Not many sports hold events on volcanoes but, pardon the clichè, cycling is not just any sport. The Giro d’Italia makes a visit to Mount Etna on the island of Sicily today and as it has done in the past it’s almost seen as no big thing. The mountain is still far from ordinary though and the same can be said of the winner of the stage finishing up Etna in the 1967 Giro. It could even be said that Franco Bitossi was more like Etna then his rivals chasing him that day.
Bitossi was known as falena or ‘moth’ as his smooth pedalling style could make it seem as if he was floating. His victories seemed to be achieved in a state of calm but like Etna every so often the peace was shattered by something deep within. Falena wasn’t his only nickname, he was also known as cuore matto or ‘crazy heart’.
The Tuscan had been diagnosed with heart-rate problems early on in his career and his beats could reach 220 in a minute on occasion. It’s not certain whether he had an irregular heartbeat or was suffering from a psychological problem like panic attacks but one thing was clear, whatever the condition it wasn’t an ideal one for a professional cyclist to be suffering from. The only advice his doctor could give him, apart from to quit altogether, was to stop riding when his heart rate got to high. Fans at the side of the road would witness the bizarre scene of the leader of the race flying past them only for him to stop, get off his bike and watch as the rest of the race passes him and continue up the road. If his pulse raced up towards the finishing line he would continue but seemingly in slow motion, grinding his way along flat finishing straights as if he was going up the Mur de Huy. There is footage of him at the of 1972 World Championships approaching the finish with a seemingly unassailable lead when he suddenly starts weaving along the road looking as if he is pedalling through mud. He is eventually pipped on the line by his Italian team-mate Marino Basso.
Usually stories from the past like this are about mythical characters with strange quirks who rise to fame for a fleeting moments before disappearing back into obscurity. Bitossi’s 1967 win up Etna wasn’t his only high point though. He was a hugely successful stalwart of the Italian racing scene at the time, which makes his story all the more remarkable.
Bitossi competed in 16 Giri in a row, finishing 12 and with 5 top 10 finishes. He racked up 21 stage wins, 2 points jerseys and won 3 KOM jerseys in a row between 1964 and 1966. He won the Italian Road Race Championships 3 times and was even Italian cyclo-cross champion twice. He also won the Giro di Lombardia twice and on the international scene, besides his 1972 disaster, he was the first Italian to win the points jersey at the Tour de France where he also won 4 stages. In all he won over 140 races and but for his cuore matto would have won many more.
After he retired in his late 30’s he moved to Empoli where he still resides aged 76.
I got most of the information for this article from John Foot’s brilliant book Pedalare! Pedalare!