You can blather all you like about the glory of sport. Cycling has been doing so for over a century, pedalling the notion that there’s a direct correlation between 53×11 and spiritual enlightenment. It’s all terribly seductive, and of course it does wonders for the amateur’s self-esteem. Sadly, however, it doesn’t remotely correspond with the truth about the professional sport.
Cycling is extremely beautiful, but then so was Jayne Mansfield. So was Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris and so, most presciently of all, was Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. That’s just about the best analogy I can think of, because as a sport bike racing has always been impossibly sexy, morally decadent and, in the final analysis, just plain licentious. We love it not because it’s virtuous, but because it isn’t. Because, when all’s said and done, it was always true to itself and its filthy precepts.
Notwithstanding the recent, deluded efforts to ‘modernize’ it and to sanitize it, the sport of long-distance road cycling isn’t about 21st century probity. It’s rooted, absolutely and incontrovertibly, in its polar opposite, in abandon. Anti-doping, biological passporting, the shortening of the races, the babyish nonsense that was the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’… It’s all terribly worthy and terribly anodyne, but in reality it’s a deformation of cycling culture. History tells us that what cycling actually needs — and what its constituents need — isn’t extreme weather protocols and ‘fairplay’. What it needs is skullduggery and sleaze, men behaving badly.
Case in point. In Little England right now there’s a squalid, media-driven witch-hunt whose sole purpose is to knock Team Sky from its lofty perch. Its architect, lest we forget, was the murderous little despot Vladimir Putin and his Fancy Bears. They chiseled their way into ADAMS, and established that Britain’s one and only Tour de France winner did so with the aid of Therapeutic Use Exemptions. Now objectively that was a smart move, because trying to win the Tour isn’t tiddlywinks. Moreover it proved, fairly conclusively, that he won it within WADA’s doping parameters. Only an idiot would fail to understand that they represent the professional cyclist’s one and only credo, so it’s almost inconceivable that the other GC guys weren’t using TUEs as well. Anybody with a modicum of intelligence must surely realize, by now, that there are only two kinds of cyclists: those on this side of the line and those on the other. Nobody was even remotely bothered about that though, because it didn’t fit the narrative.
So in a material sense we have a tester guy who’s won the modern Tour clean, which is to say without risk of sanction. Whether you like the guy or not, that’s an astonishing achievement in this, the era of 6 percent body fat. However, this is cycling, with its insatiable, genetic lust for doping. Thus it fell upon the fascist Daily Mail, that paragon of 21st century British virtue, to take up the cudgels on Putin’s behalf. Come what may the guy would be sanctioned, by the osmotic stupidity which is the British media’s stock-in-trade, in the court of public appeal. The vultures went and, in the absence of anything whatsoever, came up with an unidentified flying jiffy bag. They stuffed it full of opprobrium, false piety and righteous indignation and reliably informed us that the TUEs were the old oxymoron “legal doping”.
In truth it beggars belief, but where there’s muck (and evidently even where there isn’t) there’s brass. As such a hop, a skip and a salacious little jump lead to an unemployed, indeterminate track cyclist named Jess Varnish. She’d been told by one of the coaches at British Cycling to, “have a baby”, and this revelation was to prefigure the apparent unmasking of British Cycling’s “win at all costs culture”.
Poor Jess hadn’t provided much bang for the taxpayers’ buck, so they’d sent her on her way. She was outraged by that, and so now she found a willing audience in the gentlemen of the press. She told them, amongst other things, that some of the managers there hadn’t been very kind, and that she’d been expected to train really, really hard. It transpired that sometimes the medal factory didn’t even have a babysitter/sports psychologist/nanny to hold the riders’ hands! Then if they were incompetent, disinterested or simply unable, they were “released” from the “programme” in precisely the same way as other human beings are in other walks of life.
Released! From the programme! Simply for being inept! What would “rattling” Charly Gaul think of that? Or the great philanthropist Henri Desgrange? What would Henri Pélissier say, if his mouth weren’t so full of strychnine? It was unconscionable, and so, amidst this pandemic of idiocy, a House Of Commons Select Committee shuffled purposefully forth. It was quite possibly the biggest farce in the history of sport, but it did ensure that the Tour winner (let’s just call him ‘Wiggo’) would take his place at the very top table of cycling legends. Anquetil, Merckx, Janssen, Zoetemelk, Bugno, Pantani, Armstrong…
I could go on and even, to paraphrase poor Tom Simpson, on, on, and on. However, mercifully for you my poor, cosseted 21st century reader, I won’t. I’ll merely state that this is cycling, not some fatuous morality play. It’s not about dreary, secular correctness, but rather about human beings. It’s about flogging you cement and satellite dishes, bikes and Brylcreem. It’s about VHS and Betamax, and the veneer of sporting rectitude is but a marketing ploy. Marginal gains was a clever little construct, but Sky are no different to the others. They were just better at the bullshit (and good on ‘em for that) ergo they’d more to lose.
