Tales of the Giro d’Italia: Gangsters, great Danes, seven-hour slogs and gods of the road

Tall tales of epic mountain stages and the hard men of Italian cycling from the annals of the Giro d'Italia

Italy has always been a country where remarkable things can happen, and the Giro d'Italia the race where it frequently does. From Rouleur issue 20.6, Paul Maunder delves into the annals of the corsa rosa to tell four tales from the history of the world's most beautiful bike race. 

He steals from the rich

Italian cycling has had its share of hardmen – Andrea Tafi, Fiorenzo Magni, Gino Bartali among them. But the sport’s tough guys look like tearful toddlers beside Salvatore Giuliano, the key protagonist of the opening stage of the 1949 Giro. And he wasn’t even riding a bike.

Read: 2022 Giro d'Italia Preview

Following the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, more than two-thirds of the island’s food supply was through the black market. Giuliano, from Montelepre near Palermo, was 20 years old. In September of that year he was transporting black market grain across the island when a police patrol challenged him. During the confrontation he shot and killed an officer, dropping his identity card while running away. He was shot and wounded while trying in vain to retrieve it. Giuliano had no choice but to go on the run.

Over the following months, a band of 50 criminals gathered around him, living rough in the hills and making occasional forays into towns to burgle large houses, kidnap members of the gentry and buy weapons. Giuliano was a charismatic leader, charming but ruthless. Anyone who betrayed him was killed. A fervent believer in independence for Sicily, Giuliano liked to attack government targets. The Sicilian peasants loved him because he robbed from the rich and gave food to the poor. He was the Italian Robin Hood – it probably helped that he was handsome, square-jawed and broad-chested, with an intense gaze. Giuliano was a PR disaster for the government and they expended huge resources trying to track him down.

By the spring of 1949, the net was closing on him. Following the Portella della Ginestra massacre of May 1947, when his men fired machine guns into a May Day parade, killing eleven people (Giuliano claimed his order had been only to fire over the crowd’s heads and that the deaths were a mistake), popular support for the notorious bandit had diminished.

More and more of his men were ready to betray him for a hefty cash sum. In the weeks preceding the start of the Giro, for which the Sicilian government had paid the organisers ten million lire, rumours swirled about a threat from Giuliano to disrupt the race. The first stage was scheduled to run from Palermo, passing through Giuliano’s stamping ground, to Catania. According to newspaper reports Giuliano had threatened to hide his men by the roadside and spray the peloton with machine gun fire as it passed.

There were discussions about cancelling the two Sicilian stages but in the end they went ahead as planned – ten million lire was a lot of money. However, the police did increase their presence in the race caravan and forbade any race vehicle from stopping during the stage. Their concern was less about the safety of the riders, and more about preventing Giuliano escaping to the mainland. What if Fausto Coppi punctured, his team car stopped to give him a wheel and Giuliano jumped in, waving his gun around? It didn’t bear thinking about. But Giuliano stayed away from the race and Mario Fazio, the Bottecchia team leader, won an aggressive (in a good way, not a Sicilian bandit sort of way) stage on the hilly island roads.

The end of the story for the folk hero was inevitable. In July 1950, his closest and most trusted henchman was persuaded to betray his leader. Giuliano was shot twice in the back as he slept, then his body was dragged out into the street to be shot again so that the police could tell the press he’d been cornered and killed in a running street fight. He was 27 years old.

Pedalling like an apprentice baker

In a suburb of Bassano del Grappa, a picturesque city at the foot of the Dolomites, stands the Velodromo Rino Mercante. This outdoor track had played host to the greats of Italian bike racing all the way back to 1924, but by the 1960s seemed to be slipping into decline.

Then an energetic new mayor found the funding to update the track and in August 1985, the World Track Championships came to town. If the locals were hoping for a home victory from Francesco Moser in the blue riband event, the men’s pursuit, they were to be disappointed. Moser was knocked out in the semi-finals and ended up in fourth spot. Gregor Braun took bronze, Tony Doyle of Great Britain took silver and gold went to the favourite, Denmark’s Hans Henrik Ørsted.

Ørsted, from Grenaa on the east coast of Denmark, turned professional after the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but having failed to make his mark on the road, chose to specialise on the track. His results were consistently stellar – he won three golds, three silvers and two bronzes during the 1980s. But he wanted more than pursuit medals. In 1984, Francesco Moser had stunned the cycling world by revitalising the Hour Record when he broke Eddy Merckx’s 12-year-old mark in Mexico City with 51.1 kilometres. After comprehensively beating Moser at Bassano del Grappa a year later, Ørsted decided he should attack the Hour too. His target was the sea level record, held by Ferdinand Bracke, who had ridden 48.1 kilometres in Rome in 1967.

On September 9th 1985, aboard a stunning blue-grey Cinelli Laser low-profile bike with double discs, wearing a bright red skinsuit, Ørsted set about his task. The conditions were so unfavourable – a strong wind and a relatively slow track – that one could question the wisdom of the attempt. His start was fast but the pace gradually fell. By the final laps, Ørsted was visibly struggling. La Stampa reported that he was “pedalling like an apprentice baker who is behind with his deliveries”. The gun fired. The hour was over. Ørsted fell from his bike and could not get to his feet for a long time. He had broken Bracke’s record by 51 metres.

Dog Days

We’ve all had days like this. You wake up feeling motivated, alert to the infinite possibilities of life. Then breakfast, get to work and... nothing. You simply cannot be bothered. What is the point of it all? So you make coffee, have a little chat, a second breakfast, browse the internet, squint at your emails, have another coffee, a longer chat, and so on. Except for writing a to-do list, by lunchtime you’ve done precisely zero work.

