Viva l’Italia! Brunel on the ‘great human adventure’ and epic performances of the Giro

In part three of a conversation with Philippe Brunel, the legendary French journalist riffs on Felice Gimondi, Andy Hampsten and Vincenzo Nibali as he looks back on his 40 years at the Giro d’Italia.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Viva l’Italia! We celebrate all things Italian this week as the country begins to open its doors again after over two months in lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis. Businesses have been closed and bike races been canceled. And while the Giro d’Italia has been postponed, we will celebrate Italy’s rich cycling heritage and culture in a series of special features this week.

We continue our conversation with legendary French journalist Philippe Brunel as he looks back on the Giro d’Italia. Brunel has long stood out as one of the best writers in cycling, combining a refined literary sense of description with a sharp journalistic eye for detail, history, and fact. He commands respect among both the journalists and cyclists, and he is nothing less than a towering figure in the sport.

VeloNews caught up with Brunel from his Paris apartment as the Frenchman looked back over his years covering the Giro, which was originally due to start on May 9th.

Andy Hampsten on the Gavia in 1988.

VeloNews: Philippe, in our previous conversations we talked about legendary rides by Bernard Hinault and Marco Pantani. But for Americans, one of the most unforgettable performances was that of Andy Hampsten, who won the 1988 Giro with that absolutely epic stage in on the Gavia Pass in a blizzard. Were you there that year? Did you know Andy?

Philippe Brunel: Well I actually was not there for that edition, but I remember very well when the American team 7-11 started coming and making its mark. I remember very well when Ron Keifel won a stage in Perugia back in 1985 [ed. Kiefel became the first American to win a stage in a grand tour]. Before, there were Americans that came to the Giro, riders like George Mount or John Eustice, but you felt it was more individual. They were real pioneers. With 7-11 things changed. You sensed that American cycling was getting more structured, more organized.

But, I got to know Andy in the years that followed, because he settled in Tuscany and I would often run into him. Hampsten is just an extraordinary person, and I really have a strong feeling that Hampsten was really a natural rider, someone who never doped. I’m just convinced of that. He had such an intellectual quality that he would never permit himself to go there. He was a rider of great class.

But I missed a great stage that day. It’s funny, but when I think back on that day in the snow, it seems like another time. I really don’t know if something like that would have been possible today. I think they would likely have canceled the stage.

VN: Between 1980 and 2020 what has changed the most for you in the Giro d’Italia?

PB: At the heart of it, not so much. Perhaps television has had a bigger impact on the public at large, but for me, when I am living on the inside of the Giro, I still have a story to tell. The story lasts 21 days. There is a scenario that unfolds day after day, with different characters coming in and out of play. Our challenge remains conveying what we saw and lived as best as possible. At the end of the day it comes down to a story about a rider on a road in the elements. And what is really interesting in the Giro, as opposed to the Tour de France, is that there is snow, there is wind and rain. The Tour de France often benefits from good weather, but in Italy at the time of the Giro, the weather is always changing. There are narrow roads that are not always paved. In the Tour the roads are almost always paved. In the Tour the favorite almost always wins, but in the Giro that is not always the case. It’s just a great human adventure.

The one thing that has changed things for us I would say has been the drug scandals, because the Giro has had its share. Certainly it asks interesting questions. Why did Dario Frigo dope? Why did Marco Pantani get excluded from the 1999 Giro at the Madonna di Campiglio when he knew he would be controlled? It could make for interesting writing, but it also complicated things for us because, for a long time, we were unsure of the results. Was the performance you just saw believable? Was the winner of the day the real winner? Things got very complicated because suddenly, we the journalists, were somehow supposed to be judges. Today I get the sense that things have gotten better, but for many years, that changed the way we worked.

Bad weather and enormous climbs differentiate the Giro from other grand tours. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

VN: There are many amazing climbs in the Giro, the Gavia, the Stelvio, etc. The list is long. Is there one climb in particular that stands out, that is particularly mythic for you?

PB: Oh yes, Le Tre Cime di Lavaredo. It’s the climb of climbs for me. It was a climb that marked me already as a child. When I would read about it in Miroir du Cyclisme. Merckx became Merckx there on that climb in 1968. I’ll never forget the images of him in short sleeves with the rainbow jersey on his shoulders riding up in the snow. He brought back the breakaway that had a nine-minute gap. It was that day where he showed that he would not just be a great classics rider, but a great stage race rider as well.

There is just something sacred about Le Tre Cime di Lavaredo, with its three peaks of granite that tower above almost like a cathedral in stone. And when the riders hit that stretch of the climb they are sanctified by the mountain.

VN: Is there a stage in particular, in all of your years on the Giro, that remains etched in your memory above all others?

PB: Hmm, well for me, I would have to say that stage in the 1980 Giro won by Jean-René Bernadeau in Sondrio. We were behind them in the car and we followed Hinault down The Stelvio in the car. On a tactical level Cyril Guimard (i.e. director of Hinault’s Renault team) prepared the stage perfectly, sending Bernadeau up the road early. Hinault then dropped everyone on the climb and chased back up to Bernadeau on the descent. I’ll never forget that stage because we were in the heart of it. It wasn’t something we saw on television. I was there with a generation of pioneers of cycling journalism. The journalists that covered cycling after the war were much closer to the cyclists. They would often be on a moto, in the same weather conditions as the riders. It’s something that sets cycling journalists apart from those covering other sports in a stadium. I’ll never forget that day, the color of the clear blue sky, the way colors of the jerseys popped out like in old color film. I can still remember it like it was yesterday.

Two-time Giro champion, Vincenzo Nibali. Photo: Tim De Waele / Getty Images

VN: What rider today incarnates the spirit of the Giro d’Italia?

PB: Oh, that would be Nibali. For as long as he is still racing, he will be the one. He is just a great rider, and he is there all year long. He is there at Milano-Sanremo. He is there in the Giro d’Italia and he is there at Il Lombardia. In some ways Nibali is the prolongation of the heritage of Felice Gimondi. He embodies a sense of cycling tradition. He is very popular in Italy. Perhaps less so in other countries because he is discreet, reserved. But he is respected, and in some ways that is the greatest form of popularity, to be respected. He is respected like Anquetil back in the day.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.