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Part 4: The Savona Affair

Herbie Sykes Tekst Herbie Sykes Gepubliceerd 04 mei 2017

On the eve the 100th Giro d’Italia, Herbie Sykes takes us back in time to five decisive moments in the Giro’s rich history.

Savona, 2 June 1969

The 50th anniversary Giro, that of 1967, had been a resounding success. The race had needed an Italian winner, and Felice Gimondi had seized the day. There was all manner of speculation about how he’d won it, and the more mischievous had hinted at some sort of a Dutch auction. Why else had Jacques Anquetil sent four domestiques home whilst wearing the maglia rosa, and why hadn’t Balmamion chased when Gimondi attacked on the Tonale? Whatever; Gimondi was Italian cycling’s talisman, and in Milan he added the pink of the Giro to the yellow of his debut Tour. He was the most complete cyclist in the world, and he looked set to dominate the sport for a generation.

It had been a chastening experience for Italy’s so-called golden generation.

Only then Eddy Merckx had signed for FAEMA, an Italian team, and annihilated him at the 51st Giro. He’d annihilated everyone else as well, and the sheer brutality of his ride on Tre Cime di Lavaredo had left Gimondi in tears. Merckx had left Italy with the GC, the points and mountains prize. He’d helped himself to three stages as well, and but for his sports director he’d have taken half a dozen at least. Marino Vigna was a smart guy, and he understood that it didn’t do to rub Italian noses in it. Regardless, it had been a chastening experience for Italy’s so-called golden generation. Not only had they been thumped by a ‘Flemish classics rider’ but three of them, the previous winners Balmamion, Motta and – horrifically –Gimondi, had been enveloped in a doping scandal. Not at all good…

The doping controls would be in place again this time round. Nobody much cared for them, but Gimondi’s Salvarani team weren’t allowing themselves to become mired in polemiche. By a distance the wealthiest team in cycling, they had not only the best gregari and the best preparation, but also the best Gimondi they’d ever seen. This time, DS Luciano Pezzi informed us, things would be different. Gimondi wouldn’t be so passive, and there certainly wouldn’t be a repeat of the Tre Cime debacle. Instead he’d be carrying the fight to Merckx, giving him a taste of his own medicine.

Truth be told, this 1969 Giro wasn’t much of a contest at all.

That was all fine and well, but in cycling, as in life, talk is cheap. Merckx galloped away at Montecatini, walloped everyone the following day in the crono, and produced a fulminating sprint to win in Lazio. He took another minute out of Gimondi in the time trial to San Marino and so, headed into the final week, his superiority was manifest. Truth be told, this 1969 Giro wasn’t much of a contest at all. No. Strike that. This 1969 Giro wasn’t any sort of a contest. It was a procession, and for moneybags Salvarani it was just plain humiliating.

Stage 17 then, Monday 2 June, a 182-kilometre gallop from the Ligurian coast to lovely Pavia. A transition stage of no particular import, it would be one for the chancers and, in all probability, for the sprinters. Only now, as the 11 o’clock partenza came but never went, it became apparent that all was very far from well. As a media scrum descended upon his hotel it was clear that something was terribly, terribly wrong with the 52nd Giro d’Italia. Something had happened and something – the maglia rosa – was missing.

The ‘Savona Affair’, the story of Merckx’ expulsion from the 1969 Giro for use of the stimulant Retalin, is still shrouded in mystery. It speaks of irregular betting patterns, clandestine meetings, suitcases full of used banknotes. There’s a disappearing Spanish soigneur, a villainous German cyclist, an indecent proposal. There’s a spiked bidon and a contaminated test tube, speculation that the ‘race’ wasn’t actually a race at all. Even before the incident there were newspaper reports attesting to a “euphoric” atmosphere within the Salvarani camp, notwithstanding the fact that Merckx seemed unbeatable.

We’ll probably never know the truth, but we do know that the incident caused a minor diplomatic row and that still today Merckx denies its voracity. We know that doping was commonplace in late sixties’ cycling but that, implausibly, only one cyclist was positive at that Giro. We know that he was caught following a nothing stage between Parma and Savona, a stage for which, by common consent, he wouldn’t have needed amphetamine. We also know that he was a foreigner in pink, that Parma was the home of the Salvarani cycling team and that he was unassailable…

Read part 5: Il Pirate here

Merckx – Savona