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Total domination: Gianni Bugno and the 1990 Giro d'Italia

Chateau d’Ax’s Gianni Bugno leads RMO’s Charly Mottet on the climb of the Passo Pordoi at the 1990 Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

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This article first appeared in Procycling magazine issue 236, published 2017.

Having just told reporters that he had led the 1990 Giro from end-to-end, Bari to Milan, by "doing the exact opposite of what my rivals expected", Gianni Bugno now bamboozled the same stalwarts of the press room with a similarly agnostic approach to his final enthronement. 

Bugno's modesty – almost a prudishness about the manner in which his long-dormant talent had jolted into life – had fascinated the journalists throughout the previous three weeks. Now they could hardly believe their ears or eyes as, after various other ovations and accolades including the points jersey, Bugno was called to the stage for a seventh time and he looked almost in supplication towards his Château d'Ax team boss, Gianluigi Stanga. 

"Again? Come on, that's enough now. Let's go home."

Since Bugno had taken a breakthrough victory at Milan-San Remo in March, the mainstream media had hurried to dissect the psyche and background of a rider whose quirks discreetly bent rather than broke any moulds. He owned a husky called Rebel – but anyone believing Italian cycling had found itself a new iconoclast would have been barking up the wrong tree.

Typically of Italian riders, he came from modest, blue-collar stock. Untypically, Bugno was not the fiery Italian of stereotype – perhaps time north of the Italian border as a boy rubbed off on him. In the early 1960s, his parents had emigrated to Brugg in Switzerland, where Bugno was born, then returned to Italy, and specifically the Milanese suburb of Monza, to open a launderette when he was four. Bugno had spent the majority of his early years with his paternal grandparents in Cavaso del Tomba, at the foot of Monte Grappa. In the classroom, he enjoyed maths and Latin. On the playing field, he had tried everything and excelled at nothing – until he discovered cycling at age 12.

Ahead of this edition, the two-time French Tour de France winner, Laurent Fignon, had arrived in Italy as the favourite, despite the vicissitudes of his previous five seasons. Fignon's best years had been robbed by an Achilles tendon injury, and his eight-second loss to Greg LeMond in the previous summer's Tour de France seemed to have stolen a part of the rider's very soul.

As he was the defending champion, Fignon's pre-race musings nonetheless carried as much gravitas as his racing pedigree. Asked to name his rivals, he maligned that LeMond was only in Italy to train, emphasised the danger posed by countryman Charly Mottet… and completely neglected to mention Bugno.

A year earlier, Fignon had not taken the pink jersey until stage 13. So he wasn't unduly concerned when he lost half a minute to Bugno, the surprise stage winner, over the 13km of the opening day time trial in Bari.

Bugno himself wasn't getting carried away, either. After a good if not exceptional amateur career, he had moseyed through his first few seasons as a pro much in the same way as Italian cycling was drifting through the late 1980s. Francesco Moser's rivalry with Giuseppe Saronni had captivated the tifosi in the first half of the decade but successors were hard to identify. Moser and Saronni also almost completely shunned the Tour, and Italian teams had if anything become even more parochial in the afterglow of that duo's golden age. The 1989 season had been the worst in memory for the Italians. Most alarmingly, three different foreigners had taken the last three Giro wins.

As a new decade dawned, no one would have imagined that the callow, sphinx-like Bugno could be the Bel Paese's saviour. There had been flickers of class since his move to Stanga's Château d’Ax team in 1988 but those in his entourage knew the telltale injuries and issues of an eternal enigma. Using music therapy, and specifically cassettes of Mozart, he had finally cured the labyrinthitis and resulting downhill wobbles that were the legacy of a spill in the 1988 Giro. Still, though, Bugno did not sound like a man oozing self-belief: "I'm treating every day like a one-day race and we'll see how far I get," he said.

One of his key lieutenants, Stefano Zanatta, remembers a slightly different message coming from Stanga: "He said, 'I've never had the maglia rosa in my team before, so we're going to fight tooth and nail every day to keep it.'"

Before the race, Bugno had been sizing up the climb to Vesuvius on day three as an opportunity to recoup any time-trial losses. As it transpired, he would serve up another tour de force. Turning the pedals in a languid, pawing motion, his upper body and eyes seemingly half asleep, Bugno attacked 3km from the top of the volcano and began scorching the earth. The Spanish climber Eduardo Chozas was too far up the road to catch, but soon Mottet and Fignon were sliding out of Bugno's rear-view mirror.

Once more, despite a deficit that had stretched by another half-minute, Fignon seemed unflustered.

"This is Bugno's magic moment. Let him enjoy it," he sniffed.

Gianni Bugno

Gianni Bugno (Chateau d’Ax) enjoys some passionate crowd support en route to victory at the 1990 Giro d’Italia (Image credit: Bettini)

"After Vesuvius, I started to think my team could take care of anything – plus the course suited me so well."

