Franco Bitossi, the Grand Champion with the "Crazy Heart"
by Valeria Paoletti
One of 147 professional victories for Franco Bitossi. This one is the 1974 Giro di Romagna. Moser is far left. Sirotti photo
Mr Franco Bitossi, the great Italian champion of the '60s and '70s lives in Empoli, a small, ancient Tuscan town near Florence. There, the victor of over 140 professional races spends his time taking care of his friends' olive orchards and lawn bowling at his club. When I phoned him to arrange our meeting I could already sense his strong personality and great sense of humor. Yet, knowing him in person was another thing. He is a truly surprising and delightful man.
From the first moment when I met him at the Empoli train station he treated me with great familiarity, putting me at my ease and asking me to call him Franco because, he said, "it makes me feel young". I felt as if I had known him for years.
We went to his apartment where I met his wife, Anna, a very nice and sweet lady, who is a great "tifosa" [fan] of the Italian football team Juventus. She made me feel like one of the family right away, offering me a good Italian espresso and showing me all the medals and cups her husband had won during his spectacular career. Her knowledge of the cycle racing world is incredible. She always followed her husband's races closely. She could tell me the story behind every single prize.
After showing me some beautiful black and white photos from the races of the 60s and 70s, Franco let me see his historical racing bike. He still rides today and remains in touch with all the great champions he raced with during his long career, from 1961 to 1978.
Valeria Paoletti: Franco, I know this is painful for you but before asking you about your Tour de France and Giro d'Italia experiences I would like to hear about the World Championships in Gap in 1972. With just a few kilometers to go you broke away. You were about to win and become Champion of the World when Marino Basso, your Italian teammate, passed you just a few meters from the line.
Franco Bitossi: In the final kilometers I was in a group of seven, with [Michele] Dancelli, [Marino] Basso, [Eddy] Merckx, [Cyrille] Guimard, [Joop] Zoetelmelk and [Leif] Mortensen. With three or four kilometers to go, on a little rise, Guimard took off and I followed him. Guimard was dangerous, being very fast. He expected my collaboration but I just drafted him to avoid wasting energy. I was hoping he could "take" me to the line. When he saw I was not working with him he slowed down and the rest of the group reached us.
Valeria and Franco take a break from the interview.
VP: That was the right moment to go...
FB: Yes, I thought so. I was fresh because I had been drafting Guimard, so I took off. I thought: Merckx is a friend and is not going to chase me. Dancelli and Basso are Italian and therefore are not going to try catching me as well. Guimard is tired. There were only Zoetemelk and Mortensen. I didn't think Mortensen would try to go with me and therefore there was only Zoetemelk to take care of. I thought: "It is done".
VP: You couldn't imagine that an Italian would chase you?
FB: When I took off nobody followed me and I immediately gained several meters. I thought I was going to be the World Champion. When I turned the last corner, with 1300 meters to go, I looked behind and I saw that the group was 300 meters behind me.
VP: It really seemed done!
FB: In the last kilometer I found a flat part, then a descent, where I really flew. And then there was a little climb. And there is where I made my mistake. Well, my teammates didn't do much to protect me...
VP: Actually Basso did the opposite. [After the motor bikes filming the race moved to the finish line Basso did a huge 600 meter pull at the front of the chasing group and then got Merckx, Guimard and Zoetemelk take pulls as well.]
FB: Right, he even said later that in that moment he thought he would never have caught me! Anyway, at the beginning of the climb I changed gearing and used a lower gear. But then I had the feeling it was too light. The line was there, it seemed I could almost touch it. But it never arrived, so I changed to a higher gear and this was my mistake. After 100 meters my legs got stuck.
VP: Couldn't you go back to a lower gear?
FB: There was another problem. That day was windy. The wind was in my face and coming from the right. While riding that last kilometer I was protected by the people on the right side of the road. But when I realized I was getting stuck I tried to see where the other riders were. I noticed they were really speeding up. I thought there was somebody trying to take off and catch me. But they were hidden by the two referee's cars and to see them I had to move in the middle of the road, where it was very windy. This slowed me down even more. But yes, if I had changed back by to a lower gear (or if I had left the lower gear) I probably would have been the champion.
VP: How many meters in front of the finish line did Basso pass you ?
FB: He passed me with six or seven meters to go.
VP: Did you actually see them coming just a few meters before the line?
FB: No, during the last 100 meters I knew they were very close to me, but I was just pedaling in the wind and watching the line, hoping they wouldn't pass me.
VP: How painful.
FB: A real delusion. Now I laugh about that but when it happened it was hard to accept. I had been riding well all the day, trying to save my energy. I didn't want to make the same mistake I made the year before [1971 World's in Medrisio, Switzerland], when I had been in a break for 200 kilometers and then Merckx won. So that day I had been riding very carefully. It would have been my masterpiece, my Gioconda [what the Italians call Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa]. So I like calling it my "Unfinished Gioconda".
Bitossi's silver medal earned at the worlds at Gap. Symbolic of his unfinished masterpiece. Paoletti photo
VP: I would like to go through your career now. You turned pro in October of 1961 when you were only twenty-one years old.
FB: Yes, I turned pro after three years as amateur. It was the 4th of October of 1961, during the Giro dell'Emilia.
VP: Why did you turn pro then, that late in the season?
FB: I could not do it earlier in the season because of my age. I turned twenty-one years old on the First of September.
