“So many times, things happen by chance,” Claudio Chiappucci says.
The breakaway in the 1990 Tour that got ten minutes and altered his career: chance or design? A bit of both. He had wanted to get away to secure the King of the Mountains jersey. He nearly ended up winning the race.
Being here in London on a cold November evening; that’s through chance. He has reunited with old friend Flavio Zappi, the former professional turned café and cycling team owner; now he is here in a busy Smithfield Market bar for the launch of Zappi’s clothing brand.
It’s gone full circle for Chiappucci. Coincidentally, the first bike race he won, as a 15-year-old, was organised by Zappi’s father. Naturally, Chiappucci won it alone, by attacking on a short climb a few kilometres from the finish. But unaccustomed to the workings of cycling racing, he didn’t celebrate when he crossed the line. This undemonstrative streak wouldn’t last long. In a binary world of zeroes and ones, Chiappucci would become a number two, standing for chippy indefatigability.
Twenty years on from his heyday, he remains a lively presence. During our interview, Chiappucci chatters, occasionally checking his pinging mobile phone, asking the bar to turn the music down and talking to the flitting Zappi. He then sends me half a dozen photographs of himself outside London landmarks, apropos of nothing (Claudio by Big Ben, Claudio by Buckingham Palace, Claudio in a red phonebox. You get the picture).
Make or break
Chiappucci had to graft his way to the top. His early career was waylaid by a serious crash. As a second-year pro with Carrera, he rode head-on into a car at the 1986 Tour de Suisse, breaking his clavicle and wrecking his shinbone. It turned out to be the making of him.
“That was one of the leitmotifs that can kickstart real character. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do: cycling. I said ‘it isn’t possible that my life as a professional is over here.’
“I was in hospital for a month; I thought that the others were going out on their bikes and here was me doing nothing. This crash was important, that’s where the big picture of my professional career started.”
That same year, his father Arduino, a cycling fanatic who had spent time as a prisoner with Fausto Coppi during World War Two, passed away. “His most important lesson was that it’s the toughest who have the most force,” Chiappucci recalls.
After fighting back to fitness, he worked for the likes of Stephen Roche and Roberto Visentini at Carrera. The opening road stage of the 1990 Tour de France, 138 kilometres on the roads around the theme park Futuroscope, changed that dynamic.
The Tour that got away
Attacking with Ronan Pensec, Steve Bauer and Frans Maassen (below), they finished the day with a lead of ten and a half minutes. How did that happen? “Everyone worked well together, and nobody was going for the GC… but I’d never imagined we’d get ten minutes.”
Chiappucci had entered the day as a no-mark looking to don the King of the Mountains jersey; he would leave the race wondering how Tour de France victory slipped away. After Pensec’s spell in the lead, the Italian donned the maillot jaune after the mountainous stage 12 time-trial around Villard-de-Lans.
“It was something huge for me. I was a little rider who put on a jersey and everyone thought ‘tomorrow, he won’t be there, he’ll be dropped,” he recalls. “Instead, right to the end, I was there riding to win the Tour, perhaps already like a champion. I lacked experience at that moment; however, I was motivated, I had adrenaline.”
His rawness showed the day after he took the lead on the road to Saint-Etienne through the Massif Central. His seven-minute advantage on closest challenger Breukink was chopped down to two and a half, as the Italian took the bait of rivals and was left lagging when LeMond and his fellow contenders went up the road.
Nevertheless, Chiappucci proved resilient in the high mountains and made the most of his time in yellow, regularly drinking champagne with his Carrera team-mates at the table. “It was always a celebration. It was a different time, we were not attentive to everything; we should party, it’s always better to be happy every day like that,” he says.
He crossed LeMond throughout the race. After devilishly attacking his rival following a puncture in the Pyrenees, the defending champion dubbed him “a bandit”.
“He was really unnerved because he wasn’t able to get rid of someone like me, who was not a big-name rider,” Chiappucci says. “It irritated him and he always rode against me in races, tactically and mentally.
“But it didn’t make me annoyed. At that moment, I discovered how strong in the head I was. I wasn’t one of the stars, I was a rider who wanted to make it. For me, it was easy to attack; I had nothing to lose. LeMond had to win that Tour.”
Indeed, attack was his form of defence on the last decisive mountain stage to Luz Ardiden. The Italian led alone over the Aspin and Col du Tourmalet, forcing LeMond into a fierce pursuit. Having gambled, the attacker ended up being caught and passed, losing all but five seconds of his advantage.
Chiappucci ultimately relinquished the lead in the penultimate stage time-trial. The race against the clock was a perennial weakness, although virtually everyone in that period was fighting a losing battle against Miguel Indurain.
Though Chiappucci twice finished second overall at the Giro d’Italia, on reflection, the 1990 Tour was his best chance of winnng a Grand Tour. “I can guarantee you with what I know now, I would never lose that race again. No matter what LeMond tried to do about it. I rode like a fool at the time, attacking indiscriminately. When the favourites took off, I couldn’t go with them,” he told Noel Truyers in Kings of Cycling a couple of years after the race.
Nevertheless, the result launched Chiappucci’s standing as a star of the peloton. While some cyclists deal uneasily with celebrity, the little man from Lombardy relished the limelight. “I liked [being famous]. I discovered a new world. And this was one of the motivations that gave me character, desire [to attack]; I saw that the people loved me and what I was doing.”
The individualist aspect of the sport long appealed to Chiappucci. As a youngster, he dreamed of playing football for Juventus before growing tired of the sport. “Cycling was me. It gave me identity, freedom. And it wasn’t a team game,” he says.
