It’s never too early for a glass of wine. Just as it’s never too late to turn your day around. Crecchio, province of Chieti, starting town for stage 7 of the Giro-E 2021. Sitting at a table in a restaurant in this beautiful medieval village in the hinterland, the straw yellow Pecorino d’Abruzzo in the glass, and in the eyes the memory of that face, impossible to forget.
He is Francesco Moser. He will be 70 years old on 19 June and today he is dressed again as a cyclist (in the colours of Team Banca Mediolanum), because in less than an hour he will get on his Fantic pedal-assisted bike and start the 87.9-kilometre stage almost entirely along the Adriatic coast; his destination is the town of Termoli.
A wrinkle on his face, as if the wind and not life had sculpted it, as if those marks on his skin were the thousands and thousands of roads he has travelled in his career as an extraordinary cyclist. And the eyes. The eyes of the champion, the eyes of all champions. They look impassive, perhaps dull, remembering situations so intense that today it is hard to keep up with them.
Francesco Moser. The Giro-E was missing him: the champion of champions.
From 1973 to 1988 Moser scored 273 professional victories, making him the Italian cyclist with the most victories in his career (Saronni was second at 193). At world level, he is surpassed only by Eddy Merckx (426) and Rik Van Looy (379). He has won a Giro d’Italia (1984), two Giri di Lombardia, a Milano-Sanremo, a world championship on the track (1976) and one on the road (1977), and three Paris-Roubaix in a row. In 1984 in Mexico City, he won the hour record, which had belonged to Eddy Merckx for 12 years. He was the first to exceed 50 kilometres per hour: 51.151. He got out of the saddle in 1988 and immediately climbed onto the pedestal of the myth.
The greatness of a champion is not determined by the number of victories, but by the value of the opponents: do you agree?
“Yes. I started racing in the era of Merckx, Gimondi, Fuente, Motta, Bitossi. Along with me came Battaglin, Baronchelli, then Saronni, Hinault. Abroad there were Maertens, Pollentier, Thurau, all riders who made great victories. Thévenet, for example, who won the only Tour that I did, was a rider who won two Tours de France, he was a strong climber. Among the Spanish climbers there was this Fuente who, when he decided to go, would start and leave everyone behind. He often got his times wrong in his exploits. I remember that at the Giro d’Italia he attacked on the first climb and then… I remember that at the Giro d’Italia he attacked on the first climb and then… On the big stage at Bassano, when we were coming from the Cime di Lavaredo, the year Merckx won the Giro by twelve seconds over Baronchelli, Fuente attacked on the first climb. We caught him with three kilometres to go. He did the whole stage alone. All he had to do was start on another climb and he would win. If he had started on Grappa, he would have won the stage. For sure. Instead, he was in a breakaway all day and we caught him at the bottom of the Grappa descent, three kilometres from the finish. He was a really powerful climber, because when he decided to attack… I remember that he won a stage in Sorrento, where I came second, beating Merckx in the sprint, it was a stage of climbs, not big climbs, but you did Monte Faito, which was a thousand metres of elevation gain, not a walk in the park. Those were the races. If you decide to race, you must accept everyone you find on the road. You can’t do without them. If you want to be recognised as a great cyclist, you have to compete with the best and possibly beat them. It wasn’t easy, but sometimes I did it”.
Cycling is hard work. This is its beauty and its curse.
“Fortunately, fatigue can be forgotten, because you do it a little at a time and when you win, or things go well you forget about it. But you know that the next day you’ll be racing uphill or on the flat, chasing the others or trying to break away. I have never been afraid of fatigue. If it were for fatigue, I would still be racing now”.