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The Myth of the Puncheurs’ Giro

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Is there a third way to win the Giro d’Italia? Um, no

Damiano Cunego celebrating his 2004 win
Corbis via Getty Images

There have been a few popular notions out there about Giro d’Italia courses which hold that on occasion the race has been tilted away from the usual suspects to allow a non-traditional contender to win. The traditional contenders are, of course, 1. the climbers; and 1a. the time trial specialists. So when someone outside that description has previously won the Giro, we have been tempted to call the course something outside the norm and favoring the Puncheurs, or classics-type riders, guys who can climb pretty well for a little while and do other things to gain notoriety, but not really taken seriously on the longest, highest ascents. Has the Giro ever gotten rid of the big climbs and laid out a Puncheurs’ race? I’d say the answer is surely yes... but not for quite a while, to the point where we might have seen the last of the Puncheurs’ Giri.

[If this is such a non-story, then why am I posting about it? Because the Puncheurs’ Giro is synonymous with subterfuge. Tilting the race in the direction of a particular rider is the goal of many an infamous character, and when it goes all the way to the race director, well, now you’re really onto a good story.

Dialing back just a bit, there are two races most people would agree were Puncheurs’ races, in that they simply eliminated high-mountain climbing in favor of something else, usually with an Italian accent. By 1983, cycling was firmly in the hands of Bernard Hinault and his Renault team, and within a few months that point would be driven home by the sport’s next great champion, Laurent Fignon. But while Italians couldn’t quite keep up in the greatest climbs, they had a few charismatic riders of their own, principally reigning World Champion Giuseppe Saronni and former Rainbow winner, along with so many other distinguished moments, the Sheriff himself, Francesco Moser. Giro director Vincenzo Torriani knew that a race featuring one or both of these guys would be a smash hit at home, which was enough in the time before DARPANet.

But Saronni was the definition of a puncheur (with a nice sprint at the end), not a true climber. And Moser wasn’t known to climb anything much higher than the Poggio. A traditional course where fortunes would be made and lost on the Mortirolo, Gavia, Zoncolan, Finestre, Stelvio, you name it... that would not do. So we give you the two classic Punchers’ Giri: 1983 and 1984.

In Bill and Carol McGann’s The Story of the Giro d’Italia, they describe the 1983 course as the least challenging race of the post-war era up to that point. The average speed eclipsed the 1957 Giro,* which was known as the fastest race on record. The only classic climbers’ stage was the 20th stage , over the Pordoi, Sella, Gardena and Campolongo passes — solid climbs but not endlessly long. The previous day was also spent in the Dolomites but on strangely mild gradients, considering the nearby roads that would have produced a much more challenging stage.

[* The 1957 Giro was won by Gastone Nencini, the Lion of Mugello, thanks as much to his pure power and descending skills which were described as not to be followed unless you have a death wish. It was Nencini whom Roger Riviere was in pursuit of when he crashed over a wall and broke his back.]

Moser was not a factor in 1983, but Saronni certainly was, taking the maglia rosa on stage 7 and holding it to the end. The 20th stage saw him more or less ceding the jersey to Roberto Visentini as the latter strode away up the Pordoi, but eventually Visentini tired and Saronni regained much of his lost time on the descents, with a mere 29 seconds separating them at the line. Saronni would go on to win by 1.07, even after Visentini crushed the final-day time trial. The quality of his victory is captured by the lack of climbing... and the fact that Saronni picked up some 3.20 in time bonuses, two minutes more than Visentini earned. There’s your Giro right there: the winner was the guy who could sprint for stages.

AFP/Getty Images

As objectionable as the 1983 course was, Torriani doubled down to create his scurrilous masterpiece in 1984. But instead of having another Giro hijacked by Saronni and his time bonuses, Torriani created a time-trial marathon, with a total of 140km against the watch, to capitalize on Moser’s World Hour Record and general prowess on power stages. The Hour Record held tremendous cachet back then, and when Moser topped Eddy Merckx’s record in Mexico City in January, 1984, it was big news. So padding the ‘84 Giro with ITT mileage was sure to keep the Sheriff hanging around the headlines.

Still, it’s important not to exaggerate the story. Fignon was on hand as the defending Tour champion, and he certainly knew how to ride an ITT. He also had the strongest team, and 55 of those 140km were team time trial miles. Finally, while the climbing stages puttered around the Pordoi and the Blockhaus before the conclusion, that main event was scheduled for the Stelvio. No non-climber can win on the Stelvio.

Then things got weird. Moser won the ITT, then lost to Fignon in the TTT, but instead of taking real times they just used bonus times, and Fignon’s 2.30 bonus was a mere 20” better than Moser’s team’s 2.10 deduction. Next, Fignon should have slaughtered the Sheriff on the Blockhaus, but he got a hunger knock and faltered, losing time. Now is probably a good time to point out that Moser had mastered the use of blood bags, which was not prohibited at the time. So his surprising climb of the Blockhaus where he lost the sage by 2” to Moreno Argentin is maybe not so surprising in hindsight.

From there, Moser bounced Visentini and Fignon in the next ITT, by 53 and 88 seconds, pretty much establishing his GC lead over the respective challengers (and Argentin, tied with Fignon). Things tightened from there, but just prior to stage 18 word came down that the Stelvio would not be passable. This put the high point at the not-very-high (but quite lovely) Pordoi for the second straight year. Controversy raged over how impassable the Stelvio was, with some reports that a day earlier it was considered ready. The McCanns report that Torriani urged the race to continue over the pass, but supposedly a government official (rumored to be from Moser’s home region) closed the pass and rerouted the race. Le Velo published photos of the pass, which looked quite passable. Visentini quit in disgust. Fignon tried to use what was left of the stage to get away, but Moser’s descending nullified his efforts.

