Dario Pegoretti lives in Canezza di Pergine Valsugana, a secluded little corner of Trentino in the foothills of the Dolomites. He’s no relation to the frame-builder, though we did get his number from the other Dario’s brother. Small world.
This Dario is a cycling fan, and his house is packed full of old bikes and odd little tokens of the sport’s golden age. If you’re not careful you’ll trip over an old Brooklyn kit bag or a stack of faded magazines. There are letters from champions past and a framed copy of something called the Statuto pei velocipedisti, signed 12 May 1886 in nearby Caldonazzo. It’s a clue that suggests Mr. Pegoretti is something more than just your average aficionado.
Just how much more becomes immediately apparent when you walk outside his front door and down the gently sloping path to the adjacent public park. Dario’s been busy outside. Very busy. At first glance it looks like a haphazard cemetery, a jumble of squat standing stones evenly spaced, only laid out in curves rather than straight lines. But it’s not a graveyard; the markers remember the living as much as the dead and pay tribute to other, more esoteric things that were never either.
No, these are a different kind of monolith. They’re paracarri, the pillars that line the edges of roads throughout Italy. Bollards, to you and me, but the Italian sounds a lot better so we’ll stick with it. Dario collects them. Then, he gives each one a tag, noting first the road, then the date of production, then the stone and finally the rider to whom it’s dedicated.
Stones. Plain, but not so simple. Each one different, in shape or in strength, in constitution or colour. The result of molten rock spat out from the earth at breakneck speed. Violent, devastating, beautiful. Fitting monuments to men who risked life and limb in their own pyroclastic ebbs and flows down mountainsides.
They’re all different too, but all the same. All cyclists. Francesco Moser is ignimbrite, from the Latin for ‘fire rain’: the result of intense, volcanic explosions flung down from the hills to wreak havoc on the flatlands. The great Charly Gaul is red limestone: layered with history but permeable and weathered by time. Eddy Merckx is a gargantuan slab, made in 1928 for the Strada Statale 47 in Borgo Valsugana. It looms large over all the others, primus inter pares. Felice Gimondi is granite – what else could he be? – as hard and as tough as it is brilliant. Pavel Tonkov is concrete: brutalist and utilitarian, outstripping nature in search of artificial strength. Lance Armstrong lurks beneath a tree, shady as ever.
Marco Pantani – from the slopes of the Marmolada, the tallest of the Dolomite peaks – stands in the uncut fringes, a weathered pink totem from the Passo Fedaia, delicate and consumed by moss that builds, year on year, layers cracking and the edges crumbling. The tag reads: Strada Statale 641 del Passo Fedaia, red limestone, 1930. One day, it will be just a heap of rubble, and no one will remember how splendid it once looked up on high in the Dolomites. Across the way, the late Franco Ballerini is a chiselled hulk of rugged travertine. It brings to mind a giant sett, bigger but not unlike the one he held aloft in Roubaix almost 20 years ago.
“This is Moser. I was wondering what he’d prefer as his paracarro, but when I asked him he said that I could find one from any part of the world – as long as the road was flat. Maurizio Fondriest said the same thing.”
Dario’s tour is conducted at a languid pace, in stops and starts, a stream of consciousness, back and forth through the sport’s history, pockmarked with remarks about a particular stone’s quality or complaints about the local kids. All of it comes in a tone that infers – accurately or not – that you know exactly what he’s talking about.
He’s as likely to mention Vincenzo Nibali as he is Francisco Galdós and Fausto Bertoglio. The unplanned stroll serves as time for inspection, and the former road worker is clearly unhappy with the current condition of the local park – and what he perceives to be a criminal deficiency of civic pride among most of his younger neighbours.
“Anyway, this is Diego Moser, the father of Moreno …” A pause, as his genial, soft-spoken enthusiasm turns to sour exasperation. “The problem with public parks is that the kids can come and do whatever they want. Whatever they want. Look, the nameplates are marked by someone’s feet.
“Me and my brother didn’t want to take any contributions from the local council for this. We did it ourselves. We didn’t want to deal with the administration. I worked 40 years on the road – I’ve had it up to my eyes with the provincial government.
“Nowadays towns come to me with offers,” Dario says, perhaps by way of explaining how the bloody hell he’d ended up with so many great lumps of stone at his doorstep. It’s tempting – and far from inaccurate, by the sounds of it – to picture him and his pals heaving them into the back of a van, late at night, having liberated them from their perch at the side of the road somewhere, but it seems that they now find their way to Canezza via legal – if still a little unusual – channels.
“The mayor of Varazze gave me this stone. Look at it, è bellissimo.” Varazze, for anyone who isn’t as well-versed in Italian cycling lore as Dario (that’s all of us), is a small town near Sanremo that was once home to Giuseppe Olmo, an early star of Italian cycling who set the hour record of 45.09km at the Vigorelli velodrome in Milan in 1935. “Bellissimo.”
Nearby there’s another donation, dedicated this time to a rider of a far more recent vintage. The mayor of Borgo Valsugana gifted the paracarro in question in honour of his town’s star, Matteo Trentin. The rider was being honoured for the fine job he’d done at the 2013 Tour de France, winning the 14th stage from Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule to Lyon – the only Italian to manage a victory that year. “They took it right out of the piazza.”
