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Giuseppe Pancera

A daughter remembers a cycling great from the 1920s and 1930s

by Egidia Barbetta

Introduction: The 1920s and early 1930s are a wonderful yet sadly forgotten era in cycle racing. One of the more interesting protagonists of the time was Italian Giuseppe Pancera. Second in the 1929 Tour, second in the 1928 Giro, he was an aggressive, capable and very well-regarded rider. While researching my history of the Giro d'Italia, I discovered that Pancera's daughters live in the United States. Both Enrica Pierce and Egidia Barbetta were wonderfully helpful to this total stranger who called them up out of the blue.

Better, Egidia kindly sent me a treasure-trove to share with Bikeraceinfo readers. What follows immediately below this photo of Pancera are her memories of growing up with a cycling champion for a father. Further below her memoir is a short summary of Giuseppe's career. All the photos are from the family's collection.

More photos from Giuseppe Pancera's career | These photos as a video slideshow

Egidia Barbetta writes:

All through my childhood, the main topic of conversation in our home was bicycle racing. My parents owned a bar and coffee shop called Caffe Sport Pancera, named after my father, Giuseppe Pancera, who had been a racer in the 1920s, a golden era for professional cycling. His career started in 1922 and he became a champion not only in Italy but all over Europe and even as far as Australia. He retired when he turned 33 and a year later got married, had three children and led a quiet life with his family until his death in 1977 at the age of 78.

When my sister and I were teenagers, and father started to talk about his adventures, we grew listless and walked away. But recently, while looking through family relics, we found a manuscript written by our father and we realized what we had missed by not speaking to him.

Born in 1899 in the small town of Castelnuovo del Garda in northern Italy, my father's parents were simple peasants. There were four brothers and times were hard. At the age of 12, my father started to work as a baker's helper for a monthly wage of five lire, which was collected by his father. Their staple diet was polenta—meat was served only on special occasions.

At the age of 14 he went to work in a nearby town with his older brother, still as a baker's helper. Every Sunday, after all the baking was done, they would jump on their bikes and ride the 30 kilometers home to visit their parents for a couple of hours.

They were happy and hoped their life would continue unchanged. However, in 1915 Italy entered the First World War and the four brothers were drafted into the Italian Army. For the next two months they dug ditches. Father was eager to be sent to the front line but instead he was assigned to a motorcycle unit attached to a fire station and there he remained until he was discharged 48 months later. After the war he went back to the bakery.

Up to this time, father never heard of bicycle racing, but two of his brothers did, and he convinced them to get him a racing bike, sometimes racing alongside trains. One day he was invited to participate in a race and to everybody's amazement, including his own, he came first. He realized he had a passion for speed and his new life began.

In 1922 my father started to compete in the provinces near his hometown, always finishing in the top placings. In September of that year he took part in a race of 680 kilometers. After the second stage, he became the group leader and for the rest of the race he led his team in spite of punctures, a bad fall and terrible weather.

At the end of the fifth stage he reached the finish line with 12 minutes' lead on the second-placed rider. That night, during a special celebration, he was given an envelope with 300 lire and a small gold medal. He felt like he was the King of Verona!

Thus was born the long career of Giuseppe: heroic undertakings, escapes in kilometers and more important victories until his second place in the Tour de France in 1929 at the age of 30. Cycling up the Champs Elysées is the dream for anyone who cycles, but to finish second on the podium was the thrill of his life.

From 1922 to 1933 the most important contests of his career were his 10 Giros, four Tours and five Spanish tours. His best overall standings were second in the 1928 Giro and the 1929 Tour de France and sixth in the 1927 Giro. In one of the competitions in Spain, he took a bad fall when a dog crossed his path, causing him to crash and break his left arm.

He was called "The Silent Man", a modest and courageous racer who did his best for Italy's honor. In 1927 he won the 540-kilometer Rome–Naples–Rome with a 430-kilometer solitary breakaway, arriving first with 70 minutes on the second-placed contestant.

And finally, in 1931, the famous Paris–Brest–Paris of 1,200 kilometers, an inhuman race completed every 10 years by superhuman (but crazy) bikers, the longest race in those days to be run in one stage.

The weather was bad—cold and rainy. More than once my father wanted to quit but then he started pedaling in the dark, pushing himself to the limit. At one point, the storm was so bad he fell off his bike and passed out. The rain on his face woke him and he climbed back on his bike once again.

He moved to the front and pulled back all the riders that remained ahead of him.

He was the first to enter the Parc des Princes in Paris and could feel the victory in his bones. Then he fell, 100 meters from the finish line and Sir Hubert Opperman and Leon Louyet passed him like two ghosts. He never saw or heard them. They were crazed and looked like two robots. Father came third overall.

In 1933, after the Tour of Italy, he retired, but continued riding his bike as his favorite hobby.

Both long retired, the great Gino Bartali (second from left) talks with Pancera (second from right), about the Tour de France in an undated newspaper story.

I know for a fact that my birth came as a big surprise and disappointment to my father. He wanted a boy and there I was, a girl. The reason he wanted a boy so badly was because he had been a bicycle champion in his youth, got married at the end of his career at age 35 and was planning to train a new champion while still in his prime.

Nonetheless, he accepted and loved me in his own way and that meant trying to make a boy out of me. I had a tricycle even before I would walk and when I started to ride a bike I could beat any boy in the neighborhood.

