A Talk with Felice Gimondi, "Il Campionissimo"
By Valeria Paoletti
Setting up an appointment with the great Felice Gimondi, Italy's last Campionissimo (champion of champions), was not very easy. This very distinguished man was the last truly complete Italian rider capable of winning all the important races, which at that time required beating Eddy Merckx. Today he works for Bianchi and runs an insurance business. His work for Bianchi involves traveling not only all over Italy, but also out of his home country, such is his international prestige.
In planning my trip to see Franco Bitossi, the other great Italian champion of the 60s and 70s, and to visit two bike museums in the North of Italy, I had really hoped I could meet Mr Gimondi as well. But ten days before my departure he told me that, unfortunately, he couldn't see me.
Ten days later I was in Tuscany to meet Mr. Bitossi. I was in the middle of my interview when my mobile phone rang. Mr. Gimondi had his appointments cancelled and had thought to call me to tell me he could see me the day after. What luck!
Valeria Paoletti: It looks like you had a busy 1965 spring for a young man of 22. You were second in the Fleche Wallone, fourth in the Tour of Romandie and third in the Giro d'Italia. Did you feel like it was a tough start for your pro career?
Felice Gimondi: No I didn't feel like that, I was very calm. Actually, at the beginning I was supposed to ride only the Giro among these big races. But then, during the Giro della Toscana which finished in Montecatini Alto, we took it too easy in the Salvarani Team. Only [Vittorio] Adorni and I finished it. Our boss then said that if we had not started to work hard he wouldn't have paid us.
VP: That motivated you!
FG: Of course. We went to Belgium to race the Fleche Wallone, and Roberto Poggiali and I were first and second in the sprint. With 5 km to go Poggiali broke away on the pavé. I didn't go with him immediately because I wanted to wait for the reaction of [Tommy] Simpson, who was famous and experienced. When I realized that Simpson didn't have the strength to chase Poggiali that day, I took off on my own to close the gap to Poggiali. I was hoping I could beat him in the sprint, but Poggiali beat me.
VP: What happened then?
FG: We went to the Tour of Romandie where I did well from the start. I was third at the first stage at Martigny, while in Crans Montana I was second behind Vittorio Adorni [thereby earning the overall lead for two stages]. By the end of the Tour I was fourth in GC.
VP: Then you went to the Giro d'Italia. Were you sent to the Giro to help your team leader, Vittorio Adorni?
FG: Yes, of course I was there to support him.
VP: What were the dynamics within your team and what was your relationship with the Team Director Luciano Pezzi and with Vittorio Adorni ?
FG: I listened to what they advised and thought. They had a great deal of experience. And of course it was part of my job to do what they said. I remember the stage of the Giro to Madesimo (295 km), with the Sempione and the San Bernardino climbs. I was in a break with five other riders and we had a two and half minute lead on the peloton when Director Pezzi came to stop me because Adorni was the Pink Jersey and was behind.... I had to adapt to the circumstances. That day Adorni won and I arrived sixth behind the best riders [Taccone, Bitossi, Feretti, Zilioli then Gimondi].
VP: Do you think you would have been able to beat Adorni and wear the Pink Jersey if you had been given your freedom that year?
FG: That year the roles in the Team were well defined and I thought it was fair to follow the Team's decision.
VP: At the end of the Giro you were third. Were you satisfied?
FG: You know at the beginning of each competition I was always thinking that I would have been happy with just with a high placing, but then I always wanted more. I was always looking ahead. When I was very young I dreamed to be an amateur. Then when I was an amateur I dreamed to take the 'Maglia Azzurra' [the blue jersey of a member of the Italian National Team] and so on....
VP: The appetite comes with eating!
FG: Yes, it was like that for me.
VP: After the Giro there were a few weeks before the start of the Tour. What happened in that interval?
FG: I was not supposed to go to the Tour. In fact, I took part in the 80 kilometer Time Trial of Castrocaro (Tuscany), a classic of that era [run from 1958 to 1979]. That year it was on June 17 and I came in second to Anquetil by 19 seconds. Returning from this race and going up to Bergamo, Luciano Pezzi stopped me in Imola [a city on the way to Bergamo] in the evening and invited me to dinner. Our 'Patron' Luigi Salvarani was also there and they asked me, almost in a shy way, if I wanted to race the Tour.
