As the terrain rolled and rain began to fall, the 1984 Giro d’Italia peloton was splitting up like a satellite on re-entry.
Panic stations. Dave Akam positioned Francesco Moser on his wheel and took him into the front echelon. A few kilometres of fighting for position, then that dreaded light feeling on the bike. Drr-drr-bmm, thwack-thwack-thwack. Back wheel puncture.
He calmly pulled over and stuck his hand in the air. The GiS Gelati team car sailed on by, steered by Enzo Moser. Supporting his younger brother was more important than tending to a gregario.
Akam waited for the chasing groups, then the second team car shot past, quickly followed by neutral service and the sag wagon. How could they have missed any puncture victim, let alone a big ginger-haired bloke in white-blue-and-red kit?
Bollocks. With a flat back tyre and 60 miles to race, all Akam could think about was his £10,000 bonus going up the road along with his chances of finishing the 1984 Giro.
Salvation came in two unlikely forms. “This old boy at the side of the road lent his wheel and it kind of meshed,” Akam recalls, leaning forward in a pub chair. He pressed on, gears grinding.
“Then, I’ll never forget, there was this spivvy-looking Italian with Ray-Bans on and slicked back hair, who had an Alfa Romeo Spider. He said: ‘Eh, hold onto the car’.
“So I held onto the door handle for 60 miles and I was only about 15 minutes behind the bunch at the finish. Champagne was broken out later, purely because I’d used my noddle and stayed in the race.”
You’d have commissaires and reporters crawling all over that now, but this was the ‘80s, when racing was wilder and more improvised. The incident speaks volumes for the rest of Akam’s career. As he would soon see, domestiques are often the ones who do the work and get left behind.
“In a month’s time, David Akam will pack his bags and set out for Italy from his South London home,” a cutting from the February 12, 1984 edition of Cycling Weekly reads. “For the last three years the former British amateur pursuit champion has lived and raced abroad, first in Holland and then France, building a reputation as an aggressive rider with a talent for time trialling. Now he is to step a rung higher when he joins the Gis team on March 1 as a professional and team-mate of world hour record holder, Francesco Moser. While in Italy, Akam will be living with Moser’s mother, so he will not have any food worries!”
How wrong they were. “It was like something from The Godfather,” Akam recalls. “Moser was never a mountain climber but, by God, they were hard mountain people. His mum had me on a diet straight away. I think they thought I was a bit overweight – I was, I had a knee injury. So I had about three weeks training in my legs and went straight into the Tour of Spain.”
Akam hotfooted it from casa Moser to a Lake Garda hotel. His new team-mates christened him “Rosso”, easier than bullying their tongues around the name Dave. “It was a lot redder than it is now,” he says, gesturing at his hair by way of explanation.
He quickly came to see that the Italian peloton was a place where the big stars were the bosses, controlling the racing, deciding when and which attacks were allowed to go. “To me, it was quite Mafioso, very suppressive,” he says. “There was some prejudice [over nationality]. I remember a couple of riders saying: ‘What are you doing? You’re taking an Italian place’.”
Then there were his peers. “Some of them lived like monks, they wouldn’t have sex all season… It never really worked because all they did was [crack and] go down the gelateria for an ice cream.”
Akam spent a lot of time with English-speaking team-mates, Dutchman Martin Havik and Roger De Vlaeminck. “He was probably one of the most talented riders I saw,” Akam says of the Belgian legend. “He was past his best sell-by date then, but as a bike handler? You’d be in the bunch talking to him one minute, then he’d be right at the front the next. You’d think: ‘How the hell did he get through that gap?’”
A strong ride at the Giro del Trentino helped Akam into the 1984 Giro line-up. He helped to keep GiS pushing along at 50km per hour in the lengthy team time-trial around Lucca on the way to finishing third, 27 seconds off Laurent Fignon’s victorious Renault squad.
For the rest of the race, his job was policing and sitting on moves, which rarely made him popular. Dave remembers one race breakaway where future Giro winner Roberto Visentini came up to him, “giving it large, trying to intimidate me. And I went ‘Yeah, you want some?’ I was a big lad, and he left me alone. That’s Italians for you,” he says, laughing.
I suspect Akam is a softie at heart, but with his deep south London accent and size, you’d still think twice about messing with him.
The 1984 Giro turned out to be one of the most controversial editions. At points, it seemed farcically fixed for Francesco Moser. Race director Vincenzo Torriani removed the Stelvio from one stage, citing a snowfall that nobody else seemed to be aware of, the home favourites received pushes aplenty from tifosi (above).
And then there was the helicopter allegedly blowing Moser along in the final time-trial. At times, Laurent Fignon must have felt like the whole of Italy was against him.
Akam was too busy trying to survive. “I was there to do a job; when you’re there, you’re not listening to all that,” he says.
After protecting Moser all race, the British gregario pushed his weary legs round the Verona time-trial to close the race with a 14th place, his best result. He finished the Giro 137th overall, over three and a half hours down – not quite far enough for his leader.
“Later, I heard that Moser had apparently said: ‘You can’t have given your all in the race because you finished 14th’. I thought: ‘What a bizarre thing to say [after just winning the Giro]’. Moser was a terrific athlete but a hard man, not the easiest to get on with.”
It was the first time an Alfa Romeo Spider has played a part in a minor British cycling achievement too: more than 30 years on, Akam is the last Briton to complete a Giro on the same team as the race winner. A similar palaver at a modern Grand Tour would be scandalous, but things were more slapdash back then.
“You wouldn’t believe how amateurish it was. One time, I was with Piero Onesti and Stefano Giuliani,” he remembers, perusing the GiS Gelati team sheets we’ve brought along to jog his memory.
“We finished a stage late, we were absolutely freezing at the top of this mountain with a snow line – and they left us there. Luckily, Giuliani knew where the hotel was. We rode there and Onesti was going hypothermic. We had to take his clothes off and get him under the covers. You can’t believe that kind of thing could happen, but it did, and you got on with it.”
We’re not all as credulous as we used to be, but the 1980s racing scene still raises eyebrows. At one race during his career, a team doctor handed Akam a pill to take. An older colleague told him to pretend and collected a few as the race progressed. After later analysis, it turned out to be one of the strongest anabolic steroids on the market.
“At the end of the day, if you were wise as a rider, you wouldn’t get too involved. Not to say that anybody was Mary Poppins, because they weren’t,” he says.
“I’m not talking about drugs, but the system: it didn’t allow you to be. If you’ve got half a brain, you kind of know what went on. They’ve got to drag up the past all the time, but it’s best to just leave it there.”
This is an edited extract from issue 47 of Rouleur, published in May 2014.