Celestino Vercelli, A Racing Career Spent Serving Others
By Valeria Paoletti and Bill McGann
Celestino Vercelli racing in the 1970s
All of these men are gifted athletes who have won enough races as amateurs that they could ride professionally. Yet, upon maturing as professionals they were faced with the reality that they must devote themselves to others. No other sport asks the majority of its athletes to give so much for the glory of others. Imagine if you will, that most baseball players had to do a sacrifice bunt to advance another player every single time they came to bat. Few ballplayers would tolerate such a life. This however, is the life of the domestique.
We thought it would be interesting to delve deeply into the career of one of these men. Celestino Vercelli is a thoughtful and amiable man, honest and forthright about everything. During his racing career he was always in demand and rode for the greatest teams of his time. After back pains forced his retirement in 1978, he started Vittoria Shoes.
Time constraints forced us to do this interview in three sessions. Part of it was conducted by Valeria Paoletti and part by Chairman Bill McGann of BikeRaceInfo.
Question: What pro teams did you ride for?
Celestino Vercelli: (long, thoughtful pause) My first professional season was 1969. I rode for Sanson. Gianni Motta was the team captain. In 1970 I rode for Germanvox/Wega with Ole Ritter who had held the world hour record. From 1971 to 1976 I rode for SCIC. During those years the SCIC team had [Enrico] Paolini, [Michele] Dancelli, [Franco] Bitossi, [Giancarlo] Polidori among their great riders. In 1977 my team was Brooklyn, with Roger de Vlaeminck. In 1978 I rode for Intercontinentale Insurance for 2 months. Then I retired from professional racing to start Vittoria shoes.
Q. You are a big man. After Martin Van Den Bosche (one of Eddy Merckx's best domestiques), were you the biggest man in the pro peloton?
CV. Martin Van Den Bosche was the only rider taller than I. Van Den Bosche was an incredible climber, very strong in mountains.
Q. What about you? What did you do well? Were you a climber, a time trialist, a sprinter?
CV. I had no particular strength. I could perform all the cycling skills reasonably well. I was a generalist. I could climb, sprint, and time-trial as a competent professional should.
Q. When did get your first racing road bike?
CV. I was 15 years old.
Q. When did you enter your first race?
CV. That same year, when I was 15.
Q. How did you do in your first race?
CV. I fell down.
Q. What was your first race win?
CV. (pausing to think) The next year, when I was 16 years old.
Q. How long did you race as an amateur?
CV. I raced as an amateur for seven years. First as a pre-junior for 2 years, then for 2 years as a junior, then for three years as an adult amateur [dilettante].
Q. What kind of success did you have as an amateur?
CV. In my first 4 years as a pre-junior and junior I rode and worked. A dilettante can't successfully ride & work, so racing had to support me. As a dilettante, I was locally recruited by a new team near Biellese (in Piedmont, west of Milan) and rode for them during the last 3 years of my amateur career. I wasn't originally from this area. I met my wife here. The amateur team I raced for was Vallese. Racing for Vallese, I could get double prizes for every race. The team matched my race winnings. In Italy, the first 15 riders get money. If I were riding well, I could get double prizes and make good money. I always got one of the top five places.
Q. What other kind of support did you get from your amateur team?
CV. Nothing really. They brought you to the races; I got a bike. (long pause again) The bike was a Goddio, from Borgomanero.
Q. What kind of equipment did you ride?
CV. The bikes were always built with Campagnolo groups, but with Universal brakes.
Q. Did you travel a lot?
CV. I traveled all over Italy; I rode the main amateur stage races: Giro della Val d'Aosta, Giro d'Antica Romagna, Giro del Lazio, Giro del Piemonte.
Q. What were your greatest accomplishments as an amateur racer?
CV. I was on the Italian National Team in 1968. I rode in the Berlin-Prague race. This was especially difficult for us because the riders in this race from the West were truly amateurs. The riders from Eastern Europe called themselves amateurs but were really pros. We amateurs had a hard time competing against these state-supported professional riders. My greatest victory as an amateur was winning the Montecatini Gran Premio de Rosso.
