Felice Gimondi, who was one of a handful of competitors to win all three of cycling’s major multiweek races, but who remained a frustrated rival to the sport’s most successful star, Eddy Merckx, died on Aug. 16 while vacationing in Sicily. He was 76.
His death was announced by Italy’s cycling federation, which said he had a heart attack while swimming near Taormina.
Gimondi was one of only seven riders to capture the Tour de France, the Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia, which he won three times. His 135 career wins also included the world road racing championship in 1973, one of the rare occasions he defeated the Belgian Merckx.
“Without Merckx, Gimondi probably would have been the greatest cyclist of his time,” Jean Durry, a French cycling historian, wrote in an expanded 1981 edition of his book “The True Story of the Giants of the Road” (1973).
Gimondi turned professional in 1965 at age 22 and, unusually for such a young rider, was entered in the Tour de France, which then as now lasted three weeks.
But the distances covered by the Tour at the time were much longer than they are today. Because of that, young riders were usually withdrawn after the first week or so on the theory that they would otherwise prematurely burn out.
Gimondi’s main job was to fetch water bottles and help pace Vittorio Adorni, his team leader, who had just won the Giro. But the then-unknown Gimondi became the race leader after winning, in a surprise, the third stage of the race. (The Tour is divided into 21 stages.)
That status would have normally been fleeting, with his team leader taking over. But a crash and illness forced Adorni to quit the race and made Gimondi the team leader. Except for a brief interlude, he hung onto the race leader’s yellow jersey until the finish in Paris. He also won two individual races against the stop watch that year.
Gimondi remained the youngest Tour de France winner in the post-World War II era until last month, when Egan Bernal of Colombia triumphed in Paris. Bernal was 93 days younger than Gimondi was when Gimondi won in 1965.
Gimondi created a legacy that would haunt Italian cycling stars for decades: It would be 33 years before another Italian won the Tour de France — Marco Pantani in 1998.
Unlike cyclists today, who tend to specialize in certain kinds of races, Gimondi rode in and won all manner of events, including Paris-Roubaix, the tough and often dangerous race over the grotesquely deformed cobblestoned farm tracks of northern France. His strongest suit, however, was the time trial, or race against the clock.
But then came Merckx, a rider so crushingly dominant that he was given the nickname “The Cannibal.” After 1968, when Gimondi did win a race, it was usually because Merckx was absent or had dropped out. Several Italian pop singers released songs lamenting Gimondi’s fate.
It also became a source of humor. In one parody, a television announcement said that Merckx’s finish in the Giro that day would be broadcast at 3:30 p.m., Gimondi’s at 4 p.m.
Felice Gimondi (pronounced fay-LEE-chay gee-MOAN-dee) was born on Sept. 29, 1942, in Sedrina, a village near Bergamo in northern Italy. His mother, Angela (Salvi) Gimondi, was the town’s postmistress; his father, Mosè, managed a gravel-trucking business.
Gimondi said he had begun riding by using his mother’s post office bicycle without permission. In his history of Italian cycling, “Pedalare! Pedalare!” (2011), John Foot wrote that Gimondi was given his own bike only after his father had accepted one as payment from a customer.
Gimondi married Tiziana Bersano in 1968. Her parents operated a hotel that his team used during training camp. She survives him, as do his two daughters, Norma and Federica.
He lived in a castle near Bergamo that he had bought with his earnings from cycling and two insurance companies he had founded. Throughout his life he continued to appear at the Tour and other races on behalf of his former sponsor, the bicycle maker Bianchi.
The introduction of doping tests in cycling twice played a role in Gimondi’s career. During the 1968 Giro, which he won, he was one of 10 riders who failed drug tests. His victory was allowed to stand, however, after his lawyers successfully argued that he had used a widely available stimulant that was not on the list of banned drugs.
The following year, a tearful Merckx was tossed from the Giro after testing positive, a result that he attributed to tampering. He was eventually cleared. Merckx’s departure made Gimondi the race leader, a position he held until the finish. But as a gesture of support for Merckx, Gimondi declined to wear the pink jersey that came with the victory.
Despite their professional rivalry, the two men became friends and remained in regular contact. “This time I’m the one who has lost,” Merckx told ANSA, an Italian news agency, after Gimondi’s death.
Gimondi had an elegant racing style that was in marked contrast to that of Merckx, who rode with such force that he could appear to be almost tearing his bike apart.
“Elegance, I didn’t go looking for it at all costs,” Gimondi once told Agence France-Presse. “But I tried to look around me to improve my appearance. I did not have a brilliant gift. But doing my job properly, with will and application, I succeeded.”
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