The pink jersey turns black

At 5 am, the furniture maker Romano Dal Lago drove his van from Montecchio Precalcino. Together with tables, chairs, other furnishings, and the inevitable case of red wine, the cargo contained the bikes. Just before 8 am, having passed Arabba, the van was climbing the bends of the Pordoi pass, looking for a parking area. There were hundreds of fans along the road and it was not easy to find a good place. With a practiced eye Romano spotted a small space at the side of the road. He indicated and pulled over. In a few minutes all the material was on the grass. A long table was set up in no time while the glasses were being filled and emptied at the speed of light. The sun played hide and seek with the Dolomites, piercing through the rare cirrus clouds crossing the blue sky. Bread and salami disappeared into hungry mouths. The racers would not pass in front of the station for another six hours. To kill time Romano invited his friends who had followed in the car to go on a bike ride. He wore the green uniform of “Unione Sportiva Fausto Coppi”, the cycling association of the town dedicated to the champion, and the small group started off. Romano led to set the pace. The others followed wide-eyed behind him. At the end of the line was a friendly chap with red hair, silver flecks and a ruddy face. “Let’s go to Campolongo – shouted Dal Lago – whoever’s last buys a round”. Along the ascent they had to deal with teasing from people, now a real crowd, and the generous slope which made lungs and legs work hard. In less than an hour the light hearted brigade was on its way back, tired and tested. The person remaining on guard spotted the green jerseys at the end of Arabba and raised the alarm: “They are coming back, look”.

Carolo in Grado by a cycle-tourist gathering in 1979..

They were brave enough to attempt a sprint, risking heart and cranks. When it seemed that the cyclist with the ruddy face was about to do it, he gave up and let his friends overtake him. He came in last. “On these slopes I couldn’t have done otherwise. 35 years ago I did exactly the same thing – he explained – no one must ever touch my record”. The disbelieving spectators, who in the meantime had gathered around the table, confiding in the generosity of the “guard”, were offered assistance by Romano Dal Lago, who explained the mystery. “This gentleman – he said pointing at the man with the ruddy face– is Sante Carolo, the Wilier Triestina racer who in 1949 won the black jersey, beating Luigi Malabrocca”. Sante laughed heartily. “Mamma mia it took so much to arrive last – he said – Malabrocca, who we called him the “Chinaman” due to his oriental facial features, made me suffer like mad while pursuing his aim of classifying behind me, coming up with new tricks every day. He even hid in a water tank, fortunately empty but with a cover to not let anyone see he had stopped. I travelled with two watches, careful not to exceed the time limit”. Fuelled by wine and memories, Sante Carolo did not need to be begged to continue with his tales. “I was invited to the Giro at the last moment, because a team mate had fallen ill on the eve of the start for Palermo. I was not well prepared since I did not expect to be chosen for the Giro. I started white knuckled, convinced that if I could get through the first stage, I could reach the final finish line finding the strength I lacked along the road”. With a few kilometres still in my legs, Carolo suffered the pains of the hellish South. Each day he reached the finish line behind by several minutes, sometimes even half an hour. Thus he ended last in the classification. When trained to perfection he was a good racer, useful in the team and his captain Fiorenzo Magni; but with an approximate preparation it was unthinkable to expect a champion performance. Finishing at the end of the group, Carolo started to like his unusual record, driven by the prizes reserved for the black jersey. To be competed for with the top three of the class or down from there. Every evening, in the cities which hosted the stage arrivals, “Giringiro” was broadcast: a radio programme hosted by Isa Bellini and Silvio Gigli that was to prove very popular. Between an interview with Coppi and one with Bartali, some space was also reserved for the efforts of the supporting racers, inviting listeners to raffle prizes for the last cyclists in the group. “They reached the point of dedicating me a song which went like this: ‘Sul Col di Nava, sotto le stelle, passa Carolo mangiando frittelle’ (on the Nava hill, under the stars, Carolo rides past while eating pancake) An easy and catchy tune that people would sing while I cycled past …”.

In the collective imagination the follower, after helping the captain to the limit of his strength, pulled the oars of the boat and tried to reach the finish line without exceeding the time limit, avoiding dark starry nights… Carolo seized up.
His eyes were small and bright. It was just a moment. He started again. “Today Francesco Moser will try his hardest to keep the pink jersey. Fignon does not give up easily”. He changed the subject to the dolomite stage of that day to not be overwhelmed. But then he conceded. “Those were the days guys. It was so tiring.
The roads were dirty and the stages were very long. If you were not careful, you risked arriving in the dark. I learnt to defend myself from Malabrocca’s attacks. At the end the black jersey was mine…” I did not even manage to end the sentence because people’s screams took us back to the present. “Here they come, in single file…”. The stories and memories had killed the wait. The Giro d’Italia of 1984 had reached the final battle, the one of the four passes: Pordoi, Sella, Gardena and Campolongo starting from Selva di Valgardena, where the Spanish Marino Lejarreta had come first the day before, and finish line in Arabba. As Sante Carolo had anticipated, that day Laurent Fignon excelled by winning the stage at the end of an extraordinarily powerful ride, ripping the pink jersey from the shoulders of Moser.
Behind the Frenchman with the air of the model student, due to his round glasses which he never took off, Van der Velde came in at 20” and Moreno Argentin and Pedersen at 1’52”. Luciano Loro from Tezze sul Brenta, squire of Giovanni Battaglin, came in fifth at 1’ 54”. Two days from the Verona finish line, the hopes of the man from Trento, ninth in Arabba at 2’ 19”, seemed shattered. Sante intervened again while his friends loaded the bikes, tables, seats and empty case of wine on the Fiat “248” again. “1949 was my first and only Giro d’Italia. When I went home I abandoned my bike and left for Switzerland with my father to work as a bricklayer…”. A very short career that however will always be remembered by enthusiasts because of the black jersey that made him famous. The van had turned for the Agordina valley. Romano rode carefully. Sante, awaking from a slumber, commented: “Moser is not finished. In Trevigiano, in tomorrow’s stage, he will recover and on Sunday, in the Verona time trial, he will have his last chance”. Prophetic: in the Arabba-Treviso, which allowed the cyclists to get a taste of the circuit of Montello that was to host the world championship the following year, the man from Trento conquered third place with a print, competing for success against two racers of the calibre of Bontempi and Rosola. On Sunday 10 June 1984 Moser shot ahead in the time challenge from Soave to the Verona Arena, recovering the disadvantage over Fignon and winning the Giro d’Italia with an advantage of 1’03” over the good-natured Frenchman.

1949: Carolo together with some Wilier team mates in front of Velodromo Mercante in Bassano del Grappa.

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24th June 2013