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Il Commendatore

Some riders bring a bit extra to wearing the rainbow jersey, and that is certainly true of the 1968 world professional road race champion, the stately and celebrated Vittorio Adorni.

Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Cycling Legends

He is elegance itself. Tall, slim and powerful, always immaculate; everything an Italian pro bike racer should be in the collective mind of our sport. Vittorio Adorni was also a mentor, a highly respected member of the pro peloton, a keen advocate, a diplomat and a classy winner.

Italian pro bike rider Vittorio Adorni
                                                                                       Vittorio Adorni and the spoils of a glittering career

Cycling was between the Anquetil and the Merckx eras in 1968. Five times Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil was racing but his big exploits were behind him, while 23 year-old Eddy Merckx had four classics and the 1967 world pro road race title to his name, but there was much more to come.

The Merckx era really started in 1969, when he won Milan-San Remo, trounced the field in the Tour of Flanders and in Liège-Bastogne-Liège then won the Tour de France at his first attempt. And not just won, Merckx won the 1969 Tour by over 20 minutes, taking the climber’s and the points’ classifications as well; the only time that has ever been done.

2-Eddy Merckx Milan-San Remo

                                                                        Eddy Merckx (left) dominated cycling from 1969 until halfway through 1975

By 1968 Merckx was three years into his professional career. The frustration of his first 12 months with the Solo-Superia team, led by Rik Van Looy, were followed by two years of development with Peugeot-BP. Merckx learned a lot from Peugeot’s leader, Tom Simpson, and they helped each other to some famous victories. To this day Merckx says that Van Looy and Simpson’s attitudes to him were like night and day.

Rik Van Looy was a real tiger. Known as the Emperor of Herentals, after the town he was born in, he tried to rule cycling and certainly ruled his teams like an Emperor ruled a country. It was all for him, and no mercy for anyone who didn’t go along with that.

Van Looy still has the most complete record in the biggest single-day races. Even Eddy Merckx could not win every classic, Paris-Tours eluded him, but Van Looy won them all. That still gives him a glow, because the two Belgians still dislike each other now almost as much as they did back then. Merckx says it’s because Van Looy ridiculed him when he was a young member of his team, and rode to make him lose thereafter. Van Looy reckons Merckx can’t take a joke, and says of course he based his race tactics on him when he was a rival, Merckx was the best by then.

3 Van Looy reckons Merckx can't take a joke                                                                                                           
                                                                                                               Rik Van Looy

Their enmity helped shape the 1968 world professional road race championships in Imola, Italy. The Belgian team was split in its support between Van Looy and Merckx. The French were ready to take advantage of that. The Dutch had a lot of talent in their ranks. But the Italians desperately wanted to win on home soil. They hadn’t won the pro road race title since Ercole Baldini in 1958, and that was a long time for Italy. The race is a very big deal for Italian cycling.

Italy also had the biggest depth of talent in its team. The 1965 Tour de France winner Felice Gimondi was leader and race favourite, but the mercurial Gianni Motta was capable of winning, so were the under-rated Franco Bitossi and a very gifted young rider in Michele Dancelli.

The Italians were primed and ready to delivering the title to the three hundred thousand home fans, who flocked to a loop based the Enzo and Dino Ferrari motor racing circuit in Imola. And in those far off days before race radios, the man entrusted with organizing Italy on the road was its captain, Vittorio Adorni.

Adorni was 30 in 1968. He’d won some good races, including the 1965 Giro d’Italia, but in his own words was, “Maybe not a good enough climber to be the best at stage races, and not quick enough in the sprints for the classics.” But he knew the sport inside out and had an excellent racing brain, as he showed in Imola and later as a very successful directeur sportif and a TV cycling pundit.

4 Adorni, Giro d'Italia
                                                                                            Adorni in the 1965 Maglia Rosa

Adorni held positions with the UCI and IOC after he stopped racing, his diplomatic skills helping to diffuse and resolve a number of conflicts. He received honours, including being made a Commendatore of the Italian Republic in 1985, but at heart he was always a racer.