Q. When did you decide you wanted to race as a professional?
CV. Always. From the very beginning I wanted to be a professional bicycle racer.
Q. How did the transition to professional occur? Did a team approach you, or did you approach a team?
CV. The pro director sportifs would go to amateur races, looking for good new riders. I was contacted by the director sportif for Sanson. The actual person who talked to me was a photographer for Tutto Sport [magazine] who used to work for Sanson. He gave advice to Sanson about the racers. This photographer contacted me.
Vercelli when he raced as an amateur (dilettante) for Vallese
CV. (laughing at our naiveté) No, I negotiated my own contract.
Q. How much were you paid?
CV. I was paid 170,000 lire a month. At the time, a factory job paid about $55 a month, while my neo pro contract paid about $80 month. This was an important team. It included Gianni Motta.
Q. What kind of equipment did they provide? How many bikes, what kind?
CV.I received a bike and clothing. I can't remember the brand of bike, but it was from a craftsman.
Q. What sort of mileage did you ride?
CV. As an amateur, I rode a total of about 600 kilometers a week and raced once a week. As a pro a little more, about 800 kilometers a week, but there was far more racing. But, it was 800 kilometers a week if there were one race in the week.
Q. How closely was your training monitored?
CV. I received almost no supervision or monitoring. I trained mostly by myself without advice.
Q. Did you have a mentor, a person who took you under his wing to give you help?
CV. Some of the old guys would give advice, especially when I was an amateur, but this was not very common.
Q. What sort of assessment of your position, style, etc. was done by your professional coaches?
CV. Regarding the bike, none. No changes. I rode the same position I rode as an amateur. I rode a 59.5 center to center frame. I am 187 cm tall (6' 1 1/2")
Q. What were your duties as a neo-pro?
CV. I was enthusiastic for the first year. My main job was to help Motta. I was to keep him with the peloton, give him a draft. In general, I was to protect him. One of my jobs was to get the speed of the peloton up at base of climbs. At that time I was 21 years old. Without naming names, I will tell you that one duty of a domestique is to physically pull the team captain up the hill [he shows me by putting his hand on his hip.].
Q. Describe life on the team as a first year pro. In American baseball, rookies receive a lot of hazing.
CV. I didn't get any treatment of that sort. I didn't see rookies getting any sort of poor handling because of their newness to the pro ranks. Because I was from a small town everybody knew me. Everyone was nice to me.
Q. When you were a neo-pro, which riders did you respect the most?
CV. Merckx, Gimondi, Motta.
Q. What sort of ambitions were you allowed?
CV. I was allowed to win races my first year, but I just won one race as a pro, and that not in my first year. I realized that a champion has more, and that I was to be just one of group
Q. What food did you eat? Did the coaches monitor your diet?
CV. Not in the first year; I lived in hotels, and ate the usual stuff the teams were fed while racing: steak, fruit, veggies.
Q. What was the change in going from amateur to pro racing like?
CV. I was mostly surprised at length of pro races as well as the increased speed. At first, I had difficulty staying in the front group.
Q. Your first year as a pro (1969) you rode the Giro. Eddy Merckx, Felice Gimondi, Franco Bitossi, Rudi Altig and Vittorio Adorni were lined up at the start. What were your feelings? What was it like for a neo-pro to be in such an important race?
CV. I was in awe of them of course.
Q. Gianni Motta, your main team captain, didn't ride the 1969 Giro. Was Silvano Schiavon the leader of the team?
CV. Yes. After that he became manager and then he dramatically died in an accident.
Q. I assume that without a rider who could beat Gimondi and Merckx, the ambition was for stage wins?
CV. Correct, but Schiavon did quite well. He wore the Pink Jersey for many days. He was a good climber. So even without Motta it was a good Giro for us.
