After revisiting Frank Vandenbroucke’s swaggering 1999 Liege-Bastogne-Liege victory, Re-Cycle gears up for the first Grand Tour of the season. That year’s Giro saw the first of the six ascents of Mount Etna in the history of the race, won by Italy’s Franco Bitossi.
Bitossi would later morph into a fast finisher and amass more than 170 wins – all achieved despite a cardiac arrhythmia that, today, would have ended his career before it even got started.
Few riders become King of the Mountains in only their second Giro d'Italia; fewer go on to win the climbers' classification three times on the bounce; fewer, still, cap this with the sprinters' jersey in their second Tour de France. Franco Bitossi did all that – and then some.
In seventeen years as a pro, the Tuscan won a total of 171 races, including 21 stages of the Giro, two Giro di Lombardia crowns and three national championships – as well as GC wins in Tirreno-Adriatico, the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour de Suisse – not to mention his coming agonisingly close to the 1972 World Championship title. And he achieved all this despite having to stop regularly on the side of the road to regulate his heartbeat.
The fifth stage of the 2020 Giro d'Italia was scheduled to revisit the Sicilian volcano where Bitossi, with trademark opportunism, took his eighth Giro stage on what was the race's inaugural foray up Mount Etna. Fifty-three years after Bitossi kicked clear to win Stage 7 of the 1967 Giro, the first high-altitude finish of the 2020 edition was meant to return to the black lava slopes of Etna via a new, unprecedented route to the finish.
It still might. And that is as good a reason as any to look back at the career of the first victor on Europe's highest active volcano.
In 1967 an Italian Elvis Presley tribute act known as Little Tony sat atop the Italian charts for nine consecutive weeks with his single Cuore Matto. The song, which translates as 'Crazy Heart' in English, became a hit off the back of the popular San Remo Festival – the inspiration behind the Eurovision Song Contest.
But for cycling fans that year, there was only one Cuore Matto. He might have finished third in his own showdown in San Remo that year. But Franco Bitossi and his crazy heart was the in-form Italian rider of the moment – notching a series of springtime wins and podium places in the build-up to the Giro.
The reason behind Bitossi's nickname was quite simple: his cardiac arrhythmia.
In his biography of Eddy Merckx, journalist Daniel Friebe explains that Bitossi, the son of a Tuscan tractor driver, lived with his parents in a farmhouse in the village of Camaioni on the banks of the River Arno, 15km upstream from Florence and a short boat crossing from the nearest road.
Turning professional aged 21 in 1961, it took Bitossi a while to make ripples in the sport, his first years more notable for a particular quirk than their successes in the saddle. As Friebe says in Eddy Merckx, The Cannibal:
Crazy Heart's first two seasons in the professional peloton had been hellish, yielding zero victories and innumerable variations on the same, tragi-comic scene: a flash of heels, a blur of jet black hair, Bitossi clear of the field and then, moments later, stationary at the side of the road, hunched over his handlebars.
John Foot, the author of the definitive biography of the Giro and Italian cycling, Pedalare! Pedalare!, elaborates on Bitossi's enforced road-side breaks during these sudden and destabilising attacks:
"In the 1960s Franco Bitossi had been diagnosed with heart rate problems. His doctor advised him to stop altogether when his heart was beating too strongly. Not surprisingly, this often happened during races. What was extraordinary was that, despite this obvious handicap, Bitossi had a long and successful career, in a world in which he was competing against heavyweights such as Merckx and Gimondi."
Foot adds that many people at the time suggested that Bitossi's problems were "largely psychological" – in other words, he had what might be described as panic attacks today. This might have explained some of his more "absurd losses" such as his notorious and inexplicable meltdown in the 1972 World Championships. More on that, later.
But for Bitossi, these attacks were all too real, even if his doctors at the time were left completely flummoxed by his condition. Now approaching his 80th birthday, Bitossi tried to explain his crazy heart in an interview with the website BikeRaceInfo.
I felt an extra-systole coming and then an attack of tachycardia [very rapid heartbeat] would begin. My heart rate would climb to 220 beats per minute. Every time I took a test there was never any evidence of heart problems. It happened only during racing. I took a stress test and I didn't show any symptoms of tachycardia, so the doctors said it was not that serious. Today, I would get an attack of tachycardia if I were to take such a test.
