A Chat with Italo Zilioli,
One of the legends of Italian Cycling
by Bill McGann & Valeria Paoletti
Italo Zilioli on the road to Dobbiaco in stage 19 of the 1970 Giro d'Italia.
Neo-pro Italo Zilioli rocked the Italian cycling world late in the 1963 racing season with wins in four major single-day races: Tre Valle Varesine, Giro dell'Appennino, Giro del Veneto and the Giro dell'Emilia. Since Fausto Coppi's death in 1960, Italian race fans had been praying that the good God send them another Coppi. With Zilioli's fabulous run, some thought their prayers had been answered.
He wasn't Coppi, even though he was nicknamed Coppino for his slender build, wonderful climbing ability and non-explosive style. He was Italo Zilioli, a special rider, a wonderfully gifted athlete who accumulated 58 professional wins in his fourteen-year career, wore the Tour de France's Yellow Jersey and stood on the Giro's final podium four times (second in 1964, 1965, and 1966, and third in 1969).
Signor Zilioli rode instinctively, rather than as a coldly calculating rider, and that is why he couldn't win Grand Tours. Racing was both a blessing and a source of emotional trouble for him. He understood "his problem", but he couldn't overcome it. He doesn't hesitate to describe his moments of lack of self-confidence, but this modesty is what makes him special.
Zilioli doesn't enjoy long-form interviews and has turned down the many requests to write an autobiography. But he generously consented to answer a few questions we had about the Giro d'Italia for The Story of the Giro d’Italia (his answers were a revelation and wonderfully frank) as well as expound a bit about his career. We are grateful for Signor Zilioli's kindness. Here is his perspective on a glorious racing era.
Many thanks to Herbie Sykes for the contemporary photo of Signor Zilioli posted lower down this page. Sykes is the author of Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d'Italia, simply a terrific book.
Valeria Paoletti: Signor Zilioli, how did you end up racing bicycles? What happened from there?
Italo Zilioli: When I climbed aboard my first bike I was only a little boy who enjoyed riding. I bought a bicycle and rode with a friend who had taken up riding before me. My friend and I would race each other, killing ourselves. He was the tougher one. Growing up, I felt the need to compete against others. I was 17 then, it was 1958. Riding allowed me to get away, escape from my life's routine and see the world.
I started feeling a desire to put a number on my back. So I asked a guy I met while I was riding how to get started. He said I should enter a club and suggested Gios [then run by Gios Bicycles founder Tolmino Gios], which is still producing bicycles today. I got my club card in September of 1958 and took part in three or four races. In one of them I came in 11th, while I abandoned the others. I knew nothing about bicycles and how to eat or drink. But that 11th place inspired me to do much better the next year. I got a new bike. The one I had was really beat-up and the wrong size for me, too small. At that time I already worked, so I didn’t cause my family any financial strain. These are among my fondest memories.
In 1959 I got more serious and I showed some ability, winning the Students' Italian Championship. I liked doing things right, but it was done without pressure. Then I met [Vincenzo] Giacotto, who hired me as an employee, to keep me with him until I turned 21.
I rode for two and a half years as an amateur. I took some beatings, but I won races in Piedmont that featured hilltop finishes, such as the Turin–Cervinia and the Turin–Valtournenche (there were many at that time, but not so today). Those races inspired me a lot. I loved climbing, maybe because it came so easy to me. Occasionally, however, I raced with the best riders in Italy and there I took some hammerings. But I managed to win the third and final round of the Italian Championship in 1961 in Santo Stefano Magra. I went to that championship alone, by train. These are the adventures that I love to recall. You had to take care of your feeding and organize things yourself. We didn’t have a real team, we were two or three people and often I ended up going to the races alone.
Then, at the end of 1962, I turned pro for the Tour of the Apennines. The transition from amateur to professional was very stimulating. I was excited, like everyone, even today. I came in first on the Bocchetta, which reminded me of the last victory in a single-day road race of Fausto Coppi in 1955. Everyone remembered it and riding there moved me, because memories [of Coppi] were still so alive. And I felt the same emotions every time I made that ascent in the following years. I won the Tour of the Apennines twice; I have always been protagonist of that tour, whenever I was in good shape. I thought of that race as my own.
