the classy sprinter able to do damage
“Take me to Battaglin”, Gianni Brera asked me one morning during the 1981 Giro d’Italia. “I want to meet him. I wonder if he’s heard of me».“It would be a serious matter if I’d never heard of you”, replied the lad from Marostica, thrilled to shake hands with the famous writer. He seemed just a lad, Giovanni Battaglin, to whom I failed to keep my promise toaccept his invitation to the countryside around Vicenza, where he kept numerous cherry trees – although I’ve always loved the fruit.
He was a nice lad, who looked about 20, although he had already hit 30 when he won the Vuelta, immediately following it up with the Giro d'Italia. Fairly attractive and perfectly athletic, who knows what he might have achieved without those respiratory difficulties that reduced his performance to half his potential on gloomy days. A great climber, good at keeping the pace on the flat, a talent for sprinting. A cyclist everyone was afraid of, described by Bernard Hinault as a sprinter able to do damage, a cyclist that could leave you gasping if you tried to rise to a challenge from him.
Battaglin had also made his mark on the Tour de France, with a sixth place that did not fully express his potential. It was the summer of 1979, and Giovanni would have finished the race just behind Hinault had he not been penalized by 10 minutes as a result of a drug prescribed by the team doctor. He did win the mountains classification, however, testifying to his skills as a "grimpeur". During that same summer, another, much more prestigious title failed to make it into Giovanni’s trophy cabinet thanks to two adversaries any self-respecting jury would have disqualified.
The events of the world championships in Valkenburg remain engraved on my memory. I’ll never forget that day in the Netherlands, 25 August. I’ll never forget the episode that marked the race, the crucial point of which was the Cauberg ascent, the stretch on which the idol of the home crowds (Raas) was repeatedly jostled by Lubberding. Battaglin was in tip-top form, and his attacks were making the difference. He would have stepped on the gas during the last stretch on the Cauberg without the damage caused by a swerve, which put the brakes on him, but it was clear all the same that of the five top racers, the freshest, and the strongest, was the Italian. Yes, I believed – and I still believe – that Giovanni had the potential to beat the exhausted Raas. It didn’t turn out like that, however, because of the cowardly action of the German, in cahoots with Raas. Just 150 from the finish, when Battaglin sprinted ahead, Thurau cut in and swerved across from right to left; and as if that weren’t enough, Raas did his bit by elbowing Giovanni off his bike.
Like many others, of course, I placed my hopes in the jury called in to examine the appeal presented by Alfredo Martini. It took just an hour for them to meet and make the wrong decision. Swayed by an environment that was rooting for Raas at all costs, by people who had drunk themselves senseless on beer, the jury lacked the bottle to get to the foot of the episode and establish the truth. And Battaglin, done in and tearful, had to make do with sixth place.
Giovanni, who knows how often you’ve thought back on Valkenburg '79, on a world title we know you were cheated out of, a trophy that would have been the icing on the cake for your career. In the world of cycling, however, you’ll be remembered for your genuine class, your elegance in the saddle, that stylish touch on the pedals that makes the difference. This same elegance and sophistication are evident today in Battaglin the entrepreneur in the world of cycling; so all told, we might well say Marostica has a son to be proud of.
by “ Gino Sala”