The ups and downs of young Angelo


At the last moment the second driver, who drove the van with spare parts and suitcases, got ill. It was a few days to the start of the Giro and finding someone able to replace him was not straightforward. Bepi spoke with Mr. Dal Molin: “I know a good 21 year old young man. He works nearby, in Gomiero’s workshop, in front of the Ossuary. He already has his license and drives like me. As a part-time job, he drives a wood lorry from Mount Grappa to the lowlands. If you agree, I’ll tell him to pop by tomorrow morning, so you can talk to him…When I asked him if he’d like to do the Giro, he jumped for joy. Gomiero had no problem about it. I vouch for his commitment and skill: he is my nephew”. The next morning, at 8 am exactly, Angelo Merlo entered the factory in via Colomba for the first time. Well mannered and well spoken, he left an excellent impression. Bepi took him to the warehouse and let him see the amaranth red van with Wilier Triestina written in large white words on the sides. Angelo got in from the driver’s side. He adjusted the seat and mirrors, pushed down on the clutch and brake to test the resistance, gripped the gear stick and tried putting it in first. The commands responded willingly and the young man could already see himself on the roads of the pink race among the celebrating crowds, behind the champions flying towards the finish line…
The reality was a little different, but Angelo lived the adventure as a fairytale even if he saw the racers only in the morning and evening, never racing and rarely at the finish line, since he always had to precede them at the arrival. Also his alarm clock rang early. A quick wash and shave and straight down to the kitchen to help the masseur Clerici make sandwiches, wash apples, wrap slices of cake, fill flasks and prepare the supply bags for halfway through the race. Then, while the racers headed off to the start line to sign race papers, he went around all the rooms just vacated by the athletes, where there was the penetrating odour of camphor oil used to warm up their calves.
He carefully checked that there were no garments, underwear or shoes across the room: he recovered everything every morning without fail. When he had finished checking, he took the suitcases and loaded in the van, among the frames and spare wheels. By the time he had turned the van’s ignition key and pulled the start lever, making the engine rumble, the racers had been racing for at least an hour. Then he drove along alternative roads at a constant speed. With a map in hand and Clerici’s help, he looked for the town set to provide the bags of sandwiches to the team car. Sometimes he managed to get ahead of the race. Other times, he arrived with his heart in his mouth for the fear of not making it. Once he had given the red bags to Bepi and Giovanni Simeoni, he was back in the car accelerating towards the finish line. Angelo Merlo and Clerici had to precede the team by the time necessary to find the hotel for the night, check in, place signs with the names of the racers on the doors, arrange the suitcases and go to the kitchen to order dinner from the cooks. If everything went smoothly and the hotel was close to the finish line, he could follow the arrival of the racers, otherwise he would experience the highlights of the race through Cottur’s tales, who at dinner enjoyed entertaining the young lad by making up some hyperbolic feats of the cyclists with the jersey with the halberd. Having agreed on the menu and arranged the rooms, Angelo had to lend a hand to the mechanics as soon as they arrived at the destination. The youngster had the hardest task: carefully wash all the bikes, dry them, oil the gears and wheels to perfection, inflate the tyres. Instead Bepi and Giovanni arranged the gears, replaced sprockets and checked the brakes: delicate and highly precise work.

The busy days went on forever but the twenty year old’s enthusiasm and his awareness of experiencing an unusual adventure, with memories that would last for the rest of his life, made his fatigue and weariness pass away. One morning in Terni, where the previous day Coppi had beaten Luison Bobet by 1 minute and 07” in the stage starting in Perugia, Angelo woke up with his stomach in turmoil, a dry mouth and a cold sweat. With an effort he downed a cup of tea. He had more trouble than usual completing the routine. When he got behind the wheel of the van, going to Rome, the fits got worse. He gritted his teeth, rubbed his stomach and half-closed his eyes. He gripped the steering wheel and left. The journey to the capital was an ordeal. He had to stop several times along the winding road, due to his pressing needs. The evening before he had eaten something nasty causing him pain. “I wonder – he managed to think – if the racers are ill too. We ate the same meal”. When he reached the eternal city, it took twice as long to unload the suitcases and when he finished, he fell on the bed bent double by the pain. That afternoon he was unable to help the mechanics and went to the dining room for dinner together with the team. Also Alfredo Pasotti and Rinaldo Moresco had felt some pain at the start of the stage, but they had stronger stomachs and were able to eat anything. They put up with the pain and kept going. Bepi, trying to cheer him up, told him about the stage won by Angelo Menon from Stucchi in front of Pasotti, Maggini and Moresco who were able to regain strength along the endless 290 kilometres. It would take much more than intestinal pain caused by an off steak to put them on the ground. That evening the pink jersey went from the shoulders of the Swiss Schaer to the powerful shoulders of Rik Van Steenbergen. With no help from drinks and herbal remedies, Bepi looked for Dr. Frattini, the health director of the Giro. In five minutes the doctor was at Angelo’s bedside. He carefully visited him, pressing his stomach and driving his fingers in the liver. “Colic- he pronounced- caused by rotten food. Don’t worry, it will soon pass. Take these two pills and try and rest. Tomorrow eat simple food and drink a lot”. Frattini gave the driver the medicine he had extracted from his leather doctor’s bag. “I’ve used a whole pack today” he commented. Diarrhea and stomach aches spread throughout the group. The medicine took effect. The next morning Angelo woke up with two dark shadows under his eyes, his tongue covered in a whitish coat and little energy. However the pain had gone and the colic was just a bad memory. He made it in time to applaud Luigi Casola who sprinted past Bevilacqua in Naples. Pasotti finished third. Fiorenzo Magni, captain of team Ganna, got the pink jersey which he took to Milan winning the second Giro d’Italia, ahead of Van Steenbergen, Kubler and Coppi. The first of team Wilier was Elio Brasola, twelfth place, by more than 12 minutes. Rinaldo Moresco classified twenty first and Alfredo Pasotti, leaving as the captain, ended only twenty fifth, at more than 51 minutes, due to a blow in the Dolomites. Angelo Merlo was deeply affected by the extraordinary experience. “In Milan – he told friends – we were loading all the material in the van to go back to base when the tax police arrived with a confiscation order. Wilier had started to experience some financial difficulties and a large supplier from Brianza, for not having received the agreed payments, had required the precautionary confiscation of the bikes and spare parts. We were blocked for three days because they had affixed seals on the cars too. Only on 13 June, the day of St. Antony, after Mr. Dal Molin paid the debt, could we finally leave Milan and go back to Bassano. We couldn’t stand it any longer. We had been away from home for almost a month”.

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27th August 2013