That is how I started my 14 years as a pro.
V.P. For your first full year, Chapeau! In 1963, you won: Tre Valli Varesine, Giro dell'Appenino, Giri del Veneto, Emilia, Circuit de Rimaggio, as well as the first stage of Tour of Switzerland. Magnificent!!
I.Z. After a difficult beginning of the season, without results, I was included in [Carpano's] team that was sent to the Giro. [Franco] Balmamion, winner of the previous Giro, was the team's only captain and [Nino] Defilippis and [Vendremino] Bariviera were supposed to race for stage wins. I was considered promising but also an unknown quantity, so I was left free, without the specific commitments of a gregario.
The first half of the Giro was tough for me: I suffered a lot and my morale was low because while racing uphill had always been easy for me, during the uphill stages of the Giro I wasn’t able to stay in the leading group and felt I couldn’t recover from the fatigue at the end of every day.
During the second half of the Giro I started to feel good. I wasn’t suffering during the race anymore. I experienced a maturation. I could take part in breaks and I got some very good results: third in Gorizia and second on the Nevegal, an uphill stage. I came in 5th or 6th (I don’t recall!) on the mountain stage of Moena, where Balmamion broke away from Adorni and won his second Giro d'Italia. Finishing a Giro with such a crescendo was a very important sign as it showed a good ability to recover. After about 10 days in fact I won the first stage at the Swiss Tour. That was the beginning of a nice season's finale.
V.P. During the mid to later 1950s the Giro had attracted international fields but by 1962 and 1963 (your first Giro) the peloton was largely Italian. Is this impression correct? Do you have an explanation?
I.Z. [Hugo] Koblet and [Charly] Gaul, who left their mark in the Giro, were fading away. While other great riders such as [Louison] Bobet and [Federico] Bahamontes won the Tour during those years but led the Giro. And [Raymond] Poulidor never even took part in it. Thus the only "bugbear" leader of those years at the Giro was [five-time Tour winner Jacques] Anquetil. And in 1962 and 1963 he didn’t take part in the race, for reasons that could be related to personal facts, interest or sponsors. During those two years, the Giro was hard-fought and open and the Italian young racers showed their skills.
V.P. How did you handle a Grand Tour?
I.Z. I didn’t have the right mentality for a Grand Tour. I was not self-confident enough, just as I am not today. I looked for single wins believing that in this way I could accumulate something (stage victories, but also self-confidence) in the meantime. But with this non-calculating mentality you don't program and ration your efforts, as you should do to be able to win a big race of three weeks. I rode instinctively and at the end of the Giro I ended up second, third or fourth in GC. I didn’t have the right attitude for a Grand Tour. Instead, I could win week-long races, such as Catalan Week or the Tirreno-Adriatico. If I was feeling good I could get one or two stage wins and so win the race in the end. This happened without any calculation though.
V.P. In the 1963 Giro's stage 7 (Arezzo–Riolo Terme), your Carpano teammate Nino Defilippis broke away with Vittorio Adorni, Jaime Alomar and Giancarlo Ceppi. Instead of sitting in to protect teammate Franco Balmamion’s GC hopes, Defilippis rode hard, helping dangerman Adorni, forcing an equally hard chase by Balmamion.
1. Did the other Carpano riders, especially you and Balmamion, chase the break?
2. Defilippis did not start the next day, citing illness. Did director Ettore Milano (or [team manager] Vincenzo Giacotto?) send him home to stop the civil war?
I.Z. I can only say that Balmamion’s adversary was not Defilippis but Adorni. Nino Defilippis' role in that break was not to work for the team [GC ambitions] but to win the stage. The Giro still had a long way to go and Balmamion could find in the other teams some other good adversaries of Adorni, such as [Guido] De Rosso and [Giorgio] Zancanaro. Thus I believe that Defilippis withdrew for some kind of physical problems. For sure he was not removed by Giacotto.
V.P. In 1963, stage 15 (Mantua–Treviso), you were in the big break and probably riding to a place on the podium. A motorcyclist told you your DS (or Giacotto?) wanted you to go back to the pack and help Balmamion. Did you ever find out who sent the message since Giacotto denied it?
I.Z. Giacotto was our manager and supervisor, while Milano was the DS who decided the strategy during the race.
