Thursday 22 August 2019

Ciao Felice Gimondi - tribute to an Italian legend

On Tuesday it was the funeral of one of the greats of professional cycle racing, Felice Gimondi. "The Phoenix" died of a heart attack last Friday at the age of 76 while swimming on the beach, on holiday in Sicily.

Enjoying meeting a legend in Italian cycling
Gimondi was one of the top cyclists in his day, only bettered by Eddie Merckx.

He is one of only seven cyclists to have won the major Grand Tours - Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana.

The other riders are Jacques Anquetil, Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Alberto Contador, Vicenzo Nibali, Chris Froome.

I had the chance to meet Felice Gimondi in 2012 when I was in Milan. I was taking part in the Gran Fondo Gimondi, a cyclosportive in and around Bergamo, near his home village, and on a sunny Saturday afternoon the day before the event, I interviewed him at the event HQ.

Gimondi seemed a very down-to-earth and charming man, and liked a joke and a laugh. We started the interview in Italian, though my Italian was not completely fluent. He then drifted into French, which put me pretty much in my element, so we carried on that way. I wondered if he would slip into Spanish or English, but we stuck with French. He didn't know any English, since it was not the common language in the days he cycled in the 60s and 70s.

My memory of the interview was how friendly he was, and how much time he had to speak. He was a bit surprised to see young black lady taking part in the event, and gave me tips on tackling the various climbs. The next day I rode the 140km cyclosportive in weather that was a complete contrast to the lovely conditions of the previous day.

The rain came down from first thing in the morning and never stopped. Many people, mainly local Italians handed in their timing chips having decided not to ride.

But I continued, and so did Gimondi, who did pretty well considering he was almost 70 at the time. He saw me after the ride and congratulated me on completing the event. I repaid the compliment!

I had hoped to get back to the Gran Fondo again, or even the Tour of Lombardy, but time passed by and it didn't happen. Gimondi was always active in cycling - being involved with different road and mountain bike racing teams, so I just thought I would see him again. Sadly, that is not be.

I am glad to have had the chance to meet Felice Gimondi, and it was a real pleasure to talk to him.

Here's my interview with Gimondi from that day:

Do you get out on your bike much nowadays?
Normally I ride twice a week, each time for two hours and mainly on a mountain bike.  

So you are involved in mountain biking now?
Yes, I really like mountain-biking. There is a lot more traffic on the roads nowadays and it’s getting a bit dangerous. It is not the same as when I was riding on the roads many years ago, and I am not as sharp as I was at the age of 25 or 30!

But mountain biking is quite technical?
It is, but it is an easier environment to cycle in. Of course there are lots of traffic-free cycle paths but these are more for family rides rather than for training on.  Also, when we take youngsters mountain-biking it’s easier to learn about cycling off road. 

Parents aren’t necessarily in favour of taking their children out on the roads at a young age, but they don’t mind them going out on mountain-bike rides. I haven’t completely given up riding on the road – I still get out and ride the local routes.

Do you have any favourite routes on the roads local to where you live in Bergamo?
My favourite routes are in the Brembilla area, north of Bergamo. These routes are included in my Gran Fondo event. I enjoy riding a loop around the Val Taleggio. It is 60km and when I was preparing for the Giro d'Italia many years ago I would go round that route 3 times, doing it 3 times a week.

Is Lombardy your favourite area to ride?
Of course – I was born and bred in this province, and I still live here now. I won the Tour of Lombardy twice, and the Milan-San Remo. These are my favourite routes! I have put my name to a Gran Fondo event and a Mountain-bike Marathon which are held in this area.

As President of TX Active-Bianchi
There is a Felice Gimondi Mountain-bike Marathon?
Yes. As well as the Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi in May, there is the Gimondibike which is a mountain -bike race. I think that in the future there will be more off-road Gran Fondo events as it is easier to get the permission to organise those. 

Gran Fondo events on roads are being subjected more and more to last minute route alterations and it is becoming more difficult to get the authorisation from the relevant bodies. 

I understand that you are involved in team management now.
Yes, I still work with Bianchi who sponsor three road racing teams – Androni Giocattoli, Vacansoleil-DCM, and Columbia Coldeportes. I will have worked with Bianchi for 50 years next year - as an amateur racer, as a professional, and now as a team manager of different teams.  

I am also president of Team TX Active-Bianchi, a mountain biking team. We have a young guy, Gerhard Kerschbaumer, who won the Under-23 Italian National Mountain Biking Championships and European Championships. (He finished in 13th place at the London 2012 Olympics.) 

You have also competed in the Olympics. How was it for you?
Yes, I raced in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. There was a racer who got away and I joined him in the breakaway. But then about 1.5km from the finish line, we were brought back by the peloton, led by Eddie Merckx and I had no chance of winning.

You went on to have numerous victories in the years afterwards though.  
Yes, I won around 150 professional races including the Tour de France and Tour de L’Avenir (amateur), Vuelta a Espana, three times the Giro d’Italia, Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo, World Championships, twice the Grand Prix des Nations Time Trial, twice the Tour of Lombardy and twice Paris-Brussels, which is no longer as important as it was back then. In those days it was as high profile as the Paris-Roubaix, but without as many cobbles, though it was quite long - 311km.