This is Adorni reflecting on his rainbow success in Imola. “The world title has a special place in Italian cycling, and our preparation was as serious as the Italian teams today. In my day we wanted to be good in the Giro d’Italia, which ends in June, then we could prepare well for the worlds in late August or early September. So while we were training and doing longer races in Italy during August, French riders and some Belgians were racing in the post-Tour de France criteriums. Theirs’ wasn’t the best preparation,” he says.

5-Adorni reflects on his rainbow success in Imola
                                                                                 Adorni (second in line) was a force in the classics

The 1968 world pro road race championships were held on Sunday September 1st, and Adorni wasn’t on many pundits’ lists of possible winners, although he was confident. “I hadn’t had my best season. I ruptured a tendon on the eve of Milan-San Remo, which delayed my preparations for the Giro, although I finished second there to Eddy Merckx. But people were still writing me off as too old to win the worlds, even though I knew I was going quite well,” he says.

A factor in Adorni’s eventual victory was an early and largely unexpected attack by Rik Van Looy. “I wanted to get into an early escape so I could help shape the race, they were my tactics, and this one was a good move for me. I knew that Felice Gimondi and Eddy Merckx would watch each other back in the main group, and that Merckx would have difficulty mounting a chase because Van Looy was Belgian,” Adorni says.

The break certainly left the Belgians in a quandary, and it added to Merckx’s problems with Van Looy. “He totally compromised our race in Imola. He was just trying to make me lose. He tried the same in Zolder in 1969, only that time he did nothing for the team but follow me around all day,” is his verdict.

                                                                                                       Adorni in 1967

The first part of Adorni’s game plan played out, the break gained time because of the strong riders in it and there was no concerted chase from behind. Now he had to start thinking about what to do next. “I’d played it smart, but you do not win a world title unless you are strong. You use your head and yes, maybe you have some luck, but you have to be strong and you have to use your strength at the right time. I knew the threat from Merckx was nullified somewhat, but my concern was with Van Looy, if I went to the finish with him then I would be beaten in the sprint,” Adorni says.

With 100 kilometres left the break had a lead of eight minutes, but during the next 20 kilometres it dropped to six minutes. Adorni felt good, he knew he had to go on his own anyway, and with the lead dropping rapidly it was better to go early. “There were three big climbs on the Imola circuit and when we came to the third, Monte Frassineto I attacked. There was about 80 kilometres to go,” he says.

                                                                                           Full flight and heading for the line in Imola

The rest of the leading group, which by now was down to three; Van Looy, Lino Carletto from Italy and the Portuguese rider Joachim Agostinho, continued losing time even though the chase from behind was still not united. The French riders; Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor, Jean Jourden and Lucien Aimar were pulling, and Eddy Merckx joined in too, confident that Van Looy would be caught. But they were all racing for nothing. Even if they caught Adorni, who was flying, four Italians; Gimondi, Dancelli, Bitossi and Vito Taccone had done nothing in the chase. They just sat at the back of the break, ready in case Adorni was caught.

But that wouldn’t happen, Adorni was riding away from everyone, and when he crossed the line at the end of the final lap he was ten minutes ahead of the next rider. “I was in a state of grace that day, cheered by thousands of Italians around the circuit and encouraged by the time checks I got. They told me I was pulling away all the time, but even then I didn’t really believe I’d win until the final kilometer,” he recalls.


Behind Adorni the legs of his three former co-escapees melted in the intense heat, and they were swept up by the chasing group and dropped. On the run-in to the finish the Belgian, Herman Van Springel clipped off the front of the chasers to take the silver medal then Michelle Dancelli won the sprint for bronze. Italy took the next three places with Bitossi, Taccone and Gimondi. First, third, fourth, fifth and sixth, the Tifosi were ecstatic.