That was an inexplicable episode. In the evening Giacotto said he was not the one who told the motorcyclist to stop me. Very likely it was a bad joke played on a young racer who was starting to stand out. I did what I was told, believing that I was being correct and respectful of my place on the team. But today, with a cold mind, I see that even with my escape, Balmamion wouldn’t have run any risk in that stage (it was flat and without any difficulty). The only thing that I am regret is that had I continued in breakaway I could have finished the Giro in seventh or eighth.
V.P. The Carpano team is usually pictured as split with a terrible rivalry between Balmamion and Defilippis. Was it truly as acrimonious as the press pictured it? What was it like riding as a first year pro in this team with such a split? What were your ambitions?
I.Z. I consider the supposed rivalry between Balmamion and Defilippis in the Carpano team just a hype, because the two champions were too different. Balmamion was suited for stage races even though he won an Italian Championship. Defilippis was instead suited for Classic races and for single stage wins.
I knew I was part of a great team with great champions. Nevertheless, because of the ability I had shown as amateur, I was left free to race, while still respecting the team’s hierarchies.
I wanted to show off and take the lead, just like any young rider, but I didn’t make ambitious plans. I always tried to do my best, in order to feel good with myself, but without overemphasizing things.
V.P. There were directors in the 1963 Giro who had been riders during the pioneer era, before World War One: Eberardo Pavesi and Alfredo Sivocci. Do you have any memory, thoughts or impressions of these two great old rides and directors?
I.Z. Pavesi and Sivocci were two great characters belonging to an epic and enchanting cycling era. I held them in great respect and admiration.
V.P. The Baracchi Trophy (a post-war two-man time trial) is gone, but in its time it was a big deal. Given the excitement a time trial generates in a Grand Tour today, why do you think stand-alone time trials like the Baracchi and the Grand Prix des Nations died?
I.Z. At my time there were more time trial specialists than today and time trialing was nurtured among young riders. When I was an amateur I was asked to try a time trial, the Voghera–Passo Brallo, to see how well I could do. I tried and I showed some limitations, even though I didn't actually do that badly, I came in fourth or fifth. At that time there was more stimulus through time trials, even the Olympic Games had a team time trial [last held in 1992]. I remember the thrill on the eve of the Baracchi and the Grand Prix des Nations. If even those races were still around today, who would race them? Contador, for example, is too busy with the Grand Tours. Among Italians, Nibali, he can get by in those races, but in a long time trial, like were the ones held during my time, about 100 kilometers, you would see a difference with real specialists. I remember the fatigue, lots of it, and I don’t think that the today's race schedule would allow racers to stand out in a real time trial.
It's a discipline that doesn't spare you, a direct exam. It's a race with yourself and you need the right concentration and determination, the right head, because you can’t improvise there.
V.P. So you believe that maybe today there are not many riders able to deal with the challenge of a big stand-alone time trial?
I.Z. I can't see many today. Also, a race like the Grand Prix des Nations paid the racers a fee that supplemented their salary, but today's racers have already a considerable salary… For the same reason most of the criteriums have disappeared. Today they aren't worth it, because of the effort and traveling they entail. But at my time, when salaries were lower, twenty or thirty Criteriums per year were an important source of income.
V.P. 1964, stage 20 of the Giro, the super-tappone, just like the big stage Coppi won in 1949. You attacked on the first climb, the Maddalena, like Volpi and Coppi. There were still hours of racing to go. What was your plan?
I.Z. I know that there were still hours to go, but I was an instinctive rider and normally I didn’t plan things and strategize. I liked to improvise.
Sometimes this would lead to nothing and other times it would lead to good things. In that stage I was feeling good and I let things get out of my hand, so that day I used up too much energy. And as the race was almost at its end [the Giro was in its third week] there wasn't much strength left.
V.P. How did you like the Classics, were they or some of them suited to your characteristics?
I.Z. I did like them, but I also suffered from them. Even when I was feeling good. In fact in 1964 I won the Coppa Agostoni three days before the Tour of Lombardia. So I got enthusiastic, wasted energy and at the Tour of Lombardia I wasn't able to ride as I could have.
