“Ours was a true rivalry”: Moser v Saronni

The infamous feud between two of Italy’s greats started in 1977.
Marco Pastonesi finds the quarrelsome duo still at loggerheads more than 40 years on

Francesco and Giuseppe, Franz and Beppe, Moser and Saronni. Two different things, opposites, contraries, antithetical, antagonistic, complementary. Two rivals, adversaries, nemeses, a pair that you couldn’t find if you were looking for them, a duo that you couldn’t even make up.

Rouleur: Kilometre zero. What are your roots?
Francesco Moser: Trentino, Val di Cembra, Palù di Giovo. Porphyry [a local rock], grapes and apples, mountain life, farming. Eleven brothers, four road racers; before me, there was Aldo, Enzo and Diego.

Giuseppe Saronni: Novara by birth, then only Lombardy, Buscate, San Lorenzo di Parabiago. The plains, the air of Milan, shoe factories, industrial civilisation. Roman father, an amateur cyclist. Two brothers: Antonio, a year
older, and Alberto, four years younger, both road and ’cross riders.

Away we go. What was your first bike?
Moser: It was a little one. I was five, still in kindergarten, and Aldo gave it to me. In those days, it was a privilege to have a bike, a luxury, almost an oddity. Few could afford it. After that, I always inherited bikes bigger than me. So big that you’d be pedalling sitting on the top tube. There were those who got trapped in there, and they’d end up with the chainring stamped into their legs, their skin, their flesh. I rode gravel roads around my town and in the valley below.

Related – The Wisdom of Ernesto Colnago

It was easy to puncture, and back then you couldn’t just fix it. I used to ride to school, a little out of pride, and a little out of necessity. Seven kilometres downhill, with the cold, and seven home, uphill, perhaps with the heat. I had an Atala racing bike. Back
then, there were only folders [for study papers], so I invented my own backpack: I went to a stationer, he put two straps on my folder so I could carry it on my back, and I was away.

Saronni: It was a bike prepared by Felice Branca, the mechanic for Learco Guerra’s team with Charly Gaul. He had a warehouse in Magnago, four kilometres from Buscate. I went there with Mario and Abramo Merlotti. And with that bike, and a red jersey with a blue stripe, I started riding.

When was your first race?
Moser: The fourth Sunday of July, 1969. The Trentino Regional Championship, in Caldara. I was 18 years old. I’d never raced before because my mum Cecilia wanted me to work in the fields, she needed extra hands. I punctured, stopped, changed the tyre —the apprenticeship I
had as a child came in handy —and won the mountains prize, the final part along the wine route from Trento to Bolzano, then finished fourth in the sprint.

Saronni: On 7 April 1970, the Youth Games. I was really young, not even 13 years old. I came third. There was Antonio Maspes [the seven-time track sprint world champion]. Apparently he said: ‘That kid has a gift from God in his legs.’ On another occasion, I was presented a prize by Alfredo Binda. Bruno Raschi, Deputy Director of Gazzetta dello Sport, was present at the ceremony and he said: ‘God wants Binda to bring you good luck, if he gives you some of his spirit you can become world champion one day.’ When I retired from racing, he remembered the remark and wrote: ‘More than a wish, that was a great prophecy.’

And the first victory? 

Moser: I came fourth in the first three races, and finally won the fourth. It was in Trentino: the Trofeo Pro Loco Caraveno, in the Val di Non, near where the Trofeo Melinda takes place these days. I did two-thirds of the race in the bunch and the last third alone, with the peloton pursuing me. It was August. That year I won another, the Italian Sport Centres Championship, in Velletri. It rained from the first to the last kilometre, and the group chased me there too. They got to within 50 metres, but they never caught me.

Saronni: Monza Park, the regional final of the Youth Games, with the chance of racing the national final in Rome. I came seventh, but the judge didn’t see me. After that, I went to the rookie category and won almost
everything. But they were only little races. For years I did everything: road, ’cross and track. The track in Busto Garolfo was poor, at least when compared to the Vigorelli or the Palazzo dello Sport. Eventually I went there too: sprint, pursuit, omnium. Great fun and a great school. It served me well.

