1 March 2018

Gastone Nencini – cycling champion

Lion of Mugello won both Tour de France and Giro d’Italia

Gastone Nencini in buoyant mood after winning the Tour de France in 1960
Gastone Nencini in buoyant mood after
winning the Tour de France in 1960
Gastone Nencini, sometimes described as Italy’s forgotten cycling champion, and certainly one of its least heralded, was born on this day in 1930 in Barberino di Mugello, a town in the Tuscan Apennines, about 38km (24 miles) north of Florence.

Nencini won the 1957 Giro d’Italia and the 1960 Tour de France, putting him in the company of only seven Italians to have won the greatest of cycling’s endurance tests.

He followed Ottavio Bottecchia, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi and preceded Felice Gimondi, Marco Pantani and the most recent winner, 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali.

Yet often even cycling fans asked to name the seven Italian champions sometimes forget Nencini, despite his courage and resilience earning him the nickname The Lion of Mugello.

This may be in part because he died very young, a month short of his 50th birthday, after developing a rare disease of the lymphatic system.  Others, in particular members of his family, believe it was his maverick nature, his refusal to comply with the sport’s etiquette, that damaged his reputation.

In his era, some claim, there were unwritten rules in cycling by which the so-called domestiques – i.e. those not expected to be in contention for honours – would ride purely for the benefit of their team, giving the best riders maximum chance of success.

Rival rider Fausto Coppi was accused of plotting against Nencini
Rival rider Fausto Coppi was accused
of plotting against Nencini
Nencini, a powerful all-rounder who was strong in the mountain sections and was a particularly fearless descender, was not willing to be told what to do for the benefit of someone else’s race and became known for ignoring team orders.

This was evident in 1955, in only his second year as a professional, when he put himself in a position to win the Giro d’Italia against the odds, in a field that included three previous champions in Hugo Koblet, Fiorenzo Magni and the five-times winner Coppi.

His family believed that Magni and Coppi were part of a conspiracy on the penultimate stage, the 216km (134 miles) leg from Trento to San Pellegrino Terme, when Nencini suffered multiple punctures but often found the support vehicles were slow to be on hand, meaning that wheel changes, often completed in as little as 15 seconds, sometimes cost him more than a minute.

The two champions drove on hard whenever Nencini had to stop, with the result that Coppi won the stage and Magni regained his place as race leader, which he kept over the final stage into Milan.

Two years later, with both Coppi and Magni absent, Nencini took the title, this time benefitting from a feud between the defending champion, Luxemburg’s Charly Gaul, and the Frenchman Louison Bobet, which saw Gaul determined to wear down Bobet in the closing stages, enabling Nencini to claim the title.

Nencini leads the field in the 1960 Giro d'Italia
Nencini leads the field in the 1960 Giro d'Italia
His 1960 victory in the Tour de France was achieved without winning a single stage, one of only seven winners of the race with that distinction.  This time, he took advantage of the misfortune of the French rider Roger Rivière, who was in a position to win the race when he crashed over a wall trying to keep up with Nencini on a descent, suffering damage to his spine that left him permanently disabled.

Only the Frenchman Henry Anglade was a match for Nencini in a descent. He had come out on top in a one-to-one challenge down an Italian mountain in 1959 but had warned Rivière not to attempt to emulate him. 

After quitting competitive racing, Nencini, whose free-spirited, anti-authority nature also extended to smoking cigarettes and drinking wine with dinner even during races, owned a bike shop and indulged his talent for painting, taking lessons from Pietro Annigoni, who had painted portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John XXIII and President John F Kennedy among others.

He died in hospital in Florence in February, 1980. His memory has been honoured with a plaque mounted on a wall by the roadside at the Futa Pass, which has been part of a Giro d’Italia stage that passes close by Barberino.

Travel tip:

The Castle of Cafaggiolo was a Medici summer residence
The Castle of Cafaggiolo was a Medici
summer residence 
Barberino di Mugello is one of nine municipalities in a pretty area of the Tuscan Apennines close to Lago di Bilancino on the road between Florence and Bologna. The locality was popular in the Renaissance years with the powerful Medici family, the rulers of Florence, who had several residences there including the Castle of Cafaggiolo, a former fortress that was converted into a summer residence by Michelozzo, best known for designing the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence.

The Giro d'Italia traditionally finished with the riders entering the Arena Civica, the neoclassical amphitheatre
The Giro d'Italia traditionally finished with the riders
entering the Arena Civica, the neoclassical amphitheatre
Travel tip:

The Giro d’Italia of today has stages outside Italy – this year, for example, it will start in Jerusalem, in Israel – but traditionally it began and finished in Milan, the riders setting off from Piazzale Loreto and finishing at the Arena Civica, the neoclassical amphitheatre inside the Parco Sempione, behind the Castello Sforzesco. The stadium, commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte soon after he became King of Italy in 1805, was at one time the home of the Milan football club Internazionale. Known nowadays as the Arena Gianni Brera, named after Italy’s most famous football journalist, it is a venue for international athletics, also hosting rugby union as well as Milan's third football team, Brera Calcio FC.

More reading:

The tragedy of Marco Pantani

Alfredo Binda - the champion so good he was paid not to race

Gino Bartali - cycling's secret war hero

Also on this day:

1773: The death of Luigi Vanvitelli, designer of the Royal Palace in Caserta and the backdrop to the Trevi Fountain in Rome

1869: The birth of sculptor Pietro Canonica

1926: The birth of movie star Cesare Danova

Selected reading:

Giro d'Italia: The Story of the World's Most Beautiful Bike Race, by Colin O'Brien

Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling, by John Foot

(Nencini by Harry Pot; 1960 Giro from Dutch National Archives; Coppi by J.D.Noske; Castle by Massimilianogalardi; all via Wikimedia Commons)

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