Given, for example, that Miguel Induráin famously had a resting heart rate of 28 beats a minute, it's clear why Bitossi's 220 beats would require rapid roadside attention. Speaking in 2018 shortly after the death of Belgian cyclist Michael Goolaerts, who suffered a cardiac arrest during Paris-Roubaix and died later that day in hospital, Bitossi admitted that the primitive tests during his time as a pro probably allowed him to keep riding despite the dangers.
"In those years we were subjected only to an electrocardiogram and with that we could not see anything. Today it's no longer like that, with periodic exams and 24-hour tests, you can see everything – and a cyclist with a problem similar to mine would not be allowed to compete at all."
Nicolas Portal, the former Team Sky and Ineos directeur sportif, missed the entire 2009 season because of cardiac arrhythmia. In a tragedy that shook the sport this spring, Portal died suddenly from a heart attack, aged 40, at his home in Andorra – a stark reminder of the potential severity of the condition.
Although Bitossi's condition was a severe handicap, it did not stop him from not only being competitive, but winning a great deal during his long career. Friebe retells one incident, in the 1966 Coppa Agostini, when Bitossi had ridden rings around the likes of Merckx and Felice Gimondi but was forced by his palpitations to stop no fewer than 10 times – and yet, nearly beat them both.
And while the nickname that stuck was ‘Crazy Heart’, Bitossi was also known as Falena – or Moth – because of the smooth, light way he would win races, his supple riding style giving the impression that he was floating. When he finally broke his duck as a professional, the floodgates opened: consigning those barren years firmly to the past, Bitossi won stage 3 of the 1964 Giro – then added three more wins on his way to finishing 10th on GC and snaring the first of his three successive King of the Mountains titles.
Setting the scene: The 1967 Giro
Going into the 50th edition of the Corsa Rosa in 1967, Bitossi, despite finishing in the top 10 in the previous three editions, was not named among the favourites.
This was a continual source of disagreement between the 27-year-old and his Filotex directeur sportif, Barto Iozzi, who felt his leader should focus on the General Classification. Bitossi, however, was a free spirit who wanted to live for the day and target stage wins.
The favourites for the Maglia Rosa that year included defending champion Gianni Motta, the 1965 winner Vittorio Adorni and the 1964 Tour de France winner Gimondi. The non-Italian threat came from the supreme yet fading force of the French superstar Jacques Anquetil – a winner in all three Grand Tours including his record five Tour de France victories. There was also a new kid on the block, a spunky Belgian by the name of Eddy Merckx.
Merckx had beaten Motta, Bitossi and Gimondi to land his second Milano-San Remo title two months earlier and was chomping at the bit as he made his Grand Tour debut in the Giro. Having added Gent-Wevelgem and the Flèche Wallonne to his palmarès that spring, Merckx, in the mythical black-and-white-checked kit of Peugeot, was the dark horse for a maiden Giro that would see him notch two stage wins en route to Milan.
Bitossi, already a three-time King of the Mountains, was a big name in households all over Italy. He was most notable for his winning break of 155km in the evocative Cuneo to Pinerolo stage in 1964, and for his performance in 1966 where he rode over numerous summits in the Dolomites in pole position before being caught by Gimondi with just a few kilometres remaining. It was another day his crazy heart apparently skipped a beat.
The opening week of the race headed from Lombardy in the north to Naples in the south, after which came a transfer to Sicily. The Italian all-rounder Michele Dancelli was in pink after the opening six stages, with the Spaniard José Pérez Francés just 13 seconds in arrears.
A grim ghost of a Giro
Hand on heart, the Giro's first ever ascent of Mount Etna was far from memorable. In fact, the following day, newspaper L'Unità ran the sub-header: “The Giro Takes It Easy (And Protests?) On The Stage To Etna.”
The reason for this go-slow was the proliferation of long transfers that had exhausted the riders – proof, if ever it were needed, that some things never change.
Writing an opinion piece in the newspaper alongside the stage report, Kino Marzullo highlighted "the agony of two consecutive transfers" – from Chianciano to Rome (after Stage 4), and then Naples to Palermo (ahead of Stage 7) – which had left journalists with "red eyes, gaunt faces and long beards".
