Born in Cles in the Trentino region of Italy, Maurizio Fondriest turned professional and also scored his first pro win in 1987 for the Ecoflam Team. His move to Alfa-Lum for 1988 saw him score four more wins with one of them, coming on August 28 of that year in Belgium, still the highlight of what would eventually be a professional career spanning twelve seasons.
Fondriest: The Man.
Before moving on to talk about the bikes and the company that bears his name we sat down together to discuss the highlights of a career that features some of the biggest events possible for a professional cyclist to win.
It isn’t hard to imagine the Maurizio Fondriest of 2012 as a champion cyclist from 15 to 20 years ago, as he still has the lean figure of a top level athlete and once he begins talking about cycling – be it recounting his race wins or describing the development process of the new 2012 race line – the look in his eye shows that the drive to succeed has not gone.
Fondriest holding the Renaix version of the TF1 frameset, commemorating his win at the ’88 Worlds.
The 1988 Season
Fondriest won his world title in 1988 and as only a second year professional it isn’t unfair to say that to many he was a surprise winner. Some who know the story of the closing kilometre of the race (and for those that don’t we will get to that shortly), have leveled the accusation that more than being a surprise win, it was a victory of luck. Looking back at the season that led to that day in Belgium and talking to the man that crossed that line first, once Fondriest hit the front of the race in the closing kilometres, there was unlikely going to be anyone other than him crowned world champion that day.
Racing for the “pre-Russian” version of Alfa-Lum, Fondriest’s 1988 season included a stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico, another at the Tour de Swiss and a win at the GP Prato. At 23years of age, he also had a great start in the season’s opening classic, which is also the biggest one day race on the Italian Calendar; Milan-San Remo.
Fondriest taking the clear win at Milan-San Remo in 1993.
The Italian was beaten to San Remo that year by Laurent Fignon, but for those watching closely, it was a sign of a talent on the rise who would take the lesson of that day and put it to use, both later in the season in Belgium, and again on the same road in 1993. Fignon described the 1988 finish of Milan – San Remo in his 2009 autobiography We Were Young and Carefree, with the following text, starting with the Frenchman’s attack on the Poggio, taken from William Fotheringham’s 2010 English translation.
I was using 53×15, a colossal gear, and I was convinced I had left everyone gasping; to my surprise, however, I caught sight of Maurizio Fondriest, a mere youngster, just behind me.
Fignon described using an “old man’s trick” on the bends of the descent to force the younger rider to take the pace on the straights, thereby saving his own energy for what was coming. In the days when the finish line was only 1000m from the foot of the Poggio’s descent, the sprint tactics came into play straight away.
One of us was going to win. In terms of natural ability, as the rest of his career would show, Fondriest was quicker than me in a sprint. But he was only young, and with almost 300km in my legs I knew exactly what I was capable of… I kicked off the sprint a good distance from the finish. We were side by side until 100m out, and then he suddenly cracked. I was 20m in front by the time I hit the line.
Learning Up North
1988 was the year that Fondriest decided that the classics were where his future lay and while racing in Belgium he crossed paths with a man who was to become a lifelong friend and help to influence a new direction in the years ahead, Australian Allan Peiper.
PEZ: We saw you in Ronse in 2010 when you made the special presentation to the people of the town to say thank you for their support, and one of the people who was there to stand alongside you was Allan Peiper. How is it that the two of you became such good friends during your racing days?
Fondriest: In 1988 I raced for Alfa Lum and Peiper was racing for Panasonic. I went to the race the Tour of Belgium as preparation for the world championships that were to be held in Belgium that August. I remembered him as a rider from the Tour of Flanders who had worked and worked and worked for his team. I saw that he fell and remember him coming back to the front of the race with the bleeding elbow and I really had a sense of the courage and the power and dedication of this rider. He was a gregario, but he was unbelievably strong and I saw this at the Tour of Flanders that year.
Then, I went to the tour of Belgium and I was always placed highly on the stages and Pieper was always on the attack. There were two time trials and I saw that he rode them really strongly. So, I decided that I would ask him if he wanted to ride the Trofeo Baracchi [a two man time trial that closed the Italian racing season until 1991] together. This was before the worlds.
Peiper and Fondriest about to re-ride the ’88 Worlds course as part of a special visit the Italian made back to Ronse in 2010
PEZ: When was it that you approached him? Had you had much opportunity to talk at the Tour of Belgium?
Fondriest: No, other than seeing each other in the race, none. I actually asked during the early stages of the world championships in Ronse. I rode up to him and asked him if he wanted to ride it with me. And he said yes. Then, that later that day I won the world road championships.
