Rouleur Classic

Signed, sealed, delivered

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by Herbie Sykes It had seemed a good idea at the time. Actually it didn’t, not at all. It seemed an indescribably stupid thing to do, which I guess made it all the more appealing. I was to collect 140 books from the printers in Vicenza (that’s on the other side of the country), and do a five day Giro d’Italia in the hope of getting them signed by as many Giro greats as possible. I’d rung them all beforehand, and so they were sort of primed, but the reality is that most of them have much better things to do, and that signing 120 books is not a little dull. I was, to say the least, somewhat fearful that my big idea may have been just a little… misguided. If, I assured myself, I managed to pull it off, I’d treat myself to a week off. I’d ride my bike in the sunshine and forget about the Giro d’Italia for a few blessed days. If only I’d known… I set out at 5am on Monday morning, got to Vicenza shortly before 9 o’clock. The books were beautiful and, thus emboldened, I made for Marostica, home of the 1981 winner Giovanni Battaglin. This was where my problems began in earnest. The warrior Battaglin, looking ever so slightly incongruous with a Yorkshire terrier under his arm, informed me that he’d to go out, and as such he could only give me ten minutes. Over the years, however, I’ve become reasonably adept at massaging cyclist’s egos and so, the thick end of an hour later, I took my leave. Part one of my mission impossible accomplished, I headed for Francesco Moser’s vineyard, up in Trento. I’d arranged to meet him, and Gibo’ Simoni at 3 o’clock. Moser, a collosus of a man in most every respect, signed, but Simoni said he’d need a couple of hours to finish up what he was doing. I killed time helping Moser move crates of wine around, and ultimately Gibo was as good as his word (and as good as gold), as he always is. I bought some wine from Moser, and took my leave at 7 o’clock. I drove to Monza (that’s just above Milan), and booked myself and my books into a cheap hotel. Then I rang Gianni Bugno. He could come at 9.15 in the morning, he reluctantly informed me, but he had to be getting straight off to Tirreno – Adriatico. He added that he could therefore give me a maximum of 15 minutes and I, very obviously, responded that 15 minutes would be more than enough. Then I set to devising a scheme to condense an hour into 15 minutes. The plan, such as it was, was to have all of the books open on the page featuring his photograph, and lined up. In order so to do I comandeered half of the hotel dining room, to the utter bemusement of both the hotel staff and their guests, several of whom were compelled to eat breakfast standing up. Bugno, never the most effusive individual, was duly confronted with four 10-metre rows of books. Notwithstanding the fact that the expensive Mont Blanc pen I’d bought started to play up, Gianni Bugno signed 120 books in a little under 12 minutes. Bloody genius, that… My lower back’s been suspect for years and, as I humped the boxes gingerly back into the car, I deluded myself that the “excercise” was doing it good. I spent two thoroughly agreeable hours with the great Fiorenzo Magni, drinking Earl Grey and talking about the final stage of the 1955 Giro d’Italia. When I got to Bergamo, where Felice Gimondi sells insurance, it transpired that Gimondi was running late. However I  − or more specifically my recalcitrant back – faced a rather more immediate problem. Gimondi Assicurazione is located in a pedestrianised precinct, and I was therefore condemned to carry fourteen heavy boxes for 100 metres from the car and, upon completion, back again. No laughing matter as you can imagine, but for all that I was in pieces, day two had been an overwhelming success; Felice had been kind and expansive, and I’d managed to have three of the truly great Giro winners sign. Home to Turin for a decent night’s sleep, and a stress-free day with Balmamion, Zilioli and Coletto. When these three, all friends and all within an hour or so of home, duly obliged, I re-adjusted my sights somewhat. I’d promised the guys at 1 that I’d deliver “at least ten”, and so, for all that the back was extremely painful, I was well in front of myself. When it transpired that Ercole Baldini was in Costa Rica (and even I’m not fool enough to make that trip) I consoled myself with the fact that Massignan and Berzin, two of the three victims I’d earmarked for Thursday, would be relatively easy pickings. Berzin, these days an overweight used car salesman, was a joy, whilst Massignan, the ‘Spider of the Dolomites’, was just as endearing as ever. It’s 51 years since his heroic failure made the legend of the Gavia, and yet even today Imerio gives the impression that his heart remains broken. I finished up with a trip to brilliant, fragile Gianni Motta, consumate in winning the 1966 edition before his left knee, much like my back, undermined his career. He said he wasn’t much interested in re-invoking his cycling life, and yet he gleefully set about doing just that. On the wall of his lobby there is a very large, very beautiful oil of him in the maglia rosa. It’s to die for, frankly, and I was thrilled that its subject, the great Gianni Motta, had signed my book. Truly humbled, I headed back to Bergamo, and booked myself (just for once) into a decent hotel. The following morning I sat down with Vittorio Adorni. In winning his Giro, that of 1965, he gave one of the most commanding performances in the history of the race, and would win the 1968 World Championship with a 220km breakaway. Adorni, the very opposite of the contadino ciclista (the farmer-turned-cyclist) was not only urbane and intelligent, but also great company. I’d never met him before, but he was happy to pass an hour sharing his memories,  a true gentleman. When, however, I bent down to pick up the final box of books, my back decided emphatically to call time on preceedings. Now, as Vittorio went off to his meeting, I found myself – quite literally – unable to move. The wheels well and truly dislodged, I sat amidst a huge pile of boxes, contemplating how on earth I might engineer them into the car, and quite how I was going to drive the thing having done so. Somehow, aided by the hotel porter and 1000mg of very strong pain killer, I managed. Fausto Bertoglio signed the books before Roberto Visentini (mad as a box of frogs) let me down at the last minute. It was a blessing in disguise; the effect of the painkillers was starting to wain. I got myself, and the books, back to Vicenza, and got home early on Friday evening. The dream of a week on the bike hasn’t materialised because, basically, I’m barely able to make it to the garage where it resides, let alone contemplate getting on the thing. I’m writing this whilst laid on the sofa watching Paris – Nice, rattling with Neurofen but congratulating myself on my stupidity. It was a daft thing to have done, but it made for an unforgettable week. The back will sort itself out, and anyway I’ve all my life to ride my bike. It’s not every day one gets to drink Earl Grey with Fiorenzo Magni. Buy Maglia Rosa by Herbie Sykes here.

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