VP: And did you want to go to the Tour?
FG: To them I said I would have needed to discuss it with my father, but deep inside I knew I wanted to race the Tour! The advice of my father was just an excuse to have some time to answer them but the thought of the Tour made me really enthusiastic.
VP: Did you feel ready for it?
FG: Yes. During the Giro I had been feeling better and better every week. And I had a talent for the long stage races.
VP: What did you do to prepare for the Tour?
FG: Nothing special. Between Giro and Tour there were only 3 weeks and during those 3 weeks there was, as I mentioned, the Castrocaro time trial. I just kept on training to stay in condition.
VP: What was the Tour's impact on you?
FG: It was a big thing. You know, until that moment I had spent most of my time in the little team of my parish recreation center so it seemed that I had entered a completely different world. I remember the bustle and the photos they took of our team at the start. It was all new for me.
VP: What were the roles in your team this time?
FG: Even here I had to help Adorni, the captain. They told me to race 'from day to day', without worrying about the rest.
VP: Did the fact that you had nothing to lose, being a very young neo-pro, help you? I mean, you didn't have a lot of pressure on you. This must have been favorable. I ask you this because your Tour and your victory in Paris seemed so easy and smooth.
FG: On one hand this is true, I had no pressure on me for the General Classification, but during the important stages I was there, fighting for a high placing and I did feel the pressure. I did well from the beginning of the Tour---I was second on the pavé at the second stage in Roubaix. I won the third stage in Rouen---and this put me in the 'eye of the storm' very soon. With my successes early in the Tour, the stages that followed started to be important for the GC so I was always there among the leaders. Like at the time trial in Chateaulin, were I was only seven seconds behind the winner, Raymond Poulidor. My rivalry with him had already begun.
VP: So you weren't that happy-go-lucky.
FG: I was in the sense that every evening I was gratified for what I had done during the day.
VP: In terms of gratification your psychological situation was much easier than Poulidor's. He needed and meant to win the Tour that year, after his defeat in 1964, when Anquetil wore the Yellow Jersey in Paris.
Felice Gimondi stopped telling his story for a moment. He knew that I am not a journalist and that I have another job. It was clear that I was not even born when all this happened. He asked me, 'But how do you know all this?? And when could you study?' He referred in particular to my knowledge of Poulidor and Anquetil's duel in the 60s. I told him that having to prepare for his and Bitossi's interview I had to go through everything that happened between 1965 and 1968. I did it during my train rides to work. His expression was one of happy surprise.
FG: Yes, in 1964 Poulidor lost in a bad way. There was a breakaway of ten or twelve riders. He had a problem with his wheel and had to stop to change it. While he was changing it with the mechanic something happened and he lost one and half minutes to Anquetil [this was on stage 14, from Andorra to Toulouse. In pushing Poulidor to get him back up to speed, his mechanic caused him to crash].
VP: I am curious to know more about your first Tour victory, at the 3rd stage from Roubaix to Rouen. You outsprinted one of the finest sprinters in the history of the sport, Andre Darrigade. Can you tell us about the sprint? You won it with both hands up with a good gap to your rivals.
FG: I was in a break with others, only ten seconds ahead of the peloton and we could not slow down. We were all redlined. Before leaving that day I had written some numbers on my doeskin gloves: on one glove I had written the numbers corresponding to the sprinters and on the other I had written the numbers of the riders racing for the General Classification. In this way I had things under control. You know I didn't know all the riders yet. Knowing that Darrigade, who was in the break with me, was a dangerous man in the sprints I tried an escape with 1 km to go and I won with 4-5 second lead.
VP: Darrigade was looking for a 25th stage victory to tie the record of Andre Leducq, the great French Tour winner of the 1930's. How did he take it?
FG: Well, all the great riders came to congratulate me. I remember that the day after, during the stage, Jan Janssen [1968 Tour winner] congratulated me for having two great days in a row.
VP: I think they were starting to see your talent, your stuff. And at the Stage 5, a time trial at Chateaulin, you beat your team leader Adorni and as you said, you were only seven seconds behind Poulidor.
