Remembering Gianni Bugno's 1992 Worlds win

Italian cycling hits the heights before EPO fall-out takes it downhill

The following feature forms part of our 'I love the 1990s series' and sees William Fotheringham relive the 1992 World Championships in Benidorm, Spain.  

A long weekend among the burgers, bacon butties and warm beer of Benidorm, with a splitting headache, sunburn and a near-permanent feeling of being hung over. How British. Except this wasn’t a stag night or a cheapo mini-break, but watching Gianni Bugno make a bit of history by winning his second consecutive road world championships.

The headache wasn’t alchohol induced. If only it had been. In fact it was the result of a long, long drive from Madrid airport in blinding sun on the Friday, down those interminable straight main roads through Central Spain, getting so bored in a rather crap hire car that in one of the garages, in utter desperation, I bought something to listen to by a band called Roxette. That something was a cassette tape. That’s how long ago this was: 1992, when cheap flights from Britain to Europe had yet to be invented because Stelios and that loudmouthed Ryanair chap were still mugging up on business studies. 

I didn’t like Roxette. The race was a different matter. It wasn’t a ding-dong thriller like the first world’s I watched live, the LeMond-Fignon-Kelly epic in Chambery in 1989. Those kind of world road races, where the stars knock seven bells out of each other in the finale with amateur abandon, are rare indeed.

This was more typical, a slow burn business, kind of like Gianni himself.

Italian national coach Alfredo Martini talks to Claudio Chiappucci and Gianni Bugno
Italian national coach Alfredo Martini talks to Claudio Chiappucci and Gianni Bugno

Bugno was, I remember once writing, an Italian born in Switzerland, with everything that the idea implies. He had Latin good looks and could turn on the style on his bike when needed, but 95 per cent of the time he was a charisma-bypass personified. Robert Millar felt he had Bond-esque cool, but Bugno was George Lazenby rather than Sean Connery or Daniel Craig. His problem was not that he couldn’t win races, more that he seemed unable to deliver when it was expected and demanded of him.

After his utterly dominant 1990, when he won Milan-San Remo, led the Giro d'Italia from start to finish and won at L’Alpe d’Huez, Gianni had had a relatively poor year in 1992, going into the World Championships without a major win, and with the Italian press on his case, questioning whether he was over the hill at 29.

He had been expected to challenge Miguel Indurain in the Tour de France, with the support of Fignon. He didn’t. The pair didn’t gel and Bugno didn’t have the legs or the guts to attack Indurain. “The role of team leader was too big for him,” Fignon wrote in his autobiography, condemning Bugno’s racing style as “sporting suicide.”

The Italian media was also unimpressed, given that their world champion had missed the Giro d'Italia to have a clear run at the Tour de France, flying in the face of impassioned editorials in the sponsoring paper Gazzetta dello Sport backed up by readers’ polls.

There was a British team riding the World’s as well, probably led by Robert Millar and including such luminaries as Tim Harris, Harry Lodge and Dave Rayner, then a young hopeful riding for the Dutch Buckler team. They made no impact, but that was par for the course; their then team manager John Herety’s main memory of the weekend is that the pro team was run independently of the then British Cycling Federation, and stayed in its own hotel. That hotel had looked nice and peaceful when booked a few months earlier but in the interim a disco had opened in the basement which was par for the course in those parts. The Brits didn't get much sleep.

The finish in Benidorm was on a rising finish, a straight run up from the sea front past all those cafes with Bulldog posters advertising full English breakfasts for the hungover and the sunburnt. The consensus was that there was one favourite: Laurent Jalabert, fresh from winning the green jersey at the Tour de France after his transfer over the winter. Indurain was tilting for the treble after winning the Giro and Tour but wasn't fast enough; Claudio Chiappucci was over-raced and off-form. Bugno, as he liked to do, was flying under the radar.

