Writer (and racer) Joe Parkin examines the enigma of Michel Zanoli, the man who punched Davis Phinney in Richmond.
Richmond, Virginia, 15th May 1992. The Tour DuPont peloton was racing at full speed through the streets towards the finish line. The three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond was leading the general classification. The Australian Phil Anderson, who had started the day 20 seconds down on LeMond, was gunning for his third stage win in five days, and the 10-second time bonus that came with it.
Directly behind Anderson, the bike race turned into an ice hockey game. The official record of events has the Coors Light Team rider Davis Phinney on the Aussie’s wheel, in prime position to slingshot for the win. Contesting Phinney for the perfect sprint-finish victory was Anderson’s Motorola team-mate Michel Zanoli, from the Netherlands. Unable to dislodge Phinney from Anderson’s rear wheel in the final 500 metres, the 6ft 5in Dutch rider hauled back and swung. Zanoli’s massive fist found its mark on Phinney’s face, drawing blood and effectively ending both riders’ bids for the stage win. Anderson took the chequered flag, Phinney was patched up, and Zanoli was booted from the Tour DuPont and fined 1,000 Swiss francs (around £1,300 at the time).
“This single act by Michael [sic] Zanoli was uncalled for,” Phinney said in front of the television cameras afterwards. “I believe that his just punishment is having a deservedly bad reputation for the rest of his career.”
“The Punch” played out as perfect melodrama for an American public still mostly clueless about the nuances of professional bike racing. Instead of having to try to explain how a stage race operates, and determine the correct spelling of names completely unfamiliar to them, reporters and television crews had been thrown a meaty bone. Now they had a story: “Cheating Bully Expelled from Race for Punching American Cycling Hero”.
Many fans of the sport mark that day in ’92 as the point at which Zanoli’s career derailed. Indeed, he would never again see the success or fortune he enjoyed when he rode for Coors Light and Tulip Computers. And his Motorola days were numbered. He kept at it, but there would never be another Vuelta a España stage win or CoreStates US PRO Championship victory. He struggled on for a few more years, racing for a small Dutch team, hoping to be picked up by a bigger squad. It never happened. Zanoli’s real story, however, is not one of a single stupid act ruining the career and reputation of a shining star. In truth, his cycling career, and his life, had come off the rails long before he punched Phinney – most likely before he had ever even heard the name Phinney. The fact of the matter is that Michel Zanoli didn’t really like riding his bike. Racing was tolerable, but even that was simply a means to an end. Yet he was simply too good at it to quit. Zanoli won the Junior World Cycling Championship at the age of 16 – the same year he was asked to leave school. Had he been capable of dedicating his life to the sport that so suited him, Zanoli could have won most, if not all, of the classics. He could have collected Tour de France green jerseys like some people collect stamps. Apart from a Grand Tour overall victory, he could have won just about everything in cycling. But living the life of a cyclist just wasn’t on the cards for Michel.
I was one of his team-mates in 1991, when we both raced for the Dutch Tulip Computers team. He was easily one of the strangest, most confusing people I have ever met. This monster of a bike racer could be the sweetest, strongest and most self-sacrificing team-mate one minute, and a perfectly selfish arsehole the next. During an era in which professional cyclists were expected to show up to dinner on time, dressed in uniform team-issue tracksuits, and engage in mostly meaningless banter about the day’s events, plus women and cars, Zanoli would arrive late, in jeans and a T-shirt – if he showed up at all.
Since he had already spent time racing alongside Americans on the Coors Light squad, and I held a US passport, we roomed together a bit. When he was actually in the room, Michel was one of the politest, most considerate room-mates ever, but he was also probably the hardest to engage in any kind of conversation. It never felt personal, it just seemed that Michel didn’t care; that he would much rather be somewhere else.
Fresh off a solid performance in the Vuelta, which took place in May back then, Zanoli was one of the riders that Tulip’s directeur sportif, José De Cauwer, selected to represent the team at the US PRO Championship in Philadelphia. During the week leading up to the race, Michel was the picture of focus and dedication. And his focus paid off with a victory – and a fat sack of cash for the rest of us.
Obscured by the outcome, however, was the fact that Zanoli never rode as part of the team, even though we had all agreed to protect him throughout the race. He refused any help, refused even to be seen, opting instead to hang out in the back of the peloton all day. He was a clear favorite to win, but Zanoli’s virtual absence and lone-wolf tactics were sufficiently unnerving that his team-mate Adrie van der Poel jumped on another team’s lead-out train and tried to win the race himself. The result looked very good for Tulip on paper, but the entire proceedings had gone against our plan.
This was a common theme throughout Zanoli’s cycling career and the rest of his life. He could do amazing things on the bike – heroic things, selfless things, otherworldly things – but you never knew if you could count on him to follow the script. You wouldn’t be surprised to see him ripping the legs off of the competition on a course that didn’t really suit him, but you also wouldn’t be surprised if he quit a major race in the opening kilometres. And so it went for the rest of Michel’s life.
After disappearing from the pro peloton in 1996, his attempts to get his life in order mirrored his career on the bike. He found work at a couple of Fortune 500 companies, and was a model employee until he lost interest and became jobless. When he became a father, Michel dedicated himself to being the best he possibly could be. Parenthood, unfortunately, was no more a long-term cure for him than jobs, money, trophies and titles.
He delved deeper into drugs, with a special penchant for cocaine. He spent time in jail, got into fights, ruined relationships with family and friends. The hole he had been digging his entire life just kept getting deeper and more inescapable. And in life, just like in so many races, Zanoli would never accept anyone’s help. He wanted to do it alone.
On Monday 29 th December 2003, Michel’s father, John, telephoned. A couple of days prior, his son had asked him to call “…before 12 o’clock. Please don’t forget! Before 12 o’clock!”
When the younger Zanoli answered, he simply said: “I love you, dad – you know that, right? I love you.” And then he hung up. He died of a heart attack later that day at the age of 35.