Q. Today we watch teams get carefully organized and set up a train for the sprint finishes. Was it the same in 1969?
CV. It was about the same back then for the teams that had sprinters, like Salvarani or Brooklyn. Schiavon was not a sprinter, so we didn't train for that.
Q. Have you ever worked for a pure sprinter?
CV. No, I was always in teams with climbers or men racing for high placings in General Classification, like the SCIC Team.
Q. From the point of view of the domestique, how was a day in the Giro different from a normal one-day race? Did you have to be careful about not expending too much energy or are you just expected to do what needs to be done and be ready the next day?
CV. We had to conserve our energy for the days when the team captain would need us. For example, during the flat stages if there were no breaks to chase, we stayed in the pack and saved our energy.
Neo-pro Vercelli in his Sanson colors.
CV. Right. Actually, once in a while, during the days when there were no dangers for our captain we would have liked to break away and race for ourselves. But this was not looked upon favorably by the captain and the manager because it meant wasting energy that would be needed in the coming stages.
Q. You could never race for yourself in a Grand Tour then, not even for one day?
CV. In a big team, with an important captain, no. It would have brought tension to the team. In smaller teams, yes, it was seen as a good thing.
Q. Most riders must therefore ride careers of self-sacrifice. Did some leaders understand this better than others and show their appreciation?
CV. Some of them understood and showed their appreciation much better than others.
Q. Who, for example?
CV. .... (Celestino is a gentleman and tries to skirt the question).
Q. OK...who, of all your team leaders, you did you most respect? Who made you want to bury yourself to make sure he won?
CV. No doubt, Franco Bitossi, a funny and delicious man. He was a typical Tuscan. You felt like you really wanted to give your best for him. My other captains were good too. But sometimes, when our results weren't good, they didn't show their appreciation or it could even be that they blamed us. You know, they got nervous. However, when the outcome was good every leader was good to us.
Q. Any special memories of your first year as a pro?
CV. I remember my individual time trial at the Tirreno-Adriatico of 1969. It was the last stage and I came in third after Adorni and Bitossi. I was only 22 and it was a great result for me.
Q. Was your role of domestique already clear at that time?
CV. You know, during your first year as a pro you still don't have the right mental attitude for being a domestique.
Q. So you raced for yourself that day....
CV. Right, and then again, it was the last day the Tirreno-Adriatico, I didn't need to save my strength.
Q. How did that race go for your team?
CV. It went very well, we won it with Carlo Chiappano, our captain. And a few days later we raced Milan-San Remo.
Q. What happened there?
CV. We broke away immediately out of Milan, a break of 200 km. But we were caught just before the Poggio [the final climb just before the sprint]... Michele Dancelli was in the break with us and was very close to winning but he was caught too! I think Merckx won the race. The following year, 1970, the same thing happened but I was not in the break. This time Dancelli made it!
Q. You were in the Giro when on June 2, 1969 Eddy Merckx, in pink, leading the General Classification, was ejected for failing a drug test. Merckx, denying any wrongdoing, was enraged and in tears. Gimondi became the Pink Jersey. Can you tell us about that day from the rider's point of view? What where they saying?
CV. The riders were, first of all, surprised. Merckx was very nice with everybody. Of course since he always won maybe a few riders were happy about his disqualification, but we were mainly surprised and even sorry. 30 years after this happened I talked with Doctor Cavalli, Merckx's doctor, about that. He still doesn't know what happened. The stage was easy and Merckx knew they would dope-check him because he was the Pink Jersey. So there was really no reason to take anything that day!
Q. I talked with Franco Bitossi about that and he thinks that somebody put something in his water bottle.
Q. Why did you leave your first team, Sanson?
CV. The team was finished.
Q. So, your team is finished. What happens next?
CV. I rode for Germanvox. The team was owned by Romano Cenni who would, in later years, own Marco Pantani's team, Mercatone Uno.
Q. Americans may not know the Germanvox team, but it had some fine riders, Ole Ritter, Guido Reybroeck to name a couple. It had an interesting mix of Italian and Belgian riders and of course, Ritter, the Dane. What is the chemistry in such a team?
