International Cycle Sport | December 1971 | Issue No 43 | Page 12
65th Tour of Lombardy - Merckx Unchallenged
by Aurelio Gadenz
IT was a grey, cold morning in Milan for the start of the 65th Tour of Lombardy, the last road classic of the 1971 season. There were 139 riders (over half of them Italian) from 15 teams gathered in the cobbled courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco, that is steeped in Milanese history, but there were only a handful who had any pretensions of victory in this, possibly, most difficult of classics. They were previous winners Bitossi, Van Springel, Gimondi and Motta along with the consistent Verbeeck, the potentially brilliant Ocana . . . and world champion Merckx, who was out to make up for his absence in the Lombardia record books.
The ‘race of the falling leaves’ has never been lucky for Eddy, whose best chance had come in 1966 when he looked all set to take victory from a small group on the Como track when the ‘gate’ was closed by Vittorio Adorni, allowing non-sprinter Gimondi (Adorni’s team-mate) to cross the line first. Merckx was second after making a second desperate sprint on the outside in succeeding years, Merckx has been ‘raced out’ by the time of the October classic . . . but he vowed that no such excuses would apply this time. On the eve of the race there had been talk of a strike because the Italian Cycling Federation had not called for a delegate from the riders’ association to the talks being held for the reorganisation of professional racing. But all 76 Italians, and the 63 ‘foreigners’ (including sole Briton Billy Bilsland), appeared in the morning to ride the long neutralized stretch out to the proper start at the State University in the northern part of the city.
The photographers and the big crowd at the start had quite a shock when, instead of making the expected halt, the field shot through as if the finish was around the next corner and not at the end of a very exigent race. The 165 miles and seven severe climbs in the mountains of Lombardy make a particular difficult test at the end of the season, when most professionals are looking forward to their winter rest. Advantage was soon taken of the warm-up jaunt through the streets of Milan, with the sun breaking through to give further encouragement to a number of breaks in the opening 15 miles. First there was one by Zandegu (Salvarani), followed quickly by Cumino (Filotex), Campaner (Bic), Casalini (Salvarani), Kindt (Magniflex), and Santambrogio (Molteni). Before being caught they were joined by Balamamion (Scic). Francioni (Ferretti) and Berland (Bic) to give a group of five Italians, two Frenchmen and a Belgian.
Another group quickly replaced them up the wide main road, the riders involved this time being ‘foreigners’ Sylvain Vasseur (Bic) and Van Malderghem (Watneys), and Italians Lievore (GBC), Sorlini (Cosatto) and, again, Santambrogio. They too, were caught and then Boifava (Scic) and Nemesio Jimenez (Kas) tried their luck . . . but in the end it was lone attacker Walter Godefroot, now riding for Peugeot, who found success.
Godefroot had had a relatively poor season in the black-and-white colours of the French firm, his most notable performances being the Clermont-St Etienne stage win in the Tour de France. Within three miles he had moved over a minute clear as the race moved into the narrower roads approaching the first real climbs—Sormano and the Madonna del Ghisallo. At the foot of the Sormano (30 miles), the Belgian had stretched his lead to 3-25 and it was obvious that his forcing was only in the interests of his team.
Peugeot men Pingeon, Jourden and Delisle all had hopes of showing well, particularly important for former Tour de France winner Pingeon, who had had a blank 1971 because of a three-month suspension. He used the Tour de la Nouvelle France in Canada as rehabilitation, and showed his re-found form by taking runner-up spot in the Coppa Agostini, the dress rehearsal for the Lombardia.
Godefroot’s lead dropped to 2-10 on the first climb and after the Ghisallo, a short climb and a difficult descent, he had been absorbed by the leading group. He had been away for a valuable 35 miles, but his big effort certainly meant that he would not be among the finishers some five hours later. Following the traditional pattern of the race, Godefroot was immediately replaced by another lone rider He was the modest Davo of the Salvarani team who moved clear along the flat, twisting lake-side by-way to gain over a minute by Lecco, where the mainly cobbled climb of the Colle di Balisio begins.
It was only a brief bid for glory and after being passed by Bic domestique Genty, the exhausted Davo turned his bike back down the hill to join the growing list of retirements. That list had already mounted to some 50 riders, and by the finish there were to be only 20 men left from the original 1391 The main reason for this abnormal number of abandons is the nature of the Tour of Lombardy course, which gives five ‘’escape routes’’ back to Como along flat roads, instead of the dropped riders having to continue up the next steep hill.
The Balisio is the third of these hills, and the final one before the four climbs that await the race in the last 50 miles. The Frenchman Genty topped the Balisio in the lead, with a group of 15 men (including Merckx) following him over. The long descent on bad roads to Bellano, the half-way point of the race, led to several punctures in the front group and so gave the chance for a general regroupment amongst the delayed riders.
The Molteni team of Merckx had been fairly quiet to this point, but on the next 30 miles of flat roads encircling the northern leg of Lake Como Van den Bossche and De Schoenmaecker were seen constantly at the front to keep the pace high, therefore making surprise breaks unlikely. The final average speed was 24.5 mph, which is remarkably high for such a course, in which there are virtually 30 miles of climbing in the 165 miles. The Bic team had also been riding strongly and, as in this year’s Tour de France, it looked likely that a repeat battle of Bic v. Molteni, Ocana v. Merckx was to be repeated in this Giro di Lombardia.
