There were ten years, one world war and one banished monarchy between Gino Bartali’s first Tour de France and his second. He was the closest thing Italians had to royalty and, in the rose-tinted way of these things, his exploits began to assume comic book properties. He’d variously stood four-square against fascism, restored Italian dignity and, more fancifully still, single-handedly averted a civil war by winning a bicycle race. It’s fair to say that Italians – even those who didn’t follow bike racing – liked him a very great deal…
The sobriquets came thick and fast. He was simultaneously l’Uomo di Ferro (“The Iron Man”), Il Pio (“The Pious One”, in deference to his faith) and l’Uomo dei Miracoli (“The Miracle Man”). When, in 1952, he won the national championship aged 38, they even invented an adjective in his honour. By then, Fausto Coppi was irrefutably Il Campionissimo but Gino, five years his senior, was intramontabile. It means, as near as makes no difference, “immune to sunset”, and it just about said it all.
Even the great Bartali had to hang his bike up sooner or later, and in 1956 he took a call from an old friend. Ezio Granelli was the founder of the San Pellegrino mineral water company, and he’d been a fan for 20 years. He’d bankrolled a stage finish at the previous year’s Giro, and now he looked to cycling to solve a problem. The upstart Scattolin brothers, from Venice, had started to bottle water from the family spring. The water was by all accounts very clean, certainly, it was very cheap, and they were promoting it extremely vigorously. Shamelessly they’d seen fit to brand it San Benedetto, and so suddenly Granelli had an existential threat and a major headache. He needed to increase visibility quickly and dramatically and to convince Italians that his water was the original, the healthiest and the best.
Of course, sport and health were synonymous, and the sports that mattered were cycling and football. However football had limited scope for sponsorship, and cycling was a much better fit anyway.
It took place in the mountains, and San Pellegrino Terme was a mountain comune in the cycling heartlands north of Bergamo. The racing happened during the dry season when people drank more, and so he asked Bartali if he was interested in building a team for him.
What with being Gino Bartali and all, Italy’s favourite son had a lot of old friends. Thus, having heard Granelli out, he called another one. Vincenzo Torriani was the boss not only of the Giro d’Italia but of all the other races in the Gazzetta dello Sport’s stable. He was effectively the boss of Italian cycling and he, like Bartali, was a devout Catholic.
Torriani was also a brilliant salesman when the mood took him, and Granelli didn’t need a great deal of convincing. Cycling offered limitless brand awareness possibilities, and so in principle, a professional team made perfect sense. As ever with cycling though, there was a caveat. “Doping” had entered the vernacular, and use of la bomba – an amphetamine-based, performance-enhancing cocktail - was rapidly becoming synonymous with the sport. Granelli and Torriani agreed that San Pellegrino’s presence would be a breath of fresh air, but the company couldn’t be seen to endorse a doping culture tacitly or otherwise. That would be entirely counterproductive, and so how best to accentuate the positive?
The solution was a unique, multi-faceted sponsorship agreement, the most inventive ever conceived. First, San Pellegrino would sponsor 100 amateur bike races per season, across all of the Italian regions. These, the “100 Corse di San Pellegrino”, would constitute an elimination process for Italy’s first amateur stage race.
San Pellegrino cycling team photograph is provided by Herbie Sykes.
The Corsa San Pellegrino would take place in late September and would feature 100 of the best amateurs in Italy. Each would represent his regional federation, enabling kids from the poorer southern regions like Abruzzo, Lazio and Campania to break bread with the hotshots of Lombardy, Tuscany and Veneto. They’d be billeted together in groups of ten; riding, eating and living cheek by jowl and sharing their backgrounds, experiences and customs. In this way, metaphorically at least, San Pellegrino would unite the youth of the Italian peninsula.
