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Echoes' Race Review #1: The 1976 Tour of Italy
« on: May 06, 2014, 21:18 »
Tragedy on the first day

The first day of the 1976 Tour of Italy was divided into two semi-stages in Sicily (where the first four days were spent) : one of 64km around Catania and 78km from Catania to Siracusa. A terrible mishap happened when Jose-Antonio Gonzalez-Linares – leader of the KAS team – punctured. He was an accomplished time-trialist but then past his prime. In 2011,   after Wouter Weylandt past away, he remembered the loss of two of his teammates : Manuel Galera at the 1972 Tour of Andalucia and Juan-Manuel Santisteban at that first stage of the 1976 Tour of Italy. (in Spanish)

‘We rolled around Sicily. I punctured with about 50 km to go and Santisteban and Carlos Ocaña stayed to wait for me. We went down a climb on a very wide road, 80 km / h. Santi, who was leading, hit the guardrail with the pedal on a curve and flew. We stopped, but I remember our director, Anton Barrutia [former accomplished cyclocross rider in the 60’s; see our Rolf Wolfshohl biography] told us to carry on and that he could not.
We thought he had a broken collarbone or leg. When we got to finish Marino Basso said, "Santisteban e morto". I cannot express the anguish I felt, that everyone felt. We wanted to leave and Luis Knorr, Kas’ boss gave us permission. But Vincenzo Torriani, Giro organizer, convinced us that carrying on was the best tribute to Santisteban and he opened up a fund raising for his widow during the Giro, which was the race that most disgusted me ever. There was not a moment of laughter in hotels. Not even when Menéndez
[Kas teammate, we add] won a stage [the 11th one; 222km from Terni to Gabicce Terme; we add]’.

After the first semi-stage, winner Patrick Sercu said he was finally informed about “a heavy crash” by Santisteban and that “it was serious” (in Rik Van Walleghem’s “Patrick Sercu: Portret van een puzzel”, Lannoo 2004). His biographer Van Walleghem said that the news of his death only came in the evening when Sercu won the second semi-stage …

6th Stage: Surprise Win by De Muynck in Matera

Matera is a small and very poor town in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy. It’s the place that Pier Paolo Pasolini chose for shooting his Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964).

Tour of Italy stages in Matera usually have an uphill sprint finish but the climb that a few hundreds of meters separate from finish is often not hard enough to scare most sprinters.

In 1976, the finale had a weird turn of events. Bike Race Info says :

« Stage six ended in Matera, an ancient city in the arch of the Italian boot. Originally Matera was a city of caves carved into the ancient rock 9,000 years ago and has been almost continuously occupied ever since. Being one of the oldest occupied sites in the world, the streets are narrow and none of them are straight. The Brooklyn team of de Vlaeminck and Johan de Muynck felt that the treacherous, hilly city had trouble written all over it. Their director told them to be sure to be at the front of the peloton when the pack reached the town.
Sure enough, they were at the pointy part of the pack as they blasted through Matera. But as de Muynck was negotiating a difficult descent, two non-Brooklyn riders on his wheel crashed, blocking the way and making a hash of everything. De Muynck won the stage and a fuming de Vlaeminck came in 21 seconds later. De Muynck was in pink and de Vlaeminck was miffed because he felt his teammates should have waited to help him win the stage. De Vlaeminck, already stiff-jawed over de Muynck’s beating him in the Tour de Romandie, was so angry with his young gregario, that he decided to punish him, refusing him the team’s support the rest of the race. »

There’s a lot to say about this.

In Johny Vansevenant’s « Mannen tegen Merckx : van Van Looy tot Maertens » (Uitgeverij Kannibaal, 2012) De Muynck clearly claimed that he won that stage by accident. When the two non-Brooklyn riders crashed he was simply doing his domestique work for De Vlaeminck and at first the latter showed comprehension for it, says De Muynck (op.cit.). « Okay, you did your job and suddenly found yourself in the lead ». If we understand what De Muynck there was no problem between him and De Vlaeminck at that moment.   

Besides, it weird that BRI talked about a « young gregario ». De Muynck was aged 27, back then (almost 28).

Subsequently though, De Vlaeminck changed his view of the facts (from his autobiography with Carl Huybrechts: De koers is nooit gedaan, Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, 2012) :
« De Muynck who could climb very well and aggressively did not hold back and attack, even though I was in the lead. But you could not take advantage of your leader in order to win races unless the leader agrees to it. » (that could only refer to the Matera stage, the only one De Muynck won).