Marzullo joked that the press corps now resembled the local Sicilian priest, Father Mariani, which could have explained why Sergio Zavoli, the host of RAI's daily Giro television coverage, invited him to appear at the start of the stage. The journalist opened his light-hearted piece by admittedly over-egging the tiramisù a touch with these words:
"It was right that the stage finish was on Etna: this terrible, tormented, painful landscape, blackened by lava, sprinkled with the yellow of the gorse that stubbornly manages to flourish even here, where nothing is born; it constitutes the natural environment for this grim ghost concept that the Giro caravan has become."
It was hardly surprising, Marzullo said, that the first potential GC showdown between the likes of Merckx and Anquetil "was resolved in a tourist walk".
The actual report to the 218km stage in L'Unità was less flowery and more succinct. "Nothing happened going uphill and nothing going downhill," it read, adding that there was "130km without any notable story and an hourly average speed of 26kmph that testified the riders' desire to protect their own skin."
Race director Vincenzo Torriani was tearing his hair out, shuttling between the peloton's head and tail, trying to cajole the riders as they headed from the sea to the hills and then on towards Etna over the "fairytale landscape" and in a blustery wind.
The Italian Silvano Schiavon and the Spaniard Aurelio González – respective Vittadello and Kas Kaskol teammates of the Maglia Rosa Dancelli and his deputy Pérez Francés – held a slender lead going through the town of Nicolosi to the south of Etna at the foot of the final climb.
Bitossi and Italo Zilioli – Gimondi's lieutenant from Salvarini – countered from the chasing group of favourites to neutralise the move. With around seven kilometres remaining, the lead group was down to 15 riders as the air became cold and pungent from the volcano.
Bitossi, González, Schiavon and the Italian Lino Carletto broke clear to form a leading quartet. "The champions don't respond and let it go," read the report, in the atmospheric present tense. "In a way, they go on strike. And so the four escapees gain a small advantage – a sufficient advantage to contest the stage win – and at 1,881m, it's Bitossi who gets the better of González with a burst of pace."
Schiavon took third and Carletto fourth before the main favourites were led over the line 26 seconds later by Motta, Merckx and Gimondi. Anquetil came home a further 20 seconds back, but the big loser of the day was his compatriot Lucien Aimar, winner of the 1966 Tour de France, who conceded considerably more time than his Bic teammate.
Dancelli retained the Maglia Rosa while, in trademark fashion, Bitossi, up to fifth place at 1'05", enjoyed his moment of glory while downplaying his form, claiming he was ‘not in good health’. The report in L'Unità concluded with this frank summary: "In essence, an insignificant, disappointing day."
What happened next
The transfer travails would continue on the 1967 Giro. After journalists travelled from Palermo to Catania ahead of the seventh stage, Marzullo continued his grumbling before the prospect of what was to come: "A beautiful landscape, of course, but the caravan is going to sleep at two o'clock with the prospect of moving from Catania to Messina, and tomorrow morning at dawn from Messina to Reggio Calabria…"
Once back on the mainland, the Spaniard Pérez Francés took over the race lead for eight days, during which time Merckx won two stages. After the 45km time trial, Anquetil, who was known as Monsieur Chrono because of his time trialling ability, took over the Maglia Rosa for one day before conceding it to Schiavon in the Dolomites.
Anquetil was back in pink after Adorni won stage 20 in Trento – only to lose the race lead on the penultimate day to Gimondi, who survived the final day split stage to win the first of his three Giro crowns. The Italian's winning margin over compatriot Franco Balmamion was a comfortable 3'36" in Milan.
"I've been trying to pick the bones out of the 1967 race for 15 years," says Italian cycling specialist Herbie Sykes. "I've spoken to Balmamion – at length, on any number of occasions – Motta, Adorni, Zilioli and many others. Among the living, the only ones I haven't spoken to are Aimar and Pérez Francés, but that's probably just as well because the more I find out, the less I understand it. It's an absolute mystery."
Having been two days away from a third Giro win, Anquetil had to settle for third place in Milan, trailing Gimondi by the same deficit as Balmamion. Last place on the podium, astonishingly, tied the Frenchman's worst position in all his Grand Tours – besides the three he did not complete. It would be his last major stage race before retirement.
That autumn, Anquetil beat Roger Rivière's 11-year Hour Record by 150m but, because he refused to submit to a drugs test, the ride was never certified by the UCI.