When did you turn professional?
Moser: In 1968, I went to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo to see Eddy Merckx. Five years later, I was racing against him. In fact, 1973 was my first year as a professional, signing with Filotex. Aldo was also in the team. I was 21, he 39 and in his twentieth year as a professional. Aldo was important, perhaps decisive for my career. In 1969, when he returned home after finishing seventh in the Giro d’Italia, he told me: ‘You have to become a racer.’ And he gave me his bike. After that, I began training with him and Diego.

Saronni: In 1976 I was an amateur, doing two or three workouts a week and I raced the Montreal Olympics on the track. In 1977, I made my debut with the professionals on the road, with an exemption from the federation
because I was only 19 and a half years old. I wore the white jersey of Scic. My first race was 23 February, 1977, at the Trofeo Laigueglia: I came second behind the world champion Freddy Maertens. A month later, on 29 March, I took my first victory at the Trofeo Pantalica in Sicily. At the finish there was a slight climb, it seemed tailormade for me. I came first, Enrico Paolini was second and third was Francesco Moser.

Your great rivalry began that day—with a controversy

Moser: I was blocked by a police motorcycle.

Saronni: I would have won anyway.

Moser: Impossible to prove.

Saronni: I recognised that Moser was hindered, I took advantage and won.
Moser: I gave such a shoulder to the motorcycle that I knocked it down, but the race had already gone.

Saronni: I was a neo-pro, he was already a champion.

Moser: Saronni seemed to be just a track rider, but instead he had what it takes. But in the beginning there was no rivalry.

Saronni: The 1977 Worlds in San Cristóbal. Moser was the leader. And I was under orders from [team manager] Alfredo Martini. Even in the finale, when Moser had broken away with Dietrich Thurau and the rest were
attacking to take third place, I tried to close them down to protect it. Until along came Franco Bitossi: ‘Don’t worry, young man, you’ve already worked so hard, now it’s up to me.’ And so he came third. There were hierarchies to be respected.

Moser: In 1978, the rivalry was still only made of skirmishes. It was the year I won my first Paris-Roubaix, alone. Perhaps that was my best day: I was world champion, wearing the rainbow jersey. A day of the north: wind, rain, mud. I was good enough to do everything I wanted. Even fly.

Saronni: I was 20 years old, there was snow, it was a drama. I ended up under the car of my sports director. The 1978 Worlds at the Nürburgring. A three-man breakaway: me, Bernard Hinault and Jan Raas. The Belgians began to pull. That’s normal if you remember that there was an Italian, a Frenchman and a Dutchman in the lead. But it was said that it was Moser driving them on. So much so that, when they did catch us, at the front was Moser and Gerrie Knetemann.

Moser: The second place at the Worlds in 1978 at the Nürburgring in Germany, beaten by Knetemann in a two-man sprint: what an insult. And the second place at the ’77 Giro d’Italia was a joke as well, beaten by
Michel Pollentier. We know how he did it. [Pollentier’s reputation was ruined during the 1978 Tour de France when he was caught trying to cheat a doping test with a condom full of urine under his armpit.] But in 1980 I won Paris-Roubaix for the third consecutive time, which was special.

Saronni: The journalists asked me what I thought. I replied that Paris-Roubaix was a cyclo-cross race that should be abolished.

Moser: Such a thing had never been said. It was pandemonium.

Saronni: But two days after, I won the Flèche Wallonne.

Moser: Here it is, the dualism.

Saronni: The peak probably came at the 1981 Tirreno-Adriatico. Hinault attacked, we caught him and left him behind, then faced one another in the final sprint. It was no use: I was first, Moser second.

Moser: The day after, he declared that he was aiming for Milan-Sanremo. So I attacked and at the last moment, Saronni sprang from nowhere, won again and said: ‘Moser? I can beat him in slippers.’

