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Pietro Piazzalunga, Mechanic to Champions

by Bill McGann and Valeria Paoletti

Pietro Piazzalunga, the man you would love to have wrench your bike.

In compiling our oral history of post-war professional cycling we wanted to add the memories of a great mechanic. These men are an essential but little-noticed part of any great team. A dropped chain because of a poorly adjusted front derailleur (as happened to Marco Pantani in the middle of an important Tour climb) or a broken chain (Julio Perez-Cuapio was so victimized in the Giro during a solo breakaway) and the athlete's best efforts and the unbelievably large expenditures of the team can be for naught. A quick and skillful wheel change can get a rider back into the race with little effort so that he can save his energy for racing instead of chasing the peloton.

As in any trade there are good mechanics and poor ones and a few great ones who have a perfect understanding of the bicycle. They can make the bicycle, a strong yet sometimes delicate work of art, sing for the rider. We wanted to talk to someone who could be considered the Merckx or Gimondi of wrenches. We asked our good friend Franco Bitossi (147 pro victories) if he could suggest someone who would fit our requirements. He immediately put us in touch with Pietro Piazzalunga, telling us that he was the man that the great coaches and managers always wanted on their teams.

Pietro Piazzalunga is a very kind and modest man. He possesses a temperament that that Italians call "dolcezza". This word doesn't translate well into English. It conveys a sense of considerate kindness and sweetness without meaning effeminate. As you read this interview you will see that he has a kind word to say about everyone and everything. That's just his way. He is so self-effacing that in meeting him for the first time one would not think that he was one of the finest mechanics in the history of cycling.

His incredible career spanned from 1960 to 2003. He worked with some of the greatest teams and champions of each era, winning five Giri d'Italia, one Tour de France, one Vuelta d'Espana and nine World Championships. His expertise was so sought by the riders and the managers that he would be still working today for the most important teams if health problems had not sidelined him in 2003.

Signor Pietro lives with his wife in a cozy house in Bergamo, just east of Milan in Northern Italy. His work garage used to be crammed with frames and wheels ready for the races. Now it is a little museum with winning bikes and jerseys that his old friends have given him as a sign of their gratitude. Many of them (just to mention two, Felice Gimondi and Franco Ballerini) still ask him to personally take care of their bikes.

Question: You worked with the some of the greatest athletes on some of the greatest teams in the history of the sport. What is your fondest memory?

Pietro Piazzalunga: I have always been so lucky. I got to work for the big teams such as Salvarani and Bianchi-Campagnolo and for great riders: Felice Gimondi, Gianni Motta, Walter Godefroot, Antoine Houbrechts, Guido Reybrouck.

Gimondi's victory in the 1974 Milan-San Remo is one of my fondest, but all my career brings me very gratifying memories.

Q: From an emotional point of view, not from a functional aspect, what era's bikes do you like the best?

PP: It not the era itself. Working with my National Team gave me a unique feeling. All the victories at the World Championships were just beautiful.

Q: Is it because of the different spirit you felt during the races with National Teams?

PP: Right. There was a different atmosphere. I also liked the incredible fights between Gimondi and Bitossi during the Italian Championships.

Q: Describe a day in the life of a mechanic in a Grand Tour back then in the sixties. What time did you get up? What did you have to do to the bikes in the morning?

PP: I started working at 5:30-6:00 a.m. The bikes were prepared for the day's races the night before. I again checked all the bikes and loaded them on the cars. All the work was done in the evenings. I didn't have dinner until I was done with all the bikes. When I finally had dinner the riders were almost ready to go to bed, around 10 p.m.

Q: So you got just a few hours sleep before the next morning's work?

PP: Yes...

Another busy day at the office. Pietro repairs Felice Gimondi's bike after a mass pile-up.

Q: Walk us through your duties in the afternoons after each race. What did you do to each bike to prepare it for the next day?

PP: Usually there were two of us, both mechanics. My partner washed the bikes and I checked them carefully, fixing or changing parts if necessary.

Q: What did you do with items that aren't perfect enough, like tires with small cuts?

PP: I changed them. I changed everything that was not perfect. There was a lot to do, especially after a crash. During the World Championships there would be three mechanics. One washed the bikes, one washed the wheels and I checked and fixed everything on the bikes. I was responsible for the final check of each bike.

Q: What was your job during the stage races? Did you also prepare food and the feed bags?

PP: No, that was a duty of the masseurs. I followed the riders in a car and helped them if something happened.

Q: Was a wheel change during a crucial stage in the sixties a moment of tension? Was it so easy and quick like today? Did you practice wheel changes to be ready for a flat or was this something that you did so often that it came naturally with years of working on bikes?