This is about as close as one is likely to get to a comprehensive summary of the 1990 Giro from Bugno today. In truth, he and a Château d'Ax team with the likes of Zanatta, Alberto Volpi and Franco Vona powering its engine room made the job look increasingly straightforward as the race reached up Italy's spine.

A crash on stage five to Teramo left Fignon reeling, and Bugno's second stage win at Vallombrosa, high above Florence, sent the '89 champion spinning to the canvas. He pulled out 58km into stage nine.

According to Marino Lejarreta, Bugno's credo of "every day like a Classic" had already cost him too much energy. Bugno cautioned fans: "I could have a crisis at any moment." Sentiments like these rung rather hollow after another masterclass in the 68km time trial to Cuneo and a flawless second week.

Even as the Italian press were declaring the contest over, the man in the maglia rosa seemed unwilling or unable to compute the feat that he was about to accomplish.

"Some of it was genuine anxiety that he wouldn't last, also because he had a slight problem with his knee in the last week," recalls Zanatta. "Gianni was panicking but we kept telling him that, as long as he didn't say anything, no one would know."

Mottet took advantage of Bugno's hopping chain to outsprint him in the Dolomite tappone finishing atop the Pordoi, but that evening the Frenchman sounded more resigned – or realistic – than anyone.

"I'm leading the general classification of normal riders," he sighed.

Even from the height of his four-minute advantage, Bugno couldn't, or rather wouldn't, relax. At the start in Moena, he fretted not because of his knee or Mottet's threat but an old superstition: the number 17 is considered unlucky by Italians and they were about to roll out on stage 17. The day was also the Giro's premiere of the Mortirolo. Race chiefs Carmine Castellano and Vincenzo Torriani had the good grace to arrange a gentle introduction up the pass's easy side – but this meant a treacherous helter-skelter descent to Mazzo that would become world-infamous.

Giuseppe Tedesco, a long-serving police motor-pilot on the race, noticed Bugno's pained expression and tried to reassure him: "Gianni, don't worry. I've got bib number 17 and this is my 17th Giro, but nothing's going to happen to either of us."

Tedesco was right. While Mario Cipollini dismounted on the finish-line to kiss the tarmac – his thanks for having survived the Mortirolo mineshaft – Bugno's smile betrayed its first soupçons of relief as he shared the podium with the 21-year-old stage winner, Leonardo Sierra of Venezuela.

Bugno made it all the way to the race's final Sunday and was still in pink. It was just a pity for him that the corsa rosa was still three days away from Milan, its grand finale having been moved to a midweek date to avoid a clash with the football World Cup kicking off in the city's San Siro stadium that Friday.

The echoes of Bugno's exploits might have been even louder had World Cup fever not been building to such an all-absorbing din. Bugno also found himself competing for attention with another new darling of the Italian sports media, Roberto Baggio. On the same day that Bugno had claimed his first pink jersey in Bari, 'The Divine Ponytail' completed his move from Fiorentina to Juventus, provoking riots in Florence.

This ugly counterpoint at least served as a reminder of some of cycling's more wholesome charms.

"When the Giro starts in Italy, the home fans dive into it straight away. With Gianni getting the jersey on the very first day, a lot of people were sucked in right from the start. We could then just feel this wave of excitement growing with every stage. It was as though cycling in Italy was being woken from its sleep," Zanatta says.

There was still time for one last sprig of garnish on Bugno's race – an emphatic stage win in the time-trial finishing on the Sacro Monte climb near Varese. Bugno's advantage over Mottet was now more than six minutes. A torrential rainstorm did nothing to dampen what Il Corriere della Sera's Gianfranco Josti called a 'football-stadium atmosphere".

As early as the first week, Stanga had complained that Bugno's every move was provoking a stampede of tifosi in both the start and finish towns. It was possibly for the best, then, that Torriani's original plan to have Diego Maradona presenting Bugno with the last of his 21 pink jerseys, two days before Argentina played their first World Cup match, came to nothing.

The next afternoon, Bugno's father, Giacomo, stood in the crowd weeping – the 21st day in a row that he had cried, he swore.

"Gianni won't change. He's made of solid stuff and has good values," Bugno senior told journalists. There were indeed signs that here was a rider with more to offer than just two sets of rippling calf muscles. Bugno had substance. Moral fibre. He continually referenced his hero, Bernard Hinault, in interviews, but never used the nickname 'The Badger'. To Bugno he was always simply 'Lo Zio' – 'The Uncle'.

Yes, there were several things that made Bugno different. Or perhaps just one. As another former Giro winner and suddenly Monza's second-most-famous pedaller, Fiorenzo Magni, put it: "You can't buy class from your local delicatessen, but Gianni's got some to spare."