We will get back to it and try to understand why De Vlaeminck changed his mind.

Stage 7 : The Power Men in Ostuni

For the previous 4 editions, Torriani designed Tour of Italy routes that were ostentatively biased towards climbers, the aim being to lose Merckx. Time-trials were short. For the last three editions, only one ITT was planned, it became a classic around Forte dei Marmi. The mountain stage were often ridiculously small with mountain top finishes on very steep climbs, in order for Merckx not to benefit from his amazing stamina and to favour more explosive riders such as Fuente (see our Cochise Rodriguez Biography). 

In 1976 the decline of Merckx was so blatant that Torriani finally designed a more classic and balanced with two ITT’s and longer mountain stages. The eventual win by Moser probably already put in Torriani’s mind a totally opposite idea. From now on the routes will have to be ostentatively biased towards ‘rouleurs’, in order to favour Moser and later Saronni. Such would be the early eighties Tours of Italy.

Back to 1976 the first of these 2 ITT’s was a 37km circuit around Ostuni where later on that year the World Championships were held.

Gino Sala from L’Unita tells us that the first part is climbing, the second part is descending and the third one is flat, with a slight declivity at the finish.
Results at the first time check :

1 Knut Knudsen *no 26’52’’
2 Adriano Pella *it 26’53’’
3 Wladimiro Panizza *it 26’54’’ (minuscule climber, but that was the climbing part)
4 Jorgen Marcussen *dk 26’57’’
5 Francesco Moser *it 27’04’’
6 Eddy Merckx *be 27’09’’
Further back was Felice Gimondi *it 27’24’’

Gimondi (who was considered “an old slipper to throw” according to Gino Sala) and Moser seemed to have saved energy on the climbing part, their least favourite, as opposed to Merckx who collapsed in the last bit. Reaction in the Belgian press was « if it were any longer, he would have smelted ».

BRI gives the top10 but we may extend it to top20 thanks to L’Unita :

1.   Francesco Moser *it 50min 19sec
2.   Felice Gimondi *it @ 7sec
3.   Knut Knudsen *no @ 25sec
4.   Ole Ritter *dk @ 39sec
5.   Roland Salm *ch @ 43sec
6.   Johan de Muynck *be @ 45sec
7.   Eddy Merckx *be @ 55sec
8.   Roger de Vlaeminck  *be @ 1min 1sec
9.   Jorgen Marcussen *dk s.t.
10.   Wladimiro Panizza *it @ 1min 13sec
11.   Adriano Pella *it @1min14sec
12.   Giancarlo Bellini *it @1min22sec
13.   Juan Pujol *es @1min28sec
14.   Joaquim Agostinho  *pt @1min29sec
15.   Fausto Bertoglio *it @1min29sec
16.   Joseph Bruyère *be @1min31sec
17.   Giovanni Battaglin *it @1min32sec
18.   Gianbattista Baronchelli *it @1min39sec
19.   Ronny De Witte *be @1min42sec
20.   Gary Clively *au @1min50sec
After that ITT Moser took the lead in the GC while De Muynck was 3rd behind Gimondi but first of the Brooklyn riders. Yet the statuses in the team did not change. De Vlaeminck was still the leader and De Muynck still did domestique work.

Stage 8 : Moser Has Stomach Problems but Sercu Impresses

Bike Race Info already gave an extensive review of this stage, which seems to have been very entertaining. We will just add one testimony from an insider.

On Wielerarchieven, a poster has discussed with a Belgian non-Brooklyn rider about that stage. He did not give his name. (in Dutch)

« Francesco Moser had stomach problems that day. So as soon as we approached the climb to Laceno Moser dropped. Sercu remained in the first group in the very steep climb up until about 2km from the top. He was riding next to me and I was surprised to see him still with us since we were chasing  at full speed behind Panizza and De Muynck. What a talent this man was. »   

The climb to Lago Laceno in Campania is 9.25km long at an average gradient of 6.3% and maximum gradient above 10% between the 5th and the 6th kilometer (see Appendix 1), which means that … sprinter Patrick Sercu survived it !

Stage 15 : Sercu Doomed for Winning on Tragic Day
Patrick Sercu was probably the greatest sprinter of his era, whether on the track or on the road. As such he’s been one of the lucliest rider ever, surviving some of the most violent crashes in the history of the sport. In this Tour of Italy he won the two semi-stages of the first day when Santisteban past away and added one more : the 10th stage between Roccaraso and Termi (203km).

