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The Supernova of Cycling

Ercole Baldini was the brightest star of his generation you probably never heard of. He was brilliant at his peak 60 years ago this year, but he shone all too briefly.

Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Cycling Legends

At the end of 1958 Ercole Baldini was the world professional road race champion, the Giro d’Italia winner, the reigning Olympic road race champion, Italian national champion, he was a 25 years-old second-year pro, but his winning days were nearly over. 

He had eight victories in his first year with the professionals, 14 in his second, but only five in 1959. And that was it, Baldini continued racing until 1964 winning 13 more races in all that time. What happened to him?

Image of Olympic, world and Giro d'Italia champion
                                                                   Olympic,world and Giro d'Italia champion

There were two opposing opinions at the time. Some said it was money that wrecked Baldini’s career, whereas he and his supporters said it was injury and illness. It’s certainly a complicated and at times agonizing story.

Ercole Baldini was born in Forli, a crossroads town in Emilia Romagna where the road from Ravena to Firenze crosses the famous Via Emilia, a Roman road linking Piacenza with Rimini. People from Baldini’s region are called Romagnolo, and are said to be hard-headed and sometimes unpredictable. Emilia Romagna’s other famous cyclist is Marco Pantani from Cesenatico, about 30 kilometres from Baldini’s birthplace.

Strong boy
Baldini was a big strong kid who was good at many sports, but who chose cycling because he says; “It excited me most.” Six wins in Italy’s junior 'allieve' category said Baldini had chosen well. Those wins got him place in a good amateur team for 1952 and 1953; “That’s when I learned my trade, and I also found I was very good at time trials,” he says.

Image of Ercole baldini
                                                                              A prodigious time trial talent.

At the end of 1954 the bike manufacturers Legnano, who'd helped Baldini since he was a junior, asked him to attack the amateur world hour record, there were two records then because the sport was split into amateurs and professionals. He duly set a new amateur figures of 44.870 kilometres, and beat  the existing records for amateurs and professionals for 10 kilometres along the way.

It was some performance for a rider unknown outside of Italy, and would have landed Baldini a pro contract if he hadn’t had his two-year compulsory military service to do. But with the Olympics near the end of 1956, remaining an amateur wasn’t such problem. The only problem Baldini had was that his talent stretched so far. Earlier in 1956 he’d hammered everybody to win the Italian individual pursuit title off the back of his normal road race training, and it wasn’t because the opposition was poor. Baldini beat Leandro Faggin in the final, and Faggin was amateur World Pursuit Champion in 1954.

Image of Baldini's Legano bike
                                                              Baldini's Legano in the Ghisallo Musuem in Lombardy.

It was sensational, Baldini finished one tenth of a second outside the world record for 4000 metres in what was his pursuit debut, but that was him just getting started. He later beat Faggin to win the 1956 amateur pursuit world title in Copenhagen. Britain’s John Geddes was third. So the Italian national track coach wanted him for the team pursuit, there was no individual event in the Olympic Games at that time.

Next Baldini boosted his public profile by doing his bit to restore national pride. In June 1956 Italy’s hero, Fausto Coppi had seen his world hour record of 14 years broken by a young French army corporal called Jacques Anquetil. Baldini was in the Italian army, so he was ordered to get the record back. And like a good soldier he obeyed, riding 46.393 kilometres on the Velodromo Vigorelli in Milan to bring absolute (amateur and pro) hour record back to Italy.

Image of Anquetil and Riviere
                                             Three hour record holders; Jacques Anquetil, Roger Rivière and Ercole Baldini

Baldini was still only 23, but where others were defeated by the hour record or felt wrecked after a successful attempt, he says it was plain sailing; “I spent a week at the Vigorelli track getting used to riding it, and I set other records in training. I had great form, and the trials I did in the week before convinced me that I could take Anquetil’s record. It felt quite normal.”

There wasn’t much time between the hour record and the Olympic Games, which at least helped the Italian selectors chose where to put Baldini. A New York born French journalist, René De Latour interviewed Baldini many times for the British magazine Sporting Cyclist, this is what the Italian told him about his Olympic selection. “There was no individual pursuit in the Games, and the team pursuit guys had trained a lot together, so the selectors sent me for the road race. I had taken quite a few good amateur road race victories by then.”

On 1st December the Olympic Road Race course around Melbourne was lined with enthusiastic Italian immigrants. It had been an incredible Games for Italian cycling; Faggin took gold in the kilometre time trial, then doubled up with another gold in the team pursuit. Gugliemo Pesenti took silver in the match sprint, and Cesare Pinarello and Giuseppe Ogna got a bronze medal in the tandem sprint.

Baldini topped it all off by taking the gold medal in the road race, winning by two minutes from Arnaud Geyre of France and South-Londoner Allan Jackson. In the same race Jackson, Stan Britain and Billy Holmes took the silver medal in the team road competition for Team GB.

Image of cyclist

Ercole Baldini was a class apart and easily ready to challenge the professionals. After the Games he signed for Legnano’s pro team and carried on winning. The Italian national road race title, a time trial stage of the Giro d’Italia and the Baracchi Trophy two-man time trial, riding with Coppi, all fell to Baldini in 1957. He was third overall in the Giro d’Italia too. A brilliant season, but just an appetizer for the main course of 1958.

Baldini won both time trial stages of the 1958 Giro d’Italia, before taking a mountain stage at Bolzano and winning overall by over four minutes from Belgium’s Jean Brankaert. Tour de France winners Charly Gaul, Louison Bobet and Gastone Nencini occupied the next three places.