In 1945, on my 10th birthday, I received a beautiful silver-colored bike, with my name printed on the back fender. "I want everybody to know whose daughter you are," proclaimed my father, the ex-champion. And then he decided that I was old enough to join him on a 50-mile ride to a spa in the mountains.

On the morning of our departure, half of the town's residents came it to wish us good luck. Mother was completely against it, but father was sure his little girl wouldn't let him down.

The first 10 miles went pretty well, but then we approached an incline leading to a hilly road. My short legs got tired and soon I stopped pedalling. Father was prepared for that. He had a thick rope in his backpack, which he attached to the front of my bike from the back of his, and started pulling me.

With his luggage rack bulging with clothes, tools and spare parts, he soon started huffing and puffing, till he spied a slow moving truck going our way. He grabbed its tail-end and we both got pulled along, the over-loaded truck making a lot of creaking noises and spewing nasty fumes.

The rope extending from my handlebars to his seat was taut, but all a sudden the knot at my end became loose. I hollered "Papa, Papa," but he didn't hear my frantic call and hung on to the back of the truck while I was left behind in tears.

I stopped, got off my bike and sat on the side of the road crying. I imagined all kinds of horrible things happening to me. In those post-war years on a mountain road in Italy, traffic was very light, and it took a good 10 minutes before a car went by. The driver stopped and said, "What are you doing, bambina, all alone?"

"I lost my father," was my answer and explained the situation to the astonished driver. He reassured me that he'd find father and tell him to come back.

In the meantime, unaware of losing me, and still holding on to the truck, father had almost reached the top of the hill when he heard someone shouting, "Hey mister, you lost your daughter." He looked back and there, dangling from his seat was the empty rope. He never missed me.

By the time he came back, I was desperate. He calmed me down and then said, "Don't tell your mother about this, OK?"

We finally arrived at the next town, put our bikes on the first train and reached our destination within an hour.

After a couple of restful days, we started back home—downhill this time. As soon as we entered our house, I blurted everything out to mother.

Father was in the doghouse for a month. He gave up trying to make a champion out of me and had to accept the fact that I was just his little girl.

In 1943 my father finally had his longed-for son. In 1969, my 'young' brother was getting married and my father received a congratulatory telegram from his old friend Opperman, who was at the time the Australian ambassador to Malta. The following day, father decided to ride to town to have the news published in the city paper when he was run over by a car. The accident caused him to have his right leg amputated. And that is where his story ends.

In his own words, at the bottom of the page, he wrote 'STOP!!' to indicate the fateful day that signaled the end of his cycling.

The cover of the June 3, 1928 Domenica Sportiva, a supplement put out by La Gazzetta dello Sport. The photo is of the finish of the 9th stage of the Giro d'Italia, 206 km from Pistoia to Modena. Domenico Piemontesi is winning the sprint, Alfredo Binda (and 1928 Giro winner) is second and Pancera is third (left). Pancera finished second in the 1928 Giro.

Afterword from Chairman Bill:

Here's a little more about Pancera from my upcoming book, The Story of the Giro d'Italia:

I'd like to pause in our story of the 1927 Giro for a moment and tell a bit about Pancera because his story throws a lot of light on the era. Giuseppe Pancera was born in 1899 in the small town of Castelnuovo del Garda, west of Verona in Veneto. His family's stark poverty required that he begin work as a baker's helper at the age of 12. Along with his 3 brothers he was drafted into the Italian Army. Upon his discharge after 4 years of service he went back to working in bakeries. His brothers Eliseo and Antonio (who were both entered in the 1927 Giro) talked him into buying a bike. A life-long love affair with cycling was born. Seeing how fast he rode when he raced trains, Pancera's brothers talked him into entering a race, which he won.

From then on Pancera continued to improve. As he advanced through the ranks towards professional he won 3 Italian championships. In 1925 he turned professional and by 1926 he was a top pro and had won the still-held Coppa Bernocchi. Still, bike racing was a profession that paid poorly. Not having any other way to travel, he would often ride to races, compete and then, exhausted, ride home.

He would go on to ride the Giro d'Italia 10 times and the Tour de France 4 times. His strengths were considered best for 1-day races, but his second in the 1929 Tour and 1928 Giro and several other top placings in the Giro showed that he had the resilence and strength for any cycle race. He specialized in what on Italian writer called "daring and long" escapes. After retiring he opened a bar, a not uncommon pursuit for retired athletes in Italy. In the 1960s, while out riding a terrible accident with a car cost him one of his legs. Pancera died in 1977.

Giuseppe Pancera's notable cycling accomplishments:

1926, 27, 28: Italian juniors (not the same as the current category for amateur teenagers) champion

1926: Coppa Bernocchi, Coppa d'Inverno, Coppa d'Apertura

1927: 1st Rome–Naples–Rome. He won after a 430 km solo break. He was chased by Michele Gardini, who finished 70 minutes later. The rest, including Binda, Girardengo, Belloni, Aymo, Brunero and Piemotesi, the cream of Italian cycling, were elminated because they finished outside the time limit. Also Coppa Bernocchi and 5th in the Giro d'Italia

1928: 2nd Giro d'Italia, 1st in a stage in the Tour of Catalonia

1929: 2nd Tour de France, 7th Giro d'Italia

1930: Winner of 3 stages in the Tour of Catalonia

1931: 3rd Paris–Brest–Paris

A letter from Pancera detailing his major accomplishments.