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Italy’s Felice Gimondi, who won five Grand Tours in his career, died on Friday at the age of 76 after suffering a heart attack while swimming in Sicily.
“A great champion who made our sport more human has left us, a great man,” said the Italian cycling federation in a statement.
Nicknamed ‘The Phoenix’, he won the Tour de France in 1965, the Giro d’Italia in 1967, 1969 and 1976 as well as the Vuelta a Espana in 1968.
Gimondi remains just one of seven riders in history to have won all three of the sport’s greatest prizes.
His Tour de France win in 1965 came in his debut year as a professional while his 1976 Giro victory at the age of 34 was hailed as the ‘Miracle in Milan’ by newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Overall, he spent five decades in the sport as a rider and administrator while also going into the insurance business.
As well as the Grand Tours, Gimondi captured a number of Classics and elite races, including the Milan-Sanremo in 1974, the Paris-Roubaix in 1966, two Tour of Lombardies in 1966 and 1973 and a Paris-Brussels double in 1966 and 1976.
He famously triumphed at the 1973 world championships in Barcelona where he outsprinted the great Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens and Luis Ocana to take victory.
“We competed for years on the road,” Belgian legend Merckx told the Italian Ansa news agency.
“But we became friends at the end of our careers. He was among the greatest of all time.”
Britain’s Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour champion, described the Italian as “an icon and a gentleman.”
Gimondi’s participation in the 1965 Tour de France required the permission of his mother Angela, a post mistress in Sedrina where he was born on September 29, 1942 and his father, a transport manager.
“My mother taught me how to ride a bike,” recalled Gimondi who also won three stages on the 1965 Tour, winning the overall title by 2min 40sec from Raymond Poulidor.
“Elegance, I didn’t go looking for it at all costs,” he once said when asked to describe his style in the saddle.
“But I tried to look around me to improve my appearance.”
He added: “I did not have a brilliant gift, but with work, doing my job properly, with will and application, I succeeded. Sometimes, I had trouble with changes to rhythm – my heartbeat was too slow.”
Those reservations were only temporary barriers for a man who competed in 135 races in his career.
Regarded as a complete rider, Gimondi was also known as a man of strong opinions.
In his later career, he became a mentor to the talented but troubled Marco Pantani who became the next Italian winner after him of the Tour de France in 1998.
“Addio, leggenda. Addio, Felice Gimondi. Farewell, Legend. Farewell Felice Gimondi,” tweeted his Bianchi team.
The Tour de France tweeted: “Felice Gimondi, winner of three Grand Tours, has passed. With great sadness, the Tour de France pays homage to one of its greatest champions.”