On Stage 15 – Varazze to Ozegna (216km) – Sercu had to sprint against archrival Rik Van Linden. The two men proposed a spectacular shoulder-to-shoulder, head down over the bars and this time, Van Linden nailed it. Sercu lifted the head after crossing the line only to see a German cameraman standing in front of him. The clash was unavoidable. The cam flew meters away and Sercu was knocked-out : « We feared the worst because blood was flowing out of my ear. That was rather blood that flowed over my face to my ear. […] I was lucky again. Because again I had no helmet. Nobody then had, actually. I had severe concussion and problems with my neck vertebras. » He said (Van Walleghem, op.cit.) The book was published in 2004, right after the mandatory helmet law, following Kivilev’s death.

Stage 17 to 19 : De Vlaeminck’s Crash  & Abandon

About De Vlaeminck’s abandon, Daniel Friebe said in « Eddy Merckx : The Cannibal » (Ebury Press 2012) :
« De Vlaeminck was preparing for an ignominious, ignoble exit. […]De Vlaeminck would be leaving, apparently for no other reason that he couldn’t bear to see De Muynck win the Giro, and certainly wouldn’t contemplate helping him.   According to another teammate, Ercole Gualazzini, somewhere near Calamento, halfway up the Passo Manghen, De Vlaeminck climbed off his bike, then, inexplicably, ran straight into the dense forest lining the road and hid from his directeurs sportifs. They, De Muynck and Merckx, were disgusted. »

The truth is probably not that romantic and simple. First let us look at De Vlaeminck’s version, from his autobiography :
« About that year’s Giro a lot of crap has been told and written. It was said I retired because my teammate Johan De Muynck took the lead and could win the Giro. It seemed I was jealous. But these are the true facts. A few seasons earlier Johan De Muynck had a crash in a race and had a double skull break. He was not sure to race again. […] I took him with us in the team and made sure he was a net wage of 50,000 Belgian francs [when you think he barely earned 7,500BEF/month in his first year with Flandria (he says in Rik Van Walleghem’s « Brik Schotte : De Laatste der Flandriens »)]. He was a helper and thus had to race at my service. […] »

In Vansevenant’s book (op.cit.) De Muynck quoted De Vlaeminck saying « if he became a great one it’s thanks to me », which is vintage De Vlaeminck of course but which De Muynck does not disagree with.

De Vlaeminck carried on : « The next day I crashed in a bunch sprint. I had huge haemorrhage at my buttock. I couldn’t move forward. I did start the next day but was straight dropped. Yet I did finish the stage. But the next day was a mountain stage with five passes. I could no longer go ahead and retired. The big mistake is that […] Ronny De Witte also retired when he heard I did. Fred De Bruyne then commentator for the BRTN raised a conspiracy theory. De Bruyne was no fan of the De Vlaeminck’s. Never been. […] I was not jealous of De Muynck. I wasn’t jealous of anybody. […] On the front page of Het Nieuwsblad his wife let write that I was a traitor to the nation. […] I got letters from supporters that I was a coward, that they would bomb my house, etc. […] » … while De Muynck clearly said he disapproved of such behaviour.

There was dissension inside the Brooklyn team, that is true. It already dated back from the Laceno stage (the 8th one). The mystery rider’s comment (posted on Wielerarchieven) said : « The Brooklyn riders weren’t really in his favour because of his aggressive riding style. I remember that De Witte and De Geest had to call him back when he attacked in the stage to Laceno. He was the best rider that year. »

Despite that aggressive riding De Muynck carried on his role as helper for De Vlaeminck, leading him out the sprint in the flat stages for example. De Witte and De Muynck however could not stand each other. When De Muynck heard De Vlaeminck insult him in interviews, he felt it was De Witte’s influence (he told Vansevenant).

De Vlaeminck’s crash was violent and the Gipsy certainly wasn’t in top form anymore. However he had to carry on for the team because he was the leader in the point ranking and with a 100pt lead, that win normally could no longer escape him, which De Muynck said would have brought a pack of lires to the team. Probably for that reason, the team directors wouldn’t have appreciated his retirement.

De Muynck did not see De Vlaeminck’s retirement as a desertion. For him it actually was a blessing in disguise. Now he was free from all obligation. De Vlaeminck remained the leader till the end, despite De Muynck’s slightly better ranking.

