Evanescent riders of the 90s: Franco Vona

Evanescent riders of the 90s: Franco Vona

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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?

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// Evanescent Riders // Nostalgia // Racing

  1. I love your Evanescent Riders of the 90’s articles. Well put and informative. We should also develop the Unsung Hardmen thread. Good work. Thanks bro.

  2. Yeah, another nice post. Well done.

    Speaking of ‘sudden improvements, ‘advanced training programs’ and realising a rider’s potential through other ‘methods’, I have just read David Walsh’s “From Lance to Landis”. A compelling – albeit depressing – read. Next time someone urges you to read “It’s Not About the Bike”, get them to read Walsh’s book and then ask them if they still recommend the Armstrong one. Let me know if you want to borrow it.

  3. @Geof

    @Marko

    Cheers guys… yeah Geof, I’d love to have a read. I haven’t even looked at the other book you loaned me yet, but I’d rather have a look at the Walsh one.

  4. One reason why I enjoy spending time here is that I always learn something and everything is a good read..Thanks Brett.

  5. Your articles, especially these Evanescent Riders ones, always remind me what a crap writer I am. This one, in particular, is a masterpiece. Awesome.

    I remember this guy, albeit a bit vaguely. Man, that GB team was killer, though. And those Bianchis…mama mia!. One of the things I remember most of this guy is the way Ligget would yell his name, “Franco VONAH!”

    Awesome piece.

  6. So a bit tangential but this post got me thinking. My velomihottie is Italian. Her extended kin hale from Pontremoli Italy. The Giro rode through that town this year. So I googled her last name with the word cyclist added. I thought I wouldn’t be surprised if there was someone with her last name who was pro after seeing her climbing technique. It’s classic lighter-than-air dancing-on-the-pedals Italian. Turns out, there is a former pro with the same last name but he is French (must be from the south). May be extended, who knows, but I tried.

  7. @Marko
    Dude, that’s awesome. Those Euro families are very inter-related, it’s not far-fetched that they are relations.

    Doesn’t she ride 650cc wheels? That is nuts. Mine also has this infuriating natural climbing technique, although for a rider as small as she, I would intuit that she’d spin higher, but she is more of a Pantani-style climber.

    Back to the point, these “Evanescent” riders…I am seriously looking forward to the next edition already. Who will Brett pick? I don’t know, but it will be good.

    Many people might look back at this and say, “Jeeze, that wasn’t real bike racing” and they would be right. But the field was so juiced, the only thing not real about it was the speed. The racing between riders going tete-en-tete was still level. I, for one, just love good bike racing. I hope for a clean sport – and want one. But mostly because I feel bad for riders who are pressured into doping, and for unhealthy situations they put themselves into. The racing…well, the racing is good to watch, with or without the drugs.

  8. @frank

    Stop it now, Frank, every time I read something you wrote I think that I need to brush up a bit! Crap, you ain’t…

    Every time I do one of these articles, I think “what if I’m wrong, what if these guys weren’t juiced to the eyeballs and I’m slandering them unwittingly?” But then I watch a video of them driving it up the nastiest of Cols at warp speed, and I feel somewhat vindicated.

    And for sure guys like Vona and Jaskula were obviously talented to even become pro riders, but the magic juice certainly took them to a whole other level. While I’m researching their palmares, there are always spooky parallels that seem just to good to be purely coincidental; timelines, teams etc, it all points at the same conclusions.

  9. @frank @brett
    This whole argument – “it was bad, but at least it was bad in a level-playing-field kind of way” – is interesting in light of an instant-message exchange which David Walsh (in “From Lance to Landis”) claims took place between Frankie Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters (in 2005?). The alleged exchange seems to indicate that Credit Agricole (and by implication other teams, but not USPS) were actually trying to ride clean(ish) (at least from some time after 1998). From memory, Walsh claims that Vaughters is saying he was surprised to find, when he got to Credit Agricole, that they didn’t dope at all. (The reported exchange also includes an apparent acknowledgment by JV of previous familiarity with “the houtsauce”.) Not sure how that squares with the “level playing field” argument. Maybe it doesn’t change it – the riders were all grown-ups and they could presumably have chosen to be clean or to dope, and in that sense there was a level playing field. But on the other hand it suggests that there may not have been a level playing field (i.e. if some teams were trying to make more of an effort than others to ride clean(er)).

    Of course, Walsh’s book may not be accurate, it is focussed on Big Tex rather than the peloton in general, we don’t know all the facts, innocent until proven guilty (in a court of law, not merely in the court of (rapidly-swinging-away-from-your-sorry-arse) public opinion), etc. So, we should not jump to conclusions.

    But, if it was the case that USPS was at the forefront of doping even when others were trying not to be, then … well … COTHO, indeed.