As for Bitossi, he secured a couple of top-10s later in the race but was unable to match his Etna heroics, eventually coming 15th place in the General Classification, the best part of 35 minutes in arrears. His three-year reign as the Giro's best climber also came to an end, with González, who took the final uphill finish at Madonna del Ghisallo, taking his crown.
Bitossi's season continued strongly, however, with the Tuscan all-rounder beating the Giro champion Gimondi to glory in the Giro di Lombardia in the last significant race of the year. Looking at Bitossi's achievements through the prism of the Cannibal, Friebe writes in his biography of Merckx: "[For Bitossi,] 1967 started so well there was talk of potential campionissimo status. But after his victory on Etna, the Dolomites and Alps cut him down to size, just as they had Merckx in his debut Grand Tour."
After demonstrating his versatility by winning in the Apennines at Blockhaus and then in a sprint ahead of compatriot Willy Planckaert, 22-year-old Merckx felt the pinch in the final week, dropping to ninth place overall.
After the race, Bruno Raschi, the godfather of Italian sports journalism, reviewed the main protagonists in La Gazzetta. On Merckx, his summary was deliciously wide of the mark: "He has shown his limitations in the mountains. The young Belgian will never win a major stage race."
Friebe reports how this comment made Bitossi choke on his breakfast caffè and cornetti: "I couldn't believe it when I read that, what Raschi said about him not winning the Tour. I mean, based on what I'd seen, it was obvious what the kid could do…"
That kid returned the next year to win the Giro – his first of five triumphs, matching his record in the Tour; Merckx added a single Vuelta title along the way, as well as multiple Monuments, three world titles and another 200-odd career wins.
As Friebe quips, Crazy Heart Bitossi had not missed a beat.
While Bitossi's own wins were not as prestigious, they were almost as plentiful. Having made his name as a climber, Bitossi morphed into a fast finisher as well as a breakaway specialist renowned for his late flyers, winning the Points Jersey in the Giro for successive years in 1969 and 1970 after becoming the first Italian to don the – red, as it was that year – sprinter’s jersey in Paris in 1968.
"Starting in 1968, I changed my tactic and started specialising in flying away in the final kilometre," Bitossi told BikeRaceInfo. "This was necessary when I was in a group with many sprinters and I needed to forestall them, taking off suddenly. This worked for some time, but then in the final years of my career I didn't have the legs to do that anymore."
1972: Bitossi's Worlds cave in
More significant than many of Bitossi's wins was his greatest disappointment, which would merit an entire episode of Re-Cycle in itself. For now, let's just focus on the nitty-gritty of the pot of silver at the end of Bitossi's broken rainbow dreams.
Five years after his victory on Etna, Bitossi headed to the World Championships in Gap with high hopes after just missing out on the podium in 1968 to Michele Dancelli. That year, Vittorio Adorni won in Imola by a stonking 10-minute margin.
Attacking from the leading group of seven riders – including that man Dancelli and the reigning champion Merckx – Bitossi entered the final kilometres with the race seemingly in the bag. He had all but won; the chasers seemed to have given up. John Foot takes up the story:
"Bitossi got out of the saddle to sprint, then something incredible happened. He suddenly appeared to be cycling underwater; his speed dropped, he veered wildly to his left, and looked back more than once. Those behind were gaining on him. Just before the finish line, one of them passed him. An incredulous Marino Basso raised his hands in the air as he realised he had won, his eyes wide open in total surprise. It was one of the most spectacular turnarounds in the history of sport."
The distraught Bitossi later blamed his collapse on a variety of things – including an untimely gear change, the wind, and the shady tactics of his teammate Basso, who he felt did not do enough to protect him in the finale.
Basso, the Mario Cipollini of his time, was renowned for his electric jump that earned him numerous wins and the catchy nickname ‘Mr 10,000 Volts’. Rather than let his fading compatriot take the win – or, worse, lose out to a non-Italian – Basso kicked clear of Merckx, the Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk and France's Cyrille Guimard on the final uphill rise to the line, passing Bitossi with just six or seven metres to go.
Bitossi said the win would have been his masterpiece, up there with the Gioconda – what the Italians call Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Instead, he had to call it his "Unfinished Gioconda".
Basso always claimed that he beat Bitossi fair and square, that he had ridden a cunning race of attrition against Merckx before doing what he had to do to beat the Belgian – even if it meant denying his countryman at the death.
