Photo (Left to Right): Roberto Poggiali, Lucien Van Impe, Marco Groppo and Mauro Battaglini.
Join respected author & journalist Herbie Sykes who tells the interesting story of the Metauro Mobili Pinarello cycling team that featured riders like the Belgian climbing sensation Lucien Van Impe and Italian Champion Vittorio Algeri.
And so that was more or less that; fifteen Giri d’Italia in the service of the giants Gimondi and Bitossi. Half a dozen maglie azzurra and a handful of Tours de France, the occasional and more or less accidental win of his own. As near as made no difference a dozen spins around the globe, never a crossed word and (because it’s a job of work) a solid roof over his Tuscan head. His last furrow ploughed and his last break nullified, Italy’s savviest, best and most iconic gregario climbed off his bike one final time. It was the Autumn of 1978, and Roberto Poggiali – the Roberto Poggiali - retired to his bike shop in the Florentine suburbs.
Of course he did - he was Roberto Poggiali - what else was he going to do?
At Pesaro, 250 kilometres to the east, the furniture magnate Sauro Gennari was living the cycling dream. He’d constructed a team for his son Andrea, and he and his pals couldn’t get enough of the racing. For years the Venetians, Lombards and Tuscans had had it their own way, but now little Marche had a group of kids it could be proud of. The Marchegiani loved sticking it to the old guard, and Andrea was a red-hot sprinter. By 1981 he was a teenage sensation, and his father had a very bright idea. Why not add Marche’s first professional team to the junior outfit, and keep it in the family? Better to spend the profits on a cycling team than on corporation tax, and better to be at the heart of the Giro than on the outside looking in. Better than Andrea, if he decided to turn pro’, did so for the family business, and better than the business became famous as a consequence. Gennari called Mauro Battaglini, a cycling fixer sort, and he called Roberto Poggiali. He called everyone who was anyone on planet cycling, and that’s how the Metauro Mobili-Cicli Pinarello professional cycling team was born.
All of which was fine and well, but it was October. The best riders were already taken, and those who remained were the weak, the lame and the irresolute. Battaglini handed Poggiali a list of 30 or so deadbeats, and Poggiali added the amateurs who hadn’t had sufficient money and/or talent to make the cut.
The previous season, there’d been an outbreak of hepatitis at Hoonved, the team run by the old fox Dino Zandegù. In the best cycling tradition, the reasons were somewhat opaque, but the net result was that 28-year-old Vittorio Algeri, good enough to have won the Tour of Belgium and a stage at the Giro, found himself on the scrap heap. So too did Marco Groppo, a beautiful, fragile 21-year-old climber from Varese. Poggiali took a punt on both and added the likeable Tuscan Riccardo Magrini. Five years a pro’, he hadn’t come remotely close to breaking his duck. However he was a cracking impressionist and a hilarious racconteur, and it was impossible not to like him. In cycling as in life, that counted for a very great deal, and Poggiali of all people understood the fact. The rest were neo-pros and dreamers, but collectively they were a 12-man roster of sorts. It didn’t amount to much, but beggars can’t be choosers and everyone has to start somewhere…
On 16 March, Greg Lemond dominated the third stage of Tirreno. Algeri’s podium gave Sauro Gennari a little something for his money, and that evening his DS got talking to Peter Post at the hotel. They’d known each other the thick end of 20 years and Post, the legendary DS of the TI Raleigh cycling team, complemented Poggiali on his riders’ climbing, professionalism and esprit de corps. Algeri was an impressive seventh on GC, and as a consequence, the Metauro team car was at the front of the race. Day by painstaking day they were starting to resemble a team, but Poggiali was worried about the Giro. Bumping about in the Apennines was one thing, but climbing in the Dolomites and Alps would be quite another altogether. Groppo was gifted, but he’d hardly ridden the previous year and he was barely out of his teens. There was something ethereal about him, something very singular in the tough-as-teak, macho world of professional cycling. He was gifted but unknowable and untried, and both Algeri and Magrini were passisti. The others would have their work cut out just to make it round, and Poggiali feared it might become a Calvary.
