Compared to every other rider to have won two Grand Tours in a single season, Giovanni Battaglin is relatively unknown. Perhaps it’s because he never shone in the Tour de France — in five starts, he finished only once, in sixth place in 1979 (when he also won the climbers’ classification).
But he was the Grand Tour rider of 1981, and was possibly one of the most ridiculously hard cases of all time. He won the Vuelta after dominating the race in the mountains. Astonishingly, he then went on to win the Giro, which started only three days after the Vuelta finished. Take into account that there wasn’t a single rest day in the Vuelta, and by the end of the Giro, he had raced 43 days out of 48. It turns out all those old pros telling us they had it harder in their day were right.
Battaglin rode for the Inoxpran team in 1981, which would go on to become Carrera, for whom Stephen Roche won his Giro-Tour double in 1987. During the 1980s, Italian teams were famous for riding well in Italy, and nowhere else, but Inoxpran hit the Vuelta like the spring storms that used to batter the race when it was held in April. They won stages one, two and three, with Guido Bontempi and Alfredo Chinetti, before Battaglin took the lead by winning the Sierra Nevada time trial on stage eight. Five days later, he definitively killed off the opposition by joining a strong break of five riders, leaving second-placed Pedro Munoz behind.
The 1981 Giro was a three-way battle between Battaglin, Swede Tommy Prim and Giuseppe Saronni. Each brought a specific personal superpower to the race. Saronni’s was the ability to pick up bonus seconds in the sprints, attack on the hilly stages, and hang on in the mountains. Prim was a rouleur and time triallist, with the strongest team in the race, Bianchi. Meanwhile, Battaglin was a good climber with stubbornness, consistency and tenacity.
The race parcours was so well balanced that with three days to go, four riders were within 30 seconds of race leader Silvano Contini. The race would come down to the climb of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, and the final 42-kilometre time trial into Verona. Battaglin finished third in both stages, but dropped all his rivals on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, and ceded only two seconds to Prim in the time trial. The quietest Grand Tour double in the history of cycling had been clinched.
But Battaglin was a rider upon whom fate only smiled once. Before and after 1981, fate preferred to scowl aggressively at him. He was at the kill at the end of the 1979 World Championships, and was the strongest rider on the Cauberg climb near the finish. But just as the sprint began, Battaglin rode his bike right into the back of eventual winner Jan Raas. In 1982, he had ambitions to compete in the Tour de France, but broke his collarbone early in the season, badly compromising his preparation. Just two years later, hepatitis ended his career.
GRAND TOUR CLINCHERS – 4 KEY STAGES
1) 1981 Vuelta a Espana stage 8b, Granada-Sierra Nevada TT
Battaglin lays the foundations for his Vuelta victory with victory in the time trial on the Sierra Nevada climb. In atrocious conditions, with a snowstorm battering the riders, and in spite of a wheel change costing him 30 seconds, Battaglin covers the 30.5 kilometres almost a minute quicker than second-placed Pedro Munoz, to take the race lead.
2) 1981 Vuelta a Espana stage 13, Esparraguera-Rasos de Perguera
Battaglin clinches the overall win with a week of the race still remaining, coming second on the hardest stage of the Vuelta. The stage win goes to Vicente Belda, but Battaglin is in second place, another minute ahead of Munoz, his closest rival.
3) 1981 Giro d’ItItalia stage 19, Dimaro-Sanan Vigiliodi Marebbe
Battaglin makes the first of two moves that will eventually win him the Giro, with a hard attack on the Passo Purcia. By the end of the stage, Contini keeps the pink jersey, but Battaglin is only three seconds behind, and two more riders are within 30 seconds.
4) 1981 Giro d’ItItalia stage 20, Sanan Vigilio-Trere Cime di Lavaredo
On the last mountain stage of the race, Battaglin finally breaks his rivals, coming third on the stage behind Beat Breu, but finally taking the pink jersey. He’s 40 seconds ahead of Tommy Prim overall, and only loses two seconds to his Swedish rival in the final time trial of the race to win overall.
From the archives:
The Inoxpran rider got to within three seconds of the pink jersey wearer Silvano Contini (Bianchi) when he won in the mountains with three days to go, and clinched victory in the final stage, a 42-kilometre time trial from Soave to Verona.
The dead flat test was won by Norway’s Knut Knudsen (Bianchi) in 51-50, second was Tommy Prim (Bianchi) of Sweden at 1-22, with Battaglin holding on to third place and the pink jersey just two seconds slower than the Swede.
The Giro burst into life on stage 10 as the race crossed the Apennines. One of the race favourites, Francesco Moser (Famcucine) lost any chance of eventual victory when he lost 5-51 on the stage winner Giambattista Baronchelli (Bianchi) after a bad fall. The race was on from the climb of the Terminillo, a mountain situated 46 kilometres from the finish. On the climb six riders escaped: Baronchelli, Contini, Claudio Bortolotto (Santini), Alfio Vandi (Wilier-San Marco), Battaglin and Prim. Behind, helped by Wladimiro Panizza, Giuseppe Saronni (Gis), the race leader, tried to close the gap. Despite his efforts, Saronni was 51 seconds adrift at the finish, where Baronchelli, Bortolotto and Contini received 30, 20 and 10 seconds time bonuses respectively.
Battaglin came within three seconds of taking over the race leadership when he won the 19th stage to San Vigilio di Marebbe. The Italian climber attacked 10 kilometres from the end of the stage on the climb of the Passo Purcia. Contini was dropped and only Saronni, Mario Becca (Santini), Roberto Visentini (Sammontana), Prim and the two Swiss, Fuchs and Breu (Cilo-Aufina), could stay with Battaglin.