The legs in the portaloo
At the world championships at Goodwood in 1982, I stood just after the last corner on the final lap. Opposite me was the point at which Giuseppe Saronni made his final kick. I did not know that man could be so fast and so devastating, all in one pedal stroke. Astonishing.
Before the race began I walked into a portaloo, that very English of outdoor institutions. As I took a leak, I heard the clacking of shoe cleats on the lino and Italian voices behind me. I was aware of the pungent smell of continental liniment – a particular smell, a special smell that mixed expensive cologne with embrocation.
As I looked down, rearranging the bloo cubes in the pisser, all I could see next to me was a pair of immaculately shaved brown legs, perfectly folded white cotton ribbed socks and perforated calf leather racing shoes. I really wanted to turn and stare but I froze and ran out to be greeted by the smell of fried onions and burgers. It was to be a day of contrasts.
Later that day I witnessed the sad parochial racism of the English spectators towards the riders from African nations. Their riders were a shambles, and they had terrible bikes with long plastic tubes from bidon to handlebars, wrapped around their frames like spaghetti. I presume it was so they could drink and hang on simultaneously.
Some in the crowd had a dig at them for not being stylish, probably while wearing a lycra balaclava or some foul purple club jersey (you know who you are) which they had worn in the open ‘25’ that morning. Granted, the bidon spaghetti wasn’t the closest thing to Italian style, but the ribbing coming from the Brits was a bit rich.
At the finish Saronni was surrounded by police. I slipped through the cordon and bagged Beppe’s autograph. Autograph in hand, I went home with a fixed idea of what it is to be a real bike rider, and it did not involve anything British.
The legs in the portaloo belonged to Francesco Moser, the star of the Sanson team and the epitome of the glamour that surrounded the Italian squad. Paradoxically, us English always had a peculiar affinity with Moser, partly because one of ours was his domestique.
Big Dave Akam, the unlikely tester from the West Country (who probably was more familiar with the smell of deep heat, village halls and portaloos rather than those of Italian liniments) was employed to ride alongside Moser, mainly because he rode the same sized bike.
The encounter with Moser had a remarkable impression on me. The trade cap perched high on the head, the woollen shorts, the neat embroidered logos – they did it all with so much style. It was their era, too – any of their team could have won that day, and it was the beginning of the end for the dominance of the Azzurri.
After my encounter in the loo, I was forever a Moser fan. He rode the toughest races, and like me he was a big rider. But he also had that certain something that the rest of the peloton struggled with – even when he didn’t win, he had class.
All Moser fans will relish the film A Sunday in Hell as he rode all day in the dust and grime yet his worlds jersey still managed to stay clean. But it was the Sanson kit that I remember best – the leather gloves, the Campagnolo logoed shorts. It was just all so right and was made for Moser. So we would sprint for signs on club runs thereafter, with the winner winning the rights to be Moser for the rest of the day.
For me, Moser was the one and still is. He rode with the ultimate panache and was the last of the Italian style icons. Never since has there been an Italian rider with as much class. And, in my mind, he still holds the hour record.