PP: No I didn't practice for that, I was reasonably fast from my years as a mechanic. I have been always lucky, however. Things never got complicated on me during a stage. Of course the cooperation of the rider during a wheel change was also important.

Q: You are making all this seem so easy and smooth. It must be because you were always on top of things in your work. I guess the staff of mechanics on such teams is as top-notch as the riders.

PP: Well, it was also because the teams I worked for were always well-organized.

Q: How does a nice Italian boy end up being a professional mechanic?

PP: I had a great passion for this world. I started assembling bikes at the Chiorda factory.

Q: And how did you start working for those big teams?

PP: While I worked for Chiorda we built a bike model named after Fiorenzo Magni [among other things, former Yellow Jersey and Italian national team manager]. Then, in 1960, I started working as a professional in the Team Philco, whose manager was Giorgio Albani [legendary manager of Molteni]. After moving to Salvarani in 1963, I was called by Fiorenzo Magni to work for the Italian Team in the 1965 World Championships. I had met Magni some time before during the race "Le Tre Valli Varesine". Magni told me that they were choosing the mechanics for the World Championships. "We are selecting our mechanics and you are one of our favorites", he told me.

Q: Both the managers and the riders trusted you very much.

PP: The riders awarded me a prize for being the best mechanic, 'La Pinza d'Oro' [literally 'The Golden Tong']. I must say that my friendship with Felice [Gimondi] helped my career.

Q: Let's look into your 1965 more deeply. That year you won both the Giro and the Tour with Vittorio Adorni and Felice Gimondi, respectively. And Gimondi did very well even in the Giro coming in third. So you had two good men at the top of the GC during the Giro. You were the one who prepared and double-checked their bikes, so you had a great responsibility. Did this change your attitude or your work?

PP: When you have two men like them on your team, your responsibility doubles! I was always filled with anxiety during the races, from the beginning of each stage. I barely ate my lunch.

August 31, 1975: The world championships in Yvoir, Belgium. Piazzalunga (center) is with Gimondi (right). Holland's Hennie Kuiper got this one. Moser was the best-place Italian at 11th. Gimondi was 16th that day

Q: So you did feel the responsibility. Did you ever make a mistake in setting up a bike that caused problems for a racer?

PP: That was my biggest fear. Those things can always happen you know. I was especially worried during the World Championships. But thanks to God, apart from flats and crashes that you can't predict, nothing serious ever happened.

Q: How did a bike for a big mountain stage differ from a bike for a flat stage in the '60s?

PP: The frame was the same, the gears were different. In the mountains we used 42 or 41 for the small ring in front with a 25 or 26 for the big cog in the back. For time trials we would use a 53 or 54 big ring with a 45 small ring. The rear cluster would be a 13-18 block. At the end of each stage the manager came to me and told me what to mount on the different bikes, depending on the stage and what each rider preferred.

Q: Any other changes?

PP: No.

Q: What tire pressure did you use?

PP: If it didn't rain I used 7-7.5 atmospheres in the rear tire and 6-6.5 atmospheres in the front one. In case of rain, I used 6 atmospheres in the rear tires and 5-5.5 atmospheres in the front tires. [5 atm = 74 psi; 7 atm = 102 psi]

Q: You didn't change the pressure depending on the type of stage, did you?

PP: No, besides the weather it depended more on the rider's preference. I had all the tires ready in the morning. Then the riders came in to check their bikes and asked me if everything was fine. We again checked the pressure, this time together.

Q: What did you do with the tires used the day before and that were not perfect anymore? Did you save them for training?

PP: No, we didn't. All the teams I worked for were big. Some of my colleagues working for smaller teams came to my house to see how much stuff I had in my working garage. When I worked for Bianchi, in order to be constantly prepared, I had 260 pairs of wheels ready.

Q: Today a time trial bike is a very special, unique device. Did you do anything different to the bikes for a crono?

PP: We used lighter frames, but not everyone in the team had a lighter bike for the time trials. I remember only Gimondi, the Dane Tommy Prim and Knut Knudsen had special, lighter bikes.

Q: When did teams start having special crono bikes?

PP: Things started to get different the year that Fignon won the Giro, 1989. I remember that year Moser used lenticular wheels during the time trial of the Giro. After that they became very popular.

Q: This made for a lot more work for you?

PP: For sure. That meant at least another bike to assemble and prepare for each rider. I worked on 15 crono bikes for each team.

Q: Besides the different frame, what were the other differences in the equipment and preparation of a TT bike with compared to a normal bike? Faliero Masi told us of mechanics who would boil the ball bearings in oil.PP: We used lighter tubulars with a higher pressure and lighter rims. I never boiled the ball bearings in oil.

