One of the most enduring images in my mind of the Tour in the early 90s is of the monumental Stage 13 of the 1992 edition. Riders covered 255km over some of the most brutal and iconic mountain passes the race had ever witnessed, finishing at the Italian ski resort of Sestriere. The tifosi were out in force that day, with numbers estimated in the hundreds of thousands, cheering on their idol Claudio Chiappucci as he went on a day-long solo mission to take victory. Such was the magnitude of the crowd that a human tunnel formed on the final climb of the day, with the lead motorcycles unable to forge their way through the throng in places, with Il Diablo himself forced to overtake them, frantically waving his arms at his adoring fans to clear a path to the summit and an incredible win.
Some seven and three-quarter hours after setting out from Saint Gervais in France, Chiappucci stamped his name in the history books while leaving in his wake all the GC contenders, including Indurain, Bugno, Hampsten and Fignon. A visibly distressed and outclassed Greg LeMond struggled in some 42 minutes behind, signalling the beginning of the end of his race, and his career. But just 1:45 behind Chiappucci came another Italian, one that even the staunchest of tifosi may have had trouble identifying.
Franco Vona had been just another Italian who’d had some strong showings in his native country’s Grand Tour, with a stage win and a 2nd in the Young Rider classification in 1988. The following year was unremarkable, before he seemed to drop off the radar in 90 and 91, with a dearth of results bar a mountain stage win at the Tour de Suisse. 1992, however, saw him suddenly at the front of affairs in the mountains of the Giro, taking two stages and 6th on GC. To the wider cycling audience though, it would be the Tour where he would really make his mark.
Having left the small Jolly team in 91, Vona found himself on the powerful GB-MG squad along with the likes of Museeuw, Ballerini, Tchmil, Cipollini and another ‘great improver’, Zenon Jaskula. With being on a big team comes some of the benefits that money and power bring, including advanced ‘training programs’ and access to doctors and coaches who could realise a rider’s potential through means the riders might not have previously encountered. Vona’s new-found powers of recovery would shine the very next day at l’Alpe d’Huez, taking another second place, this time behind Andy Hampsten. Not even Chiappucci and Big Mig could match him, and Vona would eventually finish the Tour in 11th place.
Vona was clearly a man for the mountains though, and a weak time trial ability saw him thrust into a support role for Jaskula in 93, when the Pole made his own meteroic rise to the Tour podium. The Italian rode the next three Tours, but would never again reach the heights of 92, and he would end his career with another small Italian team, AKI-Gipiemme in 1996.
These days, Vona works as a cycling guide for the Silva Splendid Hotel in Fiuggi, central Italy. They describe him as their “pride and joy”, and state he will “disclose you the secrets of professional cycling”. I wonder just how many secrets he is willing to reveal?