Menaggio, a pleasant lake-side town, saw the commencement of the hostilities with a sharp attack by Ocana. He was quickly countered by De Schoenmaecker on the hill, with the rest of the group (already down to around 30 after another mass withdrawal) joining on. But Ocana tried on another drag, this time drawing out Merckx himself along with Labourdette (Bic), Bitossi and Bergamo (both Filotex) and Zoetemelk (Mars-Flandria). It looked like the vital move of the race, but Gimondi thought so as well and he brought up the rest.
The Bic v. Molteni match continued to rage on the next climb, the very severe Passo d’lntelvi, with a breakaway by Merckx, Ocana and Labourdette. This Belgian-Spanish-French trio were cleanly away, but Merckx could not have been too keen to work with the two Bic men and there had been another regroupment by the summit. During this decisive phase it was a disappointment to see none of the Italian riders in the thick of things— indeed, Motta (who had ridden Merckx out of the race in 1970) had been dropped on the Intelvi, suffering from cramp.
After the Passo d’lntelvi there is a steep drop down to the lake at Argegno (30 miles from the finish), immediately followed by another long climb to Schignano on the other side of the Intelvi valley. Perhaps that hill would finally clarify the final outcome of this now intriguing race—but Eddy Merckx had other ideas! He attacked before Argegno, on the most difficult part of the descent, and he was already clear by the time he had taken the sharp right-hand turn out of the town and onto the Schignano. Again the Bic riders were the only ones to react: Ocana desperately lunged after his big rival, but his front wheel hit a pot-hole in the road and the enforced stop meant Merckx was away. Labourdette, showing remarkable form, took up the challenge and came within 100 yards of the world champion on the first part of the climb. It was the last real challenge to the Belgian s superiority, and as he dropped back to Argegno (now with only 20 miles remaining) he was 1-15 clear.
Along the wide, sometimes undulating, highway towards Como, Merckx continued to increase his lead against the dis-jointed efforts of those behind. He does not have the fluid style of Coppi or Anquetil, but the lone Merckx is equally effective with his immense powers of physical application, linked to unique mental concentration. He had waited a long time for this victory and he knew that his condition was at its prime - he had broken the record for the north side of the Madonna del Ghisallo climb only three days before in the Coppa Agostini.
The rest had virtually resigned themselves to defeat, except for Ocana, who continued to make efforts at organising a chase. But nobody would help - Bitossi, Gimondi, Gosta Pettersson, Roger De Vlaeminck, Verbeeck, Zoetemelk and the others all having given up. Ocana was as exasperated as he had been in the world championship at Mendrisio, but nobody would help. The Spaniard became more and more angry, and when Delisle was allowed to ride away from the group he could endure the indifference no longer. At Moltrasio, with some 12 miles to go, Ocana stopped again - not to change a wheel. but to surrender his bike to manager De Muer and to climb aboard the team car.
Results Giro di Lombardia 1971 Distance: 260 kms
1 Eddy Merckx Molteni 6:45:46
2 Franco Bitossi Filotex At 3:31
3 Frans Verbeeck Watneys-Avia At 3:33
4 T Houbrechts Salvarani
5 G Pintens Magniflex-Hertekamp
6 E Maggioni Cosatto
7 I Zilioli Ferretti At 3:47
8 Roger De Vlaeminck Mars - Flandria At 3:49
9 Felice Gimondi Salvarani
10 G Polidori Scic
11 Joop Zoetemelk Mars-Flandria
12 Herman Van Springel Molteni
This drama was largely lost to the public: the banner-waving, cheering tifosi, who only have eyes for the winner. Merckx is not an Italian, but his popularity is as great in Italy as in Belgium, and most people were happy to see him riding to victory. Former French champion Delisle was over two minutes down when he reached Como, with a lead of over 30 seconds on the resigned bunch: but a finishing loop of eight miles remained, including the last obstacle—the San Fermo della Battaglia,
This allowed Merckx to further increase his advantage, but it proved the downfall of Delisle, who was caught on the climb by Maggioni (Cosatto) and eventually passed by the rest of the bunch to finish last of the 20 finishers. Meanwhile, Maggioni was joined in turn by Bitossi, Verbeeck, Pintens (Magniflex) and Houbrechts (Salvarani) - and it was these five who fought out the second place on the Sinigaglia Stadium track, 3 ‘ minutes after Eddy Merckx had crossed the line.
The Giro di Lombardia brought his season’s total of victories up to 52, thereby topping his previous record haul of 51 wins in 1970. What more can be said of this extraordinary sportsman who has already exhausted the quota of adjectives that the critics can apply to him. His results speak for themselves the end product of 1971 being a record winning margin in the Super Prestige Pernod competition, almost single-handed acquisition of the Team World Cup championship and, of course, the Rainbow Jersey.
Merckx can afford to spend the quiet winter that he had promised his family - he opted out of all the season-closing time trials, and he is to ride no six-day races. That is the way that a clever champion is preparing for next season. After all, he still has to complete his list of classics with Paris-Tours . . . but that will be another stor.