Q: What tire pressure was then used during a time trial?

PP: We used 9 atmospheres in the rear tires, even 9.5 if the stage was on a good road, and 8 in the front tires. If the weather were bad we used the same pressure we used in a normal road stage.

Q: Let's look at a 1965 bike piece by piece. Did you get the frames from the builder and assemble the complete bikes?

PP: Correct, I gave the framebuilder the sizes to build each frame. When I got the frames I had to mount all the components in order to assemble the bikes.

Q: From the mechanic's point of view how were things different when a bike company like Bianchi was the sponsor compared to when a framebuilder was the supplier?

PP: When I worked for Bianchi I helped even with the frame building. I went to the Bianchi Factory after the end of the season to take care of the frames for the new season.

I worked together with the framebuilders and we built 3 frames for each rider. Two of them were assembled into bikes right way. The third frame was ready to be assembled if necessary.

Q: So the frames were all custom-built to the measurements of each rider?

PP: Right.

Q: Did you build more frames during the season?

PP: I was the only one who always built new frames for the World Championships. I brought three bikes for each rider there. The second bike was on the car following the riders and the third one was at the mechanics station.

Q: How about the wheels? Did you have to build all the wheels?

PP: Yes, entirely.

Q: What kind of tubing were the frames made from? This was before Columbus SL, correct?

PP: The tubing we used was from Columbus. I used rather rigid tubing, especially for Felice [Gimondi]. I needed to make the bike flex as little as possible during a sprint. Felice also wanted a different type of fork. He preferred that his forks be built with flat fork crowns rather than the newer sloping style.

Q: Were frame failures a problem then? Did you have to be vigilant and keep an eye on the frames to make sure nothing broke?

PP: That depended on the skills of the framebuilders and welders. When I was in Bianchi I asked them to build a special glassed-in room for the welders to keep out any breezes. It was important not to have cold air drafts during the welding, otherwise the joint would cool too quickly and lose strength.

Retired? The great ones like Gimondi still insist that Pietro work on their bikes. Note the signed jerseys and other memorabilia that grateful champions have given to the master mechanic.

Q: Did you ever have a broken frame?

PP: Never.

Q: The bikes were equipped Campagnolo, with Universal brakes?

PP: At the beginning the brakes were Universal, then later everything was Campagnolo.

Q: Details about the components. Let's start with the wheels. Campagnolo 5-speed Record hubs, low flange?

PP: Yes, only the sprinter Marino Basso preferred high-flange hubs.

Q: What kind of spokes? What brand?

PP: Inox, Alpina.

Q: Butted?

PP: No, straight-guage

Q: 1.8 or 2.0mm ?

PP: 1.8 in the front wheel and 2 mm the rear wheel. Depending upon the strength and the weight of the rider we would use 32 and 36 spoke wheels. Sometimes even 28s.

Q: Were breaking spokes a problem?

PP: It happened sometimes.

Q: Rims? Heavy and strong?

PP: Strong. Lighter rims only for the time trials. In the 60's we used Nisi and Fiamme. Later we used Ambrosio and Mavic rims.

Q: Tires, tubulars of course. What brand, model and weight?

PP: Yes, tubulars, Clement, weighing 250 or 260 grams. We used the 250's for good roads and the 260's for rough or dirt roads. For time trials we would use Clement Campionissimo Seta [silk] or Continentals weighing 220 grams. I would set up Gimondi's bike for the 6-Day races with the Continentals. I mounted the light Clement silk tires for him for Milano-San Remo.

Q: How long did a tire last when raced by a pro rider?

PP: Barely 3 stages.

Q: You had to glue the tires on the rims. Tell us, step by step, how you affixed the tires to the wheels?

PP: It was a long process. First I built the wheel. Then I filed the rim (the part of the rim where the tubular would sit) a little bit to remove the oxide from the surface of the rim. Then I put the mastic [a natural resin] - the base layer - and I waited 2 for days. Then I put another layer of mastic and waited 4-5 days. Then I finally glued the tubular using both some glue and a little mastic (directly on the tubular).

Q: So you needed about 7 weeks to prepare every wheel!

PP: Yes, that's why I had so many wheels ready in my garage.

Q: What brand of glue did you use or did you make your own?

PP: I bought it. The brand was Clement.

Q: Did you age the tires or use them directly from the factory?

PP: We used new tires.

Q: Chain and freewheel.

PP: Regina Oro.

Q: Did you have a big box of cogs to set up the gears to set up the bikes for each day?

PP: Yes, we had a case with different cogs depending on the kind of stage.

Q: 5-speed rear, right?

PP: At the beginning they were 4, then 5, then more... .

Q: Saddles. Still leather?

PP: Yes.