Bugno sits behind Bjarne Riis during the race in Benidorm
Bugno sits behind Bjarne Riis during the race in Benidorm

Something else was flying deep under the radar as well. This was still the pre-lapsarian era of cycling, before the 1998 Tour de France made it crystal clear that large numbers of the best riders were transforming their racing by using EPO. It was still a couple of years before rumours of EPO use began to surface and nearly four years before any professional told me he was using it and that his fellows were. As a result, much of the professional cycling caravan – including a fair few of the riders - existed in a kind of blissful ignorance which it is impossible to imagine now. There was a certain amount of head-scratching over certain results but there always had been. That was about as far as it went then, and that is how my memories of the 1992 World’s are coloured, for good or ill.

The roads through the hills behind the Benidorm tower blocks were newly surfaced; the sun shone brightly. As the world’s so often does, the race cranked up slowly. The group that would decide the race read like a who’s-who of those who had dominated the season, which was always the great virtue of the traditional World’s date in late August (there would be two more such events before the calendar was reshuffled in 1995).

There were 16 riders in the group that would fight for victory, including Bugno, Indurain, Rominger, Steven Rooks and along with Jalabert, a large contingent from France: Jean-François Bernard, Thierry Claveyrolat, Luc Leblanc, and Gérard Rué.

Bugno had only the balding, distinctly gnomic Giancarlo Perini to help him, so the French made the final running, with Jalabert in mind, sweeping up a late break including Udo Bölts, Federico Echave and Johan Bruyneel (again, little did we know where he would end up), marked by Leblanc.

Tactically, it was one of the best performances by a French team in the World’s, at least until the final sprint. On that rising finish, Jalabert and Bugno were by far the strongest, putting about eight lengths into the hugely talented and desperately inconsistent Russian Dimitri Konychev. It was Jalabert - left on his own by his teammates at the crucial moment - who committed the elementary error of moving into the wind too soon; Bugno - put into position by Perini - moved to his left as the sprint began, leaving the Frenchman with too much to do. The Italian television commentators couldn't quite believe it, and nor could most of those present, probably including Gianni.

There was much to reflect on here. Italian cycling was enjoying its Indian summer, with a rash of campioni like Bugno, Chiappucci, Moreno Argentin, Franco Chioccioli and Maurizio Fondriest, plus a young sprinter called Mario Cipollini.

The names of team sponsors on the azzurri jerseys were some of the biggest and strongest teams in the world: MG Maglificio, Carrera, Ariostea, Gatorade. The links back to the glory days of Coppi and Gimondi still ran true, epitomised by the aging figures of national coach Alfredo Martini in the ammiraglia at the World’s, and Giancarlo Ferretti at the head of Ariostea. A quarter of a century on, Italian cycling at the highest level is a desert, short of champions and bereft of a single WorldTour team.

The 1992 world championship podium (l-r): Laurent Jalabert, Gianni Bugno and Dimitri Konychev
The 1992 world championship podium (l-r): Laurent Jalabert, Gianni Bugno and Dimitri Konychev 

It would be nice to say that after the finish Bugno pulled a Peter Sagan shape or two to celebrate. That wasn’t his way.

He just looked as if the world had fallen on his head, shy and traumatised as ever. Even so, he went on after that World’s to enjoy a superb run of form, winning the Giro del Lazio and Giro dell’Emilia alone, and then clinically out-sprinting Tony Rominger to win Milan-Turin.

That should have set up a home win in the Tour of Lombardy, but it was not to be. Bugno was never at ease with the pressure on his shoulders, and the weather was unkind that day: the rain hammered down in the mountains north of Milan and amusingly in the “race of the fallen leaves”, Bugno blamed the fallen leaves for making the road slippery and fraying his nerves. The great choker of the early 1990s was again struggling to clear his throat and he would struggle until the end of his career.

As for me, my weekend on the Costa Brava ended with a drive all the back to Madrid on those interminable roads, this time through the night, followed by a few hours fruitlessly trying to sleep in an airport hotel, and an early morning flight back to London to get into the Cycling Weekly office in time for a selection of Graham Watson’s slides to be developed for the front cover of the magazine. I was somewhat the worse for wear, but Benidorm had that kind of reputation. And I never did get to like Roxette.

 

 

William Fotheringham is cycling correspondent at the Guardian, author of biographies of Tom Simpson, Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx. His latest book is The Badger, Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling. He can be found on Twitter @willfoth

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