Nani Pinarello: Cyclist who made his name coming last in the Giro d'Italia then became one of the sport's foremost bicycle-builders

A professional racer who started building bicycles by hand and produced some of the best in the world
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The Independent Online

Giovanni Pinarello, widely known as Nani, and as the grandfather of Italian cycle racing, founded the globally successful Pinarello company which built the bikes that carried Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome to Tour de France victories for Team Sky. Froome rode one – a Pinarello Dogma-F8 – on his way to finishing second at the Vuelta a España which finished on Sunday and which, along with the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia, is considered one of the three greatest cycle races in the world. Sir Bradley Wiggins also rode one on his way to finishing third in the Tour of Britain, which also finished on Sunday.

A machine built by the Cicli Pinarello workshop in Treviso, northern Italy, first won the Giro d'Italia in 1975, ridden by Italy's Fausto Bertoglio, and in 1988 won the company won their first Tour de France, with the Spanish rider Pedro Delgado. The American Greg Lemond rode a Pinarello to victory down the Champs-Elysées three times. It was on a Pinarello that Wiggins won the Tour, and effectively a knighthood, in 2012. Chris Froome rode one to victory in the Tour in 2013 but crashed out on one this year. Pinarello models have often been described as the best bikes in the world, or simply the most aerodynamic. Nowadays, partly streamlined by Sky's sponsors Jaguar Land Rover, they fetch four, sometimes five figures in sterling.

Nani Pinarello was a professional racer during the first seven postwar years and won more than 60 races but his greatest claim to fame in the saddle was that he won the coveted (by some) maglia nera, or black jersey, in the Giro d'Italia of 1951 for finishing last. At the opposite end of the spectrum to the Giro leader's pink jersey, the black jersey became so desirable to lesser riders that they went to extremes – stopping in bars, hiding in barns or behind hedgerows, even puncturing their own bikes – for the sake of the publicity, the sponsorship, a not insignificant cash prize and an invitation to join the winners in a lap of honour. They were all serious bike racers, just more used to being in the grupetto (known in English as the autobus – the slowest group, but with their own camaraderie) than in the peloton.

"Winning the maglia nera was almost like coming second," Pinarello once said. "The publicity was incredible." In fact, he was not only the last man to finish in 1951, behind the winner Hugo Koblet of Switzerland, but he was also the last man to win the black jersey. It was discontinued when the Giro organisers felt the efforts of slower riders to gain the jersey got out of hand. It wasn't so much a fable of the tortoise and the hare. It was more: who can be the slowest tortoise?

An equivalent, la lanterne rouge, or red lantern, has existed in the Tour de France since 1903 although the accolade now comes by chance, not design, since the rider has to finish within a certain time of the winner – difficult to work out, even with computer technology; stopping for a Calvados or two is unlikely to win you the title. The lanterne rouge was won this year by China's Ji-Cheng, something for which he will probably most be remembered – unless he wins the race one day. The term maglia nera is now used in Italy as a generic term for losers – for example, the bottom team in a football league – much in the way we use the term "wooden spoon".

Giovanni Pinarello was born in the commune of San Sisto di Lancenigo, 22 miles north of Venice in the northern Italian province of Treviso, in 1922, the year Mussolini began taking Italy into a dark place. "Nani" was the eighth of 12 brothers, a pecking order that pushed him to become a self-made man. Leaving school at 15 with war clouds growing, he became an apprentice at the Paglianti factory in the town of Treviso, helping build bicycles, mopeds and new-fangled motor scooters.

He began bicycle road racing, graduating from the dilettante amateur circuit to turn professional in 1947. He raced into his thirties, winning more than 60 races including the Giro delle Dolimiti over the Dolomite mountains and the Rome-Naples-Rome event.

After gaining fame with that black jersey in 1951, he was dropped from his team but given 100,000 Italian lire in compensation, around $160 at the time, enough to let him start up his own business, Cicli Pinarello, in the town of Treviso in 1953. He started building bicycles by hand, growing slowly as his reputation as a craftsman spread. The Giro victory of 1975 put him up there with the big boys, and teams started to come to him. He and the clothing company, Benetton, in many ways put Treviso on the map.

Nani handed over control of the company to his son Fausto, widely known as FP, several years ago and Fausto helped bring success to Team Telekom of Germany in the 1990s and later to Team Sky and its manager Dave Brailsford. When the British mountain bike and stunt rider Martyn Ashton rode a Pinarello on his 2012 video Road Bike Party, tackling obstacles around the UK, it went viral with tens of millions of viewers on You Tube. Ashton was paralysed from the waist down during an accident while videoing a sequel, Road Bike Party 2.

One of Pinarello's sons, Andrea, died of a heart attack during a bike race three years ago, while Fausto continues to run the company. In the Pinarello factory in Treviso to this day is a note written by Gino Bartali, a multiple Tour and Giro winner, in tribute to his friend Nani. "The Black Jersey of Cycling but the Pink Jersey of life."

Giovanni Pinarello, racing bicycle builder: born San Sisto di Lancenigo, Italy 10 July 1922; married 1959 Ida Gobbo (one daughter, one son, and one son deceased); died Treviso, Italy 4 September 2014.