Pegoretti is fastidious to a fault. Throughout our spell together he’s constantly polishing nameplates with the cuff of his overalls or making sure this or that is straight and tidy. “You can’t imagine how often I have to clean these things.” They’re almost all spotless.
“This is Emilio Ravasio. He was a gregario for Bugno. He crashed badly in the 1986 Giro, but he felt fine and headed back to his room with Bugno. Then he went to have a shower, and after a while Gianni heard him fall. There he remained.
“This one is for Wouter Weylandt.” The young Belgian died descending the Passo del Bocco on 9 May 2011, and immediately after, Dario found his memorial. “It was an hour after he crashed, I went to collect this, and I asked who the guy wanted to dedicate it to and he said, ‘to the poor man who just died’.
“There was a paracarro in wood here, but the other day they stole it.” At this point, we’d yet to see another soul, but from listening to Dario, Canezza was beginning to sound like a village overrun with hooligans. Perhaps everyone was housebound with ASBOs.
“These are all Veronese. This is from Cambodia. It’s a copy I made. Now I’m making one from Japan. I just got the photo.
“This is Giancarlo Astrua. This has a story. The mayor of San Marino gave it to me and he told me that I needed to dedicate it to Astrua. He was from Turin, just a gregario for the Atala team, but there was a time-trial in 1951 in San Marino and he beat Fausto Coppi.”
It’s riders like Astrua who delight most in Canezza. The Piemontese rider is one of many who’ve been forgotten over the years, but in his day he was good enough to finish third in the Tour and place well several times at the Giro, in which he also won four stages.
The particular moment in the limelight – and the maglia rosa – that Dario refers to came thanks to a superhuman effort in the uphill time-trial from Rimini to San Marino. He beat the inimitable Campionissimo Coppi by 20 seconds, and was 40 seconds quicker than Louison Bobet behind him. Ferdi Kübler and Fiorenzo Magni were more than a minute slower. They don’t make domestiques like that anymore.
“This one I dedicated to the Red Devil, Giovanni Gerbi. Look – they robbed the label. What a mess. After 1959, they started making them in aluminium. There would never be real ones again. These ones are nice though, in plastic. Sylvain Chavanel, and this is Swiss, Fabian Cancellara. It pulls up like this, for the snow.”
The plastic tube doubles in size, rising to head-height and exposing a reflective strip. “They raise it in the winter and then lower it in spring. Our guys talked about doing the same thing here in Italy, but we said, ‘Ah, they’d break it right away’.
“This material’s lovely, it’s called Giallo di Mori. When it rains, the stone turns yellow, look.” It’s pledged to Laurent Fignon. “And here’s a new one, I’m going to dedicate it to Nibali. I wanted to keep it for Moreno Moser, but I think I need to wait for him to grow a little. If I gave him a paracarro now, Francesco would go mad!
“Ah, Antonella Bellutti. This one’s beautiful. And that’s Ballerini. This is from the Stelvio, dedicated to Jacques Marinelli, the only rider from here in Trentino to finish in the top three at the Tour. His parents were from here, near where my mother was born. They emigrated to Paris for work and he was born there, but he was Trentino. He died two or three years ago, in his 90s. This is the mad guy who went up the Stelvio without handlebars or brakes.” The madman in question is Giuliano Calore, a septuagenarian with an incomprehensible penchant for making things harder than they need to be.
At this point, we’re joined by a man and his dog. “I wanted to ask you,” he barks – the man, not the dog – in a thick local accent, without an introduction or an invitation, “what’s the oldest one you have? From eighteen …”
“No, no, 14th century, from Emilia-Romagna …”
“The figures are in Roman numerals. After that, they changed to Arabic, like the ones we have today.”
You couldn’t make these guys up. The dog was nowhere to be seen, having slipped off presumably to relieve himself on one of the many fine posts the nice stranger had provided for him.
For the most part, the positions of the stones have no rhyme or reason. Sometimes, Dario will put two team-mates together, but there’s no desire to have it organised chronologically or in terms of success. That’s not the point of it. It’s a tribute to the road, to the athletes who ride on it and the fans who line it, as often as not, perched on a paracarro somewhere.
It’s probably just coincidence, then, that the tour is book-ended by two of the sport’s most significant eras. Closer to his house, three simple, squat tributes to a trio of riders who still define Italian cycling more than half a century after they last did battle. Gino Bartali, Coppi and Magni. At the other end of the park, two nondescript plastic poles: Danilo Di Luca and Riccardo Riccò.
It’s been over an hour, talking about stones. We retire to his home, to look at his bikes and old magazines and talk about some rider who mattered less than the conversation. We try to eat something at his friend’s restaurant – the only one in town – but the door is locked and despite several minutes of banging and shouting, no one comes to open. Time to leave.
We exchange details in front of a pile of firewood, two storeys tall. Right in the middle of it, there’s a plaque nailed into the timber. It’s a quote from Dante Alighieri: “Fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza” – “You were not made to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge”. I’m still thinking of Di Luca and Riccò.
“My friends asked about that too. And a while ago there were journalists here with Moser, and they said the same thing: ‘Dario, why don’t you throw these guys away?’ You know what Moser said? He told them: ‘Leave it. If you throw those two guys away, then you need to throw them all away’.”
He’s right. You can’t just whitewash history, convenient though it might be. Dario’s park is a monument to the sport, warts and all. We leave him to it.
From issue 44 of Rouleur