FG: Chateaulin is in Brittany. This is an area that really loves bicycle racing. I remember 30,000-40,000 people yelling for their idols in a village whose shape made it very much like a big, natural stadium. So it was more difficult for me, being an Italian.
VP: At that point the man to protect in your Team was not Adorni anymore, correct ? It was you....
FG: There was a Yellow Jersey in the Salvarani Team now and it had to be protected. A Yellow Jersey in our team was first of all good for 'Patron' Salvarani, because it meant a lot of publicity for our team. That doesn't mean I already had all the team on my side, but some riders with more experience, such as [Diego] Ronchini and [Arnaldo] Pambianco, helped me. Ronchini had won the Giro di Lombardia and had worn the Pink Jersey and Pambianco had won the Giro d'Italia. They saw in me a young talented rider who needed support and advice.
VP: How about Adorni?
FG: During Stage 7 to La Rochelle, a rainy day, there was a crash that involved Adorni and even though I was Yellow Jersey I stopped to wait for him, together with the rest of my team. That made me miss a break and lose my Yellow Jersey.
VP: It's not very common to see a Yellow Jersey wasting time to help his teammates.
FG: I knew there would be more chances for me to get it back.
VP: Stage 9, from Dax to Bagneres de Bigorre was important and dramatic. Many riders including Bahamontes, and the man to whom you had relinquished the Yellow Jersey for 2 days, Van de Kerckhove along with Vuelta winner Rolf Wolfshol as well as your team leader Vittorio Adorni quit. It was a very hot day. L'Equipe thought it might be a sign of doping. Do you have any theories as to why so many fine riders abandoned that day?
FG: It was way too hot. At that time there were no anti-doping controls, so we were free to take what we wanted. The anti-doping controls started the next year, in 1966 [Anquetil led a rider's protest against them that year].
VP: What do you remember about that day in the Pyrenees?
FG: It was a hard stage. On the Tourmalet I was in a break of five or six, including [Julio] Jimenez, [Gianni] Motta and Poulidor. A little behind us there was Pambianco. He saw the easy way I was pedaling and he beckoned me to attack.... I accelerated a little and Jimenez counter-attacked immediately. He was not dangerous for the Overall so at the top of the Tourmalet he was first and Motta and I just followed him.
VP: Then on descent of the Tourmalet you flatted.
FG: Yes, as soon as the descent started. I had to wait for the car that was quite a bit behind.
VP: And Poulidor could catch you....
FG: Poulidor passed me and then reached Motta. But then I flew on the descent and I caught them with five kilometers to go.
VP: How was your relationship with Poulidor?
FG: Good. There was a fair competitive rivalry and respect between us. Just before the last stage, the Versailles-Paris time trial, I went to greet him while he was about to start, 3 minutes before me. I was warming up and I saw him leaving. It was instinctive for me to wish him good luck and this was photographed.
VP: You beat him by one minute and twelve seconds during this time trial. Did you have him in sight?
FG: No I couldn't see him, but I could read my lead with respect to him on a blackboard that my team showed me on the way.
VP: Some odd memories of that Tour?
FG: I remember the Stage 11, from Aix les Thermes to Barcelona. It was so hot that the asphalt used at that time melted and the tubular types left a mark on it!
VP: Franco Bitossi, whom you know I met yesterday, told me that at the end of the day you were all dirty with the asphalt.
FG: In the evenings you had to clean yourself with fuel.
VP: When I interviewed Celestino Vercelli about the Tour of 1971 he told me they couldn't sleep because it was too hot and they were staying in dorms.
FG: Of course there was no air conditioning. In Barcelona we were in a very nice hotel, but it was very hot. I shared my room with Ronchini. We kept both the windows and the room door open. And still.... Ronchini found two ice chests, he filled them with ice and slept with his hands in the ice. Sometimes, as you said, they sent us to dormitories.
VP: And you couldn't say no.
FG: No, first you were notified and then disqualified. In Briancon we were all together in a big room. The teams were separated only by some closets. The mattresses were on the floor. To have some darkness we nailed the blankets to the windows...
VP: Do you remember the gearing you used on the mountains?
FG: 42/24 or 42/25 and 5 or 6 gears in the back. We didn't have 10 gears like today, so you had to make a clear choice of what you wanted. Usually I mounted 3 gears for the flats and 3 gears for the climbs.
