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Heroes of the Tour de Suisse: Pasquale Fornara

Fornara leads Bobet in the Tour de France
Fornara leads Bobet in the Tour de France
Keystone/Getty

Switzerland has given cycling many great heroes. Ferdi Kubler and Hugo Koblet won consecutive Tours de France in 1950-51 -- with Koblet winning the Giro d'Italia in 1950, giving the Swiss a national "double" and giving the Giro its first foreign winner. Heiri Suter was the first foreigner to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and a current Swiss rider (take one guess) shares the record for most wins. Suter also won Paris-Roubaix in the same year, 1923, making him the first rider to do that Double. So of course the Tour de Suisse record-holder is... an Italian.

Today's Hero of the Tour de Suisse is that very Italian, Pasquale Fornara, the race's only four-time winner.

Fornara raced in a most heroic era, that of Kubler and Koblet, of Coppi and (late-career) Bartali, of Geminiani and a long list of Italian challengers like Nencini and De Filippis. He raced against all of them, and occasionally prevailed. The high point of his career is undoubtedly fourth place at the 1954 Tour de France, where he was just edged off the podium by Charly Gaul, behind winner Louison Bobet and runner-up Jean Brankart. Or maybe it was third in the 1953 Giro, a mere 6.55 behind Coppi and a bit less off the pace of Koblet, sporting the mountains jersey to boot. That was a good haul for Fornara. He also took a stage win in Rimini, though it pales next to his Giro stage win in 1952 from Cuneo to Saint-Vincent in France (and thus almost certainly involving high alpine passes). This is the story of a man operating at the highest levels, albeit just in the shadow of the giants.

Ah, but once he crossed over into Switzerland, he was in nobody's shadow. Born in Borgomanero, north of Turin, Fornara crossed the nearby Swiss border with ease throughout his professional career. He split his team duties between Cilo in Switzerland and a variety of Italian teams, chiefly Bottecchia, back when you could do such things at the top level. This gave him the platform to go for the win in the Tour de Suisse, which he did on six occasions, all wins after his debut in 1950 and sophomore year in '51.

His breakthrough win in 1952 came at the expense of both Kubler -- the defending winner -- and Koblet -- who would finish second to Fornara by 4.57, and then win the following year. He dominated all comers in the mountain time trial at Crans, putting 3+ minutes into Kubler and Martin Metzger, and won a mountain stage at Locarno to seal the deal. He returned in '54 when he left the pack behind by more than three minutes (well, 2.54 and up), including il Campionissimo more than five minutes back. In '57 he eeked out a narrower win, again using the cronoscalata as his launch pad. And Fornara put his final stamp on the race -- the one which survives to this day, the elusive fourth victory -- by a dominating 7.06 over German Hans Junkermann, a huge number for a one-week tour. And before you say "who?" Junkermann went on to two TdS wins of his own, and was a mere 24 when he lost to Fornara.

But if history doesn't remember his wins, it will definitely have trouble forgetting a few of his losses. There was the day he summited the Colle delle Fugazze with Koblet and nobody else. There was 1953, when he wore the maglia rosa for a few days in the middle of the race, amidst an epic Koblet-Coppi war. But there was nothing like the day, sixty years ago last week, June 9, 1956.


Giro d' Italia 1956: Charly Gaul en Monte Bondone by KendraFoster

The Giro d'Italia headed into the Dolomites for its climactic phase, and none other than Fornara wore the maglia rosa as the race departed Merano into grey skies and dropping temperatures. As the race passed over mountain after mountain, conditions got ever worse, and by Brocon pass riders' brakes were locking up and snow fell. Fornara abandoned the race, heading into a farmhouse to warm up from what must have been excruciating misery. You don't let go of the pink unless you have no choice. Charly Gaul famously hung in there and won the stage, and the Giro. Second overall was Fiorenzo Magni, he of a twice-broken collarbone, who hung in to the finish on Monte Bondone, apparently because life couldn't get any worse for him than it already had. Two days later the Giro made it home safely to Milan, without Fornara.

Thus, I give you a secondary legend, a rider who was greatest in the next cut of stage races, and who at least hung around to take part in some of the sport's most memorable days. Fornara died at age 65, in 1990, back in Borgomanero, not far from his fertile Swiss grounds.