Saronni: I said tennis shoes, not slippers.

Moser: By that stage, it was war. At the Italian Championships in Compiano, Saronni cut across the road. I said: ‘Go easy, you’ll make me crash.’

Saronni: I replied: ‘If you don’t know how to handle a bike…’

Moser: That sentence wound me up like a spring.

Saronni: I paid dearly for that remark. Moser won.

Moser: Sometimes I wondered if it was worth insulting each other like that. I used to think that the next day, when I had to return to the bunch and race.

Saronni: In those years, I remember the crowd on the streets. We pedalled and felt what the other one was saying.

Moser: The other riders complained: ‘The newspapers only write about you two. Something about us would be nice.’

Saronni: The season began with cyclo-cross and the Six-Day of Milan, then continued from Laigueglia to Lombardy. Ten months against one another. Armed. With pedals and words.

Moser: Rivalry only exists if the two opponents are up to it, in short, if in addition to the words, they’re both even stronger pedalling.

And the journalists?
Saronni: Sometimes journalists actually wrote less than they could have, but still, they’ve written so much. Beppe Conti would come to me: ‘Do you know what he said about you?’ And I’d take the bait and answer in kind.

Moser: They were always writing about us, however and wherever. At one Tirreno-Adriatico, the stage began with a ten-minute delay because of a protest from the peloton—the press were writing about us even when
someone else won.

Saronni: Beppe Conti was for Moser, Angelo Zomegnan was for me.

Even the photographers were divided.

There were those for me and those for Moser. Those for me refused to photograph Moser, and those for him wouldn’t photograph me. They’d rather take pictures of the sky or pretend that they missed the click.

As for the fans?

Saronni: The fans were lined up. Here or there.

Moser: Either for Moser or Saronni. There were a few who cheered for Gianbattista Baronchelli or Pierino Gavazzi, but they were in the minority.

Saronni: They sang outside the hotel.

Moser: Signs, banners, graffiti on the walls.

There was abuse too.

Abroad, they said that our rivalry was provincial.

But at that time the greatest cycling was Italian.

Ours was a true rivalry, sincere, authentic, not studied, not created, not artificial. We were too different in origin, character, style. And people took sides. We were not able to become friends, even when we retired.

And to think that you actually raced together as well.

Saronni: The Trofeo Baracchi [a two-man team time-trial]
in 1979.

Moser: The idea of pairs came from Mino Baracchi, the boss of the race. So it was him who put us together. But the idea came from a journalist, Mario Fossati.

Saronni: We had to find a day and a half before the race to test the course. Nothing. It was postponed to the day before, giving us time to at least try the changes. Nothing. We couldn’t even warm up together—we met right on the boardwalk at the start.

Moser: There was a Belgian pair, strong, but they slipped and fell.

Saronni: That day Moser killed me, maybe he wanted to break away on his own. In the end, I was so destroyed that I couldn’t even sit down.

Moser: He was so small that, even when he pulled, I took the wind.

Saronni: We gained on all the others. Half a minute, a minute, two minutes. And he kept going like a motorbike. I asked him: ‘But by how much do we need to win?’

Moser: Saronni was cooked.

Saronni: Had he broken away from me, Moser would have enjoyed losing like that more than winning.

Moser: The race ends at the finish line; before that you never know.

And you never raced together again?

Moser: Thankfully not. But in the same colours, yes. The Worlds. I remember that one in Prague, 1981.

Saronni: We were the most important riders in the Italian team. Alfredo Martini told us: ‘With three laps to go, everyone work to get Saronni to the sprint. Instead: three laps from the finish, Battaglin popped. The result:
Maertens first, me second. Moser: Saronni made up for it the following year at the Worlds in Goodwood, England. I realised that it wasn’t my course, unless I got in an escape from a distance.

Saronni: I wasn’t even helped that day.

Moser: The newspapers wrote that I was there as a gregario. That, never. But I played my part.