VP: Let's go back to the stages. Poulidor announced that stage 14, from Montpellier to the top of Mount Ventoux, would be where he would strike his first blow to gain the Yellow Jersey.
FG: I usually needed some time to warm up, to work on the climbs. I preferred to have some smaller hill before a big climb. And that day it wasn't like that. I couldn't take the sudden change of rhythm of the race. I started to over-sweat and I understood I had to let the others [Jimenez, Poulidor, Motta, Anglade and others] go. I went up the mountain at my own speed, in a very regular way. This allowed me to catch almost all of them after some time, except Jimenez and Poulidor. I lost more than one minute to Poulidor but I kept my Yellow Jersey.
VP: Poulidor pulled to within a half-minute of you in the GC after gaining the time bonus for the stage win. After that, there were four alpine stages scheduled.
FG: Yes, I wasn't very lucky in the Stage 16, from Gap to Briancon. I didn't need to attack and I didn't want to run unnecessary risks, but I wanted to chase [Joaquim] Galera, who was in a break, at least in the final kilometers. I was with Motta and when I changed gear to speed up my chain came off. I leaned against a car and people noticed that. They pushed me a little and the chain became re-engaged. Now I could make it up to the Poulidor group again, but Motta was already ahead. I tried to chase Galera and Motta but at the end I was third, winning the field sprint that in Briancon is uphill.
VP: Poulidor announced that he would use the final stage of the four Alpine stages, Stage 18, the individual hill climb time trial up Mt. Revard to take the overall lead for good. But you won the stage and took 23 seconds out of Poulidor plus you gained a 20 second time bonus.
FG: Mount Revard is not far from Italy so that day there were many Italians and even 'Patron' Salvarani watching. They were there to console me. They thought Poulidor would beat me for sure because he was a specialist in that kind of stage. I told them to wait and see what happens because I had been able to beat hill climb time trial specialists in the past.
VP: I guess they were assuming that even if you were having a great Tour until that moment, you wouldn't have been able to wear the yellow jersey in Paris. Too young, too inexperienced for that.
FG: And instead I was very determined to come in first in Paris.
VP: And you had a mechanical problem. What happened to your bike?
FG: I had mounted three gears for the flat and I had an 18, 19, 20 for the climb. The 19 broke, so I climbed with the 18.
VP: With the tallest gear of the three... . How could you make it?
FG: That day I had the legs!
Gimondi smiled with 'gusto'. Clearly, He was clearly enjoying recounting his adventures to me.
VP: A picture of you on Mont Revard shows that your front brake quick-release (you had Universal centerpull brakes) was open. Accident?
FG: During the time trial I wanted to keep the brake release as open as possible to avoid being slowed down by the friction. I didn't need to brake!
VP: On a hill climb time trial like this, was there any special equipment used on your bike? Did you use the same gearing as in the normal stages in the mountains ?
FG: No, we used a tougher gearing, because we had to give our best in just a few kilometers. If in a normal mountain stage of 240 kilometers I used the 22-23, in a hill climb time trial I had the 20.
VP: At this point you had a minute and twelve second lead on Poulidor and over eight minutes on third-place Motta. Did you feel at all comfortable with that lead knowing there was one more time trial to come?
FG: I felt relatively comfortable, but I knew that the situation could still change. With the final time trial to come, one minute and twelve seconds are not a very big lead if you remember that Poulidor was a time trial specialist.
VP: Well, we know how it went in Paris.... I am curious about your attitude in racing. Anquetil generally won his stage races in a particular way. He would dominate the time trials and then contain his rivals in the mountains. This gave him the luxury of riding economically without having to expend energy attacking on road stages. Your 1965 Tour has this feel. Did it just happen to come out this way or you tried to model yourself on Anquetil ?
FG: I followed my instinct. But even successively in my career I have never been a shrewd man like Indurain. He didn't seem to be Spanish in this regard. Anquetil was the first to have such an attitude and I think he was the finest and classiest rider of my era. He started to win time trials when he was 19, when he won the 'Gran Prix des Nations'. You know, the classic Time Trials of my era were the 'Gran Prix des Nations', 'Lugano', 'Castrocaro' and 'Baracchi'. I didn't win a lot of time trials, but still...I won 5 Castrocaro, 2 Gran Prix des Nations, 2 Lugano and 2 Baracchi.