Gianni Bugno

Gianni Bugno won the final time trial to cement victory at the 1990 Giro d’Italia (Image credit: Bettini)

Anyone wishing to relive the giddy late spring of 1990 with Bugno nowadays is likely to be disappointed.

"Bah, I don't remember anything," is how he fields our initial enquiries. "I have no memories, no souvenirs, nothing. It's all in the past."

Asking Bugno about the transformation that had occurred before the Giro proves more fruitful. He talks about Mozart and the music therapy, about tests that established a lactose intolerance, tweaks to his riding position and of an effort to spin smaller gears at a higher tempo. Psychologically, Milan-San Remo had also been a breakthrough.

But what we really want are answers to one of the most persistent and baffling riddles of the next half-decade: why did Bugno never win another major tour after 1990? And how could a man who seemed set to build a dynasty in three-week races be on the brink of giving up by July 1993, not just on that year's Tour but cycling?

Bugno rode that Tour in the rainbow jersey, having won his second straight world title the previous autumn. And yet by week two he said: "I don't know where to turn. It's like when ice-cream gives you indigestion: you can't even look at it anymore. Cycling's like that for me at the moment."

Could it be that around 1992 a large proportion of the peloton got involved in the 'preparation' arms race? A severe and terminal downturn in Bugno's results in three-week races occurred around the time when, by most estimates, EPO began its ruinous cascade. In Europe, first-generation Epoetin alfa was approved for clinical use in 1988. No sooner were doctors loading up syringes to legitimately treat anaemia sufferers than rumours were circulating about cross-country skiers at that year's Calgary Winter Olympics. The International Skiing Federation responded by adding EPO to its banned list, two years before the International Olympic Committee and three years before the UCI.

Some of the earliest suspicions were aired by Norwegian researchers and centred on the Italian coach, Francesco Conconi. From his base at the University of Ferrara, Conconi had coached and treated Italian Olympic athletes throughout the 1980s, but soared to prominence when he and a young prodigy, Michele Ferrari, masterminded Francesco Moser's successful Hour Record bid in Mexico City in 1984. As far as some were concerned, he would also then fall into disgrace when it emerged that Moser had 'prepared' for Mexico with blood transfusions. Here, though, legality and morality became confused, for blood transfusions were not outlawed in sport until 1986.

Sandro Donati, the Italian athletics coach and researcher who in 1994 would expose Conconi's doping practices and a plague of EPO abuse in cycling, tells Procycling that, in his view, Conconi probably began administering the drug "in the late spring or summer of 1988, ditching blood tranfusions".

Donati proved that Conconi was helping Bugno in 1993, but not 1990. Conconi's protégé Ferrari had also left Château d’Ax in the middle of the 1989 Tour after a row with Stanga.

"I worked with Conconi in 1993 and it didn't go well, so I stopped. That season, 1993, was the only time that I had a preparatore," insists Bugno.

Donati's findings confirm the link with Conconi in 1993, but he has nothing on Bugno in 1990. He also writes in an email: "People in cycling thought Bugno was the most gifted of that generation. They say he only took small doses of doping products so that he could be complete. Is that an urban myth? I don't know."

There's no evidence to suggest that Bugno doped; he has always denied doing so. Bugno would prefer to focus on different factors. He ascribes the downturn in his fortunes to the advent of a new approach to training and racing.

"There was this big move towards specialisation as the preparatori became all the rage. I might have been a decent rider but I only had one strength – my resistance. I would come to the fore in longer, harder races, and with a lot of racing.

He continues: "That was the only way for me, to race a lot, because I had no specific ability that I could tease out. That had been fine, but it was never going to be enough to beat Indurain or a lot of other riders who were focusing on only one or two goals a year."

In the midst of 1993, Stanga summed up his star's existential crisis thus: "He's like a horse who is dying of hunger because it can't decide whether to eat the straw or the hay."

Zanatta's theory contains heavier hints about the EPO-demic and its effect on Bugno.

"Gianni was a perfectionist. He would be constantly worrying about his legs not being good. Every night he'd have his head buried in a Michelin road atlas, studying the course. If you take a guy with that mindset, who's been successful, and who's suddenly being beaten by tall, heavy guys who were nowhere not long ago, that affects your morale. Which then affects your performance."

Bugno would continue to bejewel a fine palmarès with rare pearls. He collected a second monument at the 1994 Tour of Flanders, and stage wins in the Tour and Vuelta before retiring in 1998. He is aware that he remains only the fourth man ever to lead a Giro from start to finish, with Costante Girardengo, Alfredo Binda and Eddy Merckx. How he did it remains a mystery to even Bugno – or perhaps it's just something upon which he has chosen not to dwell.

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