VP: You had to be at least twenty-one to be able to turn pro?
FB: Yes. And it was only in 1961 that I started winning. I won 13 races as an amateur that year. It was a great season. Fiorenzo Magni decided therefore to offer me a contract. And after the contract I immediately won my first pro race.
VP: Yes, you won a stage in the Three Days of the South during that Fall of 1961.
VP: Did you expect to make the transition to the professional ranks so easily?
FB: It was not so easy, indeed. After this victory I was not able to race very much in 1962. I took part only in twenty-four or twenty-five races and in eighty-percent of them I could not finish. This was due mainly to my heart problems.
20-year-old Franco wins an amateur race. Photo from Bitossi collection
VP: So you already knew about your heart problem?
FB: I knew about it even when I was an amateur. In fact I thought I would never become a pro. Then I had a great 1961. I didn't really suffer from my heart troubles that year, so I decided to become a pro. But I knew this could be a problem in the professional world. As long as you are an amateur a team coach can 'turn a blind eye'. But in the professional world it's different. What should a team coach think if during a race you stop on the side of the road and wait?
VP: What were you feeling when you had to stop?
FB: I felt an extra-systole coming and then an attack of tachycardia [very rapid heartbeat] would start. My heart rate would climb to 220 beats per minute.
VP: What did the doctor say? Were you allowed to race?
FB: Every time I took a test there was never any evidence of heart problems. It happened only during racing.
VP: Was it dangerous to race under these circumstances?
FB: You know, at that time it was not like today. We didn't have very many tests. Anyway I took a stress test and I didn't show any symptoms of tachycardia, so the doctors said it was not that serious. Today I would get an attack of tachycardia if I were to take such a test.
VP: So this problem affected your first year as pro?
FB: Yes, both during my amateur career and during 1962 I never took part in stage races. The first stage race I could ride was the Giro d'Italia of 1963. Actually I was at risk to be left out that Giro. My team, Springoil-Fuchs, had to choose 10 riders for the Giro and we were an eleven-man team. We were training on the Roman Hills (Albano, Colli Romani) a few days before the Giro start and they hadn't decided whether to pick me or Sandro Cervellini. [Gaston] Nencini, who was the captain of the team, wanted me.
The only known photograph of Franco Bitossi during a tachycardia attack. He is mid-race in a 1963 Giro del Trentino stage and waiting for the symptoms to pass. Photo from Bitossi collection
VP: How was your relationship with this great descender [Nencini was the winner of the 1960 Tour de France]?
FB: I had known him since I was an amateur.
VP: Did Nencini help or guide you in any way?
FB: Yes, he started assisting me when I was an amateur.
VP: Did you find that he still had his superb descending skills?
FB: Yes, he was still a great descender. He was starting to get weaker on the climbs.
VP: How did this 1963 Giro go?
FB: During the first three days of race I had problems with my heart. Then my heart problems disappeared! So I could express myself. I was second in a stage, second in the 'Gran Premio della Montagna'[King of the Mountains], and eighth in the "Tappone" [the hardest mountain stage in the Giro. In 1963 it was the 19th stage with six major passes. Bitossi finished with Italo Zilioli and Vittorio Adorni]. I showed that I was able to win. And I had a new contract for the following year, 1964.
VP: Without your heart stopping you, you had been able to demonstrate what you could do. Your 1964 Giro was incredible indeed. You were a young pro and yet you won four stages and came in second in four more stages. And you were King of the Mountains.
FB: At the beginning of that Giro I had heart problems again. During the first stage I had to stop for a while and at the end of the stage I finished last. I was in a little group. I could have crossed the line ahead of some of the others but I intentionally came in last because I thought it could be a good omen.
VP: Was it?
FB: Yes. The 3rd day I won a stage and that helped my morale a lot because I understood I could still do the good things I had shown when I was an amateur.
VP: Were you given freedom by the team to seek high placings?
FB: In my team there was Nencini and I was there to help him.
VP: You had to, right?
FB: I was happy to do that. The day I won my first stage (the 3rd day) I had to stop on the Presolana climb [the first of two climbs that day] because of my heart and when I re-started I found Nencini in difficulty. So I helped him up the climb. Then on the descent we really flew and by the time we were in Bergamo we caught the rest of the group. It was here that he asked me how I was feeling. Since I was feeling good he told me to take off right away because surely a break would escape from our group very soon. So I took off immediately, just before the break that Nencini had forecast. And I won the stage!
VP: He knew what was going to happen.
FB: Yes, he had a great deal of experience. During my last years I also had the same ability to understand the crucial moments of a race.
VP: Tell me about the trademark Bitossi flyers. You typically took off with a few kilometers to go. But you also had successful long solo breaks.
Bitossi leads the climbers in the 1967 Giro d'Italia. On the far left is Francisco Gabica (KAS). Eddy Merckx is directly behind him in the Peugeot jersey. In the Molteni jersey on the right is Franco Balmamion, winner of the 1962 and 1963 Giros. Balmamion was second to Gimondi in the1967 Giro. Olympia photo
FB: At the beginning of my career I went for long solo breaks, like in the Cuneo-Pinerolo [stage 20 of the 1964 Giro] where I was in a break for 155 kilometers. Or, in 1966, in Belluno [a monster stage in the '66 Giro with five major passes including the Pordoi] I rode four or five hills on my own. I was caught with five kilometers to go and Felice Gimondi won. Then, starting in 1968, I changed my tactic and started specializing in flying away in the final kilometer. This was necessary when I was in a group with many sprinters and I needed to forestall them, taking off suddenly. This worked for some time, but then in the final years of my career I didn't have the legs to do that anymore.