In the final analysis top-level racing is an extreme sport, and a sport for extreme people. Of course it’s about the heart-stopping moments you least expect, but its prevailing leitmotif is cheats and ne’er-do-wells and acts of unspeakable treachery. It’s Armstrong and Gerbi, Machiavellian Roche hoodwinking poor, stupid Visentini. It’s Francesco Moser and Beppe Saronni, Vino and Kolobnev at Liège, and thousands more like them. Its beauty lies not in the fact that it confirms us in our quotidian dullness, but in the fact that it doesn’t. Cycling fans need to be outraged, and above all they need stealth. They need Sharon Stone. It’s basic instinct…
Varese is hallowed ground. The first ever rainbow jersey, the campionissimo Alfredo Binda, made his home there, and so too the winner of the inaugural Giro. Luigi Ganna was the prototype cyclist: pig-headed, amoral, absolutely redoubtable. Any number of great champions have followed, amongst them the inveterate wrong ‘uns Claudio Chiappucci and cycling’s number one high-wire artist, Ivan ‘the terrible’ Basso. He came close to transforming mendacity into an art form, but best not get started on that.
In a cycling context nowhere, per head of capita, has been more fertile than Varese, and nowhere has played to quite so many big races. The beautiful Tre Valli Varesine is run off there, the Coppe Bernocchi and Agostoni nearby, and the Tour of Lombardy often gets sorted hereabouts. The hills and valleys north-west of Milan are to cycling as the English North East is to football, and Varese is its epicentre. Not for nothing has the town, population just 80,000, hosted the World Championships twice.
And so to the 2008 edition, and specifically to Piazza Monte Grappa, right in the centre of town. There Alessandro Ballan, one of the best classics riders in the world, catapulted out of the lead group. With Lampre teammate and pre-race favourite Damiano Cunego blocking, Ballan stormed into the rainbow jersey. Three weeks later Cunego added a brilliant Tour of Lombardy — his third — to the Amstel Gold Race he’d picked up that Spring. In truth it hadn’t been Lampre’s very best season (the previous year they’d won a whopping 30 races) but it scratched a 17-year itch. The Tour aside, the team run by former world champion Saronni had won most of the really meaningful races. However, it had been chasing rainbows since its inception in 1991 and, in light of Saronni’s epoch defining attack at Goodwood in ‘82, nothing mattered more. Now Ballan, one of the nicest guys in cycling, had caught up with one at long last. Lampre, for so long the standard bearers of Italian cycling, finally had their maglia irridata…
Saronni had been famously cunning as a cyclist, and famously good. All told he’d won the thick end of 200 races and within twelve calendar months between 1982 and ‘83 he’d won the rainbow jersey, the pink of the Giro and both Lombardy and San Remo. A master in the dark art of wheel-sucking, he’d a formidable cycling intellect, rode a cracking time trial and was possessed of a rapier sprint. Most of all though, he understood implicitly that cycling was first and foremost show business. No. Strike that. First it was a show, but foremost it was a business.
Saronni was a genius, and in Mario Galbusera, owner of the Lampre pre-coated steel company, he’d a massive fan. Thus, when his great idol retired from racing in 1991, Galbusera started signing the cheques which would bankroll Team Lampre, on and off, for 25 years. The famous blu-fucsia jersey was born, and would evolve into a genuine icon. Saronni’s charges rode Ernesto Colnago’s bikes and, right from the outset, they won a lot. First out of the blocks was Maurizio Fondriest. The 1988 world champ hadn’t landed a meaningful race for four years but now, under Saronni, he was a champion reborn. In the Spring of ‘93 he was untouchable, and his second coming set the tone. Camenzind and Abdoujaparov, Tonkov and Svorada, Vandenbroucke and Ballerini. The more they won, the more gold dust was sprinkled onto Galbusera’s steel, and onto Colnago’s lavishly painted carbon composites. There was a two-year hiatus in the mid-nineties, but by 1999 Lampre was up and running again, and up and winning again.
