On September 27th, 2001, Filippo Simeoni soloed clear of a breakaway on Stage 18 of the Vuelta a España. Barely a meter from the finish, he took the unusual step of dismounting his bike, holding it aloft, and kissing the top-tube, before walking across for the stage win.
He was fined for this—and here we enter the apocrypha so endemic to pretty much everything in professional cycling. Wikipedia, uncited, claims the UCI was involved, and fined him despite the fact that the gesture was a “tribute to the victims” of the 9/11 attacks earlier that month.
However, none of the primary sources available to me make any mention of the World Trade Center. VeloNews’ report focuses on Simeoni breaking the drought of Italian wins at the Vuelta. Cyclingnews had a blurb reporting on the fine the following day, but attributes it to the race organization, not the UCI. It also quotes Simeoni explaining the unorthodox salute: “It’s my best-ever win and I thought I’d give the crowd something to remember me by.” No mention of September 11.
Enter Lance Armstrong
Fast-forward to July 2004. Simeoni has a televised, mid-TdF-stage spat with Lance Armstrong over testimony the Italian gave against Armstrong doctor Michele Ferrari. It’s an objectively terrible look for Lance, but if you haven’t learned by now that support for public figures is more tribal than rational, I don’t know what to tell you.
But I do know that having a counter-narrative, some dimension to Simeoni to make him more than just another of Lance’s Euro-antagonists, would be an extremely useful thing to the growing subset of fans who were sick and tired of the Texan.
And the very next month, as the sort of unfounded opinion you’d expect from such a predominantly old, white, and male fanbase was flying, a letter appeared in Cyclingnews. It contained an alleged post-race Simeoni quote from that 2001 Vuelta stage: “The gesture of raising my bike above my head was also meant as a protest against the terrorist’s attacks in New York.” In October of that year, Simeoni’s first Wikipedia entry appeared, also pushing the 9/11 Tribute.
It spread as these things do—forum posts, blogs, etc. Pretty much anywhere outside the professional cycling press, which would have been extremely reluctant to raise Armstrong’s ire at that time. No matter that the BBC article cited in those forum posts contains nothing even suggesting a Twin Towers remembrance—it’s the line I’d always heard, passed along by Lance haters and long-time Euro cycling fans alike. A badge of knowledge that a deeper sport existed beyond the even-then cliched prattle of Phil and Paul.
In the Bad Old Days
But was the story true? Does it make any sense that an Italian rider in a Spanish race would dedicate a win to the victims of a terrorist attack in the US two weeks earlier? Wouldn’t the rider have mentioned this to American journalist Andrew Hood, covering the Vuelta for American publication VeloNews? Wouldn’t he have at least brought it up as justification when fined for the unusual victory salute?
“The sport must have gestures in favor of peace. I dedicate my victory to peace in the world.” But there’s cause to suspect Simeoni may have said something more.
Cyclingnews editor Jeff Jones noted in 2004 that his publication’s 2001 reporting captured no mention of 9/11. But he does note that Simeoni had quite a lot to say that day. And some of those comments did touch on similar themes: “The sport must have gestures in favor of peace. I dedicate my victory to peace in the world.”
The media environment of 2001 was not the same as today. Cyclingnews reports were largely cribbed off live broadcast translations from Eurosport back then, in an era the network itself admits contained “a fair amount of bullshit.” Is it possible a hasty, half-hearted, English-language summary of Simeoni’s comments missed or mistranslated his dedication to 9/11?
A Missing Piece
Like so many of cycling’s war stories, it’s almost impossible to know. Truth and fiction have always blended easily in a sport built to craft narratives to sell papers. And as a digitally-based Anglophone, it’s a particular challenge. The only thing I can find even close to a “real” citation for the September 11 tribute comes from Simeoni’s Italian Wikipedia entry: page 20 of the 28 September 2001 edition of the now-defunct Italian newspaper, L’Unità.
Please let me know if you think your local library might have a copy.
Revised and amended 11 September 2021. Initial publication date: 11 September 2018.