CV. The atmosphere was very good. I enjoyed racing in that team. Being a small team it was like a family. Apart from Ritter and Reybroeck, who were the protected riders, we were all on the same level. In other teams I rode for there were more than one or two champions. In the SCIC team for example there were 6 or 7 good riders. In some cases, this created tension.
Q. Did your sponsor have you travel all over Europe?
CV. That year we raced Paris-Nice. It was a big success because even though we were a small team, we won five of the race's seven stages. Guido Reybroeck was our sprinter. He was so smart and fast that he didn't need us to give him a draft train for the sprint finishes. He drafted the other riders and then, in the last 50 meters, his acceleration was unbelievable. He won 3 stages this way. Ritter won the time trial and Adriano Pella, in his first year as a pro, won another stage.
Q. Did you like racing the classics in Northern Europe?
CV. I didn't like them very much because I suffered in the rain and the cold. Germanvox also sent us to the Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Switzerland. So we did travel quite a lot.
Q. The 1970 Giro was a Merckx romp. Was a Grand tour with Merckx in it any different from one without him? How did he influence a Grand Tour?
CV. He was in Italy only for the most important races and when he came his influence was very strong. Actually, from the point of view of a domestique of another team, Merckx's presence made things easier! His team was so strong that most of the time it was impossible to take the control of the race. They did everything. On the flats Merckx's domestiques were almost as strong as he was. I remember that in a time trial at Forte Dei Marmi one of his domestiques was first, tied with him. He also had very good domestiques for the mountain stages!
Vercelli's second team, Germanvox. Vercelli is the last man on the left.
CV. Yes, in a sense. His domestiques controlled everything until Merckx decided it was time to break away. When you tried to attack, some of his domestiques followed you in order to control you. They never gave you a draft and you had to use all your own strength in order to avoid being caught by the chasing peloton. So it was very difficult to break away, keep the lead and win when Merckx and his team were around.
Q. Not only he was the best rider in the world, also his team was the best....
CV. That was for sure.
Q. The next year you moved to SCIC, one of the great teams in racing history. How did you end up on that team?
CV. Germanvox was finished so my manager, following an agreement with the manager of SCIC, asked me and several other members of Germanvox to move to SCIC. I was only 23 years old and was a very promising rider.
Q. What was the spring racing schedule?
CV. The schedule was about the same as the year before with Germanvox. There were not as many races as today. I remember we raced a lot in the Cote d'Azur though. The Belgian Frans Verbeeck specialized in those races.
Q They didn't take you to the Giro. Instead you rode that incredible 1971 Tour de France. Was this decided early in the season or did the team take these things as they came?
CV. Those things were decided about one month before each big race, depending on the condition of the riders.
Q. You rode nine Grand Tours: 7 Giri, 2 Tours. You finished them all, correct?
Q. The Tour of 1971 was your first Tour de France. It was a special Tour that people still talk about! What are your memories?
CV. That year the Tour started at Mulhouse, a nice town on the border between France and Germany. The first day there were three stages. The second stage was not easy at all, with many climbs. I remember that many riders hadn't yet arrived at the start line while we were already beginning the third stage. It was that hard.
Q. Was this perhaps the reason why in your team, SCIC, there were so many riders who abandoned? Only a few, including you, finished the Tour. What happened? Was it too hard or did they have some physical problems?
CV. Yes, we were ten at the beginning and only three of us arrived in Paris. But only one quit at the beginning, the others abandoned later. Some of them for problems, some others because it was too hard. And then again, in the Tour the morale is very important. You need high spirits to be able to suffer and finish the Tour.
Q. But what were the ambitions of your team for that Tour?
CV. Our goals were limited to stage wins. We bet on Enrico Paolini for that, because we didn't have a champion who could win the Tour. And maybe this is the reason why some of our riders abandoned.
Q. They weren't motivated enough?
CV. Correct, this is what happened and then Paolini, after a having good Tour, crashed during a sprint in one of the last stages.