The birth of “El Diablo”
Nine months later, Chiappucci showed that his breakthrough Tour was no fluke, winning the 1991 Milan-Sanremo in a lone breakaway. He quickly carved out a reputation as the swashbuckler with the headband, always attempting long breakaways.
“The harder, the more difficult, the more selective the race, the better. If the races were 500 kilometres long, it would have been even better,” he says.
He collected nicknames like Mountains classification trophies: he called himself the Bionic Man, while others dubbed him the Indian (for his dark hair), Monzon (because of his nose, resembling the Argentinean boxer) and, most famously, El Diablo – the Devil – given to him by colourful Colombian commentators while racing the Clásico RCN stage race.
Chiappucci finished on the podium of three consecutive Tours de France, but more than the results themselves, he is remembered for imbuing an era – dominated by the plodding, predictable Miguel Indurain – with colour and verve. Aggressive, flamboyant, risk-taking and half a foot shorter, he was the yin to the Spaniard’s yang.
However, the romantic image of Chiappucci as the wild attacker – something he did little to dispel during his career – obscures a necessary shrewdness and timing.
“I always attacked to win. Always… I liked to win in that manner, I didn’t like just doing it in the finale. I preferred to make a selection, but I knew that it was difficult to get rid of them at the finish, so I had to go from far out.”
Fans loved Chiappucci’s antics, but they were not as popular with several contemporary champions. In one criterium, Moreno Argentin thumped him. “Claudio has the legs of a champion, but the mind of a child,” Argentin said later.
Alongside the bad blood with LeMond, who would pointedly refer to him as “Cappuccino”, there was also a stewing feud with Gianni Bugno, the compatriot with whom he shared the 1991 Tour podium.
“It wasn’t Bugno personally, it was his entourage,” Chiappucci explains. “It didn’t sit well with him that I finished in front. And I didn’t like him beating me either. The war between us favoured Indurain because I think in those years, me and Bugno could have done everything… we were good friends at the end.”
Whether he was public enemy number one or a brilliant jester – the question La Repubblica posed in a 1991 article – Chiappucci was undeniably entertainment, arguably the most flamboyant rider of a generation.
Spectacle on Sestriere
Arguably, his most memorable exploit took place on the road to Sestriere during the 1992 Tour de France. Forty years after Fausto Coppi’s iconic long, lone breakaway there in the Giro, he went on a 170-kilometre breakaway, dropping last remaining companion Richard Virenque early on.
The Tour seemed to hang in the balance, as he imperceptibly held a lead of four minutes over the Col d’Iseran and Mont Cenis.
On the final climb, the vociferous Italian tifosi closed in, forcing Chiappucci’s vehicle escorts to slow, as well as the man himself. He waved at them angrily to get out of the way.
“It really annoyed me, but also gave me so much motivation and morale,” Chiappucci says with a smile. “I understood I was doing a great thing in that moment. Perhaps the people understood that something impressive was happening and wanted to come and see it.”
Chiappucci cracked on the final climb, but Indurain blew his own engine up when within a minute of his ailing rival. The Italian rode on to take victory.
What thoughts went through his head when alone in front? “They are all on the race. You do not think of pain. You think of not consuming so much energy; to go at your own rhythm, controlling power, so not going too high. Lose on the climb, recuperate on the descent.
“Then, I’d be thinking of the race: now there’s a descent, now there’s a climb, what are they doing behind? What will I do when I’m at this point? What will I do in front? Always thinking, thinking. The mind is always turning things over. There’s not a moment of emptiness.”
A man for all seasons
Because of his eye-catching escapes and King of the Mountains titles (two at the Giro, two at the Tour), Chiappucci’s reputation as a man for all seasons is often underplayed. He was up for the fight at any race, even the world cyclo-cross championships and cobbled Classics.
He rode Paris-Roubaix five times and finished fourth in the Tour of Flanders in the twilight of his career. In one of his lesser-recalled exploits, the Italian attacked on pavé at the 1992 Tour during the first week, taking Greg LeMond with him in a four-man break that gained 90 seconds.
There is precious little similar versatility or flair nowadays, as Chiappucci recognises. “They are so different. Me, I like riders with great consistency who compete the whole season around. I like riders like Valverde and Contador.
“Froome is specific, he is programmed... His objective is the Tour de France, he doesn’t have other goals.
“We lack a bit of personality. It’s the fault of technology, which has changed a lot. It’s difficult to get out of this programming, but it’s the fashion; you can’t change it.” This may be the well-heeled refrain from old riders, but at least few are more qualified to level it than Chiappucci.
“I have the impression that if today’s riders say ‘I’m not going to do the Tour de France’, it’s not their decision. The team or their entourage chooses. Riders are less the masters of their own world now.”
Whether winning spectacularly or losing self-destructively, you felt that Chiappucci was always in control of his own destiny. Of course, his achievements ought to be framed in the era. Chiappucci failed the UCI’s 50 per-cent haematocrit test, designed to prevent EPO use, twice in 1997. In the same year, he retracted a judicial statement that he had used EPO since 1993.
Chiappucci belongs to that generation: gone are the days where contenders can make 150-kilometre escapades one day and remain in realistic contention for Grand Tour general classifications. Rival teams don’t allow it; besides, given the freedom, riders themselves rarely recover well.
Ultimately, does Chiappucci have any regrets from his career? “I could have many, so many victories that I wasn’t able to take. However, these are regrets that are all part of a career. Yes, you can win 200 races; I won 100 but that’s okay; with that 100, I showed what I was worth.”
If he had swapped flamboyance for frugality and calculation in pursuit of a precious Grand Tour win, he wouldn’t have preserved the same reputation. Trouble-making, risk-taking, loud, proud and rebellious: Claudio Chiappucci was destined to be a people’s hero.