He's seen champions come and go, competed against legends then been confronted with their passing and all the while Gilberto Simoni has remained a much-loved but polarising figure within Italian cycling.
In a profesional career that began with Jolly Componibili-Cage in 1994, 'Gibo' has ridden against controversial figures such as Marco Pantani, Sergei Honchar and Dario Frigo and made the headlines himself for the right and wrong reasons.
Having been on the radar of most Italian cycling fans since finishing third in both the 1999 and 2000 editions of the Giro d'Italia, Simoni confirmed his status as a Grand Tour star when he won the race in 2001 ahead of Abraham Olano and Unai Osa, taking the lead on top of Passo Pordoi and holding it until the finish in Milan.
He looked set to double his tally of Giro victories in 2002 when he went into that year's edition as a favourite, having switched to Claudio Corti's Saeco outfit (below). A non-negative test for cocaine from a sample taken at the Giro del Trentino forced Saeco's hand, the team withdrawing him from the race and he was forced to watch from the sidelines as countryman Paolo Savoldelli took the first of his two Giro titles.
Simoni had been third overall and taken the 11th stage atop Campitello Matese when his team withdrew him; manager Claudio Corti chose not to wait for the result of the rider's B sample before taking that course of action. It also came just days after Mapei rider Stefano Garzelli had been booted from the race for the banned diuretic Probenecid.
The 'King of Zoncolan', Simoni has won atop the feared peak twice - in 2003 and '07 - his '03 triumph there providing some of the most enduring images of his time as a professional (below). He returned to the Giro that year having been disgraced during the race the previous season and took the race by storm with a brilliant performance on the stage from Montecatini to Faenza that saw him ascend to the overall lead.
He didn't relinquish the race lead after Faenza, sealing his second Giro victory by a resounding seven-minute margin by Milan.
The following year Simoni was at the centre of an infamous polemic within the Saeco team when the then-22-year-old Damiano Cunego won his first (and thus far only) Giro d'Italia title; the defending champion finished third but it was his willingness to undermine Cunego's effort that is still spoken of amongst cycling fans in relation to that year's edition of the race (below).
The pair found themselves riding together again in the 2005 Giro - albeit for Lampre-Caffita - with both missing out to Discovery Channel's Paolo Savoldelli, the Italian taking his second crown by a 28-second margin over Simoni, who charged hard in high mountains of the final week. The penultimate stage to Sestriere will be remembered for the intense general classification battle waged between the two front runners on the slopes of the Colle delle Finestre (below).
A switch to Saunier Duval in 2006 saw Simoni change focus at that year's Giro d'Italia; in the face of an onslaught from CSC's Ivan Basso, which Simoni labelled 'Extraterrestrial', the Trento native tried for stage wins rather than the overall title, managing third in the process. His battle with eventual champion Basso on the slopes of the Mortirolo endeared him to the tifosi, something he built upon in 2007.
With the '07 Giro again heading up the Zoncolan, the king of those slopes entered the building on May 30, turning back the clock and winning atop the feared climb with teammate and fellow veteran Leonardo Piepoli in tow (below). Watching the footage from that day reminds you of Simoni's undisputable rhythm on the tough climbs and his superior power-to-weight ratio.
The past two years have been lean seasons for Simoni, with a 10th overall at the 2008 Giro d'Italia the highlight as the Italian veteran has switched teams a number of times and toyed with retirement. Now riding what he has declared is his last Giro, Cyclingnews presents some of the best images from a career with plenty of highlights and a few lowlights, too.
Grazie mille, Gibo!
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