Ex-Rider Interview: Roberto Visentini was a top rider, a classy rider and they say a playboy and he was a hero in Italy with a big palmarès. But many in the English speaking world know him from the Roche Giro of ’87. Ed Hood had a long talk to Roberto about his life, on and off the bike and ‘that’ Giro d’Italia.
The 80’s saw some pretty cool dudes in the peloton, in the UK we had Malcolm Elliot, Belgium had Fons De Wolf, Switzerland had Serge Demierre but Italy had perhaps the coolest of them all – Roberto Visentini.
Time trial photo thanks to Phil O’Connor
Big hair, film star good looks, the man was born to wear the maglia rosa. He won the pink race in 1986, but in 1987 whilst clad in the coolest jersey there is, his team mate Stephen Roche – who had been in pink until the Stage 13 time trial where Visentini rode a brilliant chrono to beat specialists, Rominger, Piasecki and Bernard to snatch the lead back – went up the road not once but twice to take the jersey back from an enraged Visentini. Thanks to the good offices of Roberto and PEZ’s mutual friend, Lucio Belli we bring you an exclusive interview with Senor Visentini – and if you’re a Roche fan, pour yourself a stiff Jameson’s and prepare to be outraged. . .
PEZ: You won the inaugural World Junior Road Race Champion in 1975 Roberto, your memories of that day and did it change your life?
Roberto Visentini: No, I can safely say that it did not change my life; but certainly I was very happy to have won, perhaps especially because it was the first edition of the Junior Worlds. I remember that it was a hard circuit – half uphill and half downhill, I was in good form and had already won the Italian championship in Montecatini Terme. I got clear in the last kilometre and arrived alone, from some photos it seems that I won in a sprint but it’s not so. I’d like to remember with affection my teammate, poor Alberto Massucco who came third that day, he was a good guy and a great rider, unfortunately he stopped racing and died in a bad motorbike accident in 1979 at only 21 years old.
PEZ: You were third in the Tour de l’Avenir in 1977 was this the performance which got you a pro contract?
The Tour de l’Avenir has always been a very hard race, that year my form was good and I was perfectly guided by a great sports director and former cyclist to whom I am still very grateful, Mino Denti, who taught me everything about how to be a racing cyclist, he coached me since I was a kid. Mino and Piero Serena, who always built my bikes, from junior to amateur – and even as a professional – were always ahead of their time. Mino as to methodologies of training and Piero as to geometry applied to the bike, finding the best the position on the machine for me.
Just to give an example, when I won the Italian time trial championship as an amateur, since the course had many corners Piero made specifically a frame with the bottom bracket higher to enable me to pedal through the corners. They thought about the ‘details,’ few know that Mino was to become the Inoxpran DS but there was some delay and after a wait of some months he decided to open a bike shop near to his cycling clothes factory. With Mino in the team car perhaps things would have turned out differently in certain races. . .
But back to the Tour de l’Avenir – I gave my best, that’s all there is to it but there were two stronger riders ahead of me – Eddy Schepers and Johan Van Der Velde. However, it was not that result that which got me the contract, I had already had contacts in the pro world – in particular with Colnago.
PEZ: Tell us about your memories of signing your first contract with Vibor?
I chose Vibor because of Colnago (we rode Colner bikes, which is an acronym for COLNago ERnesto) and because of the strong Brescian component in the team, it was a small team but I immediately felt at home.
PEZ: You had a terrific Giro debut in 1978, best young rider – your memories?
I was in good form and had the typical enthusiasm of the new professional but I also had to work for Panizza who was the team captain. I still managed to keep the white jersey despite that; I could have done better in the ranking but unfortunately I had a bad bronchitis that almost forced me to abandon the race.
Italian pursuit champion
PEZ: The team became CBM Fast for ’79?
The CBM was actually only the evolution of Vibor, new sponsors but totally unreliable,
I remember a team camp with a five star hotel, all the comforts, but unfortunately shortly after that the money was all gone! Despite all the negatives with that team I want to remember that was the year I won the Italian individual pursuit championships, beating even people like Moser, for me, who did not specialise on the track, it was a great result.
