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Giro d’Italia 2021, Stage 7: Notaresco – Termoli. The heart of a winner


Franco Bitossi boasts a whopping 171 career wins, including stage wins at the Tour or the Giro, the Lombardia… just about every race. Nonetheless, he is still remembered by a lost sprint

His career, a success story that started in Termoli, in October 1961. «It was a half-stage of the Tre Giorni del Sud. I remember my first win as if it were yesterday». Bitossi won in Termoli with a perfect sprint, defeating his opponents in the shade of the Castello Svevo, as a medieval king. And just like Frederik II of Swabia, who was crowned as emperor at the age of 18, Bitossi soared to victory straight away, upon his third Pro race, but it took him a while to spread his wings and fly. He first had to deal with a close yet dodgy ‘friend’.

He had always had a crazy heart, from the years he crossed the Arno by boat to go to work, to his early amateur career, when the teams would turn a blind eye to this anomaly. Bitossi had an enlarged heart – the doctors called it cardiac hypertrophy. Occasionally, his heart would start beating like a drum during a race. Stopping and waiting was the only solution. It took him a couple of seasons to understand that, in a stage race, the problem would clear up in just a few days. And eventually in 1964, two and a half years after his first victory in Termoli, he sealed his first overall win at the Giro d’Italia – and he never stopped since then. He took four stages straight away, including a ‘redo’ of the legendary Cuneo-Pinerolo, switching between meltdowns and comebacks, ups and downs, like in an ECG trace. That was his hallmark style.

His rider’s heart may have stopped after the 1972 World Champs, when Marino Basso outsprinted him a dozen metres before the line

«The win would have been my masterpiece. It turned out to be an unfinished Gioconda. I am the most remembered joke of cycling». Even after such a blow, Franco let his heart rate slow down, and off he went again.

In a famous photo, he is seen sitting on a kerbstone, his left hand holding his bicycle and his right hand on his chest, breathing deeply to regulate his heartbeat before trying to bridge across to the peloton. Bitossi had been on the chase throughout his career and, still, he managed to beat Merckx, Anquetil and Gimondi. How he did it remains a mystery.

Franco Bitossi followed his heart even after retiring. Back to the gentle hills of his homeland Tuscany, he spent over 20 years taking care of his olive orchards. «They made me even happier than cycling. Both require a great deal of effort, but at least olive trees require no training». He returned to competition, however, as an accomplished lawn bowls player, snaring a new title as Italian over 60s champion. One more achievement in a winning career and a happy life. Franco Bitossi turned 80 last September. A few months from now, he’ll be celebrating 60 years since his first victory in Termoli that afternoon. A happy heart, rather than a crazy heart.

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