“They were a machine that worked to perfection.” Max Sciandri on Gewiss.
In hindsight, the warning signs were there long before April 20 1994. Through that spring, the Gewiss machine had been working at near perfection: March had seen Giorgio Furlan win at Milan-Sanremo and Tirreno-Adriatico; a month later, Evgeni Berzin triumphed at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But nothing they had achieved could match the perfection of La Flèche Wallonne: the race that shocked the world.
Gewiss’s dominance of the 1994 season must be understood in the context of what came before. For Novemail rider Bruno Cornillet, a change was occurring in the peloton as far back as 1992. “It’s very clear for me. In the 1992 Giro, I was really good in the hills and played a strong, active role. Then one day I made a break and was caught by Franco Vona – an Italian professional, but not so famous. I wanted to help him, but he made a sign for me to stay behind because I wasn’t fast enough. Then suddenly, he started riding in a big gear on a hill that was more than 10 per cent. I went 'no, it’s not possible…'”
These were isolated incidents, but a year later the situation had changed again. Cornillet continues: “At the Criterium International in 1993 I was in good shape, and at that time I could not understand why ONCE were chasing so strongly – they were like robots, riding on the front all day.”
Max Sciandri also points to ONCE as pioneers of team-wide dominance. “I saw it before with ONCE. They were another team with a similar way of riding [to Gewiss]. I remember Paris-Nice with those guys riding on the front. They thinned out the group big time; we were outnumbered and they were just stronger.”
Why, then, is it Flèche Wallonne 1994 that sticks in the memory as the race that dragged us kicking and screaming into a bold new era?
It’s a day destined to be forever defined by one attack and three numbers. Gewiss finished 1, 2 and 3: the first time all three podium spots of a major professional contest had been filled by members of the same team. Moreno Argentin, in his final season as a pro, was first; Furlan came second with the same time. A little further back was Berzin, whose win at Liège had come just three days before.
Yet numbers tell only a fraction of the story. It’s the attack that’s significant, because it came not on the last ascent of the Mur de Huy but on the second, with 69 kilometres still to go.
Bruno Cenghialta, the Gewiss gregario, remembers it well. “We went up there as a four, I went until the final 300 metres, then they all went, whoosh”. The onomatopoeia is appropriate: watching the footage back, you can almost hear the air parting as Furlan, Arentin and Berzin shoot up the climb. It was a daring move, but with so far still to race, it was surely doomed.
Ronan Pensec, the Frenchman riding for Novemail who now owns his own Tour de France travel company, recalls an organised pursuit. “When you look back at the footage, the eight riders behind all worked together. Everyone shared the chase. The surprise was that we couldn’t get back to them.”
That chase group included riders of the calibre of Gianni Bugno, Francesco Casagrande and Claudio Chiappucci, the leading lights of the era, none of whom could make a dent on the Gewiss lead. On the British TV commentary, Phil Liggett kept waiting for the gap to come down, but by the time Bugno crossed the line in fourth, a full one minute and 14 seconds separated him from Argentin and Furlan.
In the post-race cacophony, a young Lance Armstrong gave the most eloquent quote: “They crushed us.” It was a view shared by Sciandri. “Yes, I felt crushed. That was always the way when trying to get around the Gewiss team: tactically you had to find something. But there wasn’t really much you could do.”
After the race came the flames of accusation, fanned by Michele Ferrari, who in his post-race press conference compared EPO abuse to drinking too much orange juice. The implications did not need to be spelled out. Pensec adds: “After the Gewiss show, there was that press conference. It was then that we understood that there were riders using EPO.”
In the aftermath, Ferrari resigned as the Gewiss team doctor. The damage had been done, however. For the first time, EPO use was public knowledge – and the secret of Gewiss’s astonishing success was seemingly out of the bag.
Atle Kvålsvoll finished 21st that day. “There was a rumour in the peloton, for sure, that this year the Italian riders were using EPO. Edwig Van Hooydonck was in my team at WordPerfect, and he retired because it was not possible to perform any more.”
Bruno Cornillet recalls a meeting in June 1995. “We spoke about the unfairness of it with [Gianni] Bugno especially, and the union of French cyclists. The problem was it was already too late, because a few of them were already using EPO at the time and didn’t want the media to know. Then three years after came the Festina affair…”
Pensec sums up the moral maze succinctly: “It’s complicated to say whether it [the taking of certain products] was right or wrong, because everyone was doing it.” If Gewiss were simply following the crowd, Flèche Wallonne 1994 takes on a new light: not as a race of infamy, but one where Argentin, Furlan and Berzin were simply miles, and minutes, better than the rest: in their tactics, their organisation, and, above all, in their daring.
“It wasn’t easy to win races the way they won, to smash it the way they did,” says Sciandri. Cenghialta agrees: “It’s not simply a case of the winners being able to do what they want. Sometimes things go well, sometimes not: we didn’t take anything for granted.”
But whether it was easy or not, whether or not the attack was planned, whether Gewiss were surprised by their own strength or not, the race still shocks thanks to their display of sheer, dominant power. And perhaps it shouldn’t. Perhaps they were training better than the rest; maybe they could naturally push themselves deeper into the red than the rest of the peloton. But that’s the problem with this era: because of all the conjecture, all the subterfuge and rumour, we’ll probably never know the truth.
It’s what makes Flèche Wallonne 1994, and the Gewiss 1-2-3 such an enduringly fascinating race. Kvålsvoll sums it up thus: “Normally with three riders and 69 kilometres to the finish, it’s impossible to stay away.” But at La Flèche ‘94, as with practically any other performance from that decade, the impossible became, at least temporarily, possible.
There’s no disgrace in admitting that, sometimes, our eyes can be opened in wonder and shame at the same time.