Q: Did you have to work on them and prepare them?

PP: No, we got them ready to ride. We got different types depending on the preference of the rider.

Q: Crankset. Campagnolo Aluminum? 42-52?

PP: Campagnolo, 41 or 42

Q: Bar and stem. Now riders use 42cm center to center. Back then it was usually 40? What brand ?

PP: Yes. We used Cinelli. The width depended on the rider. It could be 40, 41 or 42cm.

Q: Your career was long and you saw the profound changes to the bicycle, from a steel 10-speed to an aluminum, super lightweight 20-speed. Did these changes make your job easier?

PP: Oh yes, they did! Especially when all the innovations related to Shimano arrived.

Q: How did your life as a mechanic at a Grand Tour change through the decades, from the early 1960's to the end of the 90's?

PP: In the sixties there weren't the nice big trucks that teams have today to transport their inventory. I remember that to do that I used a little FIAT van. I had to stuff it with so much equipment that I could barely fit in the van!

The master's immaculate workbench with reminders of a wonderful life mounted on the wall.

Q: So things got easier and easier for you over the years with the infusion of money in the sport. How did your work differ between working an important one-day race like Milano-San Remo and a stage race?

PP: The real work for me was in the stage races.

Q: Tell us about the Championships of 1992 at Benidorm, Spain. Gianni Bugno won for the second year in a row. Alfredo Martini was the director of the team.

PP: That was magic. After that I decided to stop working the World Championships.

Q: Why?

PP: I could not desire more than that. I had taken part in 27 World Championships and won nine.

Q: How did you set up the team's bikes in those years (early '90s)? Clinchers or tubulars?

PP: I used always tubulars. They are better for the riders (though not for the mechanics).

Q: Did you set up a world championship bike to be rugged and strong or did you take chances and make it lightweight?

PP: I used the same bikes that the riders used during the other races of the season.

Q: You worked for some of the most famous team managers in cycling history, Fiorenzo Magni, Ferretti "il Volpone", Vittorio Adorni, Pietro Algeri, Alfredo Martini, Nino DeFelippis...

PP: I can't tell you who was the best. They are all great persons and were all great managers.

Q: Whenever we talk to racers, we ask them which race they loved the most and which one they hated. Which one did you look forward to?

PP: Maybe it seems impossible but I was always happy wherever I went. I enjoyed even the cold and wet Northern Classics. When Moreno Argentin won the Fleche Wallone in 1990, it was my 60th birthday and he wanted to dedicate it to me.

Q: You relationship with the racers was good?

PP: Some of them preferred staying at my place than going to a hotel after the end of the Giro, so I had Fred De Bruyne [legendary Belgian classics rider and race commentator] at my place for one month!

Q: Was your job well paid?

PP: Yes, it allowed my family and me to live well and gave me the possibility of travelling constantly. I consider myself very lucky to have had such a life.

Q: Do you miss that life?

PP: Yes I do and I would be still working now if I had not had a problem with a vaccination for the flu two years ago. I had an allergic reaction and went into coma for one month. Then I had to go through a rehabilitation.

Q: Do you follow racing or the development of cycling technology today? Do you stay in touch with your old friends in racing?

PP: When I see the races on TV I suffer. I would like to be there. When [Michael] Rasmussen had those mechanical problems during the last time trial of the 2005 Tour I knew what the problem was and why they could not solve it right away. I go to see all the races I can, like the Giro stages in my area or the start of the Milan-San Remo. I meet my old friends and colleagues there. It's nice to see that even foreigners who are old friends like Walter Godefroot, as well as journalists, still stop to greet me and ask how I am.

When I was in the hospital many ex-riders like Bitossi, Ballerini and Fabbri came to visit me. And Gimondi was always close to me.

The eyes of Mr. Piazzalunga got a little bright with tears.

Some of the bikes that riders, after winning great victories, have given to Pietro.

My recording tape ended but I kept talking with him about his feelings of gratitude for all his old friends. Then he showed me his incredible garage and told me yet more about his work. 'Piero, il pranzo è pronto!' [Piero, lunch is ready], his wife called us. A very nice lunch, entirely cooked with Franco Bitossi Olive Oil!

Some of Pietro Piazzalunga's managers, teams and biggest victories. There are many, many more, for example the Fleche Wallone in both 1990 and 1991 won by Moreno Argentin:

Teams:

World Championships:

Giro:

He won 5 Giri, with:


Valeria Paoletti is a research scientist at the University of Naples.
She is a geologist specializing in geophysics. She is currently studying the earth's magnetic field in volcanic areas. BikeRaceInfo is grateful that she can find time in her busy schedule to visit and talk to some of the greatest riders to ever turn a crank.