De Witte’s retirement shortly afterwards is the weird thing. Vansevenant reported that De Witte explained his abandon by …eye problems, which seemed like a good excuse. De Witte himself was top10 in the ranking at that point (4th, while De Vlaeminck was 4th the day before but exited the top10 after stage 18)  and probably did not feel like working for De Muynck but there’s no sign of a conspiracy planned by De Vlaeminck, at that moment. De Muynck never said i tat least in Vansevenant’s book.

The book by Willy Cardon « De Roze Panther » - a Johan De Muynck biography – is probably more extensive about that controversy but we don’t have it.

De Vlaeminck Lacked the Authority of a Leader

De Vlaeminck, De Witte and De Muynck all came from the Flandria pool, noticed by Brik Schotte. The Flandria was a typically Belgian team, whose tradition was to give everybody his chance if he’s got talent to win races. That is how the early 70’s Flandria with all their stars lost a lot of races due to the lack of team strategies (but won a lot of others). In the Italian Brooklyn team, these Belgian riders have kept that tradition. The Italian tradition has for decades been that of an « all for one » team strategy : « the campionissimo and the gregarii ». In the Bianchi Team, it was all for Gimondi, even though Cochise Rodriguez might have looked stronger in the moment. In Molteni, it was all for Merckx. In the Brooklyn team though, many riders had their chances. In sprints, De Vlaeminck and Sercu would often battle against each other, along with Gualazzini. De Vlaeminck did not have the charisma of a leader and the team manager – Franco Cribiori –  rarely got involved in team strategies (that was long before race radio). Hence the anarchy reigned in the team during that Tour of Italy.

From Vansevenant, we may imply that De Muynck’s win at the Tour of Romandy was due to De Vlaeminck giving De Muynck too much freedom. The Gipsy however did not let him win, though.
De Vlaeminck explained to Dries Vanysacker (in « Roger De Vlaeminck Top60 Mens en Renner », De Eeclonaar, 2007) : « I was no boss who would thump the table. I actually was afraid to disappoint a lot of people with everything turned around me and it eventually failed. Some took advantage of me.[…] Beware ! Many did great jobs and helped me : […] Herman Vander Slagmolen, Willy De Geest and Ronan De Meyer[…]» 

Stage 21 : Gimondi Wins At Home

De Muynck was now almost alone but got help from a « domestique » from some other teams, … Eddy Merckx. Friebe explained : « On the penultimate day of the race, […] Merckx waited for and effectively saved De Muynck by pacing him back to the bunch after a fall on the descent from Zambla Alta into Bergamo. » Both Merckx and De Muynck confirmed it to Vansevenant.

Gimondi is a native from Sedrina, close to Bergamo. He sure felt strongly about winning that stage but in order to achieve this he needed to outsprint a select group of riders including Merckx and Moser, which he did. He explained to Franco Tota and Claude Degauquier in (« Felice Gimondi : le champion de Bergamo », Coups de pédales 2001) that he read in the press the next day that Merckx let him win in front of his supporters. He was furious about that because those who know Merckx, he argued know that he never gave anything for free.

Stage 22A : The Decisive Time Trial   
The second ITT went from Arcore to Milan (28km). Panflat ! Arcore is the town of Molteni’s registered office , which means that Molteni riders were motivated for the stage win. However Merckx was not at his best (see below) but his humble and loyal helper Joseph Bruyère also had the potential to win ITT and he got that one.

1.   Joseph Bruyère *be 35min 21sec
2.   Jorgen Marcussen *dk @ 19sec
3.   Francesco Moser *it @ 22sec
4.   Eddy Merckx *be @ 23sec
5.   Giambattista Baronchelli *it @ 41sec
6.   Felice Gimondi  *it@ 43sec
7.   Wladimiro Panizza *it @ 51sec
8.   Alfio Vandi *it @ 56sec
9.   Davide Boifava *it @ 1min 11sec
10.   Karel Rottiers *be @ 1min 16sec
11.   Fausto Bertoglio *it @ 1min 25sec
12.   Johan de Muynck *it @ 1min 27sec
The « White Blackbird » had always been in trouble on the Tour of Italy as he struggled against pollen allergy. This was his best achievement on the Italian loop.

With regards to the GC, the end was dramatic.

« A 3rd Victory in the Giro ; A Success of Fortitude, Built in Suffering »  is the headline of the chapter dedicated to Gimondi’s 1976 Tour of Italy win in Franco Tota & Claude Degauquier (op.cit.).