This is how the peloton treat monster mountain days like these. I mean, seriously – the stage starts with the Passo Campo Carlo Magno, then takes in the newly opened Passo Castrin (which is worrying in itself – why was it previously shut?), then the Stelvio from the hard side, and finally 21 hairpins climbing up to Laghi di Cancano. Yes, the organisers and media have been hyping up a day with so many metres of vertical ascent that NASA have taken an interest, but somehow the build-up has failed to inspire the cyclists to push their broken bodies any harder. A general, unspoken strike is imposed.

The peloton will still move quickly – professional cyclists cannot help but move quickly – but on television it looks ludicrously slow. The riders talk between themselves about their children, their investment portfolios, their motorbikes. They eat rice cakes and lamb chops. They drift back to the car to check their emails. Piano, piano. The landscape passes in a haze of boredom and exhaustion. There are some fun moments too, like flicking one of those silly Americans into a hedge. But mainly there is a sense of near-total futility. Then it begins to rain.

In the office, after seven hours of aimlessness, you may experience a sudden burst of energy. That’s guilt fucking with you. Go with it. It will rescue the day. Restore some balance to the universe. The peloton does a similar thing. On the last of nineteen climbs, it remembers it is in a race. Someone attacks. Wow! Someone counters. Double-wow! The commentators miss the moment because they’re filling time by talking about the geology of the Jurassic period. The race explodes in the final 200 metres. But by then the TV audience are all asleep on their sofas.

Recent Grand Tours are littered with stages like this, colossal romps across multiple mountain passes, epic routes that evoke the glory of the past, challenges to mind and body... seven boring hours of watching Dave Brailsford’s team sit on the front of the peloton. Why don’t the organisers learn? Are they really hoping for a Coppi-esque exploit? We all love the history of the sport, but these are different times. The racing has changed, and so has the fuel.

Achilles and Hector

Cuneo is a small city in Piedmont, sitting at the junction of the Stura and Gesso rivers. And though it is surrounded by lush farmland, only a few kilometres to the west are the first corrugations of the Alps. It is 10th June 1949. The Giro d’Italia is gathered in the central piazza, preparing for the 17th stage, a mountain showdown that will almost certainly decide the winner.

New race organiser Vincenzo Torriani has put together a monster 254km route heading into France and then back into Italy. Facing the riders are the climbs of the Maddalena, the Vars, Izoard, Montgenèvre and finally the ascent to Sestriere before a rapid descent to the town of Pinerolo. Arch-rivals Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali are trading insults via the Italian media, while the sprinter Adolfo Leoni prepares himself for his last day in the maglia rosa.

Earlier, Coppi’s directeur sportif Giovanni Tragella asked his star what supplies he should prepare for the team’s riders, Coppi’s loyal gregari. Il Campionissimo replied: bread, salami and lights. They will be arriving after nightfall.

Not long after the stage gets underway, a front group forms around Coppi and Bartali. Bartali “the Pious” is over nine minutes behind Coppi overall, but remains a threat should anything happen to the Bianchi rider. At the foot of the Maddalena, Coppi stops with his trusted gregario Sandrino Carrea. Both riders spend a little while tinkering with their chains, comparing their tension and fluidity. Ahead, meanwhile, the small Tuscan climber Primo Volpi attacks, and Bartali follows. Back on his bike, Coppi passes Bartali then Volpi and presses on solo. He has 192 kilometres to go.

One of the stories from this famous stage that has passed into cycling mythology is that of a French journalist who accompanied Coppi into France, then stopped in a small village for lunch. The journalist (as journalists are wont to do) ordered a full lunch, including aperitif, main course and coffee. Then he smoked a cigarette, asked for the bill, paid. And when he stumbled back to the roadside, he was just in time to see a mud-splattered Bartali riding by.

The record books show that Coppi won the stage in nine hours, nineteen minutes, assuring his Giro victory, and Bartali finished second at nearly 12 minutes. So, unless this French village had a fast food outlet in 1949, the hack’s laidback lunch tale seems far-fetched. Acclaimed novelist and short story writer Dino Buzzati was following the race, reporting for the Corriere della Sera. That evening, writing up his account of the stage, he recalled the Iliad and Achilles’ killing of the Trojan prince Hector. Coppi was Achilles, a god. Bartali was Hector, only a mortal.

Cuneo-Pinerolo is one of the central stories of Fausto Coppi’s legend. Our presiding image is of this enigmatic man riding alone through the high mountains. The hero setting out on a dangerous adventure. Such exploits are magnificent and inspiring. Yet the story really gains its weight through melancholy; the fading glory of Gino Bartali. Thirty-four years old and the Tour de France champion from 1948, Bartali had never been more famous. Indeed, his victory at the Tour came at a time of intense civil unrest in Italy, following the attempted assassination of Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti. Some historians have claimed Bartali’s success had a calming effect on what could have turned into a right-wing revolution.

Whether or not he saved Italy from disaster, Bartali was hugely popular. To see him defeated so comprehensively was sobering for his fans. He still enjoyed many victories in the years to come, but 1949 marked the beginning of the last phase of Bartali’s career. In 2020 the Giro organisers tried to recreate Cuneo-Pinerolo with a stage that took in the Colle dell’Agnello, the Izoard, Montgenèvre and a finish at Sestriere. For a really good story, one that lasts, we need a hero – an Achilles. And we also need a Hector, someone whose limits are exposed on those cruel roads.