9 May 1978, the second stage of the Giro d’Italia is in full swing, taking the riders from Novi Ligure to La Spezia for a total of 195 km. Unfortunately, everyone’s attention is focused elsewhere. In Rome, the lifeless body of Christian Democrat President Aldo Moro, killed by the Red Brigades, has just been found. The riders are obviously unaware of this and battle it out as usual. In the end, it all comes down to a sprint, and taking victory is a talented but still rather unknown 20-year-old, who comes out of nowhere and outsprints the main favourites. That kid is Giuseppe Saronni.
As foreseeable, the joy of this first stage win at the Giro is bitterly shattered by the brutal news: no celebration, no podium, no flowers and no kissing of the Misses. “This Italy takes away the magic of racing” is the only statement that Saronni, already very mature for his age, would make.
But the well-deserved praise for the lad from Parabiago (just outside of Milan) would not be long in coming, because the rising star of Italian cycling would claim one more win in that edition of the Corsa Rosa, eventually taking home a 5th place overall, 8’19” behind the winner Johan De Muynck.
At the age of 21, Saronni already boasted more than 25 victories as a professional and 189 on the track. An absolute talent! Very few, indeed only a handful of riders in the history of this sport have managed to dominate bunch sprints, hold their own in the big mountains, impose themselves in the Monument classics, and become world champions. But among the countless masterpieces of his career, the first was the 1979 Corsa Rosa, which also marked the beginning of the unforgettable rivalry with Francesco Moser.
The latter, fresh from his victory at Paris-Roubaix, was the big favourite and the first seven days in the Maglia Rosa were there to prove his strength. Then the turning point: Saronnni’s blow in the 28km San Marino time trial. Beppe crushed Moser’s pace, leaving him at 1’24” and flying into the Maglia Rosa. He would carry the leadership symbol through to the final triumph in Milan, which he sealed with three stage wins, including the final TT from Cesano Maderno to the Arena, amidst tens of thousands of cheering fans. Only Fausto Coppi in 1940 and Luigi Marchisio in 1930 had won the Giro at a younger age. “The joy of a 21-year-old boy returning home in that jersey is simply indescribable” Saronni said recently.
However, Saronni’s love story with the Corsa Rosa was only just beginning, as in a total of 13 participations he would win 24 stages, hitting the final Top 10 seven times and the podium four times. In addition to the 1979 victory, Saronni also won the 1983 edition. With Moser forced to pull out, Saronni took the Maglia Rosa as early as the seventh stage and had to fend off attacks from Roberto Visentini. Despite a nagging cold and a touch of bronchitis – as well as the infamous attempt to poison him on the eve of the last stage, when a Lombard industrialist offered two waiters at a Gorizia hotel two million lire to put laxative in the rider’s dinner (the two alerted the police, who stopped the attempt) – Saronni managed to arrive in Udine with his arms raised, once again carving his name into legend.
Beppe will soon be entering the Giro d’Italia Hall of Fame at the Trento Sports Festival, receiving the symbol of today’s Corsa Rosa, the Trofeo Senza Fine, reserved for winners since 1999. This trophy, along with the countless others he has obtained, will forever remind him of what he did and what he represents for cycling.
Click here to discover more about Giuseppe Saronni and the Hall of Fame of Giro d’Italia.