Giro d’Italia 1987 and the Fall of Roberto Visentini

Giro d’Italia 1987 and the Fall of Roberto Visentini

Roberto Visentini had never been the darling of the cycling world. Approached with a degree of scorn by fellow cyclists and fans alike, he was happy to return the favour in equal measure. Cycling had always been the sport of the “working man,” while Visentini came from a wealthy family, built largely off the back of a successful funeral business. There had always been a divide, as his personality could be cold, abrasive and dramatic. As legend has it, after a perceived injustice was dealt to him in the Giro 1984 when mountain passes were removed from the race (due to heavy snowfall) with a weeks’ notice, handing rival cyclist and eventual Giro winner Francesco Moser a significant advantage, he sawed his bike into pieces and delivered it to his team manager. Not always an easy team-mate. He was, however, an excellent cyclist, winning the inaugural junior World Championships in Lausanne, in 1975, at the fresh age of eighteen. An Italian, he enjoyed his lakeside home, fast cars and all the pleasures of “La Bella Vita.” The Giro d’Italia, for him, represented the pinnacle of cycling achievement and, after many years of coming up short, he managed to win it in 1986.

He was on top of the world, of course, happily taking his well-earned place as team leader by the time the next Giro d’Italia rolled around. So, he thought. His understanding, as he retells it, was that he would act as team leader for the Giro, with the support of fellow rider and Irishman Stephen Roche. He was the defending champion, after all. Come the Tour de France, the roles would be reversed, and Roche would take the leader spot, with Visentini helping him to the win. What he didn’t know was that Roche’s stock had soared in recent times with a win in the Tour de Romandie and he was heading toward new contract negotiations with the team before the Tour de France. Roche knew his hand would be significantly strengthened with a Grand Tour win. Team manager Davide Boifava refused to appoint a team leader before the start of the Giro, stating that “the road would decide.” In the first week and a half, Roche held the Maglia Rosa for ten days, but Visentini stood only 25 seconds behind him in the overall classification. It was too close to call. The stage 13 time trial seemingly put an end to the rivalry, with Visentini making huge strides and finishing 2 minutes and 47 seconds ahead of the Irishman Roche. It seemed that the road had decided.

Roche recounts that, after the stage, he overheard Visentini claiming to the press that “Roche will ride for me at the Giro, but I’m not going to the Tour, I’m going to the beach.” Visentini denies this, of course, claiming that his intention was always to go and support Roche in France. In any case, Roche was fuelled by this perception and, the next day, he flew down the gravelly descent from San Marino and closed the gap on the leaders. He maintains, to this day, that his intention was never to attack Visentini, but Visentini remains unconvinced. Roche ended up pulling away as Visentini, shaken by what he perceived to be a deliberate betrayal, faltered and began to drop off (perhaps if he’d have had some Veloflow at his hip, he’d have been able to find the fortitude to keep pushing). Roche regained the Maglia Rosa by 5 seconds. The founder of Team Carrera, for which Visentini and Roche rode, attempted to diffuse the situation but, at the end of the day, as an Italian team and brand, their only real priority was that a member of the team won the Giro. It was of little consequence to them who exactly that member was. Team manager Boifava confirms this with his admission that “my job was to win the Giro, basta.” End of story.

Mentally broken by the actions of his team-mate and support staff, Visentini became erratic, admitting later that he had been trying, in later stages, to make Roche crash. His vengeful nature was his undoing, and, on the penultimate day of the race, he crashed, fracturing his wrist. He didn’t even start the final time trial. His career effectively ended there as, although he lingered in the peloton until 1990, he was never such a contender again. His mind for the sport had gone. So ended the career of one of the most enigmatic figures in the sports storied history. Will we see such drama this year? Come October 3rd, we’ll find out.