It was a rainy Saturday morning in Croydon in late February 2010. I was going into town for a hair cut. First, I had a phone call to make.
Days before, I had spotted some videos Elisabetta Nencini made of her father, Gastone, on Youtube. Instinctively, I was curious about a Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner of whom I’d heard little.
I made contact with Elisabetta. As she recalled her father’s life and career down a crackly phone line, I was surprised by the vividness of her memories and raw emotions. I didn’t know how to cope with her tears. I remember telling the hairdresser about it in a daze, some twenty minutes later.
I knew even less what to do with her passionate words. The memories of such a close family member are often individually precious and distorted. Love adds its own tint, omits foibles or twists facts.
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Gastone Nencini was a block of Florentine granite on a bike, stubborn to shift from a lead group, a master of descending. This rural kid wasn’t afraid of anyone. His courage and obstinacy yielded his nickname, the Lion of Mugello, a Tuscan town forty kilometres north of Florence.
“Until then, grand champions dictated their terms, who was in command, over the domestiques. Nobody could move before that,” Elisabetta recalls.
“At the moment my father turned professional, he upset all their plans because he didn’t give in. He had the character of a wild horse. He didn’t like that someone imposed rules on him, didn’t like to be harnessed.
“There was a conspiracy of people that didn’t ride in a fair way: in general, in the sport, there’s a code of honour. He’d rather die than fall in line behind champions.”
Nencini made a quick impression. The second year professional was poised to win to the 1955 Giro. On the race’s penultimate day, Coppi and Magni planned a coup against the callow maglia rosa. They charged away, ready to make him sweat for the win. The latter had his heavy Tour of Flanders tyres on.
He knew they faced stubbly sections of strade bianche. When Nencini double-flatted on a rough stretch, the old rivals were off. The upshot of that 170-kilometre break into San Pellegrino: the stage to Coppi; the Giro, overturned, to Magni; third place overall to the devastated Nencini.
Nencini’s daughter hints at mechanical foulplay: “Coppi told my dad to stay calm because if anything happened, he would be by his side. He made an agreement with Coppi.
“We speak of a plot because on that day he punctured so many times and the support was never behind him. Changing the wheel should take a few seconds, 15 maximum. Well, he lost a minute.”
Cycling’s a funny old game though. Two years later, Nencini took his single Giro victory, the opportune winner in similarly controversial circumstances. He latched onto a Louison Bobet-led splinter group, up the road after Charly Gaul stopped for a piss – a revenge attack after the Luxembourger had wronged Bobet in identical circumstances earlier that very day.
Descending towards Monte Bondone, disaster. Another puncture for Nencini. His bid was surely over. But Gaul did the donkey work, pacing him back up to Bobet. If he wasn’t going to win this race, then neither was his crafty French rival. The Italian profited. Nencini kept himself to himself.
“He was very modest; I believe it came from a great respect that he had for others,” Elisabetta says. “I don’t think that my father had a weakness. But he perhaps did not like the faithful life of an athlete.
“Sometimes he would smoke a few cigarettes; he loved women. Ever since he was a young man, he liked to have a glass of wine on the table. It did him good, lifted the tension. Although his directeur sportifs prohibited it, my father did not listen. Those glasses of wine stayed on the table,” Elisabetta recalls.
On the penultimate day of the 1960 Tour, Nencini was clad in the yellow jersey when the race stopped at Charles de Gaulle’s house in the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. “The patron of the Tour introduced my father to de Gaulle and said ‘Nencini, Italiano’.”
“My dad replied: ‘No! Nencini, Florentine’. De Gaulle said: ‘You have fought like a real soldier. My compliments, Paris is yours, well deserved’.”
Ultimately, Nencini rode among legends, but never became one. He is framed as little more than a tenacious plugger in cycling history. He is one of seven Tour de France winners to win the yellow jersey without taking a stage. List Italian champions who are Tour winners, and after Bottecchia, Bartali, Coppi, Gimondi and Pantani, Nencini would be the oft-forgotten number six.
But would he care about being remembered? “I don’t think that my dad sought glory. He fought for himself, to beat adversaries, more than the glory,” Elisabetta says. “Therefore he always avoided the TV, newspapers, those things didn’t interest him. He preferred to show his strength on the roads, a way of being a true man. That was my father. He wasn’t a man who imposed. I learnt to live my life as he did, to have certain values which are the important things that count in life: it’s not success, glory and the rest.”
After his career, Nencini was a directeur sportif for Max Meyer and opened a bike shop. He was there for the kids too. “I felt that he was so strong, capable of defending us like a lion. Every day at lunch and dinner, I would go on my dad’s shoulders and he’d compare my hand with his – because he had enormous hands, huge. I felt so protected by that.”
These labourer’s hands turned to painting, the fledgling artist taking lessons from Pietro Annigoni, who depicted the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John XXIII and JFK. “I probably inherited this passion for painting from my father. Now, I am an artist and a graduate of the Academi di Belli Arti of Florence,” Elisabetta says.
Nencini was only 50 when he died in 1980 from lymphatic system failure. Elisabetta begins to cry as she remembers her father’s last days. “I’d gone to the hospital to see that my father was dying, and then my mother sent me home. I got up early to return the next day. Then my aunt came into my bedroom and said that they’d just said on TV that my father was dead.
“At that moment, it felt like a part of me had died and left my body. I am a cheerful, serene person. But the good part that my father gave me has not returned – it went straight with him.”