Organized by La Gazzetta, the race would showcase the puri, the “pure ones” unsullied by professional racing’s more Machiavellian practices. It would be run off over seven stages and 1000 kilometres, and the queen stage would feature a mountain finish at San Pellegrino Terme. Bartali - catholic, yeoman, a paragon of old-world virtue - would be its patron and its factotum, and by implication it would espouse clean living, healthy competition and the great outdoors. Best of all it was implicit that those who performed best would be offered a contract with the all-new San Pellegrino pro’ team. There they’d ride Bartali-branded bikes, and the great man himself would be their DS.
Bartali’s patronage guaranteed column inches, and the Corsa San Pellegrino was an instant success. An amateur stage race was an expensive exercise, but the business model served to offset much of the cost. The neo-pros it bestowed would, for the most part, be minimum wage earners. They’d get 50,000 lire a month - factory worker wages - but that was entirely the point. Through San Pellegrino, they could reach for the stars, and if they proved their worth they’d progress to bigger, wealthier teams. In this way San Pellegrino would be seen to avoid paying immoral salaries to pampered superstars, but rather to invest in the renewal of Italian cycling in the post-Coppi/Bartali era. Moreover, it would place a well-aimed stick in San Benedetto’s spokes.
The Corsa San Pellegrino leader’s jersey would be luminous orange in colour, and so too that of the professional team. Granelli had invented Aranciata (orangeade) in 1932, Italian kids couldn’t get enough of it, and of course, the San Pellegrino jersey was instantly recognisable amidst the stolid old reds, whites and blues of the peloton. Alfredo Sabbadin famously wore it to win a stage at the team’s debut Giro, and Dino Bruni and ‘Mino Bariviera won first two editions of the Corsa San Pellegrino. By the time Ezio Granelli passed away in December 1957, both his professional team and his stage race were established.
Graziano Battistini and Carlo Brugnami would win the next two Corse San Pellegrino, Franco Balmamion the fifth and last. Five editions, all won by a rider whose surname began with “B”. Collectively the winners would ride 42 Giri d’Italia and accumulate ten stage wins, and Balmamion would win it outright in 1962 and ‘63. He and Battistini eschewed apprenticeships with Bartali in favour of more lucrative contracts elsewhere, but that was the point as well. Everyone knew those two were champions in the making, but through San Pellegrino opportunity knocked for young men who wouldn’t otherwise have made it as professionals.
Their jersey would become a fixture in the Italian peloton, and over the years dozens of Bartali’s alumni would build distinguished careers.
San Pellegrino cycling team photograph is provided by Herbie Sykes.
Paradoxically and tragically, the team is famous for one cyclist who barely rode for them, and another who never did. In 1959, 20-year-old Romeo Venturelli was the great white hope of Italian cycling. He seemed destined for the very top, so San Pellegrino tore up their business model to accommodate him. They ceased to support amateur racing and instead paid Venturelli a king’s ransom to sign. They engaged venerable old Coppi to mentor him during his last season as a pro’, and as publicity coups go that a masterstroke. Tragically, however, they never raced together. Following the team photo shoot in early December, Coppi headed off to Burkina Faso for an exhibition race. While he was there the campionissimo contracted malaria, and he passed away on 2 January 1960. Fausto Coppi died and so, in truth, did a little bit of Italian cycling…
With Italy in lutto, ‘Meo Venturelli promised to honour Coppi’s memory. The man who would be king started well enough, thumping both Roger Rivière and Jacques Anquetil to win the Paris-Nice time trial. When he walloped Anquetil again at the Giro, San Pellegrino had their first maglia rosa. Venturelli, however, never had the fortitude to be a professional bike rider. He climbed off in a strop two days later, then jumped ship and signed a massive contract with the Molteni team. Then, without Coppi and Bartali to watch over him, his career disappeared down the drain...
Bartali’s team would roll on until 1963, but the company walked away following a very Italian, very public spat with the cycling federation. By then, however, the project had pretty much run its course anyway. Business was good, new opportunities were presenting themselves elsewhere, and the San Pellegrino jersey was well on the way to achieving the mythical status it enjoys today.
Intramontabile is about right…
Originally published in issue 257 of Procycling Magazine, William Fotheringham looks back at the 1989 Tour de France which was decided by seconds on the Champs-Élysées between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon.
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