With an Olympic Road Race, two World Hour Records, a World Amateur Pursuit Championship, two World Professional Pursuit Championship medals, a World Professional Road Race Championship, a Giro d’Italia, a GP des Nations and four Trofeo Baracchi to a rider’s name one would imagine it had been a long and lauded career?
But all of these achievements were crammed into a decade, with the highlights squeezed into just a few seasons; many believe that the best of Ercole Baldini – who died on December 1st at the age of 89 – was never seen.
When I first became interested in cycling in 1970 it was only a handful of years since Baldini’s career had ended and there were still stories in the magazines about how he was the highest ever paid cyclist, earning more than Eddy Merckx and how, for all his glittering palmarès his true potential was never realised.
Baldini was born 26th January 1933, the fourth of six sons, starting racing as a 17 years-old.
It was 1953 when the gifted, classy man from Forli took his first major result, third in the far from flat, Piccolo Giro de Lombardia.
For a big man he could climb well but it was his powerhouse rouleur skills which earned him the title of, Il Treno di Forlì – ‘The Forlì Express.’
The following year he took the World Amateur Hour Record with a distance of 44.9 kilometres.
But it was in 1956 when he truly flourished taking the Italian and World Amateur Pursuit titles, the Olympic Road Race and sensationally breaking Jacques Anquetil’s Professional Hour best on a gear of 52 x 15, breaking conventions of the day by riding with 175 mm cranks.
Dutch journalist, Ron Couwenhoven wrote at the time;
Milan, September 19, 1956
ERCOLE BALDINI: 46 kilometers 393 meters
Jacques Anquetil held the world hour record for exactly 82 days.
On Wednesday, September 19, 1956, 23-year-old Ercole Baldini from Villanova di Forli appeared on the track.
The stands of the Vigorelli Stadium were sold out.
No less than 15,000 cycling fans came to the event.
It had been announced days earlier that Baldini would attack Jacques Anquetil’s record this day.
The police had their hands full to manage the enormous crowds around the velodrome.
The parking lots were packed.
And that for an attack undertaken by an amateur!
His successful attempt was ridden on a Legnano machine so it was no surprise when he turned professional for the Italian bicycle company in 1957.
His pro debut was stunning, third in the Giro d’Italia, the Italian Professional Road race title, the then highly prestigious GP Lugano time trial and the first of four Trofeo Baracchi wins, this one with Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi.
Continuing with Legnano in 1958 the meteor continued to blaze across the heavens – he won the Giro with four stage wins, the Italian title again and the Worlds, having been ‘up the road’ in the break or solo for some 250 of 277 kilometres.
The ageing Campionissimo, Coppi as road captain of the Italian squadra had ordered Baldini to go with the early break, jealous of the young Italian’s success, Coppi hoped that Baldini would crack and be humiliated.
Far from it, as Baldini endured and captured one of the all-time great Worlds triumphs.
To cap a beautiful season he again won the Baracchi, this time with Francesco Moser’s elder brother Aldo.
For season 1959 he signed a big money deal to ride for Italian, ‘white goods’ company, Ignis but his season was much less spectacular albeit he finished sixth in the Tour de France with a stage win, won the GP Emilia and there was another win with Moser in the Baracchi.
Again with Ignis for 1960 he won the GP Nations but was ‘only’ second in the Baracchi and third at Lugano.
On the track he took bronze in the Worlds Pursuit.
In 1961 there was his fourth and final Baracchi win, on this occasion with French chrono specialist, Jo Velly.
The 1962 season was his last with Ignis and the infamous year when he and partner Arnaldo Pambianco succumbed to the Franco-German, Anquetil and Altig duo after the latter had to push ‘Maitre Jacques’ over the final kilometres.
For 1963 he signed with Italian aperitif company, Cynar; there were wins in Giro della Provincia di Reggio Calabria, Coppa Placci and a fourth and final win in the pan-flat, long time trial created especially for him in his home town, the GP Forli.
His final season was 1964, riding for Italian kitchen company, Salvarani with best results of third in the Pursuit Worlds and second in the Baracchi, riding with coming Italian star, Vittorio Adorni.
Health issues, problems with dormant appendicitis and then a leg operation brought his career to an end.
After finishing as a rider Baldini worked for a time as a directeur sportif, with the classic black and white liveried SCIC team and later served as president of the Italian riders’ association and of the Italian cycling league.
We’ll allow the late, great Jack Kerouac the last words on Ercole Baldini’s brief but beautiful zenith;
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!‘”
Ercole Baldini. Rest in peace, Campione.