Even three days before the 1965 World Championship [won by Tom Simpson] I won a race [probably the G.P Vizcaya] against all the guys I was also going to meet at the Championship, three days later. So I started dreaming about the rainbow jersey, but then at the World Championships it was another story... [Zilioli came in 16th].
V.P. How did severe weather affect you during a race?
I.Z. If you’re feeling good you like the heat, but if you’re feeling good you like the cold as well!
V.P. Stage 21 of the 1965 Giro went up the north face of the Stelvio. How does this ascent compare to the other great climbs? And how does it differ from the other face?
I.Z. When you face it you know you are facing a beast. I didn’t know it well though and I didn't find remarkable differences with the other side of the mountain. There was an early break of [Graziano] Battistini and [Ugo] Colombo. At that time, teams were not as organized, with the leader team controlling things as they are today. I managed to come in third that day.
V.P. Starting in 1965 Jacques Anquetil was sponsored by Ford France. Ford had set up semi-autonomous subsidiaries around Europe to sell their cars. Ford France was separate from Ford Italy. During the 1966 Giro, Anquetil was working hard to win. Then, he deadened his efforts. It is believed that the manager of Ford France asked Ford Italy for financial help to defer the expenses of the team's racing in the Giro. The Ford Italy boss, thinking he had a free ride with Ford France paying the team's expenses, refused to help. So the Ford France boss told Anquetil that he would rather he didn't win the Giro rather than give the gift of the tremendous publicity to Italian Ford. Anquetil came in third to your second and Motta's first. Later in the season Anquetil distributed a substantial amount of money to the Ford France riders. When asked why they were getting the money (one rider got enough to buy a car!) Anquetil said it was from the Giro, but would not elaborate. The riders speculated that either Ford France paid a substantial bonus to what was a VERY powerful team for not winning. The riders surely sacrificed a lot of race prize money and pride. OR...the Italian teams paid Anquetil the money to do what he had already decided to do, lose the race. In any case, Anquetil, being kind and generous to his riders, shared the money.
So: Were you aware of the instructions to Anquetil from Ford France to give up trying top win?
Did his team pay Anquetil any money?
I.Z. I believe that there is a general tendency of people to fictionalize the history, but here is what happened:
Anquetil lost the 1966 Giro at the first stage, the Montecarlo–Diano Marina. That day he finished significantly behind the best riders. But this was not because of a disorderly eve with oysters and champagne, like somebody said, but because of bad luck.
I know these facts because a good friend of mine, Berto Galletto, witnessed them while he was waiting for the Giro's riders on the Colle San Bartolomeo.
With three kilometers to the GPM [hilltop with points available in the climbers' competition], Anquetil was controlling the leading group. A tifoso wanted to give him a bottle of water made of glass but he tripped and fell and his bottle broke just under Anquetil's tubulars. Both tires flatted. He quickly changed wheels with a gregario, but he lost about one minute.
He started a crazy chase to regain the leading group, that in the meantime had not noticed the accident and had really accelerated for the GPM. Anquetil managed to pass many riders, but wasn't able to catch the leaders. At the GPM he was still about 100 meters behind them. I consider this chase a great performance, I think he recovered 40-45 seconds in 3 km!
After the GPM we descended as quickly as possible and Anquetil, who wasn't that fast at descending, arrived at the end of the descent with a delay of 15-20 seconds. Only at the end of the descent did we realize he wasn't in our group. We almost couldn't believe that and decided to leave him behind. He tried chasing us for about 10 kilometers, managing to keep the gap constant. But then he gave up…what a great performance though.
During the following stages, apart from a few times, Anquetil did not show the superiority that everyone knew he had. At the beginning he tried to favour his team mate [Julio] Jiménez as an alternative to him for the GC. Jiménez in fact had a good Giro, winning some stages, but he wasn't able to fight for the victory in GC.
As regards your questions about possible agreements between Anquetil and other teams, I know that these things can happen during the important races, but I was not and I am not aware of any agreement regarding the 1966 Giro. My team and I had no interest in paying Anquetil, especially for a second place in CG. I had already been second in 1964 and 1965…
1966 Giro, Stage 20, on the Pordoi, the first major climb of the day. From the left: Silvano Schiavon, Italo Zilioli, Franco Bitossi, Pietro Partesotti and Gianni Motta. Felice Gimondi won the stage.