Eddy Merckx finished eighth, with Van Looy 15th after losing two minutes to the Merckx group in the final few kilometres. He was only four places ahead of the last of 19 riders who finished the grueling 277-kilometre race, but the old warhorse was probably well pleased that he’d ruined Merckx’s day, not that he said so.

In the press afterwards Van Looy claimed his long-range attack was an attempt to win a third world title for himself. He pointed out that he'd been in the winning break, which was more than Merckx had. And in a way Adorni endorsed Van Looy’s claim that he was trying to win when he said that he had to go alone and not risk a sprint with the Belgian.

The debate continued, spiced by the fact that in 1968 Merckx and Adorni were team mates in Merckx’s first Italian team, Faema. Many said Merckx was happy to see Adorni win, but Adorni disagrees. “Merckx was never happy to see anyone else win. I remember during the 1968 Giro he was looking at the road book before a stage and said to me, “I will attack here.” I asked him why. He was already leading with me in second place and our rivals were minutes behind, why attack? Why not leave something for the others? But Merckx couldn’t do that, it wasn’t in his nature. He wanted to win everything.”

9 -Eddy Merckx with his Faema team-mates
                                                                                   All for Faema, Merckx (centre) and Adorni (right)

Merckx was still learning in 1968, and he’s always paid tribute to how much Adorni helped him. “He knocked the rough edges off me. Before I went to the Faema team in 1968 I had never done a training camp. I just did a few six-day races on the track to keep fit during the winter. With Faema I learned how to train properly during the off season. Adorni in particular took me under his wing. I had a good appetite and I was always taught that because you train hard and race hard, you must eat hard, but Adorni told me to eat less and pay more attention to what I ate. I remember he had a saying, which went something like; “The best exercise for a cyclist is a push away from the table.”

“Adorni told me I would climb mountains better if I could lose some kilograms, and he was right. I started the 1968 season at 72 kilos, where before I had been 75, or even more. I won the Giro that year with some good climbing, and Adorni was second. I blossomed as a stage racer because of Adorni and Faema,” Merckx says.

10-Merckx blossomed as a stage winner because of Adorni and Faema

                                                                                  With Adorni's help Merckx blossomed as a stage racer in 1968
Adorni was a good world champion, a modest man with an impeccable reputation for fair play. And although he was happy to support others he built an enviable career for himself. As well as winning the 1965 Giro d’Italia he was second in the 1964 world road race championships, and in 1969 he added the Italian national road race title to his rainbow success.

11-Image of Adorni

During his racing career Adorni was also something of a television celebrity in Italy. Tall, handsome and with elegant manners, the camera liked him and after giving several memorable interviews and starring in racing documentaries, Adorni got the job of presenting a TV programme called Ciao Mama with the actress Liana Orfei in 1968.

When he stopped racing in 1970 Adorni continued in the sport as a TV and Radio commentator, and for a short while he managed Felice Gimondi’s Salvarani team, where his planning and support helped Gimondi inflict a number of defeats on Eddy Merckx.

Adorni reckons that racing in the same team as Gimondi and Merckx helped him as a manager. “I understood when each was having a good or a bad day, but there wasn’t much you could do to beat Merckx if he was good. I have never seen a stronger bike racer, or known a more driven and competitive one.”

12-Silvarani Team photo

                                                                       Adorni in the team car and Gimondi front and centre of the Salvarani team

Adorni’s post-race career achievements have been nearly as great as his racing ones. He’s handled sponsorship by Italian companies in events ranging from the skiing world cup to the Olympic Games. He worked in commerce, and for the professional riders association within the UCI, while continuing with his radio and TV punditry.

The respect with which he is held is honoured and deserved, both within sport and from the Italian government and industry. He has worked tirelessly behind the scenes, his statesmanship and reputation have helped steer cycling through some difficult times. And now at 82 he’s still involved, still a valued presence at races, while enjoying his retirement.

Click this link for YouTube footage of Adorni’s 1968 world title win https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaCNIr5LuIM

13-Vittorio Adorni