The Man in the Black Jersey

by Ian Dille


Thirty years ago, a petite woman with curly blonde hair approached Greg Saunders at a bike race just west of Austin, Texas. At 22 years old, Saunders, a Tulsa native, was proving himself as one of the best road cyclists in the country. The woman told Saunders her name was Robin Morton, and that she was putting together a professional cycling team from the U.S. that would compete in Europe.

“I thought she was joking,” Saunders recalled of the encounter. In 1984, more Americans had walked on the moon than had raced bikes professionally in Europe. But Morton, dressed in a track jacket and skinny jeans, looked the part of a team director. She dropped all the right names and clearly knew the sport.

Then she asked Saunders if he’d like to join the team. She told him he would compete in the Giro d’Italia, one of the world’s most revered bike races, and ride under the sponsorship and tutelage of Gianni Motta, one of Italy’s greatest cyclists.

“It didn’t take long for me to say yes,” Saunders said. A month later, Saunders found himself in Europe, riding his bike among the fastest cyclists on earth. His foray into professional racing went well, at first. As American cycling emissaries, Saunders and his team posed for photos with the sport’s European dignitaries and visited Italy’s various shrines to bike racing. In a few smaller warm-up races prior to the Giro, Saunders fared well. Having previously competed with the U.S. National Team in Latin America, he felt at ease on the narrow European roads and amid the tight quarters of the pro peloton (the term for the main pack of cyclists in a race is derived from the French word for “ball”).

Before the start of the Giro, which would traverse 2,361 miles over 25 days in the Dolomites and Italian Alps, Gianni Motta presented the team with brand new racing bikes and jerseys, bearing the stars and stripes of the United States.

“They pulled out those jerseys, and we thought, ‘Man, we’re not just any team; we’re going to wear the flag,’ ” said Saunders. “We were beaming with pride.”

The sense that Saunders would race for something bigger than himself would prove crucial. Two days prior to the departure of the Giro, Saunders woke in the middle of the night covered in sweat, shivering uncontrollably, and burning with fever. With yellow skin and an empty body, he toed the race’s start line.

After the first two days of the Giro, which included a prologue time trial of three miles through the streets of Lucca and a 33-mile team time trial, Saunders had sunk near the bottom of the race’s overall standings. On the third stage, he noticed the course map indicated a sharp climb followed by a treacherous descent. During an era in which bike racers protected their heads with little more than terry cloth sweatbands, Saunders wisely chose to wear a bulbous Bell helmet.

The sense that Saunders would race for something bigger than himself would prove crucial.

As the day’s race barreled toward the finish, the pack swerved to avoid a car parked on the side of the road and an immense pile-up ensued. Saunders slammed into the mass of bodies and bikes with such force that he crimped the steel down tube on his bike. Though he avoided serious injury, he hemorrhaged minutes in the race’s overall standings, the day-to-day accumulation of time.

As the Giro ground forward, dozens of racers lower in the standings than Saunders dropped out and went home. Soon, he found himself hanging on to last place, a position known as the Giro d’Italia’s Black Jersey, or Maglia Nera in Italian.

Like the Tour de France, where the race leader wears a yellow jersey, in the Giro, the leader wears pink. The best sprinter wears a red jersey and the best climber, blue. From 1946 to ’51, an actual black jersey was awarded to the Giro’s last place rider. Race organizers eventually did away with the jersey, in part because some racers purposefully tried to earn the ignominious prize. But the name, and the sense of honor bestowed on the last rider to fight to the finish, stuck.

Saunders had little interest in sympathetic honor, though. And in an unlikely place—the soaring mountain passes—he discovered he could recoup time. “Once I started passing people in the hills, I felt like, okay, I’m not the world’s worst bike racer,” Saunders said. But as soon as he leapt a rider in the overall standings, that rider would drop out. And little other fortune came Saunders’ way.

On his birthday, June 4, Saunders woke to blue skies and an ideal course, 100 gently rolling miles that wound toward a 12-mile-long mountain climb, on which the real racing would start. But as the mountain neared, dark clouds loomed. Rain turned to sleet, and sleet turned to large white flakes of snow. Saunders ascended the mountain with another equally frozen racer. They muttered intermittent words of encouragement to each other, and struggled to squeeze the brake levers with their nearly frostbitten hands.

At the summit, Saunders saw shattered racers who’d arrived before him, great champions in the sport, weeping with pain. The race promoter lodged the competitors in tiny ski chalets, which quickly ran out of hot water.

On the next day, a 150-mile-long stage, the peloton rode in protest from start to finish. No one surged out front, and they waited for those who fell behind. “That’s when I realized we were a brotherhood of cyclists,” Saunders said.

That brotherhood saved Saunders on the Giro’s second-to-last day. He came down with a bout of food sickness, and started puking to the side of his bike. Hardened European pros placed their hands on the small of Saunders’ back to help him up the final few hills. “We’re almost done,” they told him. “You have to finish.”

Saunders slammed into the mass of bodies and bikes.

After 105 hours of racing through spectacular scenery and throngs of screaming fans, Saunders did finish, in last place, in the symbolic black jersey. Proud that he finished the race, though not proud he finished in last place.

A year later, Saunders went back to Europe. At the 1985 Vuelta a España, Spain’s national tour—and many other prestigious events—he would finish at the head of the field, experienced and strong and never in danger of donning black.

Saunders competed at the professional level for 10 years, in Europe and North America, and continued to race for fun as he started a new life, married, and had a daughter. Finally, one day Saunders allowed himself to quit bike racing for good. He was running behind to meet up with the a weekly group ride, when his wife told him, “You better hurry or you might miss them.”

Saunders looked at his wife, then at his daughter. “I don’t think I want to go,” he said.

“Then don’t,” his wife replied. He rolled his bike back to the garage. “I never raced again.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 11. June 01, 2013.