Italian cycling was the best, most moneyed and most ‘evolved’ in the world. There were lots of races, riders and testy rivalries, and Lampre was at the vanguard. The biggest stars rode for Italian-sponsored teams, and Galbusera’s boys were to be found shoulder-barging Giorgio Squinzi’s Mapei cubists, the ubiquitous yellow of Romano Cenni’s Mercatone Uno, Franco Polti’s lurid eponymy. Cycling was strictly a blue-collar sport, but these were authentic blue chip teams.
Of course there were doping scandals — loads of them — but that was kind of the point. Italians expected their bike riders to do superhuman things and, in a sport where 1 percent is everything, to transgress was an occupational hazard. Scandal was as old as bike racing itself, stitched into its fabric back in the 19th century. The man in the Italian, French and Spanish street very well understood that, because he knew that mountains go up and that bike racers are human.
With the benefit of hindsight, Pantani’s fall from grace and the San Remo doping blitz at the 2001 Giro were major turning points. Prior to that there’d been no such thing as bad publicity, and no real appetite to confront cycling’s uncomfortable truths. Now, however, the sport was being anglicized, and the tide was beginning to turn. Simoni ran away with that Giro but, as Galbusera ticked another one off his bucket list, it was clear that something seismic was happening.
2002 saw Lampre ensnared in the mother of all cycling farces, the one in which Raimondas Rumšas’ wife finished up in prison, no less. Raimondas had been Saronni’s GC rider and, unlike Jess Varnish, he’d been extremely good at his job. He’d made all the right moves and, most importantly in cycling, all the right contacts. He’d cultivated a friendship with an eminent, highly decorated ‘sports doctor’ from Katowice, a guy named Krzysztof Ficek. The guy had been a cycling nut and so Rumšas, a Lithuanian based in Tuscany, had asked him to carry out a (proxy) examination of his mother-in-law. Ficek had done as he was bid, and had deduced that she was in urgent, dire need of an industrial quantity of EPO. She’d needed a boot load of other medicines as well, a veritable pharmacopeia. That was all fine and well but then Rumšas’ missus, poor, ditsy Edita, had quite forgotten to take it all out of the car. As such she’d absent-mindedly followed her husband around the Tour de France with 27 different medicines, a box of syringes and all manner of other medical paraphernalia.
The French border police had concluded, not unreasonably given that her husband was third on GC and that the mother-in-law was nowhere to be seen, that something might be afoot. They deduced that there was enough ‘medicine’ in that car for an entire cycling team, and they were probably right. Rumšas has never spoken about it (and goodness knows I’ve tried) but as Italian cycling stories go it was one of the very, very best. The guy was a highly talented bike rider, with aspirations of winning the Tour de France. He didn’t quite make it, but nor did he create the paradigm which informed his madcap antics. Fair play to him, and fair play to poor, incarcerated Edita. He gave it ten-tenths, and she served her time like a true stoic. She stood by her man…
By now Armstrong and a bunch of highly remunerated, English-speaking corporate opportunists had begun to pull the strings. Career hypocrites that they were, they made great show of their faux-outrage as regards cycling’s doping issues. How shocking, these bumptious Latins, and how Neolithic their perception of cycling. How out of step with its core values of money, money and money, and how best to drum them out of the sport they’d invented…
On and on it went, this American colonization (or, more accurately, corporate appropriation) of the sport. With the nascent ProTour, sponsorship became more expensive both exponentially and practically, and the manufacturers who had traditionally bankrolled the Italian teams fell by the wayside. Saeco disappeared, Fassa Bortolo disappeared, Polti and even Squinzi’s beloved Mapei disappeared…
It was a veritable tsunami, but Galbusera stood foursquare behind his charges, and behind the sport he loved. In truth guys like Bruno Vicino and Maurizio Piovani, sports directors who’d spent a lifetime in and around the sport, weren’t equipped to change cultures and behaviours 100 years in the forging, and nor was Saronni. That said it was inarguable that they were good, loyal men who cared genuinely about their riders and their sport.
In hindsight, Ballan’s charge through Piazza Monte Grappa, the realization of the Lampre dream, was probably the beginning of Italian cycling’s end. Eighteen months later, with maximum pre-Giro dramatic effect, another doping pantomime emerged around Saronni’s team. A prosecutor from up in Mantua had been sneaking about, and had determined that the whole thing was lousy. There was the usual nefarious pharmacist, intercepted phone calls featuring bizarre code words, all manner of masonic subterfuge. It was all terribly sleazy and, as you can imagine, the stuff of wet dreams on planet cycling.