VP: And you didn't break away anymore then?
FB: I tried all the same but they usually caught me!
VP: Back to the 1964 Giro. The third stage was not the only stage you won that year.
FB: I remember my victory in Livorno (Stage 16, Chianciano-Livorno). I won after four of us got away with more than 150 kilometers to go. We broke away because there was a fight in the leading group during the first part of the stage. I was with Anquetil. He became anxious because of the fight and started to catch up to the group. I followed him and we caught them. Then on a little climb he took off for a few meters as a demonstration to the peloton. Again, I went with him. But while he stopped after a few meters, I continued and won!
Michele Dancelli (left), Franco Biotssi (center) with the great Gino Bartali (right), winner of the 1938 and 1948 Tours in an undated photo by Olympia
VP: Do you remember Stage 20, Cuneo to Pinerolo? You won, leaving Jacques Anquetil, Vittorio Adorni, Gianni Motta and Italo Zilioli two minutes behind.
FB: I had planned to break away during that stage but a little group forestalled me by taking off at the feed zone. That annoyed me. For that annoyance, as soon as we passed the feed zone, I took off after the breakaway group. I was able to catch and drop them and then won that stage. So both wins happened as reactions to the peloton's actions.
VP: One of the most enigmatic and difficult to understand riders was Jacques Anquetil. You raced against him. Any impressions? Did you ever get to know him?
FB: I didn't race with him very much, from 1964 to 1969, when he retired. I remember that during the Tour de France in 1966, in the stage to Bourg d'Oisans, it was raining and we were both dropped on a descent. He came to me at the end of the descent and said joking: "We can't do this. We have been struggling on the climb to maintain a good position and then we lose everything on the descent...we should retire..."
I met him many times after he retired. He was the Race Director of the Tour of the Mediterranean and I drove his car. He always told me: "In Italy they all speak about Gimondi, Motta and Adorni, but for me you are the best!".
VP: You didn't let up at all in 1965. You won The Tour of Switzerland, the Championship of Zurich, and came in seventh in the Giro, again winning the King of the Mountains.
FB: I was King of the Mountains for three years in a row.
VP: Stage 20 of the 1965 Giro climbed the Stelvio Pass. This is one of the most famous and dramatic of all climbs. Any memories that stand out in your mind that day? What was the weather like?
FB: There was a snowslide on the road and they put the finish 200-300 meters before the top of the pass. The weather was terrible.
Franco Bitossi leads Vittorio Adorni up the Stelvio
VP: It looks like you were in a big group including Adorni and Zilioli, but Battestini was away. Did he take flyer?
FB: [Ugo] Colombo wanted to take off. Since he was one of my teammates he asked me if he could. I told him to go. Battestini just went with him.
VP: Did you climb the north face (Trafoi) or the south face (Bormio)?
FB: We rode from Bormio and we were supposed to arrive in Merano, but because of the snowslide we stopped at the pass and in the afternoon we went back to Bormio by car. The day after there was a stage from Bormio to Brescia. That was the only stage I won during in the 1965 Giro. Coming down from the Stelvio by car I was amazed how steep a gradient we could climb.
VP: What do you feel while you are riding a climb like that?
FB: While you ride a climb like the Stelvio you are very focused on riding and try not to give in and work to stay with the others (or to attack). You don't realize really how far you are going.
Bitossi dishes out some big hurt on the Mount Etna stage in the 1967 Giro.
Here is Bitossi winning the same stage. That's Aurelio Gonzalez-Puente (KAS) behind him. Merckx, Motta and Gimondi are a half-minute back. Both photos Olympia.
VP: Gimondi was a neo-pro in that Giro and you nearly so. Were you aware of each other?
FB: There was rivalry between us, but only during the last kilometers of each stage. Before that we always joked. We were first of all friends. We retired from racing on the same day during the Giro dell'Emilia in1978.
"Franco was and is friend to everybody" said Anna Bitossi. She was seated next to us during most of the interview and as the interview progressed she offered a few comments here and there.
My mobile phone rang. Speak of the devil...it was Mr Felice Gimondi! In planning my trip to see Franco I had really hoped that I could meet Mr Gimondi as well. Felice called to confirm that he could see me the next day! When I told Gimondi that I was with Franco he wanted to talk to him. Knowing that I was a little anxious about meeting Gimondi, Franco couldn't help telling him: "Hey Felice, treat her well for me, va bene ?".
FB: Gimondi rode at the front of the pack most of the time, even at the beginning of a stage. On the contrary I was usually at the back at the beginning of a race. Every time I realized that Merckx was behind too I would go to the front to look for Gimondi and I would tell him, "Don't you see that Merckx is behind too? Come on, come behind and have fun with us". I did the same with Merckx during the Paris-Nice of 1971. Everybody was nervous because Merckx was at the front of the peloton at the beginning of the race. I went ahead and told him to come behind with me. He did so and the pack calmed down.
VP: Do you usually hear from other ex-pro riders on the phone?
FB: Not really, but I get in touch with them to meet them at meetings, shows and dinners.
VP: How about Marino Basso, who "stole" your World Champion title in Gap?
FB: No problems with him. We even raced together after Gap and I helped him to win a stage.
