Roberto Visentini has his name in the roll of honor of the Giro d'Italia, and was no one-off champion. Well, technically that's exactly what he was, but the circumstances of his career are something else entirely. Visentini, from Riva del Gardia east of Milan, between the hearts of Lombardia and Trento cycling paradise, was a junior world champion on the road and in time trials as an amateur. As a pro he quickly won two Vuelta stages and the Giro del Trentino. His ability to climb and time trial meant that he was ticketed for success.
In the '85 Giro, Visentini took his first maglia rosa on stage 4 when he joined a group of top climbers, including Marino Lejarreta, Bernard Hinault and the beautifully-named Gianbattista Baronchelli, on an escape in the Dolomites that left recent Giro stars Giuseppe Saronni and Francesco Moser on the defensive. It was an early dose of mountains, with later stages in the higher Appennines and French Alps, and with the La Vie Claire team loaded with stars (Hinault had LeMond working behind him) and watercarriers hammering away, it was a dangerous situation to be in the lead. Visentini hung on to the lead through stage 12, when Hinault wrested it from him in a time trial. It should be noted that Visentini kicked off (or maybe continued?) a pattern of saying things that could paint him in a bad light, saying that Hinault was not the Badger of old. Probably correct, but since he went on to win the Giro-Tour double that year, it's probably not worth debating just how good Hinault was compared to 1978. Anyway, Visentini eventually fell ill and didn't make it to the finish in Lucca, abandoning on a rather legendary stage over the Grand St Bernard. [Or should have been legendary. The Giro had a bad habit of lopping the tops off mountain stages during the era of Saronni and Moser.]
A year later, however, it was the Bresciano's turn to shine. Creeping up the standings in a Giro loaded with time trials (a total of four, including three ITTs), Visentini joined LeMond on an attack up the Passo San Marco, draped in snow, after LeMond threw a fit about the potential removal of the climb from stage 16 -- which would have benefited Saronni and Moser once again. LeMond not only won the argument but the stage as well, with Visentini just 20 seconds behind the America and Pedro Munoz, in time to take the maglia rosa. Moser screamed bloody murder that his teammate Baronchelli had helped Visentini (Baronchelli went home the next day with "stomach problems"), and while the Sheriff took back some time on the next day's ITT, Visentini easily defended his lead in the Dolomites to defeat Saronni and Moser by north of one and two minutes, respectively.
This was a dramatic victory. The race began with two legendary Italian champions, one of whom very much liked the idea of a parcours with four cronos, and a soon-to-be-great LeMond, and yet it was Visentini who prevailed, with a mix of strong time trialling and climbing. So at the start in 1987, with LeMond and Moser both injured, the conventional wisdom coalesced around the defending winner to take a second title. What unfolded, however, is pure legend. You know it well, I am sure -- the 1987 Giro was won by Stephen Roche despite the efforts of his Carrera team, giving the race its first Irish winner and launching Roche toward a treble of rarest quality: the Giro-Tour-Worlds triumph of triumphs. Roche comes from the English-speaking world, and his story is loaded with its own merit. But just this once, let's review Visentini's side of things.
As told by the McGanns, the pre-Giro atmosphere favored Roche's side of things. The two riders disliked each other to begin with, and the team prevaricated as to who the leader was, thanks to a poor spring campaign by Visentini and a strong one by Roche. Also, Visentini's pleas for Roche's help were couched as a bargain whereby the Italian would help Roche at the Tour -- but Roche knew that Visentini had already planned a vacation in July. So Visentini's assumption that as a returning Giro winner on an Italian team meant that he had full control was not without some legitimate caveats.
Still, Visentini WAS an Italian Giro winner defending his crown for an Italian team. Is there any history of Italian teams ditching a healthy defending native son Giro winner for a foreigner? Moreover, Visentini came good at the race: he won the prologue, ditched the race lead the next day (though eventually Roche took over), and then regained it in the 13th stage ITT up Monte Titano, with Roche on a terrible day and conceding 2.30.
At the start of stage 15, one of the most unforgettable days in Giro history, Visentini was leading Roche (then in second) by 2.42, and the team's closest threats were Tony Rominger at 3.12 and Erik Breukink at 3.30. Roche attacked on the descent off the first of three major climbs, got separation with Rominger and Breukink, among others, and while he didn't win the stage he did put six minutes into his teammate. By the end of it, recriminations and all, Roche led the Giro by five seconds over Rominger, while Visentini had fallen apart after his team melted away on the final climb to Sappada and the Maglia Rosa had to chase his teammate by himself. [For more read this incredibly detailed article by fmk from our archives.]
Davide Boifava, the Carrera team manager, pointed out the insanity of such a move, saying that the team had led Rominger by more than three minutes and now only led by five seconds. The team screamed at Roche to stop riding on the stage, because that's what any rational team director would have done. Had they worked to defend Visentini's advantage, it probably would have gone swimmingly, and if not, then Roche sitting in second was their next card to play, from a position of strength. But Roche's antics had cost him time to Rominger and Breukink, and had only damaged Visentini. To this day a bitter Visentini calls the move "indefensible" and he's right.
But there's a moment in Shogun, one of my favorite books, where the Samurai leader is explaining the warrior code to the English hero, in particular how rebellion against your master is an unforgivable sin, only for Blackthorne to interject "unless you win!" And fortunately for almost everyone involved, Roche did win, nursing a handful of seconds into a three minute advantage after the final ITT. He continued his rampage through the sport, earning more glory in a single season than Visentini accumulated in a lifetime of racing. If you believe the adage that all attention is good, well, the Giro got more attention than ever, in real time and ever since, something that surely would not have been the case with a ho-hum Visentini triumph. Even Carrera benefited; their jerseys still fetch a fair price online.
Visentini's demise was probably inevitable, and part of life. To be a champion you have to beat the other champions, and when those guys come at you with a ferocious desire and ambition to win, you can't melt away like Visentini did. He never won another meaningful race and retired to operate the family funeral home, in a twist of fate you couldn't make up.