Merckx, who narrowly missed out on the podium, was not so generous in his assessment. "Basso was a wheel-sucker for almost the entire race – first in the peloton and then in the leading group," he said. "I don't want to be enemies and say that he is not worthy of the title. I only say that I envy him because he is a lucky man."
The new Rainbow Jersey retorted via the age-old tried and tested route of claiming Merckx was simply bitter because he had been courting Merckx’s younger sister Micheline.
Basso hugged Bitossi warmly at the finish, grabbing his forlorn countryman by the arm on the podium. "He was in full crisis and didn't say a word to me," he later admitted. "He hasn't talked to me for a long time, perhaps because that funny guy, Merckx, told him that in closing the gap, I had pulled like crazy too."
For his part, Bitossi claimed he never bore a grudge against Basso and that the two men remained friends throughout their careers, which dovetailed for a final year together, in 1978, on the Gis Gelati team. But Bitossi admitted he had what he described as a "nervous breakdown" after the finish, that the loss was "the greatest disappointment of my life".
"I suffered for a week afterwards," he said in an interview in 2018. "If you say ‘Gap’, everyone adds: 'Bitossi, Bitossi, Bitossi… Basso!' I am the most remembered joke of cycling. Can I still watch that sprint today? No – my heart probably wouldn't take it."
Whether Bitossi's notorious crazy heart played any part in that loss is debatable. Bruno Raschi would write that he had "been afraid to win" in Gap – but this was the same journalist who had poo-pooed Merckx's potential back in 1967. The Tuscan himself admitted it had been his psychological frailty, rather than anything physical, that had paralysed him with the finish line so close in what became known as the "infinite sprint".
In any case, it's hard to label a rider of Bitossi's calibre as a choker or a loser, despite the events that afternoon. It was also a fallacy that Bitossi couldn't win big races. He notched three Italian championships, two Giro di Lombardia crowns, four Tour de France stages and 21 Giro scalps. He also completed a run of 16 successive Giri, of which he finished 12, coming in the top 10 on five occasions.
There is, however, no doubt that Franco Bitossi will always be remembered, not for his victory on Mount Etna, but for his heart problems and this one, spectacular, defeat. The Tuscan kept on riding until he was 38 and then retired to Empoli, near Pisa, where he cultivated a flourishing olive grove and became an accomplished player of bocce, or lawn bowls.
Etna: five more ascents
Twenty-two years after Bitossi took the Giro's inaugural win on the Sicilian volcano, Portugal's Acacio da Silva won atop Etna in Stage 2 of the 1989 race. But just as in 1967, the big race favourites kept their powder dry, with eventual winner Laurent Fignon content to take sixth place in the same time as da Silva.
In 2011, Alberto Contador won on Etna to propel himself into the Maglia Rosa, which he would hold for the next 12 stages all the way to the finish. The Spaniard's belated sanction for his clenbuterol violation from the previous year's Tour de France, however, saw his name struck from the record books and the Stage 9 win gifted instead to the Colombian José Rujano.
Slovenia's Jan Polanc soloed to glory in Stage 4 of the 2017 Giro when the race used the more severe western approach to the Rifugio Sapienza, from Pedara. A year later, on the traditional southern approach, fans witnessed a memorable Mitchelton-Scott one-two as Colombian Esteban Chaves took the stage spoils ahead of teammate Simon Yates.
In coming second, the Briton took the Maglia Rosa that he would keep until his unforgettable collapse on Stage 19. That was the day compatriot Chris Froome wrote himself into the record books with his famous long-distance attack on the Colle delle Finestre – a move masterminded by his late directeur sportif, Nico Portal.
Fifty-three years after Bitossi's opportunistic win on Etna, the 103rd edition of the Giro was due to return to the volcano for a sixth, and unprecedented, ascent in the race's history – this time via the northern side of the crater via Linguaglossa. The 18.2km climb comes in at an average gradient of 6.8% but hits double figures consistently in the final three kilometres among the black ashen slopes of the active volcano.
Thanks to coronavirus, fans will have to wait a little longer to discover the next winner on Etna, where a little piece of Franco Bitossi’s Crazy Heart will always belong.
-- Written by Felix Lowe. You also can subscribe to the Re-Cycle Podcast by Eurosport for audio episodes of the most compelling stories from cycling history.