The spring of 1990 was a tumultuous time for the late Diego Maradona, who died on Wednesday at the age of 60. He was beset by a lingering back injury, but desperately trying to beat himself into shape for the impending World Cup finals. His relationship with management at Napoli was strained too, even though he was in the process of leading the club to their second Serie A title.
Off the field Maradona’s life in Naples was by now as unruly as the city’s traffic, but somewhere amid all that chaos and all those demands, he found himself spending a Wednesday afternoon in March in one of his more unlikely roles: guest of honour at the opening stage of Tirreno-Adriatico.
In those days, before Tirreno-Adriatico came under the aegis of RCS Sport, the route between the two seas was positioned further south than it is today, with the race setting out from Lazio or Campania rather than Tuscany. The event was organised by Franco Mealli’s V.C. Forze Sportive Romane, and the 1990 edition began with an unusual, 15.9km road stage in Bacoli, a coastal town in the volcanic hinterland west of Naples.
Then as now, Naples was hardly a cycling heartland, and securing an appearance from the most famous athlete on the planet, not to mention the most beloved public figure in the region, was a considerable marketing coup for Mealli and his organising team, which included a young Mauro Vegni.
Or at least, it should have been. Maradona’s presence, it seems, was not flagged to anybody beforehand.
“Seeing as he should have been used as ‘promotion’ for Tirreno-Adriatico, it would have been useful to have made it known a bit in advance, people would have come just to see him,” complained Gianfranco Josti of Il Corriere della Sera.
Then again, the seemingly impromptu arrangement may have been born of necessity. Mealli perhaps reasoned that it would have been far worse to have promised an appearance from Maradona only for the Argentinian to opt out. He did, after all, come and go as he pleased by that point in his tenure in Italy.
The previous Friday night, for instance, Maradona has upset his employers at Napoli by taking a private jet to Sanremo to attend the music festival and cheer on fellow countrywoman Valeria Lynch in the song contest. Rod Stewart was the special guest that evening in the Palafiori, but he was upstaged somewhat by Maradona, who was mobbed by spectators as he took his seat and he was splashed across the next day’s newspapers.
The situation repeated itself at Tirreno-Adriatico, where the innovation of the ten-mile opening stage was overshadowed by the novelty of the unexpected apparition of El Diego.
John Talen of Panasonic won the stage, outsprinting Asiat Saitov, Danilo Gioia and Silvio Martinello – Tony Rominger would win the race overall a week later – but all eyes were on Maradona.
Dressed in a green leisure suit as though he were heading out for a jog, he smilingly flagged the gruppo away and then observed proceedings from a gantry above the start-finish line, brandishing a football as a prop for the photographers massed below.
Writing in L’Unità, Gino Sala noted that it was “a day in which the attention for Talen appeared by some distance inferior to that afforded to Diego Maradona.” Il Corriere della Sera described the “infernal fervour” of the tifosi at the start, many of whom turned their backs to the race and watched Maradona instead.
The riders themselves seemed just as starstruck. The gallery of images from Emanuele Sirotti above shows men like Giuseppe Saronni and Raul Alcala eager to immortalise the moment with a photograph alongside Maradona.
Everywhere he went, Maradona seemed to have this effect. This short, stocky figure managed to be simultaneously a man of the people and an almost otherworldly presence. Perhaps only Muhammad Ali held an equivalent aura. Small wonder that both men have been couched in almost prophetic terms by sportswriters ever since.
In Bacoli, Maradona returned the compliment by paying tribute to the riders, claiming his interest in cycling dated back to his time at Barcelona in the early 1980s.
“I met Eddy Merckx and he gave me a bike,” explained Maradona. Another bike manufacturer, Giovanni Pinarello, was among the grandees to greet him that afternoon at Tirreno-Adriatico.
La Stampa reported that Maradona had declared himself a fan of both Sean Kelly, who was here in PDM colours, and Maurizio Fondriest, and he expressed admiration for the athletic demands of the sport: “Where do they find the strength to contest a sprint after 250km of racing?”
The reporters huddled around Maradona were less interested in his take on cycling, mind, than in the state of his frayed rapport with Napoli manager Alberto Bigon, who had left him out of the previous Sunday’s victory against Genoa – ostensibly because of his back injury, though the Sanremo excursion hardly helped. That morning, Maradona had made his first appearance at a Napoli training session since the clash, before setting off for his own, personal appointment at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Maradona would be restored to the team the following weekend, and two weeks later, he would score a crucial brace of goals in a pivotal game against Juventus, a key moment as Napoli claimed their second scudetto.
That summer, his Argentina side would eliminate Italy in a fraught World Cup semi-final in the Stadio San Paolo in Naples, but his days in the city were numbered.
In March 1991, Maradona left Napoli after testing positive for cocaine. His very public life endured more lows than highs in the years that followed, yet his popularity remained undimmed.
That Tirreno-Adriatico appearance, meanwhile, would not be his last at a bike race. From 2014 to 2016, Maradona was again a guest of honour at an Italian-organised Dubai Tour.
A new generation of riders, many too young to recall Maradona in his pomp, clambered to have their picture taken with him. He was older, heavier but always transcendent.
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