Tuesday 17 September 2019

Obituary: Felice Gimondi

Cyclist who won the French, Spanish and Italian grand tours but was dubbed 'the eternal runner-up' to Eddy Merckx

Devout: Felice Gimondi
Devout: Felice Gimondi

Felice Gimondi, who has died aged 76, was one of the great names of road cycling in the 1960s and 1970s and only the second man to win all three of the sport's grand tours - of France, Spain and his native Italy; the feat has been achieved since by just five other racers, the last being Chris Froome.

Gimondi was perhaps unfortunate in that the peak of his career coincided with that of Eddy Merckx, arguably the greatest competitor cycling has seen. So often was he destined to finish second to the Belgian that the Italian press dubbed Gimondi "the eternal runner-up". However, it was initially Gimondi who seemed as if he would dominate the sport when - sensationally - he won the Tour de France at his first attempt in 1965.

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Then aged 22, Gimondi had taken part in the road race at the Tokyo Olympics the year before, finishing 33rd. The same year, he had given greater notice of his ability by winning the Tour's event for amateurs and novices. Even so, he was first invited to ride in the 1965 Tour just for the experience after another cyclist fell ill.

He led the race almost from the start. Tall and sinewy, he specialised in lurking in the main peloton before launching unexpected attacks on a tiring leader. He was also tactically and strategically adept.

When Gimondi won the Giro d'Italia in 1967 and then Spain's Vuelta the year after, he became a hero in Italy and a symbol of its renewed self-confidence and booming economy.

Fervent about diet, he was religiously devout and cycled with an ankle chain which had been specially blessed. For relaxation, he was said to employ a masseur who also worked as a nurse in an asylum and would assuage any rage at defeat with tales about its inmates.

Merckx's dominance - he would win five Tours and five Giri - made Gimondi's own occasional victories all the sweeter. They included the Giro in 1969, albeit in controversial circumstances following Merckx's temporary exclusion from the race after he failed a doping test, only for the result to be rescinded.

And the year before - the first in which there had been random dope tests - Gimondi had himself been nabbed, albeit the result was only announced a fortnight after the race. He was able, however, to persuade a court on appeal that he had merely taken a stimulant which was then still legal. The truth was that racing had entered its era of professional doping and, as Gimondi said later, everyone seemed to be at it. In 1975, he failed a test during the Tour de France and served a month's disqualification.

Felice Gimondi was born at Sendrina, near Bergamo, on September 29, 1942. The story went that a priest had refused to preside at the wedding of his parents on the grounds that the bride was the local postmistress and sometimes had to hitch up her skirt to make her rounds by bicycle.

It was her mount that Felice first learned to master and soon she was sending him up the steeper hills to make deliveries for her. Yet she refused to lend it to him for races, for it was her livelihood and the family could not afford another. Then fate intervened when Felice's father, a lorry driver, was paid for a job not in cash but with a bicycle.

After retiring in 1979, Gimondi founded an insurance business and had several spells as sporting director of cycling teams.

He died of a heart attack while swimming on holiday in Sicily on August 16.

Felice Gimondi is survived by his wife Tiziana Bersano. They were married in 1968 and had two daughters.

© Telegraph


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