VP: In 1966 you rode for Filotex. For the Giro and the Tour, were you the designated leader, the protected rider?
FB: I rode for Filotex from 1965 to 1972. [Guido] Carlesi was important too but after winning the Tour of Switzerland in 1965 I was the leader.
VP: Let's look at the 1966 Giro, Stage 14, from Parma to Arona (just west of Milano) with the Mottarone climb. You left Anquetil, Franco Balmamion, Gianni Motta, Rudi Altig, Gimondi, Italo Zilioli, Vito Taccone all behind! You had over 30 seconds on your chasers at the end.
FB: Both Adorni and Motta were in crisis on the Mottarone and on the climb we were just three, [Julio] Jimenez, Zilioli and me. Jimenez dropped Zilioli and me at the top of the climb. I was second and Zilioli was third a little behind. Zilioli was catching me on the descent when he slipped off the road. Jimenez wasn't a good descender and since he was only about 100 meters ahead I was able to catch and pass him. The finish line was at the end of the descent, so that was easy. It was an important stage for the general classification.
VP: You won the King of the Mountains with 490 points, beating second place Julio Jimenez's 320 points. You finished eighth in the General Classification. Were you riding for a place high in the GC or were you intent upon stage wins and the Climbers jersey?
FB: Actually I was thinking of the Pink Jersey too. I was a few seconds behind the leader in GC until the stage from Bolzano to Moena, a short stage of 100 km, won by Motta. I had a crisis there, I can't explain why, and I lost 2 minutes.
VP: Along with the possibility of getting the Pink Jersey...
FB: The day after, from Moena to Belluno, I was in a long break trying to regain the time but I was caught by the peloton near the finish because I ran out of food and got the hunger knock. Today the riders all have modern foods and those things don't happen anymore. But when I rode we had sandwiches to keep us going and it didn't always work.
VP: The 1966 Giro ended June 9. The Tour de France started June 21, just 12 days later. Did you ask to ride the Tour or did Filotex say that this was your job and you had to do it?
He gone again! Bitossi wins the 1967 Tour of Lombardy. And who's chasing him? Gimondi, Poulidor, Panizza and Passuello could only close to within 30 seconds of the flying Tuscan. Merckx was almost a minute behind. Olympia photo
FB: I wanted to go, of course! It's a big thing for any rider. I went there full of enthusiasm and even though I could not ride for the GC, I could win two stages.
VP: What was Filotex's goal at the Tour? GC, Stages, special jerseys like Climber's or Sprinter's?
FB: Stage wins and special jerseys. It was my first tour and I wasn't that experienced. I was very happy with the results I had.
VP: Gimondi and Adorni were unable to ride the Tour because they were ill. L'Equipe says that many Italians stayed away from the Tour because of the proposed doping controls. What was going on?
FB: For what I remember there were no real anti-doping controls at that time. My first anti-doping control in Italy was in 1967 during 'La Corsa di Peccioli' [in Tuscany], where I was second and Dancelli won. Then I was checked after winning the Coppa Agostoni and the Giro di Lombardia.
"Franco could not take any amphetamines because it was bad for his heart. And there were no hormones at that time", added Anna.
VP: Before we go on to the 1966 Tour itself, there were several legendary riders (besides yourself) in the Tour. May we ask you thoughts and impressions of them? We've already discussed Anquetil.
Tell me about Andre Darrigade.
FB: I almost didn't race with him, only during the 1966 Tour. I know he was a great sprinter though.
VP: Raymond Poulidor?
FB: He was a friend and I consider him a 'grandissimo'. He was unlucky and he never had great teams supporting him. This was the reason why he did not win very much. He was incredibly strong physically.
VP: Jan Janssen?
FB: Another great reader, I met him in last October and he is always the same.
VP: That is?
FB: "Un artista della bicicletta", he could do what he wanted with his bike.
VP: Roger Pingeon?
FB: I didn't race with him very much, but for some years he was great. He won the Tour de France in 1967 and was incredible in 1968 when Poulidor crashed. He broke away for 190 km, alone and with the wind in his face. And the day after he got angry with us because, in the stage to Aurillac, we attacked him when he had slowed to drink He couldn't get back on and lost his chance to win the Tour. Another great day for him was when he broke away in Grenoble during the Tour of 1968. I could have gotten the Yellow Jersey that day if I had been more careful, but I was greedy and I followed him. That was my ruin because I got stuck at the end and I lost many minutes that day.
VP: Tommy Simpson?
FB: Tommy Simpson was very, very funny. He loved jokes.
VP: He had a heat stroke, right? And it seems that amphetamines blocked out the pain that would have naturally forced any rider not doped to stop.
FB: I guess he took some amphetamines, but if the same thing had happened today he would have survived for sure. After his first illness on the climb he should have been asked to stop and instead he was put back on his bike.
VP: Rudi Altig?
FB: He stole some victories from me, races I should have won! He was very good both on the road and on the track. And he was a good climber too.
VP: Willy Planckaert?
FB: Incredibly fast.
VP: Martin Vandenbossche?
FB: A powerful climber, a "Cammellone" [big camel] who was big and strong and could use big gears.
VP: Rik Van Looy?
FB: "The Emperor of Herentals", a great champion. When I met him he didn't have the strength that he used to possess. But in Belgium, during a criterium on a circuit in Poperinghe, he stole a victory from me. I had broken away with 600-700 meters to go, but he was helped by a lancio all'americana (American launch or hand-sling) and he passed me! Too bad. My Italian colleagues told me that it seemed like I intentionally let him pass, but I didn't!
