1974

Words: Herbie Sykes | Date:

1974 and all that…

Cycling people are forever banging on about ‘panache’, or some such nonsense. They inform us that the old riders (invariably the ones they never saw ride) had it, but that today’s robots have had it managed out of them. Take Merckx, for example. Current thinking seems to have it that he was the living embodiment of it. He wasn’t. He was the cycling equivalent of a wrecking ball, and he’d about as much panache. He was extraordinarily effective, but then so is a tin opener.

Eddy was – and in truth remains – Eddy. Huysmans was Huysmans, and Bruyere was Bruyere. Swerts was Bruyere as well, and so were Van Schil and De Schoenmaeker. They were Molteni, and Molteni packaged mechanically recovered meat on an industrial estate at Arcore. Have you ever been to Arcore?

That may be slightly disingenuous, because Merckx was, when all’s said and done, utterly brilliant. The problem was that he was brilliant day after blessed day. So he ceased to be brilliant, at least in the eyes of the Italian public. So much so that the Giro, just like the meat they shoved into those tins at Arcore, became mechanical. It became utilitarian, a substitute for the real thing.

The thing to remember about Eddy, then, is that it wasn’t actually a great deal of fun. It wasn’t fun for the people getting hammered by him week in, week out, nor for the team sponsors who never got anything for their money. That’s why people got fed up with him, and that’s why they were forever evoking Anquetil and the good old days.

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Jacques, they said, had been a signore. He’d turn up to a crit’ in honour of the local pro’, and enquire, ever so politely, whether he might be able to stay over at his house. That would be just about the greatest honour anybody had ever bestowed on the rider, his family or his paese, because Jacques was not only the greatest of all champions, but also French. Then he was blonde, Norman and urbane, and he had those eyes. He was eloquent and sophisticated, and he knew about champagne. He was European nobility amongst illiterate Lombard peasantry, and his mere presence dignified both them and their hovel.

After the race he’d turn up with flowers for mamma (yes, really) and, she’d prepare a humungous feast in his honour. He’d leave the following morning, but the gold dust he left behind would stay with his hosts the rest of their lives. They’d invite him back the following year, and volunteer to pay just that little bit more. That’s because he was what Merckx wasn’t, a thoroughgoing superstar.

The thing with Jacques was that everybody had a shot at it, the chance to earn a bit of him. They got to enjoy their cycling as well, whereas Eddy just took it all. And, ultimately, it was counterproductive. It was dreary as hell for the viewer (unless of course he happened to be an Eddy fan) because it just wasn’t a spectacle any more. It was a procession, and nobody’s going to take an afternoon off work to watch one of those, even in Italy. So people turned off, and when RAI got fewer viewers they got less revenue. So did the Giro, and so on; remember US Postal? That was what you got, pretty much all year round. Molteni on a Monday in Milan, Molteni on a Saturday in Sestriere, Molteni for breakfast in Briançon and Molteni in your packed lunch on a wet Wednesday in Wevelgem. You got Molteni for your supper as well, if you could stomach the highlights (the other channel had shut down for the night by then, so that was that).

1970 was the nadir, or maybe it was 1973. He’d been merely playing with them then, humiliating his rivals. That was kind of the problem. Eddy was so good that the Giro was a forgone conclusion when he raced it, and pointless when he didn’t. It wasn’t poor Gösta Pettersson’s fault but when he won the ’71 edition, they said he hadn’t beaten anybody. He’d been deluding himself he’d beaten Gimondi and Motta, and he thought he’d beaten Zilioli and Galdos. He thought he’d beaten 99 very good cyclists, but apparently he hadn’t. He’d beaten everybody but everybody without Merckx didn’t amount to anybody.

Anyway this time there’d be Ocaña, and it would be better. There would be big, brutal hills right from the off, and it would be clay hot down in the south. With any luck Ocaña and Fuente would combine against him, or at least climb him into oblivion. Finally, we’d have a contest, men on man, and finally we’d have our Giro d’Italia back. Eddy would need the strength of two men, because two men is what he’d be up against.

Ocaña called Giro supremo Vincenzo Torriani on the Wednesday and cried off. Again.

So there it was. Merckx and Fuente, the irresistible force against the portable object. Gimondi would chunter his way round, but he couldn’t win this Giro. Motta would give a passable impression of a tourist, whilst Zilioli and Bitossi had long since given up even trying. Pettersson, poor lamb, even declared as much:
“If Eddy wasn’t here then maybe, but I know I’m racing for second or third. You need to be realistic.”

Young Moser wasn’t cut out for a mountainous Giro, and the fanciullo, Battaglin, third last time out, had done nothing since. De Vlaeminck? Knudsen? Fraccaro? No, no and no.

At least young Baronchelli might be worth watching. He’d looked the business in winning the Baby Giro and l’Avenir, and there was no doubting his class. Bitossi said he might just be the one, though obviously not yet. Not a 20-year-old.

Who, they asked, do you fear the most Eddy? “I don’t know. Fuente? Gimondi? You can’t win a Giro without suffering.” Oh yes you can Eddy. Oh yes you can. On the morning of the partenza, La Stampa summed up the mood:

“HOW TO KILL ITALIAN CYCLING!”

Game over? Then we’ll begin.

Eddy had been laid up with bronchitis in March and Fuente, as ever, had been talking himself up. He’d won the Vuelta, he crowed, and he was sure he could win the Giro this time. He was fantastic on Faita and Carpegna, but then guess what? Fantastic Fuente did his famous collapsing trick, on the road to Liguria. He’d bested Merckx for nearly a fortnight, then shipped eight minutes when the rains came. A Calvary. The Vuelta’s not the Giro, eh Fuente?