Then the shit hit the fan. Numerous allegations of people pushing Moser surfaced, but no penalty was issued... except to Fignon, who was docked 20 seconds for a feed outside the zone. Finally, on the Pordoi stage, the 20th of 22, Fignon dropped Moser and took the maglia rosa by 1.31, but another 42km of crono remained on the final day. Moser got on his Hour Record bike and crushed Fignon by 2.24 to win the Giro.

Moser on his special aero bike, in Mexico City
AFP/Getty Images

Fignon, not the most gracious loser, then alleged that the TV copter flew in front of him throughout the race, impeding his progress, while it flew behind Moser, giving him a push. Moser calls the allegations “stupid” and his other ITT results suggest he was simply superior in the discipline. And that’s before we talk about blood bags. Moser probably was the strongest rider in the race, even if the why of it isn’t as fun to discuss.

So yes, these could be called Puncheurs’ races. But since then, the only suspicious winners (in terms of traditional skills) would be Damiano Cunego in 2004 and Danilo Di Luca in 2007. Apart from them, the Giro winners since the mid-80s have been strong climbers with the occasional cronoman seizing the prize. Except these two.

Di Luca was clearly another Puncheur, having entered the conversation off his Ardennes classic success. Il Killer di Spoltore (God I love Italian cycling nicknames) had a long string of DNFs to his name prior to the 2005 Giro, when he “surprisingly” hung with the true climbers Gilberto Simoni and Jose Rujano as they dueled with good climber/better cronoman/best descender Paolo Savoldelli for supremacy. Di Luca finished fourth, and a few doping positives later we can guess as to why he was able to raise his performance in the high mountains. So when he won the entire Giro in 2007, it wasn’t out of nowhere.

Of course, it was mostly out of a lab, a point driven home when you look at the key stages and the work done by Leonardo Piepoli, Ricardo Ricco, and a few others, while Ivan Basso had been sent home by the anti-doping forces. But as far as this idea of stacking the deck in favor of a puncheur, this race looks a bit light but not entirely. There was a stage to Briançon, France, that came back together (and was won by Di Luca) after a descent to the finishing town. Then a climbing ITT to Oropa, hard but not that long. Then the Dolomite stages to Tre Cime di Lavaredo (total of four climbs), into Austria and back, and to Monte Zoncolan. Di Luca lost time on occasion, gained some back, and basically wasn’t at a disadvantage against Simoni (who was too far back), Eddy Mazzoleni, neo-Andy Schleck, and a host of other Italian middling talents. I wouldn’t call it a Puncheurs’ course so much as a mediocre and mostly-doped field.

Cunego, in his hideous Cannondale kit, readying his Montevergine win
AFP/Getty Images

That leaves 2004.

Somewhere along the way, the story of 2004 became Damiano Cunego poaching some early time and hanging on through the mountains against his teammate, the great climber Gilberto Simoni. Simoni has been known to manipulate a story or two, and never met a tactical grumble that he wouldn’t share with the press. But he was an unfairly maligned rider, hemming himself into political corners by insulting the likes of Lance Armstrong and Ivan Basso, for which we should be thanking him now.

Anyway, the Cunego-vs-Simoni polemics that defined the 2004 race look a bit silly in hindsight. Cunego did take control early on at Montevergine, a puncheurs’ climb compared to the Alps and Dolomites, but from there he hardly stole the race from the “pure climber,” nor did he benefit from a course that held the pure climbers back. He dueled with Simoni and others (Garzelli, Tonkov, not the greatest field frankly) over a four-climb Dolomites stage and a summit battle at Bormio. The final day of competition was over the Mortirolo, Vivione and Presolana climbs. Two of those three stages were won by Cunego, along with the earlier pair. Simoni simply wasn’t as strong.

[Simoni’s major beef with Cunego was the fact that he kept attacking him. He attacked the maglia rosa at Montevergine... and won, taking control of the race. Cunego also was part of a group that reeled in Simoni on the Bormio stage. Cunego then set too hard a tempo for Simoni, and eventually won the stage again, after which Simoni bitterly called him a bastard. Because the race leader is supposed to serve his teammate on a key climbing stage? Simoni should be someone we appreciate, but he did his best to prevent us. Really, the whole polemica that year was stupid.]

Cunego would never win another grand tour, which is partly maybe why we’ve (OK, I’ve) gone looking for clues as to why the ‘04 Giro was so suitable to his skills. Perhaps he was a rare breed of riders racing cleanly in those years; he was an early clean-sport advocate, then later indicted along with all of Lampre as part of the Mantova trials but acquitted for lack of evidence. The fact that he won a race in 2004 is its own indictment, but his failure to continue winning might argue to the counter. Cunego also won the white jersey at the Tour in 2006, and raced a brilliant Tour (considering his career) to sixth place in 2011. He was a very good climber, maybe not a great stage racer, but he got hot in the ‘04 Giro and stayed away from an undistinguished field.

By the way, the ‘04 Giro should be more memorable as the one where Alessandro Petacchi won nine sprints. Or where Pavel Tonkov finally won something and flipped off the world in response.

Tonkov with a very naughty response to his stage success
AFP/Getty Images

Ultimately, I think it’s safe to say we haven’t had a Puncheurs’ Giro since the Sheriff retired (along with 83-84, the 1986 course won on by Visentini was pretty topless). That was 30 years ago. We have had unusual winners at the Giro, but doping and international indifference were the main causes, and hopefully we are done with both of those. The Giro is the Almost-Tour now, or sometimes it’s really right there with the Tour, and if a middling climber ever wins again, it’ll probably be because of last minute stage cancellations from a big snowstorm, not because of the whims of the Giro’s course designers.