Q. You mean the 19th stage?
CV. Yes, and he had to leave the Tour. So only the youngest of us had the enthusiasm to get to the end of Tour.
Q. How old were you?
CV. I was 24, so I had my motivations.
Q. What was the general feeling of the riders on the eve of the race? Merckx had already won the previous 2 Tours.
CV. Yes, we all knew that he was the strongest and he was the super favorite for the win again that year.
Q. How did the riders feel about him? They respected him I guess, but was he also popular?
CV. Well, he was both respected and a little unpopular. But anyway it was clear that he had an edge over the rest so he was admired by the riders.
Q. Let's get to the stages.
CV. Yes, there were in my opinion two unforgettable stages, not only for that Tour but for the whole history of the Tour de France. I am thinking about one of the first Alpine stages.
Q. I guess you are referring to stage 11?
CV. Yes the stage to Orcières-Merlette. Merckx was left behind, a very unusual thing to see.
Q. What happened there? Did he intentionally let the others go?
CV. No, no, Merckx never let anybody break away!! But that day...we don't know.... The start was on an upgrade and he wasn't that brilliant in the beginning. Maybe he was still warming up and his adversaries, Luis Ocana, Joaquim Agostinho, Joop Zoetemelk, noticed that and decided to break away immediately.
Q. And this cost Merckx dearly?
CV. Yes, it cost him dearly because the stage was long and very hard and there were four or five climbs, I can't remember exactly now. [note: the Cote de Laffrey, only 7 kilometers long. but much of it 10% or more and rated Category 2, is where Merckx was dropped. It was only 20 kilometers after the stage started in Grenoble. Merckx and the peloton lost 2 minutes to the break on this short climb.
Vercelli's 1973 SCIC team. Vercelli is standing in the left car, second from the left.
Q. He could catch Agostinho and Zoetemelk but never Ocana. At the end of the stage he came in almost 9 minutes after Ocana.
CV. Yes, that was something.
Q. Did Merckx beg the other teams for help?
CV. Well, in this kind of stage with so many climbs the help of the peloton doesn't count that much, you know.
Q. And how did he take it? What was his mood at the end of the stage?
CV. He took it badly, but not because he wasn't helped. As I said, with those hills it wouldn't have changed things that much if the group had tried to help him. He did take it badly because it had never happened to him to be behind and lose so much time. Usually he was the one who was 9 minutes in front the others!
Q. So he was just angry with himself?
CV. Yes. And the riders of his team of course helped the best they could, but still....
Q. What happened then?
CV. We arrived in Orcières-Merlette and then we had a rest day. The day after there was another incredible stage, the 12th, from Orcières-Merlette, in the Alps, to Marseilles. It was 300 kilometers long, with 20 kilometers of downhill and then 280 kilometers in the Reno Valley. Merckx was quite furious about the previous stage and so he decided to break away with five or six teammates right away, in the first 20 kilometers. Some other riders followed them and the group immediately gained several minutes. He needed to recover the 9 minutes he lost and he meant to do so by arriving in the valley with several minutes' lead with a good group of about 8 riders. This way it would have been very difficult for the rest of the peloton behind to catch them in the 280 kilometers of the valley. What happened instead is that during the descent they went so fast that when they braked for the turns the brake pads overheated the rims. The glue holding the tubular tires to the rims melted.
Q. And their tubular tires came off the rims!
CV. Right! This happened to two or three of Merckx's teammates and so they could not help him anymore in the valley. And by the way...this also happened to me!! Otherwise I would have been in the first 10 riders at the end of that stage. This happened much more often to the heavy riders, like me, because we had to use the brakes more heavily. Because of this Merckx lost some riders along the way who would have been a fundamental help to the plan.
Q. Was this the reason why he could recover only 2 minutes from Ocana by the end of the stage?
CV. Yes, this was one of the reasons. In the 280 kilometers of flat road he personally pulled the group for 250 kilometers on his own! And of course the peloton behind him went very fast. There were all Merckx's adversaries and they were all interested in catching him. They all worked together for that. It was basically Merckx alone against all the others.
