International Cycle Sport | January 1973 | Issue No 56 | Page 24
Gran Premio Mendrisio
by Aurelio Gadenz
Anyone who had been at the 1971 world road race championships at Mendrisio wouldn't have recognised it as the same place on the day of the first Grand Prix of Mendrisio this year. Gone were the enormous tribunes that were well filled with people long before the world championship started, instead two small tribunes near the finish line were all that remained. One of these being used for the race services. photo-finish equipment, announcer and race jury, the other for the press men and guests of the Velo Club Mendrisio who were organising the event. It was indeed a dismal scene with rain falling steadily on the handful of people who were waiting for the start and half of these were press men,'photographers and members ofthe organisation.
I had collected Mr and Mrs Fretwell from their hotel in Milan rather late after staying up the night before watching the Olympic basket-ball final on Television but fortunately we were able to regain an hour with the time change when we crossed into the Swiss region of Ticino where all the people speak Italian. We regained the time all right but lost the sunshine to the cold wet weather,
The scene brightened up a little as the riders began to appear on the circuit, all of them well protected in their racing capes. We could see from the programme that all the Swiss professionals were there with national champion Joseph Fuchs and Louis Pfenninger both of whom had missed the previous days Tour of Piedmont at Marano Ticino, Also at the start was Spanish "star" Manuel Fuente alone in the colours of the Kas team and the field was completed with all the protagonists from Piedmont, it was then a starting list that would have done justice to any of the big International Classics and was, in fact, better than some, standing on the tribune, sheltered from the rain but not the freezing wind blowing from the North, it wasn't easy to recognise the riders as the same men as the day before. There was none of the chatting and happy smiles of the previous day perhaps they were thinking back to the last tremendous classic, Milan-Vignola, whose storm now seemed to be coming back.
The journalists couldn't follow the race in their own cars today for the Swiss police allowed only four official cars for the press owing to the circuit not being closed.That was no great trouble to me, in fact I was quite glad not having to drive today still being tired from the previous days efforts behind the always "hungry" Merckx. If we wanted to follow instead of staying in the tribunes the official cars had to stop at our signal but that wasn't necessary during the opening laps when the race was not expected to be moved along by the favourites, the biggest one being, as usual, Eddy Merckx. He was well hidden among his team mates when the race, following the usual Swiss tradition for precision, started punctually at 10-30. After a minutes silence for the victims of the Munich tragedy the 72 men soon disappeared from our sight as they turned right at the end of the finishing straight, the 201 kilometre Grand Prix Mendrisio was under way with 12 laps of last years world championship circuit to be covered.
After writing a few notes about the beginning of the race I realised that sitting just in front of me was Oreste Magni, a good racing man during the sixties, but the real guest of the organisers was another Magni, the world famous Fiorenza. Also known as the Lion of Flanders his three conconsecutive wins in the famous Belgian classic Tour of Flanders. He is now a highly respected businessman but can never forget cycle sport also being the president of the Italian professional riders association which resembles, slightly, a trade union.
Over the loud speakers came the news that Fuente had launched an attack on the Novallano climb, he must surely have been trying to pick up points for the climbing prize, otherwise we couldn't understand him attacking so early in the race. On the descent he was joined by Polidori and, Chiappano (Scic), Caverzasi (Filotex), Sorlini (Zonca), Campagnari (Salvarani) and Urbana (Magniflex). This group crossed the line at the end of the first lap with a 22 second lead on Swiss champion Fuchs (Bonanza) and Armani (Scic) with the bunch being led through by Italian stayer De Lillo (Dreher) riding a road race as training for his future track work and eventually to pack after five laps which is about right for a track man such as he.
During the second climb of the Novazzano Gimondi (Salvarani) drew the field up to the break and over the top the field re-grouped. Fuente, however, was already missing from the leading group before it was caught having broken his gear and retired from the race. The news of his retirement was no real cause for surprise in the tribunes for he wasn't rated as one of the favourites for this race. His poor form had caused him to be left out of the Spanish team for Gap, or perhaps it was because there were none of the really high mountains, his favourite terrain, for him to shine in. With Fuente out of the battle, coming to the finish area in the Velo Club Mendrisio broom wagon, and soon disappearing on his way home to Spain, the race went on to find new ephemeral protagonists while the aces Merckx above all, were still sitting quietly in the heart of the bunch.
During the third lap, the slowest being covered at a "touristique" 33kph, the Salvarani rider Tosello, tired of the "peace racing" broke away on his own trying to get some glory. . . and money . . . from the Mountain prime. When the runaway passed the tribunes the wind was dropping and the rain beginning to stop which it did altogether after two hours of racing answering the organisers prayers.