PEZ: San Giacomo in ’80.
CBM went bankrupt and I found myself a contract with San Giacomo (which would become the following year Sammontana Benotto) the DS was the great Carlino Menicagli, a very good person, very caring and sensitive with his riders. It was there that I wore the first pink jersey, then at the Vuelta of Spain the first amarillo jersey. Unfortunately almost the entire team ended up outside of the time cut; only Bertini and I were left, I tried to keep the jersey but with just two of us it was virtually impossible.
With USA’s George Mount in San Giacomo
PEZ: Freddy Maertens was your team mate there.
Freddy, what a rider, what a champion with uncommon strength. At that time the first ultralight Campagnolo pedals had come out, with alloy spindles and plates, Freddy broke them, the mechanic had to fit his bike with the pedals from the year before with steel spindles and plates. I remember him fondly, an absolute champion, when he accelerated from a seated position he could easily ride you off his wheel, but within the team, despite being a champion he remained humble with everyone.
PEZ: The team became Sammontana for ‘81/’82.
In the end the team was essentially the same, unfortunately Menicagli left (I think he went to Selle San Marco?) and Waldemaro Bartolozzi arrived, the DS and a sponsor changed – Sammontana took the place of San Giacomo. That year I won the time trial of Monte Pora, I remember that I took a break from the bike for about ten days before that race, I wanted to do well because it was close to my home, I won in front of Corti, my teammate. I liked the time trials, even uphill, and if I came into one off from eight to 10 days of rest I always did well, it was a feature of mine. I could have also won the Tour of Lombardy that year. I was in good shape and I had good legs; I had asked for a 12 cog to be fitted to my machine in the morning but instead the mechanic fitted a 13 top sprocket. I never knew if it was an error maybe when I wrote the memo or if it was just an oversight but the fact is that I was under geared in the final and I was caught in the last kilometre. I think there’s a good video on You Tube of that final…
1982 Giro di Lombardia
PEZ: Sixth in the Giro in ’81, was that when you started to believe you could win it?
I always thought in my heart that I could win a Giro, the Giro was my true love, it wasn’t that sixth place that made me realise it, I always believed in it. Of course, you also need luck, the percorsos at the time didn’t help.
PEZ: You won the Trofeo Baracchi with Daniel Gisiger in ’82, beating Oosterbosch and Kuiper – a very strong duo.
That Baracchi was really a great victory, with Gisiger we were in sync, he was a great time trial rider and I can say that I was too, of course the Baracchi was always a gruelling race but I remember that day with pleasure!
Inoxpran in 1983
PEZ: Inoxpran for ’83, which became Carrera, you were there for six seasons.
Inoxpran was a great Bresciano team. I remember the owners the brothers Prandelli (Inox Pran – Pran obviously stands for Prandelli and Inox because they produced pots and pans) – with them I always had a frank and sincere relationship they always kept their word. They were real entrepreneurs, gentlemen in love with cycling; then Carrera came in as sponsors and slowly things changed but it still remained strong to Brescian roots and that’s why I stayed.
Worlds ’80 Sallances, France – Johan De Muynck, Bernard Hinault and Roberto Visentini
PEZ: Second in the ’83 Giro, could you have won?
The Giro in ‘83 what can I say, that I could have won it? Certainly but there were too healthy bonuses for the stage winners, I think 30 seconds? Saronni (who is a good friend of mine) was a phenomenon in the sprints and there were few hard climbs to be able to put him in difficulty – that’s how it went and I can’t reproach myself for anything. I was really strong both uphill and in the time trial but it wasn’t enough.
Visentini stage win Giro’84
PEZ: The ’84 Giro, a stage win but ‘only’ 18th on GC in the ‘Moser Giro.’