VP: You've ridden both the Tour and the Giro several times. Which did you prefer?
FG: I have no doubts, the Tour. The competition was more open and wide. At that time, when the race was far less tactical than today, the Tour meant: 'Pronti, Via, Battaglia [Ready, Go, Fight]!'. And I felt it closer to my way of being. The harder the race the more I liked it and felt that I could express myself.
VP: In the 1965 Tour there was only one day with two stages on the same day. In later years, the Tour organizers finally tried to get away with even three stages in one day [something they had done in the 1930's]. Any thoughts about the conditions you rode under in those days? What did you do between one stage and another?
FG: Well, what could we do with 40° C (104° F) outside? They put us in big tents to wait and gave us prosciutto and cheese to wait for the second stage.
VP: What did you eat for breakfast? When?
FG: In those years they used to give us rice and a steak for breakfast, three hours before the start. So, during the stage to Madesimo of the 1965 Giro d'Italia, when the start was at 7 a.m., we had to have breakfast 4 a.m.....
VP: What is the biggest difference between your era's and today's riders nutrition?
FG: They have a normal breakfast plus they eat spaghetti. The meat has been greatly reduced. Then they have many other special sugars today that we didn't have. During the last years of my career we got a sugar from Finland that helped us. But the philosophy was still the same: a filling and substantial breakfast.
VP: You were the 1973 World Professional Road Champion. May we step back to that race? To this day the arguments seem to never cease. It was in Barcelona, on September 2. The race was 248 kilometers. 87 riders started. In the final laps of the race there was a break formed of you, Freddy Maertens, Luis Ocana and Eddy Merckx. For 31 years Merckx has accused Maertens of failing to give him a proper lead-out, thereby costing him a sure Rainbow Jersey.
FG: Yes, Eddy still says that. I met Merckx lately at the end of August and he still believes he was cheated by Maertens. He thinks Maertens started the sprint by going too fast.
VP: And by doing so Maertens left Merckx too far behind him to give him a proper lead-out ?
VP: Sorry, I know your relationship with Merckx is very good, but in saying that he lost only because Maertens cheated him he seems to somehow cheapen your accomplishment.
FG: He can't admit it but the reason for his defeat that day was not Maertens. Eddy didn't have the legs.
Gimondi draws me pictures of the different phases of this sprint 'of discord' in a very detailed way. He shows me that as soon as Merkcx "got some wind" by coming off the Maerten's wheel, he got stuck.
FG: When Maertens started his lead-out I could follow him without problems and, you know, I was not the best in speed changes. If a rider like Eddy couldn't fill the gap it was only because he didn't have the right legs. On any other day Eddy would have won a sprint like this with one leg.
VP: If Maertens had sprinted for himself rather than acting as a lead-out, do you think he could have beat you to the line?
FG: Yes, if he could have sprinted for himself, without exposing himself to the wind from the beginning of the sprint, he would have beat us by a length of 2 cars. Maertens was still very dynamic in the last 50 meters of the sprint, he was even elbowing. I had to elbow back.
VP: Did Maertens slow down to let Merckx pass?
FG: No, you never slow down in a sprint. It was understood that Eddy would have passed him. And everybody knew that he would have 'sacrificed' for Eddy. I saw them talking about that before the race. Eddy was Eddy, Maertens was still a little boy.
VP: And Gimondi was there?
FG: The last 5 km were quite narrow, I drafted Eddy without passing. It was not a flat sprint, it had an incline, 3-4 %. And you needed good legs after 240 km at 40° C . If you weren't in perfect condition, this little incline at the end could get you stuck, just like with Eddy.
VP: Well, it wasn't his day...
FG: Thank goodness!! Era ora! [It was time!] It was a big surprise for everybody, even for me! I had thought that at the best I would have been second. This victory was also good in that it saved the face of my manager, De Filippis, who had preferred me to Motta.
VP: From what I read I had the feeling that between you and Gianni Motta there was some tension.
FG: We were very different, and yes, there was some friction. It was not easy for De Filippis to leave Motta at home but I was sure that without Motta I would have all the team riding for me. Our racing characteristics were different. I needed to work during the entire race and make it hard for the others. In contrast, Motta was faster in the sprints and so it was dangerous to have him near in the last part of a race.