    Incidentally, the alleged IM exchange also contains a claim that LA and JB tipped a bag of Landis’ rest-day blood down the toilet, so that he’d ride poorly. (I think Walsh speculates this may have been to punish Landis for defecting to Phonak). If that’s true then … well… do we need a new term? “COTUHO” (where “u” is for “unsurpassed”)?

  10. @Good Geofelephant

    I’m not sure I’ve endorsed the ‘level playing field’ view with regards to EPO. I read somewhere recently how EPO benefitted some more than others, turning ‘donkeys into racehorses’ so to speak. That’s how these evanescent riders came to the fore so quickly, then faded away just as rapidly.

    And that’s the effect it had on Armstrong, who couldn’t climb a ladder or beat time with a stick in his pre-cancer guise.

  11. frank :@Marko
    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.

    How articulatory.

  12. @Good Geofelephant, @brett
    Those are both some annoyingly good points. I knew that different riders had different natural hematocrit levels – and thus that different riders benefit more from blood doping etc, but I’d managed to ignore that when thinking about the whole “level playing field” thing.

    And that’s the effect it had on Armstrong, who couldn’t climb a ladder or beat time with a stick in his pre-cancer guise.

    Brilliant.

    @Good Geofelephant
    I’m gonna have to get me that book. That and the Professeur’s new book…

  13. Yeah, the Walsh book is a good read. There’s a lot there you’ll have heard about before, like Betsy Andreu on the alleged hospital room doping admission, and the six positive r-EPO results from 1999 samples analysed several years later (see, in that context, link posted above to interview with Mike Ashenden). But there’s a lot of background and contextual stuff, plus a few new (to me) things like the alleged IM exchange.

    What’s “the Professeur’s new book”?

  14. @brett
    Great post. I thought I was one to have spent too much of my memory banks on esoteric euro-pros but you, my friend, have put me to shame again. Franco Vona, I had never heard of him. It is story told more than once.

    Every time I do one of these articles, I think “what if I’m wrong, what if these guys weren’t juiced to the eyeballs and I’m slandering them unwittingly?”

    Your worries are unfounded. It would be interesting to somehow graph these rider’s careers, see the spike in performance in the 90’s. Just like Bjarne Riis, a journey-man domestique turned into a Indurain beating nut. The records books might as well be burned.

  15. @john
    But is there a discernible spike in peloton speed? I’m no statistician, but post-war average speeds in TdeF seem to have just steadily increased – http://bikeraceinfo.com/tdf/tdfstats.html. There’s no immediately obvious 90’s / noughties spike. Has anyone compared average times to average stage length (and average vertical metres climbed) to see if there’s a statistically significant spike anywhere? If not, then maybe the doping wasn’t that significant. Or alternatively it just kept getting more and more effective – which would raise questions about the lack of any obvious material decline of average speeds in recent years …

    http://bikeraceinfo.com/tdf/tdfstats.html

  16. @brett

    Frankie Vona, there’s a name I’d forgotten. Spot on article both the way it’s written and how that era worked in my eyes. A suggestion for another in your series is Gilles Delion, would make a change for you from having to write about riders who suspiciously came from nowhere. Co-incidently Delion finished his career on the same team as Vona. Actually, looking into it, that AKI team is a veritable rogues gallery. I’m such a Delion fanboy that I’d write the article myself, but it’s your series.

    As for the “level-playing” field justification. I considered myself to be pretty well up on pro-cycling and it’s various “issues”, but it was only when I undertook a lengthy reading and research session a couple of years ago. It was only then that I discovered just how wrong the “level-playing” field justification is and brett was right in saying in benefited some more than others and that was only when the UCI brought in the 50% haematocrit limit. Before that, the playing field was only as level as you wanted to risk your life and your pockets were deep.

    Once the 50% limit came in it allowed riders to boost up to 49.9% with impunity. It just meant that those with a natural level of 39% would benefit massively in comparison to someone with a natural level of 46% and ultimately, all would have a massive benefit over those who wanted to remain clean.

    There is also the post-Festina take on the level-playing field, or “cyclisme a deux vitesse”, where at least the French teams were clean – recently it seems that a lot are saying that most of the peloton either cleaned up for a year, or toned things down a lot after Festina.

  17. @Jarvis

    We’d love you to write a piece on Delion… even if, as you suggest, he didn’t strictly ‘come from nowhere’ which probably doesn’t fit in with the definition of evanescent. But even guys like Vona still had to put in the hard yards, were devoted to a career in cycling, yet were elevated above and beyond their talents by the benefits of the EPO era.

    So yeah, bring it on, guest articles are always welcome, and to hear of these ‘second tier’ riders is always interesting to us.

  18. @brett
    Delion probably does fit the description. OK, not a one-year wonder, but big results spanned three years and then nothing, but he’s definitely one for the Velominati

  19. @Jarvis

    Cool, get on it!

  20. *dredge* Gilles Delion was famously clean, as discussed elsewhere much more recently.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilles_Delion

  21. Some prescient stuff in this article, particularly from Geof. Good work, chaps.

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