1984, what can I say that everyone doesn’t already know? I was in good shape but too many things happened in that race. I won in Lerici a hard and very long stage, 270 kilometres in pouring rain, I attacked on the descent and arrived alone then the rest everyone knows. I wanted to stop, the way that race was conducted wasn’t right, we all struggled with what was going; on Fignon was also very angry, as was Beat Breau about the pushes Moser was receiving without penalty on the climbs, then there were the accusations of him being paced by the team car. The Stelvio stage – which didn’t favour Moser’s characteristics was cancelled, ‘because it was snow bound’ but pictures clearly showed that the road was passable. Finally there was the issue with the helicopter draft pushing him along in the final time trial. It was all ‘polemica’ and I have never liked these things, I didn’t ‘saints in heaven’ looking after me like some in that race and that’s why I was 18th. I wanted to retire from that Giro after having seen and suffered from the situations I mentioned above. I stopped and lost time then Battaglin convinced me to re-start. I remember Fignon, who was robbed by Moser in that race, very fondly, great class even off the bike, a gentleman as well as a champion.
’86 Giro podium
PEZ: The ’86 Giro – Victory!
After wanting it so much finally the Giro was mine and I was rewarded for all the sacrifices I have always made in my career. You see what it means to have a little luck? I started in great shape but with a recently broken scaphoid; I did the whole race with a bandage on my wrist. I remember that if there was a crash was on the right I was on the left and vice versa – luck! But off course I was pedalling very well; but if I was to fall, carrying that injury then everything was over. It was a Giro that I raced on the attack because the team time trial in Sicily did not go too well for us and I found myself having to attack until I finally put on the jersey. Seeing who arrived behind me in that race I can be happy _ Saronni, Moser, Lemond. The Giro has always been my race, the one that I was interested in winning more than any other.
Victory in 1986
PEZ: 1987 and Drama. . .
Everyone always asks about that Giro – first of all I want to state clearly that I have never ever said that; ‘in July I’ll be laying on a beach somewhere and that I won’t help Roche to win the Tour de France.’ That phrase was invented by Roche to have a stupid alibi, the reason is simple and also easy to understand. I wasn’t going to do the Tour that year because I was the captain at the Giro, I had won the race the year before. That was the arrangement, how could it be otherwise? Obviously if I had crashed or if I had problems enough to retire at the Giro I could have gone to the Tour in support of Roche. I was a professional paid to ride according to the dictates of the team. But I repeat that everyone in the team knew the agreement that I would not have gone to the Tour if I had won the Giro.
The truth is that I was attacked in a cowardly fashion and betrayed by a teammate with the approval of both the sponsors – who had an interest in selling jeans in the Anglo-Saxon market – and the team manager Boifava who was interested in selling his bikes in those parts – he already planned to open a bike factory [Carrera, ed.] which opened two years later so he had to prepare the ground. [Roche won the Giro on a ‘Battaglin’ branded machine, ed.]. People on that team had the wrong job, they should not have directed a team – their job should have been in the Vatican as bishops or cardinals. They were incompetent, careerists, opportunists. When I won the time trial in San Marino – which was perhaps the best time trial of my career – I went back to the hotel and only two people congratulated me, just two. Why? Because everyone would have been happier if Roche won, no one believed that I would have beaten him in that time trial and with such a margin, I put 2 minutes 48 seconds into him to take the jersey back.
There was already an agreement to kill me off, it was all planned a long time ago – Roche had staked everything on that season because he knew it was his season – I repeat, he had staked everything on that season! Nobody denies that he was strong at the Tour, but don’t tell me that it wasn’t a cowardly attack at the Giro, because it was. It was not the behaviour you expect from a teammate – you always work for those who have the leader’s jersey, Saronni and I worked for Bordonali when in 1989 he won the Ruta del Sol, he was just a young rider but that’s what you do – always. I was attacked with cowardice, betrayed by friends and by an incompetent DS who should have made Roche get out of the breakaway at all costs. I said to myself that such a false environment was not for me, I stayed in the race only because I was a professional and not a clown.
