07 April, 2022

Maglia Nera: The Untold Story

Edited by De Marchi

Original text by Giovanni Battistuzzi – English adaptation by Herbie Sykes

It’s very far from easy, finishing last. Of course we like to delude ourselves that the last man is some pitiable sporting David, and that may well be true of other sports. This, however, is bike racing, and finishing last has nothing whatsoever to do with losing. On the contrary…

Coppi and Bartali years (or, if you will, the Bartali and Coppi years) finishing last at the Giro was almost as important as finishing first. Post-war Italy was at least two countries in one, and at times the Giro resembled an ideological wrestling match. To be the least fast was to be the most human, and that mattered back then just as it matters today. To the winner the maglia rosa, but cycling was about much more than hearts and flowers. The maglia nera, awarded to the last man in the race, was pregnant not only with symbolism, but with real time consequence. It bestowed fame and something approaching fortune – pane e salame and a life less ordinary.

The origins of the jersey are to be found in a dreamy Piedmontese market town. Casale Monferrato was Italy’s football factory back then, and in 1926 one of its finest signed up to ride the Giro. Casale wore a black jersey with a white star on the breast, and Guiseppe Ticozzelli rocked up in Milan wearing one of those. He was a decent enough rider (he trained with the campionissimo Costante Girardengo) but he’d no particular pretensions of finishing the Giro, much less winning it. Rather he reckoned on twiddling hither and thither, and stopping for a boccone – a bite to eat – if he happened to chance across a decent trattoria. That suggests he may have underestimated the difficulty of the Giro somewhat, but he got hit by a motorbike on stage three anyway. Legend has it that, Ticozzelli being Ticozzelli, he made not for the hospital but for the nearest osteria.

Two Italys in one then and, between 1946 and 1951, two races in one. The fights for pink and black ran in parallel and, because this was cycling, both were characterized by escapes. However quite unlike the maglia rosa aspirants, those aiming for black they went out the back and not off the front. Their protagonists were champions of an altogether different kind, and the greatest of them all was Luigi “The Chinaman” Malabrocca. He it was who conceived the battle to be last, because he understood that the “worst” rider would elicit the most sympathy. He reckoned he could monetize that, and he was right.

Malabrocca was a better than average professional cyclist, but there was no money in that. He’d therefore make it his business to be dropped by the gruppetto and then, out of sight and out of mind, make out he was suffering the mother of all bonks. Well-meaning housewives would shower him with cash, grub, livestock, you name it. They’d donate anything and everything they could lay hands on, and he’d go home having filled his metaphorical boots. In 1946 and ’47 he finished the Giro comfortably last, but earned nearly as much as the GC guys clinging to Coppi and Bartali’s coat-tails.

Word of Malabrocca’s exploits got round, and finishing last became a competition in its own right. To accomplish it you needed gumption, cunning and racing intellect, but also a degree of class. There was a time limit with to reckon, and if you got that wrong you weren’t finishing anything at all. That was no less than a calamity, because to not finish was to allow yourself to be beaten. In a sport whose precepts were endurance and sufferance that was the ultimate humiliation, and still more so if you were doing the bare minimum.
Many argue that Malabrocca’s most famous exploit was the final stage of the 1949 Giro. He began the day second-last behind (or in front of) Sante Carollo. Somehow he went out the back unnoticed, and secreted himself in a haystack. Thereafter it was a question of calculating the time limit, and by now he’d turned that into an art form. By the time he got to Milan the rest were home and hosed, and the judges had abandoned their posts. They’d been narcotic with boredom and, given that he hadn’t been seen for ages, they’d convinced themselves he’d abandoned. Only he hadn’t abandoned, not at all. Rather he’d won perhaps the most emblematic of all the maglia nera stages, though it must be said that the redoubtable Carollo hung on for the overall victory.

The 1948 “race”, won by Aldo Bini, is the stuff of legend. As a youth, Bini had been hammer and tongs with Bartali down in Tuscany. He was a prodigiously talented rider, and he won over 60 professional races. He won Lombardy twice, and helped himself to five stages at the Giro. He wore the maglia rosa for five days in 1936, but when he fell and broke his hand at that 1948 race, he made it his business to add the black to the pink. Famously he succeeded, because he was a terrific rider and a very fine strategist.

Giovanni “Nani” Pinarello won both as well, in a roundabout sort of way. When he won the 1951 maglia nera, he rode his lap of honour in the company of Fiorenzo Magni and Louison Bobet. They were the race winner and king of the mountains respectively, but the crowd at the Vigorelli only had eyes for Nani. They understood that it wasn’t easy to finish last, and that his having done so was a major accomplishment. Not only did his team, Bottecchia, have a GC rider in Bobet, but they also delegated Nani to contest the sprints. That meant he couldn’t just allow himself to be dropped every day, because to do so would have been to betray his profession.

Nani Pinarello was fast, then, but also shrewd. Bartali reckoned he was “bright enough to know what to do in any circumstance”, and he was minded to try again the following year. Then, however, Bottecchia threw him a curve ball. Pasqualino Fornara, a brilliant young rider from Novara, had been contracted to ride as a gregario for Coppi at Bianchi. Problem was Fornara was much too good for that, and both he and Fausto knew it. Bottecchia signed him as their GC rider up in advance of the Giro, and that meant no place in the seven for Nani. They paid him 100,000 lire instead, but he was very far from happy. The Giro was the biggest payday of the year, and he therefore told Bottecchia to take a running jump. He retired from cycling on the spot, took the cash and used it to open a bike shop in Treviso.

Pretty soon he was selling Pinarello-branded frames, and by all accounts they were very good. Everyone who was anyone in Treviso wanted one, and Guido De Rosso used one to win the Tour de l’Avenir. Word got round and so, in the way of these things, Jolly Ceramica came calling. They were the team of Fausto Bertoglio and Giovanni Battaglin, and in 1975 Bertoglio galloped up the Stelvio on his Pinarello. He added the pink jersey to Nani’s black one, and Pinarellos have been winning the Giro ever since. Battaglin, Chioccioli, Indurain, Quintana, Froome…

Of course Nani Pinarello is no longer, and Malabrocca died in 2006. Carollo and Bini are long gone as well, but that’s entirely the point. They’re long gone, but the legend of the maglia nera lives on. It endures in the hearts and minds of anyone who loves the sport, because it’s still the greatest of all cycling parables.
It’s genius.

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