Saronni: Moser was my number one enemy until 1983, when I won the Giro d’Italia. I enjoyed that Giro. Almost 4,000 kilometres long—you needed a good base. No. In fact, you needed speed. There were the Apennines and the Dolomites: you needed to be good uphill. They used to say that they designed Giros for me and Moser, but there was also Visentini and Hinault. The climbs weren’t so hard as the ones they do now, but they were made for climbers. There was also Van Impe, Beccia and Panizza, and then all the Spaniards, from Chozas to Fernández, Lejarreta and Rupérez. I came from the Vuelta—then it ran between April and May, ideal as preparation for the Giro. We only went with that goal. My season was always the same, I did it all: cyclo-cross, Six-Days, then the Giro di Sardegna, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-Sanremo… We raced a lot. I tried to do it carefully. At the Vuelta I managed two stage wins, two seconds and a third place. It ended on 8 May, and the Giro began on  the 12th. So I went home three days early. I was trained enough, I felt ready.

The beginning of the Giro wasn’t easy. A team timetrial, 70km from Brescia to Mantua. What was lost was lost. We gave up a minute and 20 to Bianchi. But I had confidence in myself and in the team. I was 25: it was my seventh year as a pro, and my sixth Giro. I was no longer that little boy who woke up at 5am to go out on his bike, then went to work at the Olivetti factory and enjoyed only two half-days a week to train. I wasn’t the
kid from the Olympics in Montreal. Along the way, over kilometres and in the bends, I had become a racer, for stages and climbs, and not just a track rider. The first win came in Todi, ahead of Moreno Argentin. Then third
in Vasto, second at Campitello Matese, third in Salerno and by then I was in the maglia rosa. It had only been a week. From that moment on I tried to handle the situation: defending myself uphill, hitting back in the sprint.

As Muhammad Ali used to say: ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ More or less. My happiest day came in the individual time-trial from Reggio Emilia to Parma, about 40 kilometres, and I took half a minute from Roberto Visentini in second. The day I suffered most was in the Dolomites, a huge stage with five climbs—Campolongo, Pordoi, Sella, Gardena, Campolongo again—when I was attacked and I knew I could resist. And the most beautiful moment came in the half-stage [Stage 16 of the ’83 Giro was split into two halves, one 110km, the other 100km] from Milan to
Bergamo, my final hook, beating Argentin in the sprint, a little masterpiece.

The next day was Bergamo to Colle San Fermo. Short, dry, evil. I had a wool jersey on top of lycra. I took it off and was about to throw it away when a gregario, who was sensible, took it and put it back in the car. At that moment Moser came up to me and gave me a pat on the shoulder.

Moser: I told him: ‘Well done.’ And then I added: ‘You’ve won the Giro.’

Saronni: Moser seemed out of sorts. I’d never seen him like that. He told me: ‘I’m not good, I’m dead tired, I’ll retire, and I’m never doing the Giro again.’ At the foot of the last climb, he pulled up and abandoned. At the time it looked like the old champion had surrendered. His words gave me pleasure and I was moved. Despite everything, together, we had come a long way. But never say never. Because what was first proposed for me —the hour record—and which I’d turned down because I didn’t feel like I had it in me, Moser accepted. And he was resur gent. In January 1984, he set a new hour record. And in June, he won the Giro. He had told me he’d never race again. Moral of the story? Never trust racers. And least of all Moser.

Was that the end of your rivalry?

Saronni: From 1984 onwards, Moser was a different rider. He was the only one to have access to new training methods. After that, Moser was confronted and challenged only by himself.

Moser: Saronni paid for the Giro d’Italia in 1983. I won [the following year], but only because I made a great effort. It was that which caused him to decline even when he was still only 26 or 27.

Saronni: When Moser established the hour record, first at 50.808, then at 51.151, almost no one believed it could be true. But it didn’t bother me. It was no longer a direct or personal comparison between us.