As chance would have it, I found myself traipsing around Italy during that Giro. I was following it with a photographer friend, and in truth it was a salutary experience. The hotels down in the south were hotels down in the south, I was attempting to extract useable copy from exhausted stick-men in nylon shell suits, and all the while seeing nothing of the actual racing. I was spending far too much time worrying, driving and staring vacantly at a TV screen in the pressroom. I was eating and sleeping quite badly, and becoming progressively more irritable. I deduced — and I still maintain — that the only way to adequately observe bike racing is to step not into it but away from it, or at least to the side of it. Just stand on the roadside, because to do otherwise is to lose any lingering pretence of objectivity.
Anyway, two weeks into the race I’d to interview two Lampre riders, the Giro winners Gibo Simoni and Damiano Cunego. By the time I spoke to their press officer I’d pretty much lost the will to live, but he was a breath of fresh air. He called Brent Copeland, the team’s urbane general manager, and they invited me to dinner in advance of the interview. I accepted and, for once, it was a worthwhile experience. When I asked him about Rumšas, Copeland assured me that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the team, that the guy was simply a lone wolf. He said he couldn’t comment on Mantua because he knew nothing about it. I believed him, more or less.
Whether or not the team had a duty to know what Rumšas et al were up to 24/7 is another issue, and some would have us believe the issue. Regardless, when I interviewed Cunego and Simoni, Gibo said something highly instructive…
The two of them had famously contested the 2004 Giro for the same team, Saeco. Simoni had begun the race as reigning champion and a double maglia rosa, but Cunego had been young, ambitious and outrageously talented. He’d sought to usurp Gibo, and the race had been developed into a gripping, tit-for-tat conflict. It had been truly caustic and truly captivating, and ultimately Cunego had upset the applecart. When I asked them about it Simoni said that, yes, there had been a degree of tension, but the rancour had suited the team — or more specifically the sponsors — perfectly well. The management had preferred for them to be at each other’s throats because, quite simply, that way they garnered the maximum publicity. That was cycling, he said, and they’d both very well understood it.
There you had it. They’d been labouring under the misapprehension that there was no such thing as bad publicity, but the terms of engagement were changing irrevocably.
The Mantua thing rumbled on. The media lapped it up but, in the best Italian judicial tradition, it was all fumo and no rosto. The evidence was flimsy, and when push came to shove everyone but the pharmacist and Ballan were absolved. The latter paid for being too honest and too transparent, and as a consequence his career went away from him. To hear him speak about it now is heart-breaking, because it’s inconceivable you might ever meet a nicer, straighter human being. Ballan had simply been in the right place at the wrong time.
The rest, as Lampre’s budget ossified amidst the financial crisis, is history. Cunego, the poster boy, was a spent force long before his 28th birthday, and Ballan shipped out to BMC before they sanctioned him. The great sprinter Alessandro Petacchi papered over the cracks for a couple of years, but in 2012 they didn’t land a single WorldTour race. Diego Ulissi and Rui Costa have had their moments since, and they put a really solid season together in 2015. However, modern cycling is nothing if not a marketplace, and the odds were increasingly stacked against them.
For over twenty years they’d been the symbols of an age-old cycling culture, for the country of Coppi and Bartali, Girardengo and Binda and, yes, Moser and Saronni. Now, however, as they slipped further down the food chain, Saronni pretty much stopped going to the races. With the Italian scene contracting to a fraction of its former self, they in turn stopped coming to him. Finally the Trojan Galbusera, his 25-year marathon complete, called time on it last autumn.
The blu-fucsia of Lampre has been replaced by a multi-coloured abomination of a jersey. It denotes the cycling black hole that is the United Arab Emirates, though in practical terms the HQ is still across the road from the steel factory. The staff is the same, half the roster is still Italian, and it still feels like a bike team. Saronni’s son, Carlo, is in day-to-day charge, but not for nothing has his old man kept his head while all around were losing theirs. He was smart enough to engineer a deal with the Colpack development team, and thus ensure that the best of the Italian youngsters have a chance in the big league.
That said, the disappearance of the fuchsia and electric blue is pure fin-de-siècle, and there’s no point in deluding ourselves otherwise. UAE cycling will be progressively less Italian and Lampre, it already seems, belongs to a completely different time, and a completely different cycling. These they’re paying to stand on Oude Kwaremont, and that’s just the beginning. So different, yes, but as the Wiggins affair proves, completely the same.
I still believe that Copeland was telling me the truth about Rumšas, but I don’t believe for one minute that we’ll see another team like Lampre. Twenty-five years, the marketing types tell us, is about twenty years too long. It’s also a hell of a lot of money, but most of all it’s a whole lotta love.
RIP Lampre, and RIP Italian cycling.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.