They say a picture speaks a thousand words. I say that 500 is a more realistic figure. In this series, I’ll be taking a photo from cycling history, dissecting it, rewinding, and telling the story. Where better to start a photo-themed series than a 1999 Alpe d’Huez stage, remembered for the bad choices of a young photographer.
Let’s start with the photo; a cyclist celebrating. Slender build, no helmet – must be a climber. You’ll recognise the Adidas T-Mobile jersey. This isn’t a young cyclist; the face has been robbed of all neo-pro naivety. He’s clearly happy – the standard response to conquering Alpe d’Huez – but there’s slight frenzy creeping across his face. Captured is the moment that despair turned to relief. Giuseppe Guerini clearly hasn’t enjoyed the final kilometre of this climb.
Let’s rewind. Guerini began his cycling career in the early 90s with a team named Na Vigare (fun fact – they would eventually evolve into Bardiani) before moving to Polti in 1996. He achieved his best results at the Giro d’Italia taking third place in both 1997 and 1998. Guerini lacked the star power to challenge at the Tour but was a respected climber who T-Mobile signed to bolster Jan Ullrich’s support in 1999.
The 1999 Tour was a procession for Lance Armstrong. He was masterful against the clock in both time trials and took rivals to the hall of pain with his victory in Sestrieres. Ullrich had skipped the race and Telekom had no GC threat for the first time in three years. At the start of the Alpe d’Huez stage, Armstrong was six minutes clear of his shaken and stirred rivals.
Italy had dominated ‘Dutch mountain’ for a number of years but Bastille Day suggested Richard Virenque would hunt stage honours. Two French riders went on an early attack and led the peloton to the Alpe. The kilometres ticked away. The lead group thinned. The duo were caught. With 3km left Guerini made his move.
Guerini was a climber without an obvious style. He pecked a little, he danced a little, and he wasn’t particularly smooth. He scrambled away from an elite group. That should have been enough to get the adrenaline pumping but Guerini was about to receive an unwanted boost.
As he approached the 1km banner there was a warning of what was to come. Guerini was brushed by a loose Italian flag as fans drifted into the road for a head-on glimpse.
A few corners later an ambitious young fan (named Eric) scampered to the middle of the road and readied for a photo. He hovered some distance from the barrier. Guerini took the slightly curious move of darting down the inside but the panicked spectator motioned in the same direction, bringing both men crashing to the floor. It was reminiscent of wrongly predicting somebody’s movement on the dancefloor and spilling your drink on their chest. But worse.
Guerini bounced back up but panicked and struggled to get on his bike. Young Eric pushed Guerini up the road with wild and misplaced enthusiasm. It took the aid of a second spectator to restore momentum to the stunned climber.
I imagine that Guerini’s mind was busy with the thought of Armstrong passing him with a sympathetic nod. However, it was Pavel Tonkov – a man Guerini had twice shared the Giro podium with – who got closest.
Guerini nearly had his biggest victory snatched away from him. But he didn’t. And that’s what’s written across his face.