Eddy Merckx and Italo Zilioli come to London next week to help celebrate the launch of Maglia Rosa – triumph and tragedy at the Giro d’Italia by Rouleur regular Herbie Sykes. In this extract, Merckx wins his first stage in the Italian race. Look out, world…
Vincenzo Giacotto, the former manager of Carpano, called his old friend Nino Defilippis and told him to meet him on the road to Cervinia, at the foot of the Matterhorn. Charged by Faema, the coffee machine manufacturer, with building a new team after a four year hiatus from the sport, Giacotto was in need of a Giro winner. He had a hunch. It was the spring of 1967.
The formidable, precocious young Belgian, Eddy Merckx, already being touted as ‘the new Rik Van Looy’ for his extraordinary strength in the single day classics, was the hottest property in world cycling. Merckx, his contract with the French bicycle manufacturer Peugeot due to expire at the season’s end, had greatly impressed Giacotto with an outstanding performance at Paris – Nice. A former World amateur champion and already a big winner amongst the professionals, Merckx found himself paying his own expenses at Peugeot. He’d sought to renegotiate but no avail; the winner of Milan – Sanremo continued to buy his own tyres from the local bike shop.
He’d come today because he knew that Italian cycling was better paid, and because he was anxious to meet Giacotto, about whom he’d heard great things from the Belgians he’d managed at Carpano. Almost to a man they had said he was progressive, clever and honest, unusual qualities in the arcane, often grubby world of professional cycling. For his part Giacotto had gotten it into his head that if he could get the youngster to, as he put it, ‘think Italian’, he could challenge Gimondi, considered now the world’s best cyclist, at the Giro.
Defilippis, twice maglia tricolore and formerly Giacotto’s Captain on the road at Carpano, agreed to meet his old boss, though in truth he’d pretty well lost interest in cycling since his retirement. What he saw as Merckx powered his way up the mountain, though, had him agog at his untapped climbing brilliance, and would re-ignite his interest in racing. More immediately though it had him, and Giacotto, scratching about under their car seats, desperate to have Merckx sign something which might constitute, in some way, a pre-contract. The back of a cigarette packet, anything…
Keen to impress his would-be employers, Merckx performed expertly at his first grand tour, the 1967 Giro. When Zilioli attacked on the big mountain stage to Block Haus, he confounded expectation by first following and then dropping him to claim his first Giro stage win. The Gazzetta opined that ‘…our climbers were embarrassed by a Belgian sprinter.’ They, and their scalatori, need get used to the idea. Merckx won again two days later, this time a bunch gallop at the seaside, and would finish ninth on general classification without apparently giving it much thought. In so doing he seemed to confirm Giacotto’s perspicacity. That he possessed bludgeoning strength, a prerequisite for winning the classics, had never been at issue, but he was a tremendous, bullying climber as well, and could time trial with the best. Here indeed was a potential Giro contender.
On Friday 2 September 1967 Edouard Louis Joseph Merckx signed, for 400,000 Belgium Francs a year, a three year contract with Faema; it represented an increase in salary of over 300 per cent. The following day, across the Dutch border at Harleen, he celebrated. In outsprinting the local favourite, Jan Janssen, he become only the second man in history to claim both amateur and professional versions of the world title. Thus, by the time he arrived at Faema’s winter training camp on the Ligurian coast, 22-year-old Merckx had won not only the great Ardennes classic Flêche – Wallonne and Milan – Sanremo (twice), but had handed Giacotto, on a plate, the rainbow jersey of the World champion. It had been a decent day’s work at Cervinia…
Merckx made for the partenza of the Giro with an impressive Spring campaign under his belt. As the peloton barrelled towards the finish of stage one, beneath the Novara’s giant Basilica of San Gaudenzio, the sprinters had themselves in position, entirely as forecast in view of the flatness of the percorso. Two kilometres from the line, however, Merckx bolted, and held off the lot of them to win by six seconds. His was an extraordinary feat of speed and strength, but categorically not the action of a rider intent on winning a three week stage race. Guido Reybrouck, Faema’s designated sprinter, was aghast, Pifferi, Basso and the rest of the Giro’s velocisti humiliated. For his part a delighted Eddy Merckx, the new maglia rosa of the Tour of Italy, didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. Vincenzo Giacotto simply shrugged his shoulders; this Merckx was something, wasn’t he?
Merckx’ show of force had the media speculating, quite reasonably, that he was at the Giro in search of stage wins, and to a degree they were right. There had been a stage to win, he had won it, and now there were another 21 to try to win before the Giro finished. The next day he went out and won again, this time in the mountains of Aosta. As he made his way towards the podium Merckx was grabbed by a TV reporter from RAI;
‘Bravo Eddy, did you always have it in mind to go for the win today?’
‘Why do you ask me that? Why do you think I’m here? To watch the others win?’