In fact things were not turning out too well for them as I knew from talking to a member of the V.C. Mendrisio. He told me that they had hoped that the race would turn out to be a very popular success after their great efforts, above all the considerable expense, 70,000 Swiss francs which is about £7,600, a huge sum that they got mainly from the proceeds of the last world championships and only in small part from the two race sponsors, Amaro 18 Isolabella and Cafe La Chiassese. They assured me that it would not have been possible to organise such a complete event without the reserves of the very rich Rainbow jersey race when fantastic control of the circuit meant a sell out of the tickets. What it was not possible to know was how much they had paid for Gimondi, Merckx, Basso and Co. to come and ride in Switzerland but clearly most of the money had gone towards the engagement of these riders.
Unluckily for the hopeful Swiss organisers the expected crowds just weren't coming, probably for some of the following reasons, poor weather conditions, the Grand Prix of Monza motor race, with local driver Clay Reazzoni engaged, or perhaps the cost of the tickets, 70 pence, which is expensive.
At the end of the third lap Tosello was leading alone 20 seconds clear of the pursuing Dallai (Magniflex) and 26 seconds on the bunch that was being led by Merckx's man Jos De Schoenmaecker one of the best dometiques Eddy has ever had. The overall average speed dropped to a modest 36.392 kph, if we consider that during the last international Tour of Mendrisio on the same circuit, the amateurs rode consistently in the 40s. While the men in the bunch were engaged in giving their racing capes to the following cars Tosello stretched his advantage to 2-00. I was thinking, by this time, to watch the race for at least a couple of laps on the climb so we jumped into the press car in order to look over the circuit that I'd never seen before and see the riders on the now famous Navazzano Hill. During our ride to the hot spot of the circuit we could see that interest in the race was growing as a lot more people were coming to cheer the protagonists but there was still a great difference from last year, The funniest thing I saw on the circuit was a board held aloft by one of Merckx's supporters claiming "Looking at the Stars God Created Merckx". We were left some 50 metres over the top and walked back to have a good look at the real meat of the climb. It didn't look too hard being split in to two halves with a "false flat" in the middle before rising up steeply to the top, now we could see Ouintarelli (Ferretti) getting out from the bunch to chase Tosello while the aces still, obviously, thought that the right moment hadn't come and didn't mind the two breakaways who joined during the 6th lap and came through the finish area 2-40 clear.
From then on though they were not to be allowed to increase their lead any more, in fact the tandems lead was cut right back during the 8th lap after Tosello's prime win, The hardest work in the chase had been done by the Molteni's while Merckx finally left the middle of the bunch to come to the front and organise a proper race. It was the spark that was needed to bring the ever increasing crowds to life when the loudspeakers cried out that Merckx, after 126 kms, taking Gimondi and Maggioni with him had caught the first animators. For the worn out Tosello this was the end and he packed immediately, when the race is over the Grand Prix of the Mountains prize will be a good reward for good work and a nice race. But at the moment all the interest centres on the front of the race. Gimondi and Merckx were, just as the race programme predicted, getting to grips with each other in what looked like a possible revenge match for the 1971 world champ ionship. Together at the front they continued to force the pace and control the bunch at the same time.
When the bunch began the 9th lap with some 67 kilometres still remaining the sun finally won through the clouds warming the riders, journalists, and fans alike and coming just in time to see the first real "explosion" as the char.lpions went into action. At the foot of the Novazzano hill Merckx attacked, clearly trying to put his climbing ability to good advantage. Still showing tremendous form Gimondi responded to the attack with Maggioni and Herman Van Springel (Molteni) also responding, this Swiss hill was the setting for the same duel we had seen the previous on an Italian mountain, it also showed that the Grand Prix Mendrisio was a real race and not just a common criterium as some had seen fit to suggest.