VP: The 1966 Tour was complicated with French cycling politics because of the war between Anquetil and Poulidor. On stage 2 Poulidor crashed and Anquetil attacked. Poulidor complained bitterly about this and Anquetil called Poulidor a cry-baby. Do you think Anquetil's attack under the circumstances was fair?
FB: I can't remember about that, I guess I was too busy suffering that day!
VP: You got your first Tour de France stage win on Stage 5, Dieppe to Caen. How did you do that? It was a one-second gap. Was it a flyer or did you nail them in the sprint?
Franco Bitossi today with one of his old racing bikes. Paoletti photo
FB: That day Carlesi wanted to win the stage and his teammates (me included) were at the front of the pack to control the race in the second part of the stage. But every time he tried to take off the peloton chased him. He tried several times and then we gave up. We thought that without a break it would be impossible for us to win because there were too many sprinters. So we moved back into the pack. Anquetil was back there with us as well.
With 15 km to go I asked Carlesi if he still wanted to try to go ahead of the peloton and break away. He said he didn't want to and told me to go if I felt like. The road was narrow and I thought it would be difficult to get up to the front, but then we arrived in a sort of large boulevard and I could move up. Meanwhile, in the front of the peloton there was the Willy Planckaert's team [Smith's] working for him. I kept on moving up and with 300 meters to go I passed Planckaert's team and I even gained 50 meters on the peloton. They tried to chase me but I could win. Carlesi and Anquetil could not see from behind what it was happening but they could hear the bullhorn saying my name! Anquetil told Carlesi: "Ne se pas possible !!!"
VP: How could you do that?
FB: I had the adrenaline! Then I won in Turin.
VP: Yes, it was Stage 17, from Briancon to Turin (the stage finished on the track) with the Montgenevre and Sestriere climbs. This was your day, a day for an Italian to win an important stage in Italy. Did you make plans for this day in advance?
FB: Well, arriving in Turin I wanted to try doing something good.
VP: On the Colletta, (km 107) you took off with seven others. I think Poulidor took off after you. Then Anquetil dragged Aimar, second in the GC at only 27 seconds up to the Yellow Jersey Jan Janssen. Were you aware of what was going on behind you, that Anquetil was working to make sure Aimar beat Poulidor?
Anquetil leads Bitossi in an undated Olympia photo
FB: After the finish Aimar came to me and asked me why I had not waited for him! I told him that I couldn't know what was going on behind.
VP: Before Turin the 1966 Tour had a very important stage, Stage 10, from Bayonne to Pau with the Soulor and the Aubisque climbs. Rudi Altig took the Yellow Jersey on day one of the 1966 Tour. He and his Molteni team had controlled the race. At this point, forty-one riders were within two minutes of Altig in the General Classification.
Early on in the stage, riders started to escape. On the Soulor, more took off and on the Aubisque the Anquetil/Simpson/Poulidor group in which you were riding was over eight minutes behind the [Tommaso] De Pra-led group. Lucien Aimar, a domestique of Anquetil's was in this front group.
FB: That break with De Pra and Aimar was decisive for the GC.
VP: The best riders were letting De Pra and a few others just ride away without chasing. What was going on in your group (Simpson/Anquetil/Poulidor/Pingeon/Bitossi)?
FB: Anquetil knew he could not win. Therefore he worked to control Poulidor, trying to keep him from catching Aimar.
VP: Yes, but why didn't Poulidor do anything?
FB: I think he underestimated the consequences that this break would have for the overall General Classification. Maybe he thought that Anquetil would chase De Pra and he was waiting for a reaction from him. But Anquetil decided to help Aimar since he knew he didn't have any hope of winning the Tour that year.
VP: Why were you in this slower group given your climbing prowess?
FB: I didn't have the strength to close the gap that day.
VP: The next day, from Pau to Luchon, another day in the Pyrenees, the racing seems to have been fierce with Anquetil outsprinting Poulidor for third place. What do you remember about that day?
FB: I remember the break of Marcello [Mugnaini, a Filotex teammate of Bitossi's] on the Col de Mente. He won that stage. Yet I was in real difficulty. Carlesi waited for me to help me. I asked him to go slower and slower and he said: 'If I go any slower I will fall down!' What a crisis for me that day on the Portillon! I was stuck.
VP: Stage 15 from Privas to Bourg d'Oisans was ridden in awful weather. Poulidor took terrible chances on the descent in order to gain time. You and Anquetil were both dropped on a descent and you finished just a little bit behind him.
FB: Yes, this was the time when, at the end of the descent, he told me that it was possible to be struggling on the climb to maintain a good position and then lose everything on the descent.
VP: Stage 16, from Bourg d'Oisons to Brinacon, crossed the Croix de Fer, the Telegraphe and the Galibier. It was only 145 kilometers in very favorable weather. The top of the GC was still filled with the men who had escaped on Stage 10. Poulidor was tenth at 5 minutes, 17 seconds and Anquetil, after taking it easy the previous day was fourteenth at 6 minutes, 20 seconds. Do you remember that day and those climbs?
FB: Pronti, via! [Ready, go!]. And after a few kilometers of riding we were at the Croix de Fer. I think I was first or second to the top, I was with [Julio] Jimenez. Then after that there was an attack and I was in a group with only 15-20 riders.
