He won the Tour de France in his first year as a pro. By the age of 25, he’d become the only man other than Jacques Anquetil to win all three Grand Tours. He was a world champion, and counts victories at the Giro di Lombardia, Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix amongst the myriad triumphs on an impressive palmarès.
But for all of that, Felice Gimondi spent most of his career as the runner-up, cruelly fated to be a rare prodigy in the age of an even rarer genius. Perhaps he wondered what might have been, had he not been dealt the mean hand of competing in the time of Eddy Merckx. Blessed with talent, poor Felice was cursed by timing.
Born at the end of September 1942, while Europe was being torn apart by World War Two, Felice came from hard-working stock in Sedrina, a pretty little town nestled deep in the hilly Lombard countryside, just north of Bergamo and about 60 kilometres northeast of Milan.
His father, Mosè, a lorry driver who’d spent a decade in Brazil working as a lumberjack, introduced young Gimondi to bike racing at a young age and used to take him whenever possible to see the great stars of Italian cycling’s golden age battling it out when a race came close to home.
Unusually for the time, however, his mother Angela played a hand in her son’s early infatuation with the bicycle. As the town’s first postwoman, she rode a bike on her deliveries, something that raised eyebrows in rural, mid-century Italy. In fact, shortly before her death in 2013, aged 103, she told the local newspaper that the parish priest used to go out of his way to scold her whenever possible, for what he saw as unladylike behaviour.
“I’d always been a fan,” says Gimondi, now 75, recalling the beginning of his career. “But when I was 16 or so, my dad bought me my first road bike, a used, silver-coloured one. I remember that I was wearing clogs, which wouldn’t fit into the toe clips, so I had to take them off and pedal home barefoot from Bergamo to Sedrina.
“My first race was in Treviglio, and we had a little three-wheeled van belonging to a greengrocer as a team car, with us sitting in the back and the bikes banging around. I had two crashes and by the time I reached the finish, they were already taking down the banners.”
After that inauspicious start, things quickly improved and it was clear early on that Felice was destined to be a champion. An impressive amateur career was capped by victory at the 1964 Tour de l’Avenir, and the following year, a dazzling debut season as a professional with the Salvarani team left no doubt that Gimondi had the potential to become an all-time great.
“I was third at the Giro d’Italia, third at the Tour de Romandie, second at La Flèche Wallonne. I remember getting compliments from Federico Bahamontes and Charly Gaul.”
And then, the Tour. A win on stage four, from Roubaix to Rouen, put him in yellow and he held on to the maillot jaune for 18 of the remaining 20 days, only briefly ceding the lead to the Belgian Bernard Van de Kerckhove. It remains one of his favourite memories.
“In the first Tour, I had so much energy because of my age, I could spend a lot and still recover quickly. But the Giro I won when I was 33 [in 1976] was special too, because it was thanks to intelligence and experience. Winning the Giro, 11 years after that Tour, remains an important achievement for me.”
Gimondi won three editions of his national tour and holds the record for the most podium finishes at the Giro, nine in total. He has the same number of top-three finishes at the Monuments. It’s reasonable to assume that without Merckx, a great deal more of his time on the podium would have been spent on the top step.
But while he had the talent and the personality to merit being his era’s protagonist, Gimondi never griped about his supporting role. Perhaps that was because he knew everyone else had it worse; most days he was the only rider who could even dream of beating the Belgian without divine intervention. Roger De Vlaeminck could take it to him on the cobbles, but when it came to stage racing, the likes of Gianni Motta, Luis Ocaña, and José Manuel Fuente rarely stood a chance.
Patience was probably his greatest virtue. And it was rewarded, towards the end of his career, with that aforementioned Giro victory in 1976, an improbable win seven years after his last success in a Grand Tour. In the absence of Francesco Moser, Italy’s bright young thing, Fausto Bertoglio had taken the GC the previous year and it seemed more probable that they would be the likely bets for a home win.
His best years behind him, Gimondi faced a peloton full of fresher talent and used his wits and his experience to triumph in spite of the odds – fitting for a rider they used to call “The Phoenix”. That year’s maglia rosa would have almost certainly been Johan De Muynck’s had his Brooklyn team not collapsed in on itself under the weight of too much ego and too many big personalities. While the Belgian watched helplessly as Patrick Sercu and Roger De Vlaeminck squabbled for supremacy, Gimondi stalked him, without showing too much, until the opportune moment presented itself.
Stage 21 finished in Bergamo, Gimondi’s home city, and he took the day’s honours with aplomb. Having never really looked in contention, he snatched the maglia rosa on the final day’s morning time-trial around Arcore and finished the short afternoon stage in Milan without any trouble to take the overall by 19 seconds.
The Gazzetta dello Sport called it “The Miracle in Milan”, a reference to Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist film classic of the same name, in which a group of downtrodden Italian peasants are eventually delivered to heaven thanks to a kind-hearted, optimistic young man from the outskirts of the city. Considering that only two of the previous eight editions had been won by a rider from the Bel Paese, the metaphor must have spoken to many of the local tifosi.
This article is an extract from one that was originally published in Rouleur 17.3