Moneybags Post joked that Poggiali ought to sign the world’s greatest climber. Lucien Van Impe had won one yellow jersey and five polka dots, but he was without a team. Boston, the Belgian fridge manufacturer who’d sponsored him the previous year, had imploded, and Van Impe was 35 now. The Belgian cycling industry was in crisis, so whilst someone would doubtless take him for the Tour, it seemed nobody wanted to pay him a salary in the meantime. Clever, intuitive Poggiali made some calls, and then he made some more. When he’d made them all he’d scraped together something approximating an offer, and armed with that, a wing and a payer, he called Lucien Van Impe. On the eve of Milan-Sanremo they met up in a Milanese hotel, and Van Impe told him he couldn’t care less about the money. He said he’d kept himself fit, he still wanted to race, and he’d never experienced the Giro d’Italia before. Within two minutes it was done. Lucien Van Impe - the Lucien Van Impe – signed for Metauro Mobili. Bloody hell.
‘Beppe Saronni was Italy’s most complete cyclist, and her most influential. He knew Gennari and Poggiali well, and that sort of thing always helped with the realpolitik of life in the Italian Gruppo. It helped went the breaks went, and it helped a very great deal when, on 28 March, the simpaticone Magrini jumped out of the pack at the Tour of Calabria. He was one and they were many, but try as they might (or might not) they couldn’t catch him. Algeri finished second in Campania and Puglia, so headed into the Giro hope sprang eternal.
Meanwhile over in Milan, Giro boss Vincenzo Torriani was finalizing a deal with Irene Gestori. She owned the pyjama manufacturer IRGE, and she was nuts about cycling. She’d sponsored the Six Days of Milan, and now she agreed that the podium girls at the Giro would wear bright red pyjama tops. They all beat a path to Milan, though they all knew that Bernard Hinault couldn’t and wouldn’t be beaten.
With Van Impe focussed on the maglia verde, Poggiali sought to convince young Groppo to try for the GC. He was extremely talented, and so Poggiali left Van Impe to his own devices at the time trial in Assisi. He followed Groppo instead, and he limited his losses as best he could. Of course, he still lost a sack load, but by the second week he, Fabrizio Verza and Laurent Fignon were hammer and tongs for the white jersey. When Bianchi attacked Hinault on the Paso Crocedomini, Verza and Fignon cracked horribly, but Groppo floated up it beautifully. Two weeks into the Giro, Metauro Mobili had both the green jersey and the white, and Marco Groppo had an appointment with those IRGE girls…
Photo: The 16th stage of the Giro D'Italia and the meteor Marco Groppo (Metauro Mobili Pinarello) is narrowly beaten by Silvano Contini (Bianchi Piaggio)
The rest is the stuff of Giro d’Italia legend. Marco fell head over heels in love with Mandy, the blonde one, and she with him. Now he’d no need of Poggiali’s exhortations and nor, for that matter, of anyone else’s. He had all the motivation any man could need because the sooner he finished the sooner he got up close and personal with her. He’d never ridden a three-week stage race in his life, but here he was climbing with Hinault, Baronchelli and Van Impe, with Contini, Prim and Ruperez. Notwithstanding the time trials he finished ninth on GC, and when it was over he took home a beautiful white jersey and an even more beautiful pair of red pyjamas. The fans were telling him he was going to win the Giro d’Italia one day, the journalists that he was the future of Italian cycling. He didn’t care about that though, because he and Mandy had far more important things to be getting on with.
While those two packed their pyjamas and took off to an Alpine love shack, Gennari, Poggiali and Battaglini congratulated themselves on their foresight, on the team spirit they’d engendered, and above all on their jersey collection. Tiny budget or otherwise, they had a green jersey and a white one, a fourth and a ninth on Giro GC. They’d also a burgeoning reputation for the unity of purpose, and so now riders started falling over themselves to join. Algeri and Van Impe decided to stay on another year, and climber Alfio Vandi couldn’t wait to come on board.