Sadly, this unluckily wasn't yet over for a big crash came and virtually ruined the race just at the time it was becoming a real thriller. After Merckx's attack, just in the middle of Novazzano village where the road becomes really narrow Bitossi's team mate Spinelli touched a spectator and crashed heavily. Those who were following him, trying hard to stay in contact as Merckx continued to force the pace, had no time switch at the speed they were travelling at and down they came in the road. There was a lot of confusion with world champion Marino Basso clouting the asphalt and Gianni Motta and Gimondi among 6 or 7 more who also came down. At the tribunes we wondered, as the race passed through to start the 10th lap what had happened to Gimondi. It wasn't possible that he could have been dropped on such a short climb, but he wasn't there. An answer to our question soon came when news of the crash was announced, At first we thought that the crash had occurred on the descent but when some of the retired riders came to the finish we were able to find out exactly what had happened. After the crash a trio of Merckx, Van Springel and Maggioni formed out in front with a lead, at three laps to go, of 9 seconds on a group of 12 riders led by Ritter, Bitossi and Fuchs with the rest of the field now splitting into small groups, A few kilometres further however the Merckx trio was caught again and in the tribunes we heard the news that Gimondi had retired with cuts and bruises while Basso and Motta had been taken to the hospital, apparently without serious injury, just to have a check up with a doctor. Somewhat relieved at this news we were now able, once again, to take an active interest in the race as Merckx attacked yet again taking Van Springel and Maggioni with him yet again but this time they were joined by Martin Van De Bossche (Molteni), Bitossi, Ritter (Filotex) and Panizza (Zonca). It was a well chosen group, the most representative break in the race to date, that entered the final 30 kilometres of the race with a lead of 15 seconds on a group of 30 headed by Joseph Fuchs who seemded to be the only rider in the group who didn’t accept that the winning break had already gone.
The break came to the bell with a lead of 2-01 and among the journalists the topic of discussion was “who would win”. Most thought that Merckx would do a solo while others, icluding me, didn’t believe that such a thing could
Gran Premio Mendrisio 1972
1 E Merckx Molteni 5:14:49
Average Race Speed 38.428 kph
2 H Van Springel Molteni
3 F Bitossi at 0:47
4 O Ritter Dreher
5 E Maggioni Dreher
6 V Panizza
7 M Van Den Bosche Molteni at 1:01
8 E Paolini Scic at 5:00
9 A Caverzasi Filotex
10 V Francioni Ferretti
11 J Huysmann Moltenu
12 A Passuello Dreher
13 L Pfenninger Rokado
14 J Fuchs Bonanza
15 C Vercelli Scic
Depart 72 Arrive 30
Champion of the Mountains
1 G Tosello 25 points
2 Eddy Merckx 19 points
3 Enrico Maggiono 17 points
happen today remembering the last world championship where Merckx couldn't drop Basso and Bitossi and was finally beaten, Today though Merckx was in a different situation, at Gap he didn't have two teams mates with him, and the tactics would be different. One thing for sure was that he would be worried about Bitossi, a good sprinter and a rider who is never easy to shake off, Merckx would have to study the best way of dropping him before the finish. He sent out Van Springel at the foot of the climb and waited for Bitossi and Maggioni to react, then, when he was sure they couldn't follow he exploded off the front to join his team mate. Merckx's mechanic Mr Colnago told us later that Eddy looked to be on a motor cycle so explosive was his effort as he roared away from the rest of the break and up to Van Springel.
The last 6 kilometres to the finishing line were similar to last years rainbow-jersey race, but this time the "Despot" was not riding against an adversary like Gimondi instead being accompanied by a team mate who would accept second place to Merckx as a place of honour. In fact there was no sprint for at Eddy's first acceleration Van Springel kept quiet behind him watching as his chief raised his arms in victory for the 36th time in the season. Bitossi demonstrated his potential outsprinting Ritter. Maggioni and Panizza 47 seconds behind the winning duo while the shattered Van Den Bossche came in alone in 7th place 1-01 behind Merckx.
Over five minutes elapsed before the bunch sprint that saw a nice effort from the younger Italian riders with Paolini beating Caverzasi and Francioni with the Longines photo-finish equipment making, for it, a rare mistake.
Ferretti rider Conti was placed 18th but had retired earlier in the race, this place should have been given to either Favaro or Quintarelli both also Ferretti riders but it was decided that Longines couldn't make a mistake so it was a happy Conti who was given a placing even though he had retired. If the Swiss precision had failed this once the same couldn't be said of Eddy Merckx who had added two more wins to his honours list in two days. Two wins that he wanted badly for his revenge over Basso and the Italians and they were also a further test of the Merckx "engine" for his forthcoming attack on the world hour record belonging to the Dane Ole Ritter. As part of the preparation for this attempt, and also a reflection on how seriously Merckx was devoted to the task, he had ridden both races (Piedmont and Mendrisio) on a specially made rigid bike very much like the one built for him by Mr Colnago for his forthcoming record attempt.
Would Eddy go on one of the Italian tracks? Vigorelli, Milan perhaps where Coppi, Riviere, Baldini and Anquetil had been successful or possibly the Olympic track in Rome where Ferdi Bracke had been successful. He would have liked to have gone on the Vigorelli, this we know, but as we all know now he went to Mexico and shattered the record, and that is another story for someone to tell about the great man.