After the race, Peiper spoke to Peter Post [the Australian’s sports director at Panasonic] and said ‘Ah, Fondriest asked me to ride the Baracchi trophy with him’ and Post laughed and said, ‘Yes, but he asked you before he won the world championships. I would say that now he probably doesn’t want to ride with you anymore.’
Alan Peiper and Fondriest teamed up to tackle the Two-man TT Baracchi Trophy, and have been pals ever since.
When asked, I said ‘No, Of course I still want to ride with him” so we returned to Italy and rode together and finished fourth.
Neither of us were super time trialists and Allan was probably a little bit stronger than me, but we were able to do a lot together. In a solo time trial, you only think about yourself. In a couples time trial, you always have to be thinking about the other person. We really had a good ride together and really from that day on we forged a very strong friendship. Then, the next year we rode the Baracchi Trophy together and finished second.
The finish line of the ’88 Worlds course looked a bit different in 2010.
At the 2010 presentation in Ronse, a number of Fondriest’s ex-colleagues, including Peiper, Theo De Rooy and Walter Planckaert took the time to dust off their bikes and come along to show their support. Fondriest also mentioned that the friendships he formed with riders
It might be worth mentioning at this point, why Ronse? Didn’t Fondriest win his title at Renaix? In fact it is the same place. The town lies right on the border that divides Belgium into Dutch speaking Flanders and French speaking Wallonia, so the name of the place where the 1988 worlds were held is either Ronse in the language of the north, or Renaix in that of the south.
PEZ: You eventually moved to Panasonic. At that time, unlike today’s global cycling, it would have been usual for an Italian rider to leave Italy and go and race in the Netherlands for a Dutch team.
Fondriest: At that time yes. Today, everyone speaks English, but at that time, cycling was Italian, French, Belgian or Spanish. I had the opportunity in 1990 to change teams after I had problems with Del Tongo. I had the options of going to Panasonic, TVM or to ONCE with Manolo Saiz. I had decided that it would be between Panasonic or ONCE. At that time, however, it wasn’t the ONCE team that many people remember from the latter years of their sponsorship. But, I was very impressed with the way Saiz operated. He was someone who was very organized. But, my doubt was that ONCE was more a team for the stage races and not really a squad to contest the classics.
I wanted a team that would be there for the classics and in the end it was for that reason that I chose Panasonic.
This choice for me was also a big one, because as well as geographically, Spain was a lot closer to Italy in terms of mentality and it would have been a lot easier to go to a Spanish team. The team I chose had mainly Dutch and Belgian riders along with Ekimov, but it was certainly a different mentality that what I had been used to.
My years at Panasomic were fantastic and I fondly remember working with Henk Lubberding, Marc Sergeant and Jacques Hanegraaf. For me it was an exceptional experience.
PEZ: As an Italian heading to The Netherlands, did you learn to speak Dutch or English to help settle into the team?
Fondriest: I could already speak a little bit of French because at that time the official language of cycling was French. So, I decided that I should go and work on my French so that when I was in this foreign team I would be able to communicate. Looking back now, I see that this was an error. The Belgians spoke French well enough, but all of the riders spoke English, but I had never learned it. I’ve stared to learn English now for my work but only in the last 3 or four years. So, when I go driving, I listen to things in English and that’s the only study I do. I’ve got to the point where I can understand and speak a little bit.
The World Championships
At this point, if Maurizio Fondriest is more a name on a bike to you than he is someone who you remember from when he was racing, it might be worth taking a look at the video below that shows the closing kilometres of the World Road Championships in Ronse, Belgium on August 28, 1988.
PEZ: It might seem obvious to fans or observers of cycling, but was the World’s victory the personal highlight of your professional career?
Fondriest: The Worlds are the Worlds. Why? Because you go the whole of the next season with the jersey of world champion. I also won two world cups, but it isn’t the same thing. You wear the jersey during the world cup races and then at the last moment, but the Worlds are the Worlds.
People remember me as the winner of the world championships and not as the winner of world cup races, of classics or of the overall title of the world cup, and for that reason the win is the most significant.
PEZ: One question that hopefully isn’t insulting. Do you feel that what happened in the closing kilometre of the race in Ronse and the way people remembered the race, detracts from your win in any way?
Fondriest: No, no. From a technical point of view, if the crash hadn’t happened, I am absolutely sure that I would have won just the same. But, from a different perspective, it is actually better the way it is. Because everyone, remembers and asks about the fall… If you compare that to a World Championships like the race that was won by, say, Luc Leblanc, no one remembers anything.
