Words: William Fotheringham Photo: Offside/L’Equipe
Sic transit gloria mundi. Addio Vigorelli, the under used and under loved track in Milan where the boards are to be ripped up. It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss at the disappearance of one of the last links with the great days of track cycling; the days when the crowds would queue for hours to watch the likes of Antonio Maspes, Reg Harris, Fausto Coppi and Ferdi Kübler ride within what is a monumental and somewhat pompous structure. The building harks back to the fascist days, is in the same style as the city’s Central station, and is to be retained. You will still be able to go there and ponder the wartime day in 1942 when Coppi braved the British bombs to set his hour record but it is unlikely to see bike racing again.
When I visited the track in 2005 during research for Fallen Angel, my biography of Fausto Coppi, it already bore little resemblance to a functioning velodrome. Although the immediate surroundings were no more propitious than at Manchester, it made a stark contrast with that place’s bustling foyer, the constant comings and goings of the GB team and the sold out sessions. Vigorelli’s legendary boards of north African maple were still in place, although they were clearly unusable. (The note in the dilapidated lobby recalling a Beatles concert was an amusing footnote.)
It was obvious even then that it would take a monumental effort, a fair bit of finance, and a huge drive on the part of Italian cycling if it were ever to be restored to its former glory.
In a parallel universe – one where the UCI wasn’t constantly panicking about surviving the latest doping scandal and sending legal letters to those who question its dealings (step forward Paul Kimmage, Floyd Landis and Greg LeMond) – you could envisage a future for track cycling in which velodromes such as the Vigorelli host World Cup competitions. They would be a hub for activities which draw young people into the sport. The boards would be seen as a vital way of getting youth cyclists onto their bikes free of city traffic and winter weather.
This is what is happening in Britain but, given the absence of a coherent top level plan to reboot worldwide track cycling, it is unlikely to happen elsewhere. In the litany of the UCI’s crimes against the sport it is supposed to run, killing off track cycling – by omission rather than commission – should have a prominent place, along with its disregard for women’s racing.
That the Vigorelli would not have a future was confirmed in the week that we lost another link to the golden age of Coppi, Bartali, Kübler et al. Fiorenzo Magni’s death at the age of 91 closed a magnificent innings in which he won the Giro d’Italia three times, claimed a legendary second place in the Giro with a broken collarbone and humerus, and achieved the unlikely feat of winning the Tour of Flanders three years running.
He was an energetic, bustling, determined man in his late 80s when I met him for an interview which was of immense value when writing Fallen Angel, and which eventually appeared in these pages. His memories were clear; in the ‘affair’ of the White Lady which had so divided Italy, he had come down firmly on the side of Coppi’s wronged wife Bruna, to whom he and his wife were close. After half a century, his views were still trenchant.
There was another death that mid-October week. On the day after Magni breathed his last, the Dutch finance house Rabobank announced that – after 18 years – it was pulling out of backing its professional team. In a neat reversal of what Magni had achieved almost 60 years earlier – when he brought in the first of the extra-sportif sponsors who would take over the financing of elite squads as the bike industry fell on hard times – the bike supplier Giant looked set to continue.
Given the relative health of the cycle industry compared to the frailty of finance and consumer goods, that could become a trend if more extra-sportif sponsors take fright in the wake of the Armstrong revelations. The wheel turns, as the French say, but it is at times of crisis such as these that the past becomes doubly important. Greats such as Magni will pass but the sport’s physical landmarks – Alpe d’Huez, the Stelvio, the Madonna del Ghisallo, Arenberg, and the Muur at Geraardsbergen – are a vital link to that past. Therein lies the true tragedy of the loss of the Vigorelli.
William Fotheringham is cycling correspondent for the Guardian and author of Merckx: Half man, Half Bike, published by Yellow Jersey Press.
Extract from Rouleur issue 35, out now.