He then won the 1958 world road race title, crossing the finish line alone again; this time putting over two minutes into Louison Bobet on a flat course around Rheims in France. He won races all over Italy, including a second Baracchi Trophy with Aldo Moser, Francesco’s eldest brother.

Image of a cyclist

Cheque books ready
Baldini could time trial, he could win road races on his own and he could climb. He even went well outside of Italy when Italians didn’t always do that. The sponsors came knocking at his door, their cheque books open and pens ready.

Giovanni Borghi had the biggest cheque book in Italian cycling. He owned a massive white goods company called Ignis, which had a cycling team. Borghi was rich, he was powerful and he was used to getting his own way. Baldini remembers how persuasive Borghi was.

“He asked me to ride for his team at the worlds in Rheims, but I explained that I wouldn’t leave Legnano because they paid me well and they had helped me throughout my career. But Borghi didn’t listen, he just said; “Come to my factory in Comerio and we will talk.”

Image of Fausto Coppi and Roger Riviere
                                               Last appearance for Legnano, with Fausto Coppi and Roger Rivière on Italian TV.

“So I went to see him, I sat down in front him and he said; “Right, I’ll give you this much to ride for me,” and he wrote down a figure on a piece of paper and held it up. I looked at the paper and didn’t know what to say, so he said. “Ok, you hesitate, I’ll try again,” and he wrote down another number.

“The first figure was far above anything I would ever have asked for, so I was stunned when he held the second figure up. Then Borghi said, “I see you still hesitate. Well, I can do even better than that, and what’s more if you sign a contract with me now I will pay you up front three years’ salary in advance, and I will pay it today.’”

Baldini signed, he would have been a fool not to. And when he did, true to his word Borghi wrote out a cheque for an amount of money that roughly equaled £40,000, and pushed it across his desk to Baldini. In 1958 £40,000 was an enormous amount of money.

But Borghi’s act was a measure of Baldini’s place in cycling at the end of 1958. He was a second year pro who won almost everything he rode, and won  everything with seeming ease. His potential was immense. No classic or Grand Tour looked beyond Baldini. The Coppi era was over, Louison Bobet’s was drawing to a close, Anquetil wasn’t yet the dominant figure he would be. This was Baldini's time, but from the moment he signed his contract with Borghi, the brilliant Baldini with all that potential slowly disappeared.

Great expectations
In 1959 he won some time trials, he was sixth overall in his first Tour de France, which was good result, Baldini was still only 26, but the fans and press expected more; a lot more. The following year, Baldini only won one race.

Image of 1959  Tour de France                                                        In the 1959 Tour de France, leading with Jacques Anquetil.

Cartoons appeared depicting Baldini struggling up a mountain, weighed down by a bag of gold. The fans jeered, shouting in his ear that didn’t ride hard anymore because he was too well paid.

He told René De Latour; “People think it’s the money that stops me training properly, but I train as hard as I ever have, and I haven‘t altered my methods.” But De Latour countered by saying that Baldini let his weight rise too high during the winter. Baldini agreed, but said that he worked like mad to lose it.

Baldini did put on weight quickly, but often it was while he was laid low with some injury, and that didn’t help. “I had to have many lay-offs, including one that necessitated a tricky operation on my leg, and in that time I put on weight. I had to fight twice as hard to get rid of it, so I was constantly going into races tired. It just became a vicious circle,” Baldini explained many years later.

Image of Ercole Baldini
                                                                       Baldini with Ignis in full time trial mode.

At the end of his three year contract with Borghi, Baldini was embarrassed by his lack of results, and at the amount of criticism that had been heaped upon Borghi. “He did nothing wrong, but the press said that his money had spoiled me,” Baldini said.

Cycling was a very different world in the 1950s. Sponsors like Borghi, rich men with successful business from outside of cycling, were a new feature of the sport, and some elements of the press and fans resented them. Borghi was accused of being interested in cycling only for the publicity, whereas that would be taken as read today.

To show that this wasn’t true, and that he was in cycling because he loved it, Borghi launched a team in 1962 that was called the Musketeers. Its riders had no advertising on their clothing at all, and Baldini volunteered to ride for them for free. It was a noble act, but it brought no more results than the previous year had. Baldini was still locked in a cycle of injury, lay off, rising weight, then training too hard to lose it and ending up with another injury or illness.

Flashes of brilliance
In between the down times he had moments of brilliance in time trials, including a three minute thrashing of Jacques Anquetil in Baldini’s home race the GP Forli in 1962. Anquetil was at his peak then, and Baldini proved he could still be better, but it didn’t last. He couldn’t string more than a few weeks of good form together any more.

Image of Baldini and Anquetil
                                      One of Baldini's late flashes of brilliance, beating Jacques Anquetil to win the GP Forli.

Borghi pulled out of cycling at the end of the season and Baldini raced for the Swiss team, Cynar-Frejus in 1963, winning six races. He signed for Salvarani in 1964 but the magic had gone. He ended his racing career on November 4th that year by riding to second place in the Baracchi Trophy with Vittorio Adorni. At 31 Baldini was tired of struggling, and anyway he’d invested the money he earned in rich farmland around his home so he didn’t need to struggle to win bike races any more. There was no point, there was nothing left for him in the sport.

Did Borghi’s money ruin Baldini? Or was it his injuries and the subsequent fights to lose weight? Perhaps they were both factors, but better we judge him for what he achieved between 1956 and 1958. World Records, world and Olympic titles, as well as winning a Grand Tour. For three years, summer and winter, Baldini was the brightest star in cycling, but maybe he burned too quickly. He was the Supernova of Cycling.

Image of Ercole Baldini
                                                        Olympic champion Baldini is still going strong today at 85