They further said : « The pictures taken after the finish speak for themselves. Gimondi is livid because he drew on his reserves of energy as much as he could. The ability to overtax oneself is the difference that exists between the good riders and the great champions. »

We won’t question the fact that Gimondi went very deep that day. It’s most probably true. Yet The book by Franco Tota and Claude Degauquier was very much eulogistic towards Gimondi. You could hardly find any negative comments in it towards the champion.

Johan De Muynck claimed however that the motorbike that covered Gimondi’s ride in that ITT was very close to the rider, pacing him. This claim is backed up by pictures taken by photographer Sergio Penazzo (says Herman Chevrolet in « Het feest van lid en bedrog », Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers, 2011 ; the book contains a lot of factual mistakes but this claim hasn’t yet been refuted it seems). The photographer gave his pictures to Cribiori in order for him to lodge a complaint but that hasn’t been done. Taking a Tour of Italy win away from Gimondi would have been too brave an undertaking. He was a hero !

Gimondi Won His Bet

However controversial was his victory the Tour of Italy proved to be the successful last part of a bet he had with Merckx almost four years before.
In 1972, Gimondi and Merckx raced À travers Lausanne together. This invitational race was traditionally held the day  after the Tour of Lombardy. In the same weekend Merckx won the classic, the two stages and final GC of Across Lausanne and a criterium in Sallanches, thanks for him.

During their stay in Lausanne, Gimondi defied Merckx : « I’m going to beat you once more in an ITT, in a classic and in a GT »

The ITT win was in Forte dei Marmi, 1973.
The classic win was the 1973 World Championship
The GT win was the 1976 Tour of Italy.

The source for this is still Claude Degauquier & Franco Tota (op.cit.)

Merckx’s Martyrdom

« My God I had even more respect for him after that. He showed me this wound that he had in his groin. It was as thick and deep as a finger. I couldn’t understand why he was carrying on », said De Vlaeminck to Daniel Friebe (op.cit.).
Merckx really suffered from that injury right from the start and could not decently defend his chances but as Gimondi argued « he remained competitive » (Degauquier & Tota). He refused to give up, which is so typical of Merckx. He finished 8th, overall which i slow for his standard but a result that hundreds of riders would dream of.   

Reconciliation Between De Vlaeminck & De Muynck   
For several months after that Tour of Italy, De Muynck and De Vlaeminck did not talk to each other. In September though, the Gipsy went to Waarschoot to visit his teammate. They had a drink together and he said « I’d like to win the Tour of Lombardy. Would you like to help me ? » De Muynck who told that story to Vansevenant nodded.

De Vlaeminck had so far a rotten season when he missed all his spring classics, couldn’t win the Tour of Italy and was kept from the Worlds.

The rest was a legendary tryptich : Tour of Emily, Coppa Agostoni and Tour of Lombardy, all in one week. In the Tour of Lombardy the two mates escaped with 85km to go but De Muynck could only keep up with Roger for 5km, leaving him for a phenomenal 80km solo ride !     

After the Lombardian win Roger told Het Volk : « Herman Vander Slagmolen, Ronald De Witte and most of all Johan De Muynck performed great. »

De Muynck gladly signed for one more year with Brooklyn, while the sponsor was on the verge to retire from cycling. It did at the end of 1977, though. Ironically De Muynck joined Gimondi’s legendary Bianchi then. But Gimondi at the fall of his career had become « more of a businessman than a cyclist » then (De Muynck’s words to Vansevenant). Finally De Muynck got a leader status and finally won the Tour of Italy. Still the last Belgian Grand Tour win !         


The profile for the Lago Laceno, uphill finish on Stage 8.

Two clips (a short one and a long one) of Johan De Muynck winning the 6th stage to Matera

Short clip of the Ostuni ITT:

Menendez winning the 11th stage in Gabicce Mare, dedicating the win to his late teammate Juan-Manuel Santisteban who was killed on Stage 1 (notice no particular fingers pointed to the sky or things like that, remained humble):


Gimondi winning the 21st stage in a sprint to his own Bergamo:

The Arcore ITT (no sign of motor pacemaking on this clip, but does not mean it did not happen):

Pictures from Bike Race Info (

(Gimondi in pink)

(De Vlaeminck on the Torri dei Vajolet - Stage 19); Gimondi above; notice the strade bianche)
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