Q. And despite that they never caught him?
CV. Yes, but they were only a few minutes behind. If he had not lost his teammates on the descent he would have been in Marseille at least 10 minutes before his adversaries and he would have recovered all the time from Ocana.
Another thing I remember about that day is the terrible heat. I remember the sound of the cicadas for all of the 300 kilometers. We went so fast that when we arrived in Marseille there were no television cameras there to broadcast our arrival. We were 2½ hours early! So the arrival was never filmed. At that time they usually showed only the last part of each stage on TV and we arrived before they could start doing that! In the ten years I have been a professional this never happened again.
Q. This Tour was like a movie, and it had a thrilling moment in the 14th stage to Luchon.
CV. Yes, after the Alps and the South of France we moved to the Pyrenees. Ocana crashed in a terrible weather while he was going downhill. First he fell on a cliff. Then, once he was back on the road another rider arrived and hit him badly. After that he could not go on.
Q. Where were you? Did you see what happened?
CV. No I was behind, I was not fast like them on the climbs.
Q. What was the feeling of the riders after that stage? I mean, Ocana would have very likely won the Tour.
CV. Well, we were not sure at all about that. Merckx had not given up yet, of course. And there were still some difficult stages to run. Even if Ocana had not crashed maybe Merckx would have recovered. I think that if Ocana had been brilliant in the Pyrenees as he had been in the previous stages perhaps Merckx wouldn't have been able to catch him. But I am sure that if Ocana had had even one single moment of fatigue Merckx would have been very ready to take advantage of that.
Q. So we will never know. I am interested to have your point of view about the difference between Tour de France and Giro d'Italia. You rode 2 Tours and 7 Giri, which one did you like better?
CV. The route of the Giro is much more beautiful because of the very various geographical characteristics of Italy. In the Tour there are 3-4 stages in the Alps, 2-3 stages in the Pyrenees and the rest is basically plain. The Giro has more variation.
Q. So you prefer the Giro?
CV. Italian riders usually prefer the Giro, but the Tour is more important and prestigious. I don't think the Giro is inferior to the Tour, especially as regards the climbs, but the Tour is a bigger thing. In the Tour there are bigger gaps because all the strongest riders are there. Another difference is the heat, the Giro is in May and the Tour in July.
Q. And the heat makes the difference?
CV. It made the difference especially when I rode. At that time there was no air conditioning and it very often happened that after a hard and hot stage you could not sleep at night! Then sometimes, especially in the stages just before the Pyrenees, we had to sleep in sort of dormitories all together. It was forbidden in those stages to stay at hotels. Merckx tried once to do that to sleep better and the staff of the Tour ordered him to go back to the dormitory. Even the jerseys and the service cars were all handled by the Tour organization.
Q. Do you have other memories of the Tour?
CV. I remember the atmosphere of celebration all over the country. July is the holiday month for the French, and the enthusiasm of the people on the sides of the roads was great. In Italy we usually see this only in the Alps, while in the Tour you feel the support of people at every stage. In France this is a very big thing. The people stand by the roads not only to see the riders but for the event itself.
Q. 1972. You finished the 1972 Giro one minute ahead of Joseph Bruyere, an eventual Yellow Jersey. This was the race between Merckx and the Spanish climber JoseManuel Fuentes. Any particular memories of that race?
CV. Fuentes was a very strong climber, but he raced without being careful to save his strength. He was very instinctive. As soon as he saw a climb he broke away. Merckx let him go sometimes, to let him 'stew in his own juice'. Most of the times this is what happened.... Then again Fuentes wasn't that good in the flat stages, especially when it was windy.
Q. So Merckx basically won the Giro by beating Fuentes in the stages that were considered easy?
CV. Right. Of course the fact that Fuentes wasn't a big man didn't help.
Q. The Stelvio climb was in this Giro. Was it paved then? Did you climb it from the Trafoi (North) side?
CV. It was paved and I have always climbed it from the Trafoi. It's a dramatic ride. If you feel well you just keep on going, trying not to look up. But if you are not well then it really never ends....