What motivated you to keep going?
Just the hunger to win. I trained very hard. When you are preparing for big races nothing is too much! As a professional racer it was about taking everything I did into consideration. I was completely committed in mind, body and spirit to my performance. You have to be fully committed if you want to achieve your goals – as much in your training as in your state of mind. I couldn’t go to sleep at night without knowing what training I would be doing the following day.

When I won the Tour de France it was my first year as a professional cyclist. At that time I hardly knew anything about professional racing. I didn’t know the other racers. On my cycling mitts I’d written the names and race numbers of the riders who were possible challengers, as well as their ranking in the General Classification. So when a racer attacked I could quickly look down at my hands and check their credentials. 

Back then, mitts were plain and light-coloured so I could easily write on them. With racing kit having logos of sponsors all over them nowadays it wouldn’t have been possible to write anything down if I were racing today!

You form part of an illustrious group of riders from the 60s and 70s like Eddie Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Luis Ocana, and Tom Simpson. What was it like in those days racing against these big names?
I enjoyed those times. There was strong rivalry but my contemporaries were very professional. 
I have good memories of Tom Simpson. He wasn’t just a brilliant racer but he was also a great man. You always felt good when you were with him, and he always liked to joke. 

I remember that day on Mont Ventoux in 1967. There were 5 or 6 racers who got into a breakaway. Tom was with them, and that was the last time I ever saw him. Jan Jansen went on to win the stage to Avignon. I didn’t know exactly what had happened as I was just learning French so couldn’t understand everything. 

It was later on when I was receiving a massage in the hotel that I found out that Tom had died on Mont Ventoux.

During the 60s and 70s you would have been the best Italian racer at that time. How did it feel being the best in the country?
It was a nice feeling, but in many races my nemesis was Eddie Merckx, and I wanted to get near him in the competition. He was just too good though. For me, he was the best rider of all time, full stop!

What was the rapport like between the two of you?
During the races there was a strong rivalry, but his behaviour was very correct, and we had a lot of respect for each other. He had an engine that was just bigger than everyone else’s and everyone knew it! Aside from that, he was a man of good character, and was altruistic. Merckx was a true professional.

In the peloton today, do you think we have the big personalities like we had in the past?
It is difficult to have that nowadays because we don’t get the duels all year round like we used to have. It always seems to be arranged that while one big name is doing the Giro d’Italia, the other is focusing on the Tour de France or the classics, or the World Championships. 

Gimondi reminisces about what has changed in cycling since his day
Back in our day great rivals would race against each other many times a year, including in the big races. 

It was easier to keep those names in mind, whereas nowadays someone becomes well known in one Grand Tour, and then when the next big race comes round he is forgotten and the focus is on someone else for a few months. 

It therefore becomes more difficult for the public to keep a specific racer’s name in mind and so it is harder for a racer to develop into a big personality like it was in the past.  

In your opinion how has racing changed since the time when you raced?
I think the passion for racing has not changed. Perhaps it’s more difficult nowadays because there are more distractions, especially with things like earpieces and race radio. What is missing is the rider who is open in his style of racing and more instinctive. 

Nowadays each rider is told what his job will be during in a race, and that doesn’t allow for racing on instinct. For example, a racer may be told that his job is to control the race and then help set up his team mate for the sprint 10km from the finish line. That is what has changed from the time when I raced.

Also today’s racers are shaped to be just specialists in one thing. A team may want a 60kg rider who can become a climbing specialist, or they may want a powerful sprinter. It is not like before where a racer was an all-rounder and could win Paris-Roubaix, then the Tour of Italy, and still finish well in the Tour de France and the World Championships.

Who are your favourite racers?
I like Andy Schlek, though he needs to work on his time trialling. I remember his father as I raced against him many years ago as an amateur and a professional. He was quick, but not as quick as his sons though!

I also like Cadel Evans. There are riders in my team who raced against him in mountain bike races in Australia.
I must also add to that list, Alberto Contador. It is a shame what happened to him. I don’t agree with imposing a ban on a rider two years after the offence.

You should do the test on day one, the B sample (contra analysis) after 2 or 3 days, with the final decision being made no later than 10 days afterwards. I don’t understand why there was a two-year wait to make such a ruling, and I don’t think that it is correct. 

Riders have new contracts to sign, which are based on their performance in the big races. Sometimes we are talking about one million euros. How can we proceed with anything if someone will lose, or even gain the Maglia Rosa after two years! It must have been quite a strange situation for Michele Scarponi as well. In any case, I think Contador still has a good future ahead of him and he will continue to win further titles.

I understand you will be honoured, on your birthday at the end of September during the Tour of Lombardy. You must be quite pleased about that.
Yes, the Tour of Lombardy will start from Bergamo and will celebrate my many years in cycling. I will be 70 years old on the day of the race! It is a great honour to be given this recognition, and at my favourite event. It will be a special occasion for me. 

I won it in 1966 and in 1973 and they were big victories for me. I know the roads very well, and I still ride them on my regular club runs. I will be at the start of the race, but sadly I won’t be able to race it all! 

May 2012 
Interview was conducted in French

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My Tour of Lombardy: Como, Bellagio, Ghisallo, and ooh Sormano!

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