Winning the worlds: Maurizio Fondriest guest column

The first time I saw the rainbow jersey up close was when Eddy Merckx came to town for a nocturne in Merano, near my home town. 

My dad was on the race as a commissaire and the whole family went to see it. It was like being struck by a lightning bolt. From that day, even though {Italian stars] Gimondi and Motta were around, Merckx was my idol and the world champion’s jersey meant the most to me.

There was always something about Belgium for me. I remember winning the Tour of Western Hainault as a young amateur and loving the racing, the cobbles, the fight for position.

Two years later, the 1988 Worlds was held in Ronse. The Worlds! Just hearing the name scares you a bit. I thought I’d never take that rainbow jersey because it was too big, too prestigious. But I knew I had a chance because I finished second at Milan-Sanremo that year. I was away with Laurent Fignon and was convinced I was faster: I had done bunch sprints at Tirreno that year and placed fourth. So I led it out – in 52×12, too high a gear – and he beat me.

Read: Fabian Cancellara on Milan-Sanremo – the most difficult one day race

Afterwards, national team manager Alfredo Martini told me that he’d seen the Worlds route in Belgium and that it was ideal for me. It finished on the Kruisberg and I was fast on those finishes. 

But 80 kilometres from the line, I thought it was game over. There was a big break which had two minutes containing Bugno, Bontempi, Ballerini and Planckaert from Belgium. Fortunately, the Spaniards and the Danes missed out, chased hard and it came back.


A lap and a half from the finish, the decisive break of three was born up the Kruisberg. There I was in the lead at the World Championships. Millions of people watching on TV. It was already a huge thing. As we approached the finish, I told myself to not make the same mistake as Sanremo. So I sat on the wheel of Criquielion, then Steve Bauer joined us.

Then, they tangled and Criquielion crashed in the sprint. For me, it’s 50-50 blame. There were many factors. The barrier line wasn’t totally straight and their feet stuck out, not like now. Steve Bauer was tired after chasing to catch us. If you watch the video closely, he accelerates, looks down, changes gear and put his hands back on the bars.

He was always a bit messy on the bike and while he deviates right from his line [as Criquielion goes to pass], it’s not blatant. Not like the 1991 Amstel Gold Race when Frans Maassen took me from one side of the road to the other and they didn’t disqualify him…

Read: Steve Bauer – the man who lost Paris-Roubaix by millimetres

On one hand, the incident detracted from my victory a bit, because everyone still asks me whether I would have won without that fall. Well, I think so: I can say that before and after the Worlds, I never lost a sprint to Criquielion or Bauer. But we’ll never know the answer. On the other hand, everyone remembers the 1988 race because of that. And whenever we see each other now, I go “Steve, ciao, thanks for the Worlds!”

When I crossed the line, I was hit by indescribable joy and disbelief. It’s bigger than your mind can handle. I think I was the last elite men’s world champion to win with toe clips, yet the first to wear Santini’s rainbow jersey. An Italian world champion with an Italian brand – and months later, I joined Del Tongo, for whom they made kit.


The first time I raced in that rainbow jersey, it was both an immense pleasure and huge pressure. Because I mainly competed in Italy, the papers always plastered my name over the pre-race articles.

We still had old hands in the bunch, like Saronni, Visentini and Argentin, who didn’t make my life easy. It pissed them off a bit that a youngster had become world champion and was making more money than them. I had twelve second places and four wins that year, I was quite happy to be relieved of the jersey and that expectation.

Then, the problems with my back and left leg started. Before the 1991 Flèche Wallonne, Panasonic team manager Peter Post lent me his car to visit a chiropractor in Eindhoven from our team hotel in Spa. I just had an address; there was no Google Maps, smartphones or any of that. 

Read: Philippa York on riding for Peter Post 

The injury kept coming back, to the point I was winning more with my head than my legs by the mid-Nineties. My big regret is not being able to show the true potential I had, even if I still won 69 races, including Milan-Sanremo and the World Championships. By 1999, I was 33 and retired, having tried everything to fix the problem.

I’ve never stopped cycling though. To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of my win, I did a ride from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela this summer with 30 others. It’s a spiritual journey but the objective was also to raise awareness for cyclists’ road safety. I was joined by the father of Marco Cavorso, whose son Tommaso had a fatal accident with a car in 2012. For various stages, Miguel Indurain, Igor Astarloa, Oscar Freire and Abraham Olano rode with us too.

As they know, you’re a world champion for life. I won the World Cup twice –  nobody remembers that. When they present me to fans, it’s always “ex-world champion”, and that’s fine by me.

This column was first published in Rouleur 18.7


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