VP: You were in a group of 15 that included Anquetil, Poulidor, Pingeon, Jannsen and Altig.
FB: Right. A lot of riders had to go home that day because they didn't make the time cutoff. On the top of the Croix de Fer climb they were already 20 minutes behind.
VP: 27 riders were eliminated.
FB: There was a friend of mine from Capraia, [Filotex rider Paolo] Mannucci, who was the penultimate rider in the CG. That day he won the prize for the biggest improvement in the General Classification.
VP: What was the prize?
FB: A teddy bear or a little lion. Mannucci made the time cutoff by a few seconds, while [Vittorio] Chiarini and Guido Carlesi were eliminated. While riding, Chiarini had said to Carlesi: "Hey Guido, come on. They are going to send us home if we don't do something!"
And Carlesi had answered, "Don't you eat well at home with your mama? Don't you like being at home? Then come to my place!" And in the evening they really did eat at Carlesi's home!
VP: After the Croix de Fer came the Telegraphe and Galibier. There things got hot. Anquetil and Poulidor were in pursuit of Jimenez. You finished sixteenth, about one minute behind the Aimar/Pingeon group. What was going on on the Galibier?
FB: After the Croix de Fer, Simpson took off on the long descent. I stayed with the others (Anquetil, Poulidor, Pingeon, Jannsen and Altig) and we found him later coming out of a ravine, a little bruised. But after a few curves he attacked again and Jimenez took off on the Telegraphe climb to catch him. Poulidor and Anquetil attacked later on the Galibier to catch them. I remember that they went incredibly fast. I remained behind and Mugnaini was a little ahead. I caught Simpson just before the tunnel of the Galibier (that year we didn't climb all the way to the pass. Instead we rode through the tunnel). I passed Simpson. He seemed tired but then, after a few curves on the descent he passed me again. He did two curves in front of me and then he crashed for a second time! I passed him once more and at the end of the curves, just before the finish he passed me again. There was a beautiful sun but I felt some drops hitting me. He was not drinking so it could not be water. He was very focused on speeding up on the descent! So I thought it was sweat.
Then at the finish my masseur asked me if I had crashed...I was covered with blood! Simpson's blood... I still can't get that day out of my mind.
Another good stage was the one from Ivrea to Chamonix [Stage 18], with the Grand St Bernard climb.
Franco Bitossi after a stage over dirt roads ("strada bianca") in the 1970 Giro. Bitossi is wearing the Pink Jersey, which he had to relinquish to Merckx after Stage 7 Olympia Photo
VP: Yes, this was supposed to be Poulidor's last chance to take time out of Aimar. He is said to have waited too long and attacked on the last climb, the Montets. You were in the group with Aimar. What happened?
FB: On the Forclaz climb there was a battle and Aimar was dropped by Poulidor and Pingeon. Mugnaini, who was fourth in GC, was in difficulty too. That day I was feeling good, so I waited and helped Mugnaini on the climb. At the same time Aimar was helped by Anquetil. After the Forclaz climb there was another little climb and then twenty kilometers to Chamonix. In the final part of that stage I remember Anquetil's working for Aimar and my working for Mugnaini. We did twenty kilometers as if it were a team time trial. Aimar and Mugnaini sat behind Anquetil and me.
VP: And in point of fact Poulidor ended up taking very little time out of Aimar.
FB: Correct, we were able to help Aimar recover some time this way.
VP: If in the final stage (an individual time trial) Poulidor was unable to close the gap and Aimar won the Tour de France. It was also thanks to you, then!
FB: Si! And by the way I gave him a hand even another time.
VP: Still in the 1966 Tour?
FB: Yes. It was during one of the last stages. There was a steep little climb and it was clear that Aimar started to tire from all the efforts of the Tour. Seeing his difficulty somebody attacked and he could not chase. Mugnaini and I were with him. As soon as we got to the top of the climb I took the lead and accelerated to help them close the gap while they drafted.
I could have raced for myself and thought only of my chances but I wanted to help Mugnaini [who was both a teammate and was sitting high in the GC]. Aimar was a friend too. We could almost close the gap to the lead group. We were only 200-300 meters from them. At that point Altig, who was in the group, began helping. Even though he was riding for Molteni, he was friend of Anquetil and Aimar. When he realized that Aimar was just behind, Altig feigned having a problem with his wheel. This way he could wait for Aimar. He stopped, took the wheel off and put it back on. This allowed Mugnaini, Aimar and me to reach him. And in this way, with Altig and me both working, we were able to catch up with the leaders!
If Altig had not done so, those 300 meters would have become an abyss...
VP: Let's move on to 1968 then! The Tour had retuned to National instead of trade teams. You were on the Italian team with the following riders: Severini Andreoli, Carlo Chiappano, Ugo Colombo, Mino Denti, Pietro Guerra, Adriano Passuello, Silvano Schiavon, Flaviano Vicentini and Italo Zilioli.
FB: Unfortunately two of them are not with us anymore today.
FB: Chiappano and Schiavon. Most of the team came from the Filotex squad: Andreoli, Colombo, Passuello, Vicentini, Zilioli and me. Schiavon was from Sanson while Chiappano, Denti and Guerra were from Salvarani. I just met Guerra last Sunday.
VP: Motta and Gimondi and Adorni were missing. Who was the protected rider? What were your objectives for the Tour?
FB: Zilioli was supposed to race for the GC and I raced for stage wins and for special jerseys.
