The Ongaro clan
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  Posted December 18th, 2011 by Zdenko  in Cycling | 3 comments

Retro Cycling legends

By Zdenko Kahlina

‘Edmonton’s Italian Mafia’

Once upon a time there was a group of cyclists in Edmonton which was called ‘Edmonton’s Italian Mafia’, or sometimes they would be called ‘Nino, Gino, Rino, Lino and Jim’s group’. Later in the 80’s and 90’s  Rino Ongaro and his four sons Rudy, Ross, Alex and Paolo, used to be called ‘Ongaro’s clan’… but no matter how they were called, one of them was always member of each of these groups. His name is Rino Ongaro.
This is a story about one Italian immigrant, who lives in Edmonton and is very popular name in local cycling circles. Never a real ‘pro’, but all his life connected to the bicycle and racing. I am talking about Rino Ongaro who was Juventus cycling club and Edmonton Masters Cycling Club member during his lifelong cycling fanaticism.

Rino Ongaro in November 2011

I met Rino long time ago, when I first moved to Edmonton. Being a different generation than him, slowly I lost track of him and his family until one of his sons (Paolo), moved into my neighbourhood. That’s when I met Rino again, and could tell he was looking very young for his age. If he wanted, he could still ride his bike fast… here is his life story:

Rino was born in 1934 in the small town San Giorgio al Tagliamento, next to Latisana in the province of Veneto in Italy. The area is very familiar to me as I used to race in that part of Italy quite a lot. This is the region where everybody loves cycling. I remember sprinting for the win in Alpe-Adria race, back in 1974 just few kilometers away in coastal town of Lignano Sabbiadoro.

Before coming to Canada, Rino used to work in a small sugar factory as electrician. He began to ride his bike to work every day, and that turned into serious riding when the factory owner assembled a cycling team. Rino joined the team in 1948 year and was a good bike rider competing with Italian amateurs and semi-pros. He still remembers some of the names: Aldo Zuliani, Antonio Bevilacqua, Giovanni Pinarello, Giordano Cottur, Vacianni, Zambarro and many others. He rode many criteriums with all these good riders who lost many sprints with Rino. Some of the riders turned pro like Aldo Zullianni (with Atala pro team), and later won Giro d’ Sicilia. Rino never got a chance to sign a pro contract, because he raced mostly in small races in proximity of the Trieste and Udine. He remembers one criterium where even the big boyz like Italian hero Fausto Coppi and triple world champion Rick Van Stenbergen from Belgium, showed up on the start line with him. He says the race with them wasn’t hard, because they had a good control over the group, and went hard just at the end of the race to pick up the premiums.

In this photo: Sandy Harris, Rudy Ongaro and Rino Ongaro

Rino with his son Rudy in 1972

Rino participated in races like Giro d’ Veneto and Giro d’Friuli for amateurs, still very popular bike races even these days. In the 1952 addition of Giro d’ Veneto he was even part of the breakaway group of seven guys, including Enrico Padovani and future winner Adolfo Grosso, big Italian names at that time. Finish of the race was on the athletic track and when they were entering stadium and onto the track, Rino almost crashed on the gravel portion of entrance to the track. He lost his position and finished ‘only’ fourth!

Rino Ongaro with dirty face after the race

He remembers how once at a different race, during the summer heat, when spectators were throwing water on cyclists to help them cope with the heat, he got hit with the bucket of water in the head and crashed. Another time he had five flat tires during the single race, because most roads were not paved at that time… and he still managed to finish the race.

Many times Rino raced on the Pordenone and Portogruaro velodrome which were close to his home. He would ride early in the morning, starting around 5 AM and rushing after the training to his regular work at the factory. Specialist for the velodrome and famous for his fast sprinting, Rino suffered during the road races… ‘I will never forget how I gritted my teeth to follow the attacks of these professionals’, he said years later…

Rino got married early in his life and his first son Rudi was born in Italy in 1956. When Rino’s sister moved to Italy and sugar factory where he worked shut down, he decided to follow his sister’s steps and in 1958 he moved to Canada with his wife and a small baby son.

Very young Rino Ongaro (right) with his older brother Fiorindo (left) in Italy, with his first bike.

They arrived in Edmonton and at first he worked as acoustics applicator. Life was not easy and Rino never had time to ride a bike. He was even forced to work up north to make a living. Ten years later he moved back to Italy for a couple of years, thinking the crisis in Europe is over and times are better now. However, nothing was easy, and in the summer of 1969 the whole Ongaro family moved back in Edmonton again. This time it was for good. Rino left only one brother in Italy, but sold his property to ensure there is no looking back this time. This time he was more determined to succeed in Canada as he had a bigger family to look after. With the exception of Rodolfo-Rudi (1956) the oldest son, his other sons were all born in Canada: Rossario-Ross (1959), Alexandrio-Alex (1963) and Paolo (1970).

Rino with his trophy’s

Full wall with cycling memorabilia

This time Rino finished school for electricians and got a job at Glenrose hospital in Edmonton, as an electrician. They bought a house in Delwood area of north Edmonton, where they still live after all those years. In 1972 during few days of his vacationing in Jasper, he bought himself brand new Peugeot racing bike. Soon after, Rino resumed his bike riding and joined some of the Edmonton most popular cycling clubs, like Velocity, Juventus and EMCC. The early Italian influence in the club was thanks to the group of Italians in the club: Nino, Gino, Rino and Lino: ‘The Italian Mafia’ as they were called. The history and evolution of the Edmonton Masters Cycling Club (EMCC) can be neatly traced from the list of trophy and championship winners where Rino’s name is mentioned more than once.

He told me how sometimes he would get frustrated, when his fellow cyclist were able to go for a spring training camps in the States, and he had to make living and stayed at home, in cold Edmonton. They would return in April with 6,000 km in their legs, and he was still riding only rollers in his basement. ‘How could I compete with them?’ he would complain. ‘They were just too strong for me in the spring, but by the summer, because I trained hard, I would beat them in the sprints. Than they were complaining of me sucking the wheels all the time, but I was a sprinter… what else could I do