Q. Your 1974 team with GB Baronchelli, Franco Bitossi and Enrico Paolini was a powerhouse of talent. Your team missed putting Baronchelli in Pink in Milan by only 12 seconds. That must have hurt.
CV. Actually we were happy! Baronchelli was at his first year as a pro and we felt that we had a promising talent on our team. I think Merckx had underestimated him at the beginning. He didn't know him.
An SCIC presentation in 1975. Franco Bitossi is speaking. Vercelli is the second man to the right of Bitossi.
CV. I remember that in a couple of stages Baronchelli could have passed Merckx in the general classification. One was the stage arriving at the Tre Cime di Laveredo. Baronchelli attacked Merckx on the Passo delle Tre Croci but then he found a headwind in his face on the plain of Lake Misurina. He was alone and lost some time here. After the plain there was the climb to the Leveredo Peaks. I think this is maybe the hardest climb you can ever find and Baronchelli could not maintain a big enough gap to take the Pink Jersey that day.
Q. I assume that most of his advantage was lost when he was alone on that plain with the wind in his face. Merckx was protected by his domestiques there.
CV. This is just what happened.
Q. The time trial at Forte dei Marmi where Baronchelli lost a minute and a half cost him the Giro?
CV. For sure Merckx was stronger in the time trials. But I remember that at the end of the Giro, with Baronchelli so close to him, Merckx was not that calm. And in fact during a stage with the Monte Grappa climb that finished in Bassano del Grappa, Merckx attacked Baronchelli many times. Baronchelli resisted and remained only 12 seconds behind Merckx. In the last stages they were basically fighting on equal terms.
Q. The following year Baronchelli didn't fulfill his promise....
CV. He suffered a lot in the heat. That meant that he had problems with the Tour.
Q. The 1976 Tour. The Cannibal couldn't find good form and missed the Tour de France. SCIC brought Baronchelli and super climber Wladimiro Panizza. Was your team planning, with Merckx gone, to attempt to win the Tour with Baronchelli?
CV. Baronchelli suffered in the heat and didn't do well in a decisive stage in the Pyrenees where van Impe attacked at the start and surprised Zoetemelk. I think Zoetemelk was stronger than van Impe, but van Impe did better in that stage and this allowed him to win the Tour.
Q. The Tour that year scheduled the Alps and the Pyrenees to be ridden back to back with 6 straight days of climbing. How did this affect a big man like you?
CV. I was not a climber but I didn't have big problems in the hard climbs.
Q. When you are riding a Grand Tour and make a huge effort to help your captain, and then become detached from the leaders, you then had to make the time cut. Was this a generally a problem?
CV. Unless I didn't feel well, I never had problems with the time cut. After helping my captain I was tired but I could always make it.
Q. After SCIC, for 1977 you transferred to the great Brooklyn team of Roger DeVlaeminck. How did that happen?
CV. I was good friends with a rider who was in the Brooklyn Team, Giancarlo Bellini, King of Mountains at the Tour the year before. He really wanted me in his team and was able to arrange it. I went there in the wrong year though. In the years before they won everything with De Vlaeminck. 1977 was maybe the worst year for the Brooklyn team. De Vlaeminck had to abandon the Giro because of physical problems.
Q. With a career that took in so many races, some of them many times, which race did you enjoy the most.
CV. For me, and I think for most of Italians, the Giro and the Milan-San Remo were the most charming races.
Q. Which one was odio? Which was the one you never wanted to ride?
CV. I had to go to the races that I didn't like, like the Northern Classics in Belgium.
Q. Your season ended in October? Did you hang up the bike for a while each year?
CV. Yes, in that era we did hang up the bike for 2 months. We didn't ride in the winter.
Q. What did you do? How did you train?
CV. We ran. Nobody told us that it would have been better to keep on riding, even if not intensively.
Q. When did you start riding again? How far?
CV. In January, about 50 kilometers a day.
Q. How far during a normal period of training?
CV. During the season I rode about 100 km a day. I tended to put on weight and therefore I needed to ride long distances, so once a week I rode more than 200 km and another day about 180 km.