Do you know that there are DS with courage and strength who would force their riders off the road with the team car if they did not follow team orders? The public who follow cycling don’t know these things, they judge because they see half an hour of racing on TV and read some lines in the newspaper in the morning. I would like to see if the other way around; would the fans of Roche have been happy if I had attacked while he was in the leader’s jersey? Would they say that my actions were not those of betrayal? Roche already promised something to all those who helped him in that race. People whom I had helped, who in previous years had earned money thanks to my victories, people who perhaps had stayed on the team thanks to the fact that I had renounced some of my salary because I knew that they had families and perhaps would not have remained on the team had I not helped financially. And I am not just talking about riders – these people were easily bought. Where has it ever been seen that a team mate attacks the team-mate who won the year before in the leader’s jersey? And not once but twice!
PEZ: The ’88 Tour time trial, where you lost to Yates but he rode in the dry and you in the midst of a storm.
As we were saying before – luck. That day at Wasquehal I was riding very well, but someone else won. Could I have won? Despite the water and wind I think I lost by just 14 seconds – but that’s how it went unfortunately. The time trials were my speciality, I always started at full throttle but not at the death, I always kept a little bit of margin.
Tour cobbles – Visentini, Phil Anderson and Greg Lemond
PEZ: Malvor in ’89.
I signed with Malvor in July without saying anything to anyone. I have wonderful memories of that year, the DS, Algeri was a true friend. It was a strong team with Contini, Saronni, Ballerini, Pagnin Allocchio and many others; I found their enthusiasm refreshing, it was an environment of fair people. As usual I bet everything on the Giro and as usual – Lady Luck played a part. Before the race I was hit by a car in training and I broke my foot – goodbye Giro. I knew I was going well because I was second in the Avignon time trial at the Criterium International beaten only by Indurain and I am sure that at the Giro I would have fought to win it. There was Fignon but we knew he was betting everything on the Tour, he won with my team mate Giupponi second. I think I could have done well that year because the team was really well equipped – but Lady Luck. . .
Crash with Greg Lemond in the Tour
PEZ: Your final team, Jolly Club 88.
Jolly was a badly built team, not well organised but I’m absolutely not talking about the riders who were all good guys. I’m talking about the staff sponsors executives and officials. The athletes I remember with pleasure Ettor Pastorelli, a man from Brescia, like me; then there were guys like Silvio Martinello, Maurizio Rossi the young Endrio Leoni, Stefano Colagè – people of value, It was too bad about the bad management of the team.
PEZ: How did you adapt to ‘civilian life?
The bike was just a little part of my life, I was a rider, a good rider? Maybe even a champion? But that was all gone – real life starts when you come off the bike. I enjoy life as I always did, my family, my job my friends – but really just a few from the cycling world.
PEZ: The ‘Playboy’ image, your take please?
The playboy story is all bullshit invented by four cheap journalists, people who have never ridden a bicycle; try having sex with a woman and the next day ride the Stelvio – that’s to win, not to walk. All bullshit, the bike doesn’t go itself if you don’t train and you don’t live the life of an athlete you don’t do anything. Those who say that I didn’t train don’t know me, I’ll give you an example, many people said; ‘Visentini trains little, I see him always coming home early from training.’ More bullshit, I always went out at 07:00 am, I was on the bike at that hour, summer and winter, they saw me come back earlier because the other professionals in the area went out at 09:00 am and came back at 14:00 pm, while I wanted to be home at 12:00 or 12:30 pm. The journalists – how many lies they invented about me, I’d said one thing in the evening to a journalist and the next morning in the newspaper I’d read another, just unprofessional people! Recently my friend Lucio Belli brought me welcome greetings from Robert Millar (now Philippa York) after 34 years she wanted to explain the facts of my fall in Pila where again I broke my scaphoid. But the journalists at the time wrote that I said that Pippa had thrown the bike back on purpose uphill to make me fall – more bullshit! I never said anything like that, I was just pissed off because I had fallen and broken my scaphoid but I knew was no one’s fault.
With Hennie Kuiper
Just one, yes. I should have gone with Cyrille Guimard when he asked me to join his team. But that was my fault – a big mistake. He had the best team organisation of the times, in every respect – that’s EVERY respect.
Lucio Belli and Roberto Visentini