PEZ Talk: Tommy Prim
Back in the 70’s and 80’s a successful Swedish continental based professional bike racer was about as rare as one from Great Britain. A rider who stood, especially in Italy, was Tommy Prim. He was up against strong opposition from the hundreds of top Italians at the time, even the ones in his own team. Had he been born where did most of his racing his palmarès would have been much larger. Ed Hood caught up with Tommy to get his side of the story.
“And you’ll have a Vuelta preview ready for August 19th, Ed?” Says our Euro Editor, Al Hamilton.
My head’s still on the Finestre in Italia, I haven’t even got to l’Alpe en France, yet – and here we are speaking of the Sierras. Where does time go? So let’s go back to the Giro one last time – who was the best guy never to win it?
My candidate would be a tall, blond, classy Swede by the name of Tommy Prim who was fourth at his first attempt at the race then second on two further occasions. Back in the early 80’s it wasn’t so easy to jump on a cheap flight so we didn’t see as much of the stars then as we do now. But we did thrash the Opel Manta down to the 1982 Worlds at Goodwood on the beautiful South Down hills of England.
Italy’s Giuseppe Saronni turned on the after burners to win up that cruel drag to the finish ahead of Greg Lemond and Sean Kelly. But our ‘man of the match’ was Prim; tanned to the colour of hardwood, not an ounce of fat on him, he looked the epitome of cool as he ground up the big hill on that beautiful Bianchi the sweat dripping down on to his timelessly classy blue and yellow Sweden jersey.
My amigo Dave and I still harp back to that day as we sup a pils in the Vivaldi at Het Nieuwsblad or the Gent Six. It was Tommy’s 60th birthday recently and a chat with the classiest guy never to win the Giro was well overdue.
He speaks with that typical Swedish cool and pragmatism in good, clear English – better than mine. . .
PEZ: How did you get into cycling, Tommy?
“I was 14 years-old and a friend at school was into cycling so I wanted to try it; my father bought me a bike so that I could. That would be 1969 and I did my first race in 1970 – I’d tried all kind of sports, football, running, skiing but I really liked the bike.”
PEZ: You had some nice amateur results. . .
“I won the Swedish Junior Time Trial Championship in 1972 and the Senior Road Race in 1976; I also won a stage in the Tour de L’Avenir in ’76. In 1978 I decided to change clubs to Linkoping, there were six of us all with the same ambitions, including Alf Segersall – it worked out and we all performed well at international level.”
“That year I was second in the Fleche du Sud stage race in Luxembourg and won the points classement at the Giro delle Regioni in Italy and GP Tell in Switzerland.”
PEZ: How did the ride with Bianchi come about?
“I rode well in Italy in 1978, as well as winning the points in the Regioni I was third on GC and won the prologue in the Giro del Bergamasco and was second on GC. Giancarlo Ferretti wanted me to go pro with Bianchi but I decided to wait a year; Alf had broken his leg and I wanted us to turn pro together. In 1979 I won two stages in the Baby Giro and Alf won the GC so we began talking to Ferretti and were pro with Bianchi for 1980.”
PEZ: It must have made life a little easier having Alf there?
“Yes, Alf and I and our wives took two apartments in Bergamo – we’d trained together for two years so knew each other really well. And it was good for our wives to have each other when we were training or away at races.”
PEZ: You started winning straight away as a neo pro.
“Yes, I won the Coppa Agostoni and a Giro stage as well as finishing fourth on GC but I’d trained well over the winter and was well prepared. I’d learned about the Italian style of racing in the amateur stage races and I seemed to get stronger as races went on.
PEZ: Many say that you could have beaten Battaglin to win the ’81 Giro if the team had gone 100% with you?
“That’s easy to believe but you have to bear in mind the team philosophy; there were three leaders – Baronchelli, Contini and me. For an Italian team it’s better if an Italian wins the race and that’s what we wanted – but they slipped in the last week; Contini was fourth and Baronchelli 10th and Battaglin won.
PEZ: Wasn’t it difficult for you on a team with all those big Italian egos?
“I didn’t think in that way; I rode for the team – but I told Ferretti last year that it would have been better if I could have won one of those Giros!”
PEZ: Second again in ’82 – to Hinault.
“I should have won that race but had a double puncture on the gravel road on the way down off Monte Grappa and lost two minutes – that was too much to get back on a rider like Hinault. I spoke to my countryman Sven Ake Nilsson who rode for French teams during his pro career and he knew Hinault well; the Frenchman told him that if I hadn’t had those punctures then he’d never have won that Giro. . .”
PEZ: Goodwood Worlds, ’82 – you were ‘man of the match.’
“I went away on my own that day hoping that others would come up to me and we’d get a good group together – but it didn’t happen. . .”
PEZ: In ’83 you became the first Swede to win a Classic; Paris-Brussels.
“It was a rainy day and team orders were to attack early so I ended up being in the break for around 280 K – the race was around 300K – we got to 15 minutes before the chase started. There was a finishing lap of five or six K and I got away and beat Daniel Rossel at the line to win.”
PEZ: Which of your performances do you look back on with most pride?
“I did many good rides that gave me satisfaction; I won the Tour of Romandie in Switzerland, the Setmana Catalana in Spain, the Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy, a stage in Paris-Nice in France and my home Tour in Sweden – but maybe Romandie in ’81 was one of my best?”
PEZ: You only ever rode pro for Bianchi, why?
“Because it was easy to stay in one place – but now I regret not taking up an offer I had from Mercier in 1982. The French and Belgian style of racing where they went from the gun suited me better than the Italian races was where it was ‘piano’ for 100 kilometres before they started to go. Sven Ake Nilsson was on the team and rode the Tour and said it would have been a good team for me.”
PEZ: You retired young – 31 years-old, why?
“It was difficult as a Swede to be away from home for so long; I had two children by then and I felt that I could no longer give 110% like I wanted to. With me I had to give all, or nothing.”
PEZ: Did the Swedish Federation tap into your huge experience after you retired?
“No, they had another way of thinking – but how else do young riders learn but from former professionals?”
“Apart from not taking the offer from Mercier, when I look back I should have thought of myself more often; I always rode for the team.”
“But maybe I should have thought about ME, more than I did. . .”
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.