Since its inception in 1911, the Giro d’Italia has been won more than once by 22 riders but, surprisingly, only eight of those riders have managed to win consecutive races. In the postwar period, only Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain have managed so far. Oh, and a somewhat lesser figure in racing lore-Franco Balmamion, who accomplished this feat in 1962 and 1963. He is the subject of a beautiful book from Rapha Editions that is as much a loving ode to cycling fandom and Italian quirkiness as it is about Balmamion, “the Eagle of the Canavese” himself.
Author Herbie Sykes is a British expat now living in Italy and he has written a book that is in turns superbly researched, deeply affectionate and wryly humorous. “Balmamion” is, in fact, a revised edition of a book published in 2008 by Mousehold Press and in a charming Introduction the author reveals the genesis of this English-language book about a now-obscure Italian sporting figure who retired five decades ago. Mr. Sykes, a keen amateur cyclist, collected pro racer jerseys, describing himself as “an anorak”. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, this is British slang for “a boring person who is too interested in the details of a hobby and finds it difficult to meet and spend time with other people.” He is anxious to acquire a jersey belonging to two-time Giro winner Franco Balmamion—certainly a way to one-up other jersey collecting anoraks, one supposes – and in 2005 enlists the help of a friend in Turin to arrange a meeting with the long-retired rider. Truly driven collectors will, of course, do pretty much anything to obtain the objects of their desire, so Sykes pretends to be planning a book about Balmamion in spite of pretty much never having written anything for publication and “interviews,” in his non-extant Italian, the rider. Although he realizes that he won’t be getting a jersey, he is so taken with his subject and so guilty about his subterfuge that he actually sets out to write the promised book after all. It is difficult to believe that “Balmamion” is a first effort at writing, so good is it. Even more astonishing is that there was an English publisher willing to go ahead with a book by an unknown author about an unknown foreign sportsman in a niche sport. That was then. Fifteen years ago English-language books on cycling rarely appeared unless about the Tour de France while today they apparently in the UK exceed the number of new books on football/soccer. Not many are as entertaining and eccentric as this one.
The book opens with an examination of Italian cycling immediately after World War II, when three men—Bartali, Coppi, and Magni—dominated pro racing into the mid-1950s. These giants were followed by riders who, while good, did not match the level of their predecessors. The rather parochial Giro d’Italia, which no foreign rider had ever won until the Swiss Hugo Koblet did in 1950, became more international and outsiders began to dominate.
Franco Balmamion was born in 1940 in the village of Nole Canavese, 25 km north of Turin and, as seems to be the case with so many Italian cycling legends, grew up in poverty. At age three he lost his father in an air raid but grew up in a family with some racing heritage as his paternal uncles raced, including one who came fifth at the Giro in 1931. With their encouragement, he joined the local club and, as a FIAT employee, he raced with the factory team as well. A solid and intelligent rider, his first two years as an amateur saw him win only once but by the time he was 20 he was scoring some significant victories, enough to get him a spot first on the rather underfunded Bianchi team and then, in 1962, the high-flying Carpano team. With Italy’s economy improving rapidly and bicycle companies facing hard times as people turned to other sports for entertainment and automobiles for transport, new non-cycling sponsors came into the sport, a trend begun with Magni brought in cosmetic company Nivea to bankroll his team.
We learn that vermouth was invented in Turin and that Carpano was one of the local brands. The owner of the company was persuaded that cycling would offer good promotional returns and with the aid of a razzle-dazzle publicist, and the reputation of a by then somewhat faded Fausto Coppi, who had an eponymous bicycle to sell, Carpano-Coppi was formed in 1956, becoming simply Carpano in 1958. The team was an unusual for the period mixture of Italian and Belgian riders (a proto-Mapei!).
At the time of Balmamion’s arrival there, Carpano’s star Italian was Nino Defilippis, who had impressive results in one day races in Italy and by the time he retired had had 18 stage wins in the three Grand Tours. The second section of the book details what happened, stage by stage, in the 1962 Giro. The plan was to have Defilippis go for the glory of stage wins and the essentially unknown Balmamion would be the Carpano GC candidate. Balmamion was to lose time in Stage 2 so Defilippis was directed to work towards an overall win but as the race went on the younger rider recovered and went on to victory, although Defilippis did manage one stage win. Balmamion was only 22 when he won and while there was criticism that he had done it without a stage win (see: Walkowiak, Roger, and Tour de France for similar carping), he had ridden tactically and strongly.
Interspersed with the account of each stage are sections devoted to other members of the Carpano team whom the author was able to interview. At the time in 2007 they were mainly septuagenarians and many have passed on since so it was fortunate that Mr. Sykes was able to talk with them. Their diverse personalities shine through in the pages. They were young men in the early 1960s who lived for racing and were lucky to ride for Carpano, a team that was well financed. Even so, racing did not pay terribly well and was brutally hard. Most of those interviewed had already left the peloton by the time they were 30, worn out by the constant need to race. 200 days a year of competition was not unusual compared to the 80 or so that pro riders do now. Riders did not specialize but raced on the road at stage races, one day races and the track. One of the riders profiled had a serious crash on the track from which he never fully recovered but support from the team management was limited afterwards.
The third section of the book covers Balmamion’s second Giro win briefly, showing again his quality as a rider but the two Grand Tour wins and his 1967 national championship title were the highwater marks of his career. From Sykes’ account, the rider is a friendly but quiet presence and was never a showboat, feeling that his aim was to simply do the best job that he could as a pro cyclist for his team.
“Balmamion” is full of interesting material about an era and place in professional racing that is seldom recounted, at least in English. The author’s subjects are forthcoming about a lot of things, good and bad, and while secrets remain as secrets it is easy to read between the lines about Italian sports nationalism or rule bending or doping. The author bemoans the state of modern cycling, its lack of character, its lack of passion, compared to this world he was able to enter into with Franco Balmamion and his colleagues whose glory days were before Herbie Sykes was even born.
The book is also the story of how an English television salesman became a writer with a deep love of Italy and its cycling tradition—he has even wound up married to the daughter of the Carpano team’s former doctor! And Franco Balmamion did indeed give Mr. Sykes a Carpano jersey (well, not a maglia rosa, alas) so it seems that being an anorak can have its benefits.
As is the case consistently with Rapha Editions, the book is beautifully presented, with period photos and cycling memorabilia, and a genuine pleasure to own and read.
“Balmamion” by Herbie Sykes
224 pp., illus., softbound
Rapha Editions, London, 2020