What of envy, jealousy, admiration?

Moser: I always envied Saronni’s speed, and that he could easily win in the sprint. Instead I had to move first and make more of an effort.

Saronni: I’ve always admired Moser’s core: the will, the desire, the ability to suffer. For me, the race had to be easier. He was compelled to give, I to save. He was created to follow instincts, I to do calculations. He was slower, so he had to go on the attack. I was faster, so I played defence.

Moser: Cycling has always lived on dualism. Girardengo and Binda, Bartali and Coppi, Anquetil and Poulidor, Gimondi and Merckx…

Saronni: If we had got along, we would have won more.

Moser: It was impossible.

Saronni: The arrangements always hung on the side of Moser. They always wanted him to win.

Moser: I’ve forgotten some of the details.

Saronni: I know him: Moser just forgets what he wants.

Moser: Milano-Sanremo [in 1981]. De Wolf attacked, I didn’t move and neither did Saronni. At the finish I went on TV and said I’m sick of doing the race for Saronni.

Saronni: You see? This detail he remembers.

Moser: Saronni provoked me.

Saronni: And Moser didn’t joke around. At the Giro dell’Emilia, I was sick, and after just 30 of the 250 kilometres he attacked.

Moser: To win a lot of prizes at the finish.

Saronni: Just because it was funded by someone from my fan club.

Moser: These are stories of the past.

Saronni: I remember Moser held on to one of the race organisation cars during one Tirreno-Adriatico.

Moser: I don’t remember that. Maybe I was asking something.

Your last race?

Moser: After the hour record in Stuttgart, in 1988, there was a race that was held on the course of the Worlds in Hamilton, Canada. I went over because one of my brothers was living there. The course was reduced
compared to the Worlds, a circuit of 4–5km for a total of 90 or 100km, but you had to do the climb every loop. There were strong riders there, like Sean Kelly. I was in great form: I lapped everyone and won alone. My last
race and my last victory.

Saronni: On 16 October 1990, Milano-Torino. I was dropped. Braking downhill. It was over. Without second thoughts. The decision had been in the air for some time. Cycling is synonymous with sacrifice. And you can only endure the sacrifices while it’s worth it. I had my victories. But the last had come two years earlier.

Who is the greatest of them all?

Moser: Listening to [older brother] Aldo: Fausto Coppi. For many years, he organised a race in Lavis and Aldo took part. I have vague images: I remember so many people, but maybe because I was small, they all seemed like giants. That was a special time, a mixture of excitement and emotion. We had seen Coppi. The greatest among those who raced with me: Eddy Merckx. He was complete, he won everywhere from January 1 to
December 31, he even would have won on water. Then Hinault, the first rider who selected events carefully. He hated Roubaix, said it was a race for crazy people, then he planned for it and won.

Saronni: Coppi, by hearsay. And between Coppi and Bartali, Coppi. Maybe a bit, deep down, I felt like a little Coppi. Because when I got to cycling, Moser was already there. Just as when Coppi came to cycling, Bartali was
there already. I raced with Poulidor, Gimondi, Merckx, Thévenet and Godefroot, then with De Vlaeminck, Maertens, Hinault, and Bugno and Ballerini. There were plenty of champions.

You finally agree on something. Now, among you, who was better?

Moser: Saronni complained because he said that I had never given a bottle of wine. But I told him I would only give it to him if he came to my house.

Saronni: I like red wine. And the one Moser makes is good.

Moser: Saronni never came to my house. Not even when I invited him to my 60th birthday party. He replied ‘no thanks’.

Saronni: I had already made another commitment. But I went after.

Moser: To give me the book that Beppe Conti wrote about the two of us.

And the wine?

Moser: I gave it to him.

Yes, but only one bottle.

Moser: I make wine to sell, not to give away.

Saronni: That day I would have arrived at his house early, had Moser not told the locals to give me wrong directions. And when I called Beppe Conti, a moseriano, he sent me the wrong way three times.

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