Felice Gimondi obituary: Cycling great came up against Merckx in his prime

One of the greats of Italian cycling who won the 1965 Tour de France when he was only 22

Felice Gimondi competing in the Tour de France in 1975. Photograph: John Pierce/Rex/Shutterstock

Felice Gimondi competing in the Tour de France in 1975. Photograph: John Pierce/Rex/Shutterstock

 

Felice Gimondi Born: September 29th, 1942; Died: August 16th, 2019

Felice Gimondi, who has died of a heart attack aged 76, was one of Italy’s greatest cycling champions of the postwar era, a precociously young winner of the Tour de France who was widely viewed as the successor to the legendary “Campionissimo” Fausto Coppi. However, along with every professional cyclist racing between 1966 and 1976, Gimondi was unfortunate to be competing when Eddy Merckx was in his prime; in spite of that he built a palmarès (prize list) that places him in the top 10 cyclists of all time.

In 1964 Gimondi rode the Tokyo Olympic Games – as did Merckx – and went on to win that year’s Tour de l’Avenir, a mini version of the Tour de France for riders under 25 – currently it is for people under 23. The following year he became the only rider to win the Avenir and the Tour itself in successive seasons, when he took the Tour at the age of 22; until Egan Bernal’s victory this year, Gimondi remained the youngest Tour winner in the postwar era.

Gimondi’s Avenir title had earned him a professional contact with the Salvarani squad and as a novice he was not expected to gain a ride in the Tour de France even though he finished third in the Giro d’Italia in the spring of 1965, a surprising result for a debutant. But a teammate withdrew shortly before the start of the Tour and Gimondi was called up; he recalled later that he had had to ask his mother for her permission to race.

In the absence of the five-times winner Jacques Anquetil, that year’s Tour was expected to be won by the “eternal second” Raymond Poulidor, but Gimondi surprised everyone by taking the yellow jersey on stage three into Rouen. He was expected to be a caretaker until his teammate Vittorio Adorni stepped up, and relinquished the lead for a couple of days after waiting with the rest of Salvarani when Adorni crashed. Eventually Adorni pulled out, and Poulidor became the big threat, but Gimondi hung on up the notorious Mont Ventoux and then sealed the title with victory in the final time trial.

The following season, he turned his attention to one-day racing, taking the Paris-Roubaix cobbled classic with an epic 42km solo break. He added the marathon Paris-Brussels and at the end of the season outsprinted Anquetil and Merckx to win the Giro di Lombardia.

In 1967 he won the Giro d’Italia, and the following year he became the only cyclist along with Anquetil to win all three major Tours: France, Italy, Spain. Since then, only five others have managed the triple in their careers, most recently Britain’s Chris Froome.

Gimondi was born into a working-class family near Bergamo; his father ran a small transport business, while his mother delivered the local post by bicycle, prompting the disapproval of the local priest. He began racing in 1959 – having been forced to ride his first bike barefoot – and won his first race on 1 May 1960, a few months after Coppi’s early death had rocked Italy; four years later he began an enduring connection with the Bianchi cycle company – celebrated for its links with Coppi – when Coppi’s former mechanic approached him to race for the amateur team.

After his triumphs of 1967, Gimondi was still only 25, but unfortunately for him, that was the season when Merckx attained maturity. He was to dominate the sport until 1975 leaving slender pickings for the likes of Gimondi, who beat the Belgian head to head only a few times, most notably in the 1973 world championship at Barcelona, when the “Cannibal” and his teammate Freddy Maertens were unable to combine to good effect in the finish.

After 1968, most of his biggest victories came when Merckx was either indisposed (the 1976 Giro), absent (the 1974 Milan-San Remo), or won but was subsequently disqualified for doping – the 1969 Giro and the 1973 Lombardia. Like all the best cyclists of the Merckx era, Gimondi was doomed to be a doughty adversary rather than a prolific winner, but his duels won him deep affection and tributes in songs by Enrico Ruggeri (Gimondi e il Cannibale) and Elio e le Storie Tese (Sono Felice).

After retirement in 1978, Gimondi set up an insurance company, but remained close to his sport through work for the Bianchi cycle company. On their behalf he was an elegant, seigneurial presence at most of the major races. Through Luciano Pezzi, he kept a direct link with Bianchi’s sponsored riders, most notably Marco Pantani, who in 1998 became the first Italian to win the Tour since Gimondi himself 33 years earlier.

In 1968, Gimondi married Tiziana Bersano, whose parents ran a small hotel in Liguria, and were friends with his teammate Adorni; their relationship had blossomed after Salvarani used the hotel for a training camp. The couple had two daughters, Norma and Federica; all three survive him. – Guardian