Fuente said it wasn’t his fault, he’d just forgotten to eat.

Forgotten to eat? Cretino! Deficiente! Va fan cullo Fuente! Vergognati!

Gimondi was still in the hunt, but the big hills lay in wait. Thank heavens, therefore, for ‘Gibi’ Baronchelli. A 20-year-old neo-pro, he’d the biggest balls of the whole sorry lot of them. Fair enough, Merckx had probably let him go, but what a ride all the same. He wouldn’t win the Giro (Eddy would do that, though only by the bare minimum this time) but to be within 41 seconds was pretty sensational by anybody’s standards. They’d known he was good beforehand, but not this good. He’d put the rest of them to shame.

The kid, it seemed, was the real deal. Alfredo Binda, who knew a bike rider when he saw one, said, “Those with the legs have the legs”. And he was right. Albani said he was an authentic fuoriclasse, and that Eddy was more worried about him than he’d been about Fuente. Only, he would say that, wouldn’t he? At least it resembled a race this time out. Into the Dolomites – Tre Cime di Lavaredo.

There are all sorts of stories about that day but the one Colnago told (and then retracted) is probably the best. It’s probably not true – by all accounts he’s a prodigious gilder of lilies – but here goes anyway.

Ernesto was a very good mechanic, and latterly a very good framebuilder. He and Eddy were mates from way back, though at the time Ernesto was supplying bikes to SCIC, Gianbattista Baronchelli’s team. Anyway, it’s categorically true to say that Colnago knew a thing or two about getting things done, and that he was a very persuasive man. What he now says he didn’t say, is that he had told Merckx the race was developing into a gripping Giro, and the public were really appreciating it. They were appreciative, too, of the fact young Baronchelli was making a fist of it, and that sooner or later – though not this year, obviously – he might just ascend Eddy’s throne. All of that was good for business and good for the public. It was also good for Eddy to be seen to be just a tiny bit human, and everybody was most grateful for his munificence.

What would be better still – again, Colnago didn’t say – was if they made the Tre Cime stage an absolute cracker. That way, they’d create even more suspense, he’d sell even more frames, and RAI would think again about pulling the plug. All Eddy need do, he didn’t say, was to ride defensively on Tre Cime, as opposed to smashing it to smithereens as he had in 1968. That had been the right tactic back then, but this Giro was pretty much won. No need for fireworks, just let young ‘Tista attack him as he saw fit. Let him take 20 metres or so, and make it look like it was a real effort to reel him back in. That way, the public would be kidded into thinking he’d almost dropped him, and everyone would be a winner.

Eddy wasn’t sure he liked the idea of appearing vulnerable but Ernesto wasn’t in the business of taking no for an answer. And anyway, what harm was there in cutting young Baronchelli – to whit, all Italian cycling – a bit of (monetary) slack.

Colnago’s account is probably not true (not least because it’s just not Eddy), but either way it’s really neither here nor there. Neither is Fuente, the stage winner. His was a gutsy ride that day, but ultimately it didn’t matter. What mattered was that Baronchelli attacked Merckx six kilometres from the finish, but Merckx caught him with three to go. It was just as Colnago hadn’t called it, but it’s highly improbable that anyone could have called what happened next.

Baronchelli went away from Merckx again, but this time there was no faking it. There was no faking the utter pandemonium on that mountain, and there was no faking the anguish on Merckx’s face when he realized he wasn’t coming back to him. Six years earlier, he’d announced his immortality on Tre Cime, but here he had become mortal again. Eddy Merckx was in a horrible mess on Tre Cime di Lavaredo, turning himself inside out as Baronchelli danced through the snowbanks. Merckx grovelled up Tre Cime that horrendous afternoon, and the image remains seared into the collective consciousness of a generation of cycling fans. So, too, does that of a 20-year-old boy, floating into cycling immortality. It’s a thing of beauty and, for all that the Ernesto Colnagos of this world are apt to build myths around days like those, Gianbattista Baronchelli built his own.

Merckx clung on. By twelve seconds he clung on.

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Baronchelli would win over 90 pro bike races, among them two Tours of Lombardy. He won the Tour of the Apennines six times on the spin, and back then it was a very important race. Ultimately, though, he didn’t become the champion they’d thought he would, and he never conquered the Giro. Moser became the darling of the tifosi, and so Torriani started creating the so-called “Giri of the tunnels”, pan-flat and filled with time trials. Climbers like Baronchelli had not a chance, and nobody had a chance when Hinault started crossing the Alps in the early Eighties. Baronchelli became an authentic Giro bridesmaid, and by 1986 he was pretty much riding it as a gregario di lusso for Moser, a man for whom he’d very little time. The two days he spent in pink that year were a form of vindication, but no more. He abandoned the Giro, his last, and drifted out of the sport two years later.

In researching this, I called him at his bike shop, and he seemed surprised that a 46-year-old English journalist might be interested. After all, it happened, as he rightly pointed out, a very long time ago. I told him a famous Danish director made a film which captured the moment for prosperity, and that lots of English people have seen it. He said he thought that a nice conceit, and asked about Ole Ritter as a diversionary tactic. I said I wasn’t interested in Ritter but Baronchelli replied he was a bit tired, all these years on, of being reminded that he finished second. I said second behind an unbreakable cycling leviathan wasn’t all bad, but he only half agreed. In closing, therefore, I asked Gibi Baronchelli for his abiding memory of his cycling career;

“Oh it has to be that day on Tre Cime, senz’altro…”

That’s panache. Senz’altro.

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