My World Championship, everyone remembers and everyone asks me, ‘But the crash, but Criquielion’ everyone!
But what we have to remember is, it isn’t possible to have a re-run of what might have happened. But it is possible to do a technical analysis. With Criquielion and with Steve Bauer, I never lost. If you want to ask, ‘When had either of those two riders ever beaten me in a sprint?’ The answer was, ‘never!’
OK, after a race of 260km, anything could happen because of fatigue, but there isn’t an opportunity to do a test again. But before that race and after that race I won bunch sprints, I won at the top of climbs, like my win in Tirreno-Adriatico, which back in ’88 was my first win in Italy, and I dropped everyone and arrived alone.
Here’s a rare photo of Maurizio enjoying the bittersweet win at Ronse. [And a big shout to PEZ-fan George Eden - who donated his entire collection of Winning mags to PEZ - where I found this gem- Pez] .
PEZ: Another way of looking at it is to say that to win a race, you actually have to make it to the finish line too. There are no surprises at the finish of a race of that length.
Fondriest: When Criquielion went on the attack on the last lap, I went and bridged to him but then I didn’t just stay in his wheel until the finish of the climb. When he attacked, I waited a moment, and he had about 50 metres and then I went straight across to him. Then, until the finish of the climb I rode turns with him at the front, which was an indication also then of how well I was going that day.
Then, with what happened in the sprint, I don’t think Bauer could have won because he arrived at the front tired.
(Almost) Doing The Double
PEZWas there ever the opportunity to take a second world championship like Bugno and Bettino did after your win?
Fondriest: Maybe a story that isn’t known is that in 1991 in Stuttgart, Germany I could have won my second world championship the day that Bugno won for Italy. A lap and a half to go, I attacked and was away alone on the climb. Then, in what I think was the only time in my entire career that it happened, my foot came out of my pedal.
I had to stop pedalling, get my foot back in and get started again. While I was building back up to speed, Madiot [Marc] was able to get across from the group and join me. Then, together as a pair, we did all of the descent and arrived at the finish line to get one lap to go with a 20second advantage.
The problem was then that Madiot continued to do his turns, but he wasn’t putting any effort into them. I said ‘C’mon, put everything in, it’s just the two of us, c’mon’ and his reply was ‘Ah, but, I’m tired, I can’t’. The chasing group caught me back just before the top of the climb. With the anger I had fuelling me, I attacked again straight away. Then, when the counter attack came with Indurain, Bugno and Mejia, Steven Rooks went across as the fourth rider. For a time I was just 20metres behind Rooks, but I couldn’t bridge up and those four decided the finish.
So, I could have been a double world champion, but I wasn’t. And that’s racing. But, even with that ride, I think I was still stronger on the day in 1988.
He may not have won a second rainbow jersey, but there are plenty of other pieces of great looking kit in Maurizio’s wardrobe.
PEZ: You mentioned you World Cup wins and how compared to your world championship they weren’t as big, were there any other victories or races that stood personally for you?
Fondriest: The other win that I remember the most was my win in Milan San Remo in 1993 because it was also the day of the birth of my first daughter. The morning of the race, my wife called me at 7.30am and said that she had been born. Then, I left for the start of the race knowing that my daughter had been born, and that day I won Milan San Remo. So, for me, the most beautiful day for me was that one. To win a race like that on the same day that your child is born is something quite exceptional, emotional and unique.
PEZ: You have obviously found success with your bike company, but given the profile of some of the other Italian ex-world champions, it seems unusual that you don’t have a more hands on role within the current professional scene. Is that something that you wanted or had been asked to do?
Fondriest: I made a decision that I didn’t want to live that kind of life, the life of a team manager and all of the days away from my family. I had the opportunity to work with Team High Road when they changed from Telekom to go and work with their new riders and also look at talent development and I would have been a really satisfying work, but, I didn’t want to live a life of 200 days away from home.
I also worked for three years with [Italian state broadcaster] RAI as a technical commentator, but they didn’t renew with me but also didn’t give me any reasons as to why. I have never had an answer to that question. But, I will be working with Sky Italia at the upcoming Olympics in London.
In the second part of the PEZ chat with Maurizio Fondriest, we find out about what life has been like post-racing, the founding and development of the bike company that bears his name, we’ll also take a look at this year’s range of bikes and see what the future holds for the Fondriest brand in the professional peloton.
• See the website: FondriestBici.com
• See the US Distributor: Albabici.com
Keep it tuned to PEZ for Part II.