Kings of Pain: Il Gianni

Words: Tom Southam | Photography: Offside/ L'Equipe | Date:

Rapha officially launched in 2004 with an exhibition called Kings of Pain, celebrating riders who have defined the values and ethos of the sport. It was a statement of intent, declaring what Rapha was – a brand in love with the heroics, suffering and drama of road cycling. In the leadout to Rapha’s 10th anniversary in July, we’ll be featuring tributes to other Kings and Queens of Pain, with contributions from friends in and around the sport. Here, Tom Southam gives his ode to Italian racing icon Gianni Bugno.

Tell us who your Kings and Queens of Pain are, and why, via Instagram or Twitter with the tag #kingsofpain or #queensofpain.

Kings of Pain: Il Gianni

It was Stefano Zanini’s wife, Rossana, I noticed saying it first – Il Gianni. It didn’t take me very long to work out whom she was talking about but still I had to check.

“Do you mean Gianni… Bugno?”
“Si, of course, Bugno!”

Who else, after all, was known not by a title, or a nickname but by the definitive article: ‘The’ Gianni.

That is how Gianni Bugno is known in Italy and it is a nickname that perfectly sums up both the class of the man and the esteem in which he is held in his home country.

Italians love Bugno and I have to admit I have always been a fan, too. In part because he was a complete rider, equally capable of winning on Alpe d’Huez and the Tour of Flanders, but mostly because he was just so smooth when he raced a bike, something that was never more apparent than when he unleashed his remarkable sprint.

Some sprinters, even the very best, have a style that conveys nothing so much as acute physical agony. Bugno, a true king of pain, had a sprinting style so composed and elegant that if you focused on him alone you’d be fooled into thinking that he was riding around a hotel car park testing out a new bike. It was only when you saw the flailing limbs of the riders desperately scrapping in his wake that you realised he was moving unspeakably fast. But it didn’t only look good; Bugno’s sprint was long, straight and true. In my mind, it was also the most honourable sprint ever seen in cycling.

I heard a story recently of a Danish neo-pro who experienced Bugno’s sprinting prowess coming to the finish of an Italian semi-classic in the mid-nineties. Coming to the finish, Bugno took up the pacemaking about 800 metres out, and the young Dane got himself in about fifth position, thinking all he had to do was wait to launch his sprint. With 500 metres to go, the speed was still increasing; at 300 metres it continued to increase, and before the riders knew it, they had all finished in exactly the same position in which they had started the sprint. No one had been able to do anything but hang on to the wheel in front.

There was no fuss with Bugno, no hiding, no sense of the Machiavellian. He would just win by being the fastest and, at times, there was nothing anybody could do about that.

Aesthetically, too, Bugno cut it on every level – he won the Worlds at a time when the azzuri wore just blue. His rainbow jersey was a straightforward no-fuss rainbow; the bands weren’t broken, there was no UCI branding, and sponsors were minimal. Likewise, his Italian Champion jerseys were straightforward tricolor designs, he rode a Bianchi, wore a leather helmet, and you could tell that he was a real cyclist because he looked great in a cycling cap, and ridiculous in a baseball hat.

But aside from the fact he simply oozed class on a bike, my favorite thing about Gianni Bugno was a story that emerged after the 1992 World Championships in Benidorm. Bugno, it seemed, loved trucks, and he loved to drive them. Before the race, he made a bet with the national team manager Guiseppe Martinelli that if he won, he could drive the team truck home. Sure enough, the newly-crowned World Champion made his way back to Italy not on a flight with his teammates, but behind the wheel of the team truck.

One of a kind you might think and you’d be right to. There is only one Gianni: Il Gianni.

Image: 1992 Tour: Stage 8 – VALKENBURG to COBLENCE. Gianni Bugno stretches out his arms at the front of the peloton.

Tell us who your Kings and Queens of Pain are, and why via Instagram or Twitter with the tag #kingsofpain or #queensofpain.

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