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The Last of The Great Romans.
By Tom Demerly.

Pete picked me up for the press conference at noon. We crossed the border into Canada together.

Pete Girardi is 72. Born in Italy. White hair, not gray. The sun is bright but he doesn’t wear sunglasses, doesn’t squint either.

It’s the day of the official press conference for the 50th Annual Tour Di Via Italia. Pete was one of the very first racers and as such, he is a V.I.P. at the press conference.

Marisa DeFranceschi greets us under the vine draped awning of the Pasticcio Restaurant in the Italian Quarter of Windsor, Canada. She plays host to the press entourage on the patio. Her son, Daniele, is a star of the race this weekend, an elite rider from the JetFuel Coffee cycling team. Daniele will try to win this weekend. He’s done it before. His mother already seems nervous. This is Erie Street; the place the racers call “Little Italy”.

The Tour Di Via Italia is this weekend, Labor Day, as it has been for the past 50 Labor Days. It is among the very oldest bicycle races in the North America. Being the 50th anniversary the press is out in force: Reporters with notebooks, cameramen, photographers. I take a seat next to Alan Henderson, veteran reporter of the Windsor Star. He hands me a press kit.

The race itself is a criterium, a series of lightening fast, short laps done on a downtown circuit. It is a mix of Formula 1 racing and the chariot race scene from Ben Hur. There are always crashes, there is always drama.

“The race creates characters.” Aldo Sfalcin tells me. He is the new patron of the event, having been guardian for the most recent couple of decades. “The race organizes itself”.

The patio is crowded now, under the vine covered awning. Interviews are being taped, reporters scribbling shorthand. Pete Girardi holds court with a video camera and a still photographer while another reporter jots down quotes.

Across the street and down the block I notice a man walking toward the restaurant in the sunlight. You notice him a block away. He is darkly tan and slim, walks with an athletic, commanding presence. His wavy incandescent hair is just slightly longer than conventional and starkly contrasts his dark skin. His face is slim. And then there are the sunglasses. They are dark black and sweep around his face the way a Ferrari’s windshield covers its cockpit. He is a sportsman, an athlete. One of the last Great Romans. It’s Dino Muzzatti, 65 years old.

Muzzatti walks into the patio and immediately commands the audience. All the cameras swing to him. He makes a speech outlining the history of the event. He helped the organizers of the first race. He tells the story:

“Ezio Orlando didn’t speak any English.” Muzzatti tells us.

“He was a harsh man, a kingpin… He would kind of, you know… irritate you. He had to take someone with him to talk to the cops to get the streets closed for the race. He took a priest with him…”

The story goes that another man, Gianni Sovran, was inspired by a painting in the Catholic Church on Erie Street. A painting of the Giro D’ Italia. It is a confusing story, as most 50 year old stories are.

In 1958 Erie Street was home to immigrants who had survived the war, come to Canada and began to build a life. By the late 50’s they were succeeding. They laid tile and poured concrete. Dino Muzzatti walked the high iron. Their living was earned with their backs. They worked long days- 10 hours, 12… 14 hours even.

“I’ll tell you, it was tough then. You talk about passion? We worked for 14 hours and then went training. Back then there were maybe four of us.”

The list of characters and their roles are a bit jumbled. Time does that. There was Mike Theron Walden, the American. He died several years ago after earning a spot in the Cycling Hall of Fame. He coached and mentored and threatened- a brash and gifted man. There was Pete Girardi of course. He was a racer then, and is still a racer- out every morning training on his new carbon fiber bike. He is a U.S. citizen now, living in Dearborn, Michigan. He currently holds a Gold Medal in the Senior Olympic Individual Time Trial. There is Renato Chemello, a soft spoken man who sits quietly in a chair while Girardi gives the reporters what they want. There is Dino Muzzatti of course and Muzzatti’s older brother, Silvio, who is 82 now. Between them the story of the first Erie Street Bicycle Race emerges.

Four of the men, it is unclear who exactly, did the Tour of Quebec in 1958. Muzzatti says they went to the race in an old bus that, “Looked like it was from World War 1”. The men raced at the highest level of North American racing in 1958. “They raced the Russians, the French…” The group of four returned full of enthusiasm and declared they must have a race in Windsor. At the same time another man, Gianni Sovran, took divine inspiration from a painting of the Giro d’ Italia that was displayed at St Angela Merici Catholic Church on Erie Street in Little Italy. Between these men an instant synergy formed. Ezio Orlando declared he had brought the sport of cycling with him from Italy in his suitcase when he immigrated to Canada. Vince Muzzin was another contemporary of the group. They won the favor of the (then) Police Chief Gordon Preston despite Ezio Orlando’s abrasive demeanor. A committee was formed. A race course was reconnoitered in the downtown area of Little Italy with the finale’ being contested right on Erie Street in front of the church that housed the painting.

It was a caldron of inspiration, enthusiasm and reverence for the sport; so much so that cycling was viewed with religious fervor, as evidenced by the painting in the church. Suffering on the bike was a penance, a rite of passage. It mimicked the way the men chiseled out their living- by physical means and by skill. It was also a celebration, a social event. This ritual was so deeply rooted in the Italian culture and had found a re-birth here in Canada, some four thousand miles from the homeland, on the backs of these men.

It was not a small beginning. The race was instantly huge. Accounts suggest over 50 racers that first year and, even accounting for the embellishment of time and grandeur, many thousands of spectators. Grainy black and white photos shows spectators spilling into the street clad in traditional cycling jerseys from their old country clubs and in Sunday finery.

Over the years races have come and gone, often on the coattails of big corporate sponsors. But money and marketing are fickle motives, short on passion and the devout reverence for cycling that is part of the DNA of Erie Street. As a result, Erie Street has outlived the sponsors, the “next big races” and has continued on for a half century. Few bicycle races on earth are older, almost none in North America.

The reporters have gone, the questions are answered, the quotes taken, the cameras have left. It’s a pleasant afternoon with sun spilling around the patio of our little Italian restaurant that was, moments ago, abuzz with media and modern day racers in brightly printed stretch fabric regalia. They’re gone now, but four men remain: Peter Girardi, Dino Muzzatti, his brother Silvio, the pensive Renato Chemello. They occupy one table now, chairs arranged closely in a circle as they lean inward to confide in one another. They conduct a rigorous form of mental archaeology;

“Paducci? …He’s dead now I think. DiDonato…?”

Names and races, exploits and places. They try to patch together the fervent passing of five decades. When they speak of the time before that, the war, it is like a black hole in time. The conversation quickly changes to Italian and I lose track of it. There is laughter and the waving of hands. Muzzatti sees me trying to listen and leans in close to my face…

“You have to understand… It was hard for them. Everything was hard. It’s easier now. Even the women… easier now. Better looking too…”

There is time for an espresso among the men, the last of The Great Romans. They solidify their plans for the weekend, the roles they will play in assisting with the race. One by one they stand when matters are decided. Dino Muzzatti disappears up the street where he came from, sunglasses back in place. The race is this weekend, when the last of The Great Romans will be back on Erie Street for the 50th time.

The Tour di Via Italia takes place Sunday, August 31, 2008 beginning at 1:00 PM with the Professional Race beginning at 5:00 PM EST on Erie Street in downtown Windsor, Ontario.

Event website:
http://www.tourdiviaitalia.com

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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