VP: How did you train in those days?
FB: Training was quite different then than it is today. We didn't train for a specific race. We tried to be in shape for the first races of the season. But we weren't too worried if we could not get in shape for the start of racing. Actually I did not have much trouble getting in to shape quickly. In 1967 I won the Trofeo Laigueglia and the Tirreno-Adriatico and in 1968 I won on the Cote d'Azur [all early season races]. Yet then, already there were racers focussing on specific races, men like [Rik] Van Looy and other Belgians. They trained a lot early on because their objectives were usually not the Grand Tours that came later in the season.
VP: L'Equipe said that the early stages of the 1968 Tour were not raced aggressively and were boring. Felix Levitan, the Tour Boss, accused the journalists of having stale eyes. As a consequence the journalists staged a strike. Did it seem this way to you riding in the peloton?
FB: Not at all. A boring Tour de France can't exist! The combat started with the first stage!
VP: There were three days of double stages in 1968, just as in 1966. The Tour doesn't do this any more. It must have been damn tough.
FB: Oh yes. Between one stage and the other we stayed under tents and waited.
VP: What did you do while you were waiting?
FB: We had some food, normal food and then had some massages.
VP: Did you have a preparatory meeting before the start of the stage?
FB: Yes, every morning before starting.
VP: What time did you wake up for a long stage?
FB: We had to eat three hours before the race. So if we started at 10:00 we had to wake up at 6:30. Some races started at 8:00, like the Tour of Switzerland of 1965. We had to wake up at 4:30 to eat.
VP: The first real action of the 1968 Tour was in stage 12, from Pau to St. Gaudens with the Aubisque and the Tourmalet climbs. The weather was bad. Zilioli was ill and had abandoned. Your memories?
FB: It was beastly hot and we had to sleep at the dorms of a University. The bed sheets were made of paper and we had to sleep fifty in big rooms. At the end of the stage we were covered with tar from the roads. I remember that [Dutch rider Evert] Dolman took a shower that took an hour. After dinner he went to lie on the grass half-naked.
VP: Fourteen riders abandoned that day and four more finished outside the time limit. I guess this was due to the heat. Only seventy-one riders were left in the Tour.
FB: Yes, you could not breathe. I suffered a lot during this stage. And the main problem was that I could not recover well because the heat and the overcrowding in the room made it so that I could not sleep at night.
VP: Even though you were on national teams, it looks as if you were allowed to wear your sponsor's names on the jerseys?
FB: Yes, I had the maglia azzurra [blue jersey of the Italian team] and the name Filotex on it.
VP: Going into Stage 15 you were within 2 minutes of Poulidor on the GC. Stage 15, to Albi was where Pingeon had planned his attack to take the lead even though he was well behind Poulidor on the GC. The French riders decided to work for Pingeon. A motorcycle hit Poulidor, ruining Poulidor's chances and forcing him to retire. Did you see any of this?
Bitossi (Zonca) mixing it up with another great, Roger De Vlaeminck (Brooklyn) in the 1976 Trofeo Langueglia. De Vlaeminck crossed the line first, but was relegated for pushing, the results of which can be seen behind.
FB: There was a rivalry between the France A-team (with Pingeon and Poulidor) and the France B-team (with Aimar). Pingeon broke away for 190 km and went like a motorcycle, while Poulidor crashed 10 km before the finish and had to abandon a few days later. So the next day Aimar said, 'Pingeon is tired, Poulidor is in bad shape. We are going to get rid of both of them'. And in fact the day after, in the Stage 16 from Albi to Aurillac, we agreed to attack Pingeon when he slowed to drink. Everybody knew that there was to be an attack immediately after the feed area. Poulidor was unable to react. Pingeon couldn't catch up and lost his chance to win the Tour.
VP: And you won that stage?
FB: I won the stage and Wolfshohl took the Yellow Jersey.
VP: How did it go?
FB: In the final part of the stage [German rider Rolf] Wolfshohl and I took off. We finished the stage by sprinting on a track. I was faster than he, but he was happy all the same because he took the Yellow Jersey.
VP: The final stage of the 1968 Tour was an individual time trail and is one of the most dramatic races in cycling history. Here was the GC before the ITT:
- 1. Herman Van Springel: Elapsed time so far: 132 hours 29 minutes 17 seconds
- 2. Gregorio San Miguel @ 12 seconds
- 3. Jan Janssen @ 16 seconds
- 4. Franco Bitossi @ 58 seconds
- 5. Andres Gandarias @ 1 minute, 15 seconds
- 6. Lucien Aimar @ 1 minute 38 seconds
- 7. Ferdi Bracke @ 1 minute 56 seconds
- 8. Rolf Wolfshohl @ 2 minutes 12 seconds
- 9. Roger Pingeon @ 2 minutes 28 seconds
Nine men are within only two and a half minutes of the GC leader Van Springel. And you were so close to the lead....
Did you make any special preparations for the time trial?
FB: No, I was tired at the end, I didn't have the legs anymore.
VP: Jan Janssen rode the time trial of his life and took the ultimate victory. What did you see?
FB: Every time I rode a time trial, I always had the best rider starting immediately behind me. That year Janssen started right after me. When he passed me he was going so fast that I thought it was Merckx. He was flying!
VP: So he was able close the three-minute lead you had on him at the start of the time trial and then he even dropped you?