Vercelli time-trialing for the Brooklyn team.
CV. We still got no help. In Germanvox we saw the doctor once a month!
Q. Today each team has its own doctors....
CV. In a sense it was better before. We were more genuine.
Q. Let's talk about some of the greats you knew and rode for. Gianni Motta.
CV. He was an extraordinary natural talent. He could do very well in a race even without training. He was in a class apart. A very particular temper. He could have won much more than he did because he was a bit unlucky. And then he met Merckx....
Q. You said your favorite captain was Bitossi. Who was your favorite rider?
CV. Merckx, definitely.
Q. Rudimentary doping controls were instituted in 1966. Before that doping was an accepted part of cycling, neither hidden nor boasted about, except maybe for Anquetil. Until the 1970's doping involved drugs like amphetamines that overrode the nervous systems defenses. In the 1970's for the first time with steroids, doping could actually increase the power and strength of a rider. What was the atmosphere in the pro peloton during that era towards drugs? Was there pressure put on the riders of that era to do whatever they had to in order to win, knowing that this could involve doping?
CV. This is a very delicate topic and usually riders don't say the truth about it. I will say the truth, because I have nothing to hide. When I turned pro in 1969 I was completely naïve and clean. And I think that most of the doctors of that era were more conscientious than now.
After amphetamine use caused Simpson's death in the 1967 Tour de France the controls in Italy became very scrupulous. This was demonstrated by the disqualification of Merckx in the 1969 Giro. The organization had no interest in kicking him out. Rather the opposite because he was a star. Therefore from what I know, after Simpson's death most of the riders were clean from amphetamines during the races. I think there were still some who cheated the anti-doping check with clean urine, but it was very risky and I don't think many riders did it. Also the judges learned about this tactic. Therefore, almost nobody tried to cheat this way.
Amphetamines were still usually taken during training. For example, if the race were on a Saturday we took the amphetamine not later than Wednesday, so that we were clean for the race. Amphetamines helped the rider train more intensively.
Q. You retired after only two months on the Intercontinentale team. Why?
CV. In the last years of my racing career I had back problems.
Q. What race do you remember with the greatest pleasure?
CV. There are two races that I love to remember. I could have won them. One was the Giro del Veneto. I had broken away alone and they caught me with 2 km to go. When they caught me I could still find the strength to give a leadout for the final sprint to my captain, Enrico Paolini. Paolini won and this gave me great satisfaction.
Another unforgettable race was the Giro di Reggio Calabria. Ten or twelve of us broke away. We crossed the mountains of the Southern Apennines. At the end there were just two of us left, Ottavio Crepaldi from the strong team Ferretti, and me. We had an advantage of about ten minutes on the peloton. Then, unfortunately, Crepaldi slowed and I was left alone. As long as Crepaldi was with me his team didn't chase. But when he had the crisis with ten kilometers to go, his team, with Zilioli and some strong sprinters, started to work to catch me. They caught me with a few kilometers to go. If Crepaldi had not cracked I very likely would have won that race.
Q. It's a sweet and sour memory....
Q. How did you end up making cycling shoes? Did your family have a tradition of shoemaking?
CV. Yes, there was such a tradition in my family. They made work and mountain shoes.
Q. Shoemaking has changed from that era of leather shoes. How has your craft changed?
CV. In the past, shoes were mostly leather. The most important difference with the modern materials we use now is that leather got soft and heavy with the rain. The shoe lost its rigidity and could bend under load, even if we put a steel thin sheet inside. That's why now the shoes have a carbon sole, to ensure rigidity.
Q. What changes do you see in the future?
CV. We are at a very high level right now. I don't see changes in the immediate future.
Celestino Vercelli today. Photo taken by Valeria Paoletti at the May, 2005 Granfondo Gimondi
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.