue, not sweeping it under the carpet or taking a bucket of white-wash to it, but not letting it destroy the race either. You cover it in some detail but still manage to stick to your original objective of writing histories of each race. How difficult was it to find the right balance?

BMG: It was easy to let my anger carry me away, and in my first draft there was too much about doping. Since I was writing a history of the Giro, not of drugs, I cut the doping history that didn't help explain what was going on in the Giro.

Yet I hope I also made clear that doping alters sport. Cycle racing should a test of genetic athletic gifts, including being willing to train and suffer, staying lucid in difficult moments, understanding the sport both tactically and strategically and being able to act on that knowledge. Because bodies react differently to drugs we've had unfortunate outcomes. Lance Armstrong, a man who had been an indifferent time trialist and climber before he doped, won seven Tours de France. A decent-enough domestique like Bjarne Riis dropped the finest riders in the world like they were stones. And for a year Marco Pantani was the finest bike racer in the world. None of those things should have happened.

PdC: One specific doping scandal, a mystery that's up there with the death of Ottavio Bottecchia: Savona. Do you think the truth will ever be told?

BMG: I don't think we can know.

Dope testing was in its infancy. A lot of the safeguards of chain of custody that are normal today were not in force, and the ones that should have been followed seemed to have been ignored, making the whole episode stink. And since Merckx's sample was given to an Italian sportswriter who claims to have forgotten what he did with it (one of the most important and dramatic days in Giro history and he can't remember?), control of the narrative is and will remain advantage Merckx.

PdC: Something you've done which I like is to put some of the original interviews you've done for the book online, at It's a publishing version of DVD extras, the outtakes and alternative scenes. For people who haven't looked yet, what sort of stories are available there?

BMG: Besides my oral history project, which goes beyond book-research interviews, I've got thousands of cycling photos posted, results for every stage of every edition of the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia as well as complete results for every edition of Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.

In addition, Owen Mulholland has let me post dozens of his short cycling biographies and essays. Hunter Allen, owner of Peaks Coaching, sends me a new training essay every month. I've even posted bikeracer-proof recipes for healthy Italian food. There are over 2,000 pages of content on the site now.

PdC: You've done the Tour, you've done the Giro. Others have done the Vuelta a España, saving you the need to learn Spanish. What's next?

BMG:Well regarding the Giro history, we'll be releasing an audiobook version of Volume One shortly, read by Wyntner Woody. Check on in the next few days, but it will also be available on Amazon, iTunes and very soon.

Les Woodland, Paris-Roubaix, The Inside StoryWe've recently released a terrific new book by Les Woodland, Paris Roubaix: The Inside Story. He's currently working on a companion volume, about the Ronde Van Vlaanderen (the Tour of Flanders). I'm sure it'll be ready for next spring.

We're also going to re-release Peter Joffre Nye's groundbreaking history of American cycling, Hearts of Lions.

I'm working on my next book, Why Your Bike is Made in Asia, the story of my life in the bike trade. It won't be ready for a couple of years. I write slowly.

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You'll find reviews of Bill McGann's The Story of the Giro d'Italia Volume 1 and The Story of the Giro d'Italia Volume 2 on the Café Bookshelf.