VP: Looking at your career as a whole I see that you were on top of the world, probably the finest rider alive in the mid 60's, with victories that were stunning: 1965 Tour, 1966 Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Brussels, 1967 Giro. Then things weren't that easy anymore. Then in the mid 70's you came back to win Milan-San Remo, the Worlds, and the Giro? What happened in between?
FG: Nothing more than the arrival of Eddy Merckx. He won five Giri and five Tours. This happened during my best years. I would have been able to win much more than 3 Giri and 1 Tour.... Then there was the physiological difficulty of racing against him. I had to change a lot of my way of racing.
VP: How do you think he affected you?
FG: Eddy didn't forgive the slightest mistake. First of all you had to avoid being dropped by him, then you had to be able to actually stay with him and at the end you to find a way to win!
VP: It was psychologically very draining.
FG: Yes. During some long and hard races, like World Championship, after something like 280 km it was usually just Eddy and me in a fight for the victory. Sometimes there happened to be a third rider. You never knew when Eddy would decide to launch his attack and if you let him take off for a moment you could never catch him again.
VP: Do you think you affected Merckx in his way of racing?
FG: Nobody could affect the way Merckx raced. He was like an enormous tank full of fuel, very competitive in every kind of race: prologues, time trials of 50-60 km (after 60 km it was harder for him I think), climbs and sprints. I remember back when I had to skip a Paris-Roubaix because I had crashed a few days before in Belgium. I watched the race on TV. When I saw him breaking away it seemed like the others were just letting him go. I mean, on TV you could not realize and see all the efforts that the others were doing to be with him. And despite the efforts sometimes you had to resign yourself to see him flying away.
VP: Do you follow the races today?
FG: Yes I do. Unfortunately on TV it's not possible to see all the details than you can see when you are there. For example I could understand how my adversary was feeling in terms of strength by watching the veins on his legs.
VP: What is the victory that you remember with the most pleasure?
FG: The 1965 Tour because I was young and lively and I raced instinctively. But in my heart there is also my victory of the Giro d'Italia of 1976. I was 34 and I was considered an outsider and not a possible winner. We started from Catania. I won the stage in Bergamo beating Eddy Merckx. In the penultimate curve I elbowed with Baronchelli to get on Eddy's wheel. On the other side there were the men of [Francesco] Moser's team working for him. Eddy wanted to surprise Moser and launched his attack early. I drafted him and was able pass him at the end. It was very nice to win in the heart of Bergamo, my city. The day after, during the time trial at Arcore, I took the Pink Jersey and then won that Giro.
VP: Is it true that both you and Franco Bitossi retired from racing on the same day ?
FG: Yes, during the Giro dell'Emilia [of 1978]. It was raining and we had both lost all of our motivation. When it's time to stop you feel it inside. We watched each other and said: 'We don't want to get wet again, let's stop here'.
This hour with Felice Gimondi went very fast. I felt dazed by all the details he could remember. I thought he would love to see the pictures that Franco Bitossi had given me the day before. They were black and white photos from the races of the 60s and 70s with all the protagonists of that era, including Mr. Felice, of course. While going from one picture to the other and commenting upon them I could see the delight his eyes. He wanted to give me some photos too but he could not find them in his office. Then he remembered that he had given them to a person who is writing a book about him. But he showed me the little books that every rider gets before a stage race like the Tour or the Giro and that describes the characteristics of the stages (distance, gradients and villages). We went through the 1965 Tour book and I could see how for each stage he had written down the winner and his position. He is a very precise man. 'You see' he said 'every time the gradient started to get tough, I was among the leaders that year.'
I noticed a beautiful yellow jersey with a lot of signatures in a frame that hanged on the wall. Gimondi explained to me that this was the jersey that every Tour de France winner had for the centenary of the Tour, with the signatures of all the living winners.
I had somebody waiting for me outside Gimondi's office but he wanted to offer me a coffee and to introduce me his daughter, a very nice girl of my own age looking unmistakably like her father. I exchanged a few more words with the Gimondi family, I kissed Mr. Felice on his cheeks and I left with a big smile and a very pleasant feeling.
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