Sweden, not being one of the worlds biggest cycling countries, hasn't produced the greatest number of stars. The one who shone most bright may have been one of the all time greats had he not been born way too far north and in a country that barely recognized pro cycling for what it was. This is the story of the odd winner of the 1971 Giro d'Italia.
Gösta Pettersson was a man who came late to many things in cycling. He didn't find the sport until he was 18 years old but once he started he was almost instantly a star. Throughout the sixties Gösta and his three brothers Sture, Tomas and Erik dominated Swedish cycling and had fantastic results on the international amateur scene. This was a time when it was by no means an absolute goal for Swedish athletes to pursue professional careers. Olympics were for amateurs and there were World Championships and major races for amateur cyclists to focus on. The Fåglum brothers, as they were to be known in Sweden because they hailed from the village Fåglum, were an awesome force in the 100 km Team Timetrial. This brutal sounding event was a steady fixture at the time, an Olympic and World Championships event. The brothers were to take three Worlds titles and one Olympic silver and a bronze in the late sixties along with a bunch of other big wins.
Gösta was the clearly most talented of the four, an allrounder who could climb as well as he could timetrial. The offers to become pros were always there but the Fåglums were small town boys and already at this time the pro cycling scene had a bit of a reputation and the brothers were apparently intimidated by the stories of drug use and other practices that seemed unthinkable to young blue eyed Swedes. In the end though the lure was too strong and the brothers turned pro with the Ferretti team in 1970. At this point Gösta was 30 years old and at the peak of his powers.
His "neo-pro" year in 1970 was quite something with a win in the Tour of Romandie, a sixth place overall in the Giro d'Italia and a third place overall in the Tour de France behind an extraterrestrial Eddy Merckx and Joop Zoetemelk. Of course this was no blushing 20yo but a man at the very peak of his career but those are still remarkable results.
Then came 1971 and a Giro that was without the great Eddy. To what was probably the organizer's delight he would instead focus on the Tour de France that year and that left the door open for some of the home favorites Felice Gimondi and Gianni Motta. Unfortunately (for Italy) the two were not only team mates but also mortal enemies as Herbie Sykes explains in his "Maglia Rosa" history of the Giro. With those two busy stabbing each other in the back the path to victory was open for Pettersson who was probably much stronger than he himself realized. He had to be pronged into attacking by his DS Alfredo Martini in the late mountainstages in the Dolomites and took a comfortable enough lead going into the final day timetrial in Milano. Pettersson won the race the unglamorous way, without winning any stages along the way. Much of this may have been down to him being conservative and unknowing of his own abilities but it was also down to being without significant support from his team at the crucial stages. It was a basically a one-man-show. An un-spectacular win by another non-Italian might not have been what the organizers dreamed of but it was a performance that commanded the respect of his competitors in the race.
Final stage TT in 1971 with Gösta Pettersson winning in the Vigorelli velodrome
The 1971 win was pretty much the pinnacle of Petterssons career. He would stay professional until 1974 but he would never reach the same levels again. He took a Giro stage win in 1972 and another two Top 10 overall Giro finishes along with a bunch of respectable results. But much like Cadel Evans in our time, Gösta Pettersson's big breakthrough win came so late in his career that the years were starting to take its toll. Sweden would have to wait another ten years to see a Swede on the podium of the Giro when Tommy Prim would finish second twice in 1981 and 1982.
What Gösta "Fåglum" Pettersson's palmares would have looked like had he turned pro at a "normal" age we will never know. He had the kind of recovery and overall abilities that he was a natural Grand Tour rider, something that he hadn't really been able to exploit fully in the type of races on the amateur circuit. Also he was one of the "lucky" ones whose career coincided with the prime of Eddy Merckx. This was a time when many honorable second places were on offer for the rest of the field. But in 1971, no one could stop the shy powerhouse from Sweden to win the most beautiful race in the world.