V.P. You raced during an era full of great champions and characters, and of directors and managers with strong personalities. How was Vincenzo Giacotto, your director at Carpano? He is thought to have been rather advanced in a lot of areas of team and rider management. Was this true?
I.Z. Giacotto was the first DS to leave a modern mark in cycling. He arranged a big team [Faema] made of 15 Italians and 15 Belgians [in 1968], like no other at the time. He was on the cutting edge in managing teams. For example he was the first one to bring the team uniform in: when we traveled we all had to wear the same uniform and the same leisure shoes and carry the same baggage. Before that everyone would go around with his own clothes and bag. Giacotto wouldn't allow you go down to the hotel lobby in slippers, you had to wear the team shoes. And don't you dare not to do it! He brought in rules that marked a turning point in cycling; all the others followed his lead.
V.P. How about Eddy Merckx? During the Giro of 1967 (stage 12 to Block Haus) you broke away and could have taken the Pink Jersey, but a very young Eddy Merckx took off with a kilometer to go and won the stage. At the time did you have any idea who or what was close to you?
I.Z. With Merckx there was, and remains, an important friendship, with a feeling that can’t be explained [Zilioli and Merckx remain good friends to this day].
While racing for Peugeot he won his first Giro stage in that Block Haus ascent, beating me! At that time he had already won Milano–San Remo, but this was his first Giro stage win. Then, two days later, he won another stage. When he won on Block Haus all the climbers were disappointed: a Belgian sprinter beat us on a climb?? We thought he would have become a [Rik] Van Steenbergen at the most, and instead…
V.P. 1967 Giro, stage 21 with the Tonale, finishing in Tirano. I am sure you have heard for years the accusations of the journalists of the santa alleanza degli italiani [holy alliance of Italians] that says the Italians decided your Salvarani teammate Felice Gimondi would be the designated Giro winner against an exhausted Anquetil and that none of the Italians chased Gimondi when he attacked (Balmamion was in very good shape, they say). And further, their accusation is that Balmamion was allowed to become Italian champion to repay him for letting Gimondi go. True or false?
I.Z. I heard about those rumors but as far as I know there was no alliance pro-Gimondi.
Instead, I think that Balmamion, who was in good shape, wasn't careful enough. He could have chased Gimondi more closely during the stages. Anquetil "played dead" and Balmamion, perhaps, did not sense the race tactics going on.
On the other side I also think he was not helped to become the new Italian Champion. He was never favored and he never favored (anyone) in his career.
V.P. Savona, Giro of 1969. The Merckx positive. Dr. Cavalli did the test twice. Your thoughts on the episode?
I.Z. I know what Merckx told me and what it was written and never contradicted: he was asked to lose that Giro, he did not accept the offer and after a few days he was found positive.
V.P. So someone put something in his drink, for example?
I.Z. Yes, it must have been like that. Someone from his team or from another team. I want to add that at that time the support from tifosi was much more extreme than today. There was more rivalry, the tifosi were more aggressive. While you were riding you could hear the insults from the tifosi to a rider about another rider. Today's tifosi are more calm and fair. They go up on the passes and together celebrate the arrival of the peloton, independently from whom they support.
V.P. What was your relationship with Gimondi?
I.Z. We have been in the same team, I always thought very highly of him as a rider. Forty years ago I was asked what I envied about him. I said: "his grit, his determination, the fact that he never gives up and his self-confidence." It happened that he went slowly for three months, maybe at the beginning of the season, and if we teased him he replied, with a fierce expression on his face: "Watch out, I will be coming in 15 days." And he really came on after 15 days! That means he never lacked confidence. As for me, I used to start my season full-power to see if I was still at the same level as the previous year and I even won the Trofeo Laigueglia [an important early season Italian race], for example, but this way I dissipated my strength and I arrived at the Giro tired.
V.P. The 1970 Tour de France. After winning in Angers you took the Yellow Jersey and held it until Merckx retook it in stage 6. You are the quintessential Italian road racer. Yet, though you never took the Maglia Rosa, you wore yellow for nearly a week. What were your ambitions at that point?
