It is not quite the food of champions, yet the greatest cyclist who ever lived was a fast-moving advert for sausage meat. It was a bit of a shock to discover the banal truth that one of your greatest sporting heroes was sponsored by the Italian equivalent of Walls bangers, but Eddy Merckx rode for the Italian superteam from 1971-1976. And won everything.
I became aware of his iconic tunic when a friend of mine suggested that we go to see some cycling films that were being shown in the depths of Surrey – inside, of all places, a fully-functioning fire station. We rode down there from London, as the car I had at the time was an old Fiat 500 and there was no way that it was going to make it there without exploding. The film was La Course en Tête, Joël Santoni’s excellent portrait of the Belgian superstar, and, transfixed by the screen, I was hooked. I just had to learn to pedal as fast as Eddy did on his rollers in his basement, sweating buckets into his thick woollen Molteni jersey and shorts.
Beyond the daring deeds of Merckx on his rollers, the main thing I noticed was the contrast between the cool, subdued and considered shirt he was wearing and the kit of his rivals. Molteni’s jersey was brown and black, dour and intense, far more representative of Merckx’s introspective and enigmatic racing nature – even the team’s off-bike kit was black. At the time (this was the late ’70s) teams had started to favour multi-brand, gaudy, loud and tasteless designs with sponsorship branding designed by accountants. Molteni jerseys were manufactured by Vittorio Gianni, whose beautiful merino wool Maglie Rose graced the shoulders of most post-war winners of the Giro d’Italia, until the rights to the leader’s pink jersey was sold to the highest bidder in the 1970s.
There was, I realised, something about that Molteni jersey, something serious, understated, even workmanlike. It was a complete contrast to the perfect design of arch-rival Roger De Vlaeminck’s “Captain America” Brooklyn jersey. The Molteni jersey was muted, unflashy, drab, almost military-issue, the orange team bike the only colourful accent to the outfit. In Merckx’s case it seemed to mirror the muddy cobbled roads of Flanders and northern France that he excelled on. Merckx had first made his mark on the Grand Tour scene, riding for a far cooler sponsor, Faema – makers of exquisitely-crafted espresso machines. Faema’s jersey was red and white, possibly reflecting the nature of post-war Italy as glamorous, outgoing and sophisticated – arguably all the things that Merckx’s racing persona was not.
Merckx wasn’t the only rider to cross the finish line wearing the colours of Signor Molteni. Michele Dancelli and Gianni Motta both made their mark wearing Molteni – but unlike his Italian team-mates, Merckx was the complete all-rounder who made that jersey so special. Perhaps this is over-emphasising the importance of what is, after all, just a garment, but as 40 once wrote: “You have to look good when you are riding, you have to impress your adversary with your elegance. To look good is already to go fast.”
54 – Bicycle (and jersey) collector