Groppo, on the other hand, turned up for the first ritiro overweight and undertrained. As Poggiali saw it his love life was his business and his alone.
However, it wasn’t OK that he hadn’t touched his bike, and it certainly wasn’t OK that he was surly and uncooperative. Nor was it acceptable that he tried to compensate for his lack of kilometres by cutting corners – that old cycling euphemism – because with the increased salary came a higher degree of responsibility. Groppo, however, was beset by the kind of existential crisis which fame and money often bequeath top athletes, and try as he might Poggiali couldn’t get through to him. He abandoned the Giro with a knee injury which the team maintained was partly in his head, and he’d abandon the Tour as well. By the season’s end he’d be out of the team amidst an almighty stink, and out of bike racing altogether aged just 23. Someone would refer to him as a “cycling Montgomery Clift”, and they were right.
Meantime the evergreen Van Impe, the professional cycling exemplar, delivered another maglia verde and a mountain stage win. Magrini then galloped to the most popular victory of the entire race down in Lazio, as Metauro once more punched above their weight.
Back then Italian teams seldom rode the Tour. There was no commercial value in it, RAI never televised it, and the champions Saronni and Francesco Moser weren’t cut out for it. The sport in Italy effectively went into hibernation in July, but now Poggiali bucked the trend by accepting an invitation. His team was on a roll, the new Belgian champion Van Impe reckoned he had another polka-dot jersey in him, and it wasn’t as if they’d anything better to be getting on with.
Photo: Lucien Van Impe in the Polka Dot mountains jersey with Sauro Gennari at the Tour de France, 1983.
The previous winter, Poggiali had signed the powerful Dutch rouleur Frits Pirard at Van Impe’s behest. He’s been under contract at Raleigh, but then Post had cancelled it at the eleventh hour and taken Bert Oosterbosch instead. Like Van Impe before him, Pirard had been left out in the cold, and just like Van Impe he had a point to prove. He proved it emphatically by riding away on the opening road stage at Crétail, before the alchemist Magrini struck again on Île d'Oléron.Van Impe took the jersey at Alpe d’Huez, and then smashed the uphill time trial out of Morzine. Metauro crossed the Alps with yet another jersey, and with as many stage (three) wins as they had riders left in the race. Astonishing…
Poggiali engaged the Dutch superstar Johan Van der Velde for the 1984 season, but the dream died in April. Gennari suffered a heart attack and, though Algeri honoured him by winning the maglia tricolore, in a material sense it was over. Poggiali went back to his bike shop, Van Impe called time on a truly great career, and Vini Ricordi took over the sponsorship of the flotsam and jetsam.
Young Andrea Gennari carried on riding a while, but his heart wasn’t really in it. By his twentieth birthday, he’d drifted away from the sport altogether, and over time he gave away most of his trophies. It broke his father’s heart but then, in 2003, an old friend challenged him to ride 30 kilometres. He threw his leg over a top tube once more, and he’s been doing it ever since. He won the Italian Gran Fondo Championship in 2008, and these days he makes his living from the bike. He’s bike manager for the Hotel Dory, along the way in Riccione, and they say it’s Italy’s best cycling holiday. The legend that is Marco Groppo found himself a job at Shimano, and the great Roberto Poggiali is as fit as a butcher’s dog as he approaches his 79th birthday. Coronavirus permitting he’s still out most days because of course there’s very little that riding a bike in the Tuscan hills can’t cure.
What times they were, and what a team – fleeting or otherwise – Metauro Mobili was…
If you have enjoyed reading Herbie's latest blog, we have eight previously published stories for you to enjoy.
This stunning Metauro Mobili Italian national champion wool jersey was hand made in Italy by Santini for Vittorio Algeri. Both Santini and Algeri are from Bergamo so it must have been nice to see a local lad win the national title!
With sublimated polyester still very early days, this wool jersey features a combination of embroidery, sewn-on badges and flock lettering to represent the sponsors. A Santini-branded, color-coordinated zip also keeps the look of the jersey as clean as possible.