I.Z. I was feeling good, but I didn't think about a possible final victory. At the first moment Eddy [Merckx, his team leader on Faemino] was a bit surprised. But then in the evening he seemed tranquil and he said he didn't have any problem with my wearing the Yellow Jersey and that there was still a lot to go.
Franco Bitossi, Felice Gimondi and Italo Zilioli at the start of the 1971 Giro d'Italia. Olympia photo.
V.P. Alfredo Martini was your director in 1971. Was this a good episode in your career? With victories in the Tirreno–Adriatico and Trofeo Laigueglia, things couldn’t be too bad?
I.Z. I have very good memories of that period. He was, with Luciano Pezzi, one of the best DS I have ever had. [Marino] Vigna, DS of Faemino, was also good, methodical and smart, but he had a Merckx who could solve any problem. Martini knew very well how to keep the group united, as he also showed with the National Italian Team. In the evenings we were all in a good mood, there was a nice atmosphere.
V.P. Let's talk about the last years of your career, the mid 1970s. You had been in the saddle for many years by this time. Towards the end of your career, how did you face the chores of training and traveling? Was it still a pleasure?
I.Z. Yes, it was still my life. But I didn't get many results anymore. I saw the others approaching.
V.P. What was the difference with respect to the prime years. Recovery more difficult? Less power? Speed?
I.Z. My body started to show some cracks, such as high azotemia [blood urea nitrogen, meaning a reduction of kidney function]. I started to have some blood values that were no longer perfect. I "plugged" things up for a while, but then I decided that it was time to stop.
V.P. How, where and why did you retire from racing?
I.Z. It was 1976 and I finished the season with some fair placings (fifth, sixth). I thought that Martini, who was the coach of the Italian National Team, would have included me in the team. But Francesco Moser was already on the team and he wanted somebody who could give him more guarantees than me, possibly from his own team. So I was not called, despite my season’s placings. The National Team needed certainties and my placings were not enough.
So I took part in the last races of the seasons. At the Emilia Tour, De Vlaeminck went on an early [successful] break and despite there being four or five other riders in the field sprint I managed to come in second. It was a rather good result and so I decided: "I quit now." I showed up at the Tour of Lombardy only to greet people. That was how I finished.
Italo Zilioli in 2011. Photo by Herbie Sykes.
V.P. If you could, what would you do differently?
I.Z. Nothing, I think. I would do things in the same way, always doing my best. I would be the same, even with my dark sides. Sometimes you get caught by some kind of mind circles which are difficult to overcome. When Merckx and I were on the same team we would sleep in the same hotel room and when it was time to go to sleep he said: "Good night", turned the light off and after 5 minutes I could hear him sleeping. Even though he had all the jerseys to defend, and not just the yellow one, he turned off the switch of both the light and his brain. He could deal with pressure, he was a war machine. Instead I started thinking about the time trial or the climb of the day after and…"adieu" sleep…
V.P. So it’s true that racing was a source of emotional trouble for you and you had restless nights during the races?!
I.Z. Absolutely. Sometimes during my sleepless nights I would utter nonsense things!
In addition to that fabulous coda to the 1963 season noted earlier in the interview, Italo Zilioli’s career included these other milestones:
1st Giro del Veneto
1st Coppa Agostini
2nd Giro d'Italia
3rd Tour of Switzerland
2nd Giro d'Italia (winner of stage 18)
1st Championship of Zurich
1st GP Industria & Commercio Prato
2nd Giro d'Italia
1st Giro di Campania
2nd Tirreno–Adriatico (winner of stage 5)
4th Giro d'Italia
3rd Giro d'Italia (winner of stage 19)
1st Catalonian Week (winner of stage 2a and 2b)
1st Giro del Piemonte
5th Giro d'Italia
Week in Yellow in the Tour de France (winner of stage 2)
1st Tirreno–Adriatico (winner of stage 2)
1st Trofeo Laigeuglia
1st Giro del'Appennino
1st Coppa Placci
Special thanks to Valeria Paoletti who not only conducted this interview, but also did our interviews with Fiorenzo Magni, Celestino Vercelli, Franco Bitossi, Felice Gimondi, Pietro Piazzalunga and Gianni Bugno. You can find links to all of these terrific oral history postings here.