They don’t make stages like this and they don’t make men like Fabio Roscioli anymore.
Coming into its twelfth stage, the 1993 Tour de France had been run at a record speed of 41km/h. Coming off two grueling days in the Alps, everyone was tired, but few more so than Roscioli, who raced for the Italian Carrera team.
The previous day, he had hauled his six-foot frame over the Col de Vars, the Izoard, the Bonette-Restefond and up to Isola 2000, finishing in the gruppetto, 32 minutes down.
Their merciless transition stage was a 287-kilometre route with seven categorised hills that took the race from the high mountains on the Italian borders to the Mediterranean and the great city of Marseille. Some respite.
“That morning, the peloton was almost all agreed. With eight hours of riding and scorching weather, we had practically decided to do the first half at normal speed,” Roscioli recalls over the phone.
However, there was a PMU intermediate sprint at the 47-kilometre mark and that bargain flew out of the window. The speed shot up in the run-in to Saint-Martin-du-Var as Abdoujaparov, Jalabert and Svorada jockeyed for green jersey points. The bunch was lined out. “It was calvary for twenty kilometres. And it pissed me off,” Roscioli says.
“I said to myself ‘when I finally get to the front, you’ll all see how Carrera carries this on.’ I’m someone who attacks and will keep counter-attacking if he’s annoyed. Fabio, always in the breakaway.”Roscioli (right, in Asics kit) up the road in another breakaway during the 1998 Tour de France
After the sprint, a twenty-strong group escaped, with Carrera represented by Roscioli and his team captain Stephen Roche. Although former winner Roche was over 20 minutes down on race leader Miguel Indurain after the Alps, Banesto and ONCE set a fierce chase, unwilling to let such a large and dangerous group get clear.
Through the feed zone at the 104 kilometres mark, Roscioli attacked as his companions sat up. He was 123rd overall of 150 starters, no threat to Indurain. Fabio was free: not just that day on the Tour, but for a rare moment in his career.
Throughout his 15-year stint as a pro cyclist, he was a domestique who worked tirelessly for the likes of Mario Cipollini, Franco Chioccioli, Claudio Chiappucci, Marco Pantani and Michele Bartoli. Possessed with great strength and stamina, Roscioli had been fourth in the 1988 Milan-Sanremo and second in the 1990 GP E3-Harelbeke. That same year, he spent 200 kilometres in front at the Tour of Flanders. He was an attacker at heart.
“So I found myself out there alone. And Bernard Hinault appeared at my side in the red car of the race organisation. I still remember his words: ‘très bien, très bien, Fabio. Now is the moment to put some minutes in. Why? Because they’re relaxing behind.’”
Roscioli gradually divested himself of any weight: his helmet, his casquette, the food in his pockets; even his water bottles were all taken by the Carrera team car. The only ballast carried were his Alex Zülle-esque glasses and his route card, showing him which nagging hill was next.
Every few kilometres, he would call up the following car and receive a cold, half-full water bidon or an occasional panino of prosciutto cotto. More than that, Giuseppe Martinelli, his directeur sportif, offered time gaps and crucial moral support.
Roscioli’s first crippling pang of doubt came when he had three minutes lead around the 110-kilometre mark. “I thought ‘where am I going? There’s still 200 kilometres to go, five more hours. No, I can’t do it. It’ll finish me. And then perhaps they’ll drop me and I’ll end up outside the time limit.’
“However, Martinelli calmed me down. He said ‘they’re all dead behind, Fabio, because they did 50 kilometres at 60km/h and they need to recover. You’ll see, you can put eight, nine, ten minutes into them.’ It gave me motivation, I saw there was method in this.”
Martinelli, who is now the Astana director sportif, was right. In 35-degree heat on the rolling Var roads, accompanied by a chorus of cicadas, Roscioli raced to an advantage of a dozen minutes. The disinterested peloton would ultimately roll in 20 and a half minutes down, race leader Miguel Indurain intent on having an uneventful 29th birthday.Indurain would go on to win the 1993 Tour de France
Others were not so charitable. Roscioli’s second moment of worry came halfway through his long escape, as he discovered a group of eight had attacked and were chasing hard behind.
At first, Martinelli refused to tell him who or how many they were. “If not, I’ll sit up and wait for them,” he told Martinelli. He stopped pedalling, free-wheeled and went to pull over at the side of the road.
Martinelli relented and reeled off the names. It was a group of aces, including green jersey wearer Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, Laurent Jalabert, Franco Ballerini, Massimo Ghirotto and Olaf Ludwig.
“Can you imagine what went through my head? I thought they were going to catch me, pass me on the last climb and drop me. My god, what shame!”
Importantly, two of Roscioli’s Carrera team-mates – future Classics star Andrea Tafi and GC hope Vladimir Poulnikov – were also in that group, sitting on the back in their fashionably-questionable denim-lookalike lycra shorts.
“This is the whole heart and soul of the Tour de France,” the late David Duffield says on the day’s Eurosport commentary as Roscioli battles on. “A lesser rider whose job it is to work as a domestique, to get the bottles, to look after people like Chiappucci and Roche. Then when he’s away like this, hoping that his team-mates will help him defend the lead he’s got.”
They did, and Roscioli was rock solid too. Keeping a steady speed, rarely shifting out of the saddle, the tall, powerful passista barely saw his 11-minute lead dented by the big names behind, despite the distance, the heat, the pain in his legs from the Alps and that nagging uncertainty of the long distance breakaway racing cyclist.
The day’s seventh and final categorised climb was the Côte du Perier on the outskirts of Marseille. Though just 600 metres at 10 per-cent, the fourth-category rated molehill was transformed into a mountain.
“It was a wall for me. Because I’d had seven and a half hours of racing. I was so tired, my legs were on empty.” Roscioli briefly considered walking it. “With eight minutes lead, I reckoned I had enough time to do that.”
He painfully pedalled over it, took a fresh pair of Briko shades from Martinelli and pumped his fist at the TV camera. In his seventh year as a professional, Roscioli rode into Marseille to take the maiden professional road race win of his career. Fittingly, an Italian tricolour flag was flying on the home straight as he savoured the moment.
He had spent 210 kilometres up the road, 185 of those by himself. It’s a far cry from the modern Tour, where lone escapes are fodder to be chewed up and spat out on formulaic flat days.
“It was a different cycling,” Roscioli reflects. “More attacking, more lively, more spectacular. Now, everything is controlled, the directeur sportif is the one who decides. The last ten years, I watch cycling on TV and am bored by what is happening.”
Roscioli went on to take a Tour de Suisse stage victory the following year and ended his career in Spain with Costa da Almeria in 2001. He settled in Pamplona, where he manages a spinning business and occasionally shows videos of his triumphs as a backdrop to his classes.
The miracle of Marseille lives on. “In Pamplona bars, people I’ve never spoken to come up to me and go ‘you’re Fabio. We are fans, tell us about that stage.’ And we talk about cycling. This thing is still alive, and I think it’ll keep going for years.”