FB: Correct. But in that Tour I really worked hard for the Green Jersey. I never placed worse than twelfth in every stage.
VP: And in fact you ended up with a wonderful result for the 1968 Tour, the Orange Sprinter's Jersey [now it is green], the Combine leadership and Eighth place in the GC.
Bitsossi in the '68 Tour wearng the Points Leader jersey.
FB: I was even second in the King of the Mountains.
VP: I would guess that you were seriously thinking about the Yellow Jersey as well during the third week of the Tour?
FB: Of course I was, but I was also exhausted. As I said, my mistake in that Tour was breaking away with Pingeon in Grenoble (stage 18). I was second in GC after Wolfshohl and I felt some pressure from the journalists for the Yellow Jersey. If I had been patient and had stayed with the peloton I would have worn the Yellow Jersey at the end of the stage. Instead I wanted to go with Pingeon and attack. I had a crisis on the last climb and I lost six minutes.
VP: Was your Green Jersey all wrapped up and beyond challenge in the last week?
FB: No. It was a battle with [Walter] Godefroot, who came in second in the points competition. At the end of the Tour he came to me and said, 'You should have told me before that you wanted this jersey so much! I would have let you have it and maybe you would have allowed me to win at least one stage!' I had shadowed him everywhere during the entire Tour. It was a draining fight. Yet, in order to win a Grand Tour you have to ride economically and use your energy only when really necessary.
VP: Like Anquetil...
FB: Gimondi was good at riding that way as well. I rode instinctively instead. For me winning meant to be first at the finish line. It's the same difference that there is in winning a boxing match either by a KO or just by the points. Winning by KO has another flavor.
VP: But that means of course that you use a lot of energy and therefore it makes winning a Grand Tour much harder.
FB: I know, but anyway I was not that good at time trialing. This limited me in the GC of course.
VP: Right. Time trials seem to have been your weakness in stage races.
FB: It was partly due to my physical characteristics, but mostly it was because I got very tense. This was especially true at the beginning of my career. And when I started to get more relaxed about that Merckx arrived.
VP: What brand of bike were you riding?
FB: In 1968 we had bikes made by a builder named Branca. The bikes had Filotex decals, though.
VP: Were the bikes for the time trials different from the bikes used for climbing?
FB: No, no...
VP: After the final time trial stage of the 1968 Tour Herman Van Springel implied that Jan Janssen had been able to evade the doping controls. There has been a rumor traded about the cycling press for decades that Tour Boss Levitan, wanting the blonde, handsome, French speaking Janssen to win the Tour, told Janssen that he would not get a dope test after the time trial.
FB: I remember about that. I think it was maybe because Janssen raced for a French team. But anyway how can we know if this is true?
VP: What is your favorite memory of racing?
FB: I always said that the victory that made me feel better is the win of the third stage of the 1964 Giro d'Italia. With that victory I returned to being a true rider.
VP: It's because you had not been able to really race for a while because of your heart?
FB: Right, that victory gave me the confidence I needed to continue racing.
VP: Is there any race that in looking back, you would have done things differently?
FB: Yes, that stage in Grenoble in 1968 where I missed the Yellow Jersey and, of course, the World Championships in Gap in 1972. But the World Championships in San Christobal in Venezuela in 1977 were really satisfying. I was 37 years old and I was third! And I helped Francesco Moser to win.
Actually I wasn't careful in the feed zone and I didn't get the food I needed. I got the hunger knock and I had to slow down. Then I found some energy and I was able to come in third. Another victory I love to remember is the Italian Championship Title in 1976 in Legnano. Beating younger riders when you are 37 gives you an incredible feeling.
Bitossi in the 1976 Italian Championships.
Several hours later, here's the result. 37-year old Franco Bitossi wins another Italian championship
VP: You retired from races late...
FB: I was 38 years, 1 month, and 3 days old. I started my career at the Giro dell'Emilia of 1961, the 4th of October and I finished my career at the Giro dell'Emilia of 1978, the 4th of October. After 17 years one has to know when to say "Basta".
After this incredible interview I didn't know what to expect. My plan was to take a train to Florence and spend the evening alone at my hotel. But Franco and Anna didn't hesitate to ask me to spend the whole afternoon and evening with them.
Franco wanted to take me to see the beautiful countryside around Empoli before the sunset and show me his beloved olive trees and how he takes care of them.
We were in the hills near the village of Artimino when we saw the vans and trucks of the Danish cycling team CSC parked in front of a beautiful agriturismo [working farm that also takes guests]. Inside the hotel I discovered that Bitossi is not only loved by everybody in his region, but also the entire cycling world. I suddenly found myself talking to Ivan Basso and the team's coach Bjarne Riis!
|CSC's Ivan Basso and the author,Valeria Paoletti|
We left the CSC team and went to visit his old "babbo" (father), who lives near Bitossi's olive trees and then to meet his friends at his bowling club. Franco loves joking and he asked me to be his accomplice in playing pranks on his friends. That evening with Franco, Anna and Massimiliano, Franco's handsome son, we had a lovely Tuscan dinner in a very beautiful villa. Franco's family is as delightful as he is!
That evening I got to my hotel much later than I had planned. My mind was full of beautiful memories and images and my hands were full of cookies. Franco was thoughtful enough to buy some typical cookies from Tuscany for my mother after learning of her Tuscan origin!
Sunset at the Empoli countryside with the olive trees Franco Bitossi loves so much
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 and Road Magazine are 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.