An Evening with Gianni Bugno
by Valeria Paoletti
Prologue. I am working on the oral history project for the BikeRaceInfo web site. After seeing my interview of Celestino Vercelli about 1971's Tour de France a friend of mine contacts me to say that he knows Gianni Bugno. He asks me if I am interested in meeting him. Of course I am!
Gianni Bugno won the World Road Championships in 1991 and 1992. The reigning champion gets to wear the Rainbow Jersey
I meet Gianni Bugno, the World Champion and Giro winner in the nineties who is today a charming, fit forty-one year old man. It is a cold February evening in downtown Naples. We agree to have a pizza and while we walk to the restaurant he tells me about his love of flying. "Flying has always been my passion, along with riding. I started riding when I was 14, perhaps a bit late for a professional. When I stopped racing I decided to learn to fly." Today he works as a helicopter rescue pilot and it is this job that has brought him to Naples for fifteen days. His job takes him all over the Italian peninsula including Milan, Naples and Lampedusa.
Valeria Paoletti and Gianni Bugno in front of the ancient wood-fired pizza oven
He looks trim and self-confident and behaves like a gentleman. We choose the famous pizzeria where the Pizza Margherita (basil, mozzarella cheese and tomato topping, hence the colors of the Italian flag) was invented 1889 in honour of the Queen of Italy, Margherita. After a mozzarella antipasto in a very Neapolitan atmosphere with mandolin music in the background, we discuss his career.
He tells me that after a striking amateur career that included six Italian championships on the track and on the road, he turned pro in 1985, after the Olympic Games, riding for Atala. As a pro he found himself in a very different world. "I felt like I was entering the fray." Yet he made his mark in 1986 with wins in the Tours of the Apennines, Friuli and Piemonte and a second in the Climber's competition in the Giro. "Those results fired me and spurred me to do better."
He got stronger every year. In 1988 he raced all over Europe, including the Northern Classics. "They are very tough and beautiful races, even though I don't like the cold weather," he said. "But the severe weather conditions are part of those races."
Despite a broken shoulder that prevented his finishing the Giro, he entered the Tour all the same. There he had a foretaste of what his racing with Miguel Indurain in the next years would be like. He says his job on the Chateaux d'Ax team was to ride for Tony Rominger. It became clear that while Rominger did well in some stages, he was not going to be competitive in the fight for the overall lead that year (Bugno finished 10 minutes ahead of Rominger in the eleventh stage to Morzine). Bugno says he was then given his freedom to ride his race, "Rominger suffered badly in the heat that year, severely affecting his performance." It worked out well for the young Swiss-born Italian. Bugno won his first Tour stage, number eighteen from Ruelle-sur-Touvre to Limoges.
1990 was a wonderful year for him. Besides other victories he won the World Cup and the Giro d'Italia. His Giro victory was particularly fine in that he kept the lead from start to finish. "Normally I trained to race the entire season's races. I took part in many races throughout the entire year. That year I prepared especially for the Giro."
Gianni Bugno looks at the list of questions Valeria prepared
His 1990 race schedule included both the Giro and the Tour de France. There were only 19 days between the end of the Giro and the start of the Tour. Bugno says he had a naturally strong constitution. He was able to recover from his Giro efforts in time for the Tour thanks to this physical stamina. The result was a seventh at the Tour. He started to see that there was a realistic chance of his winning the Tour in the foreseeable future. "I liked this race, I was starting to dream of Yellow in Paris."
I ask him about 1991. He was Italian and World Champion. He rode a superb Tour de France, being second by only three and a half minutes to Indurain. "My training that year was mainly addressed to the Tour, but Indurain was stronger than me. Looking back there is nothing I could have done to beat him".
I ask him if he could see some likeness in the way Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain conducted their Grand Tours. "Yes, Indurain was incredible in handling his races. He secured a lead and then rode economically, containing his rivals in the mountains."
We stop for a while. Our pizzas have arrived. Bugno has ordered a house specialty, a pizza topped with prosciutto, ricotta and mozzarella cheese. One of the waiters recognizes Bugno and, gesticulating, asks me if I can ask him for an autograph. Bugno smiles and in one second we are surrounded by other young waiters of the restaurant. They tell him not to go away without writing his name in the pizzeria guest book and posing for some pictures near their historic oven.
After the pizza our conversation falls on the 2005 Giro d'Italia. He was at its presentation in Milan on the twenty-second of January. I ask him if he has any predictions about it and the next Tour de France, "The 88th Giro d'Italia will be very hard this year, especially during the second week. It is a race for climbers. I believe that it will become more and more difficult to win both the Giro and the Tour in the same year. It's an era of specialist racers and it's very hard to stay in the right physical condition for so long. Maybe it will be possible again after Armstrong retires."
How about Damiano Cunego, the last Giro winner? "He is a complete rider, not a specialist. One day he may be able to win both competitions in the same year, but it's a hard labor."
I ask him about his training methods. "During the winter, between one season and the other I did some swimming and running. Preparing for the season, my normal training period, I basically rode every day. The distances varied, some days 100 km, some other days 200 km."
Thinking about his great ability in the individual time trials I wonder if he usually trained especially for them and if he had a personal coach. "No, I didn't. I think I had a natural talent for the time trials and the climbs. I was not a specialist racer, able to do only one thing. I didn't employ my own coach. I used the team's coach."
He does say that his 1992 Gatorade Tour team did do special training for the team time trial. Thus they were able to limit their loss to only twenty-one seconds to the super specialists of the event at the time, Peter Post's Panasonic team.
I ask him about the tifosi, the cheering, half-insane Italian fans of cycling. Does their wild enthusiasm help? "Yes, even if in some cases they can get in your way, their enthusiasm gives you morale and a sort of encouraging euphoria."
We go from topic to topic. Charly Mottet was one of the great racers of the era, being the UCI number one during much of the 1989 season. Bugno calls him a "gentleman rider".
We decide to leave and, after posing for the promised pictures near the oven, we take a walk in the pedestrian area of the downtown. The air is chilly and we decide to have a hazelnut coffee and a cake in one of the most famous ancient cafes of Naples. While we enjoy the sweets I ask him about the Tour de France of 1992. He dreamed of winning that year but he could come in only third. I ask him to tell me about his defeat on the Alpe d'Huez, after winning that iconic stage 2 years in a row. Typically, given his good nature, he takes no offense at the question. "I was simply too tired that day," he says. "But I still hoped for a third place in GC in Paris, so I gave my best at the final time trial and I made the final podium."
I ask him about his life today. He is married to a Spanish lady he met racing and is father of two boys. Do you still ride? He replies that today he prefers running and that he rarely rides. He doesn't follow racing with the intensity of the past. Flying is now his passion.
Gianni Bugno doesn't seem the kind of person who wastes time regretting things. He uses an old Italian saying. "Hindsight is the treasure of the poor. The only race I never wanted to race is the Paris-Roubaix and I don't regret it, I was happy with what I had."
Epilogue. For those who were not following racing during the early 1990's here is a short list of Gianni Bugno's most important victories:
For two years, from June 6, 1990 to June 14, 1992, except for two weeks in the middle, Gianni Bugno was the UCI World Ranked Number 1 rider.
- 6 Italian Championships as an amateur on both road and track.
- 1990: World Cup Winner, Giro d'Italia (3 stage victories as well as winning the points classification), Milan-San Remo, Wincanton Classic, San Sebastian Classic
- 1991: World Road Champion, Italian Road Champion, San Sebastian Classic, 2nd in the Tour de France, 4th in the Giro (3 stage wins)
- 1992: World Road Champion, 3rd in the Tour de France, Milan-Turin, 2nd in the Tour of Switzerland
- 1994: Tour of Flanders
- 1995: Italian Road Champion, Tour of the Mediterranean, Coppa Agostini
Valeria Paoletti is a research scientist at the University of Naples
She is a geologist specializing in geophysics. She is currently studying the earth's magnetic field in volcanic areas. BikeRaceInfo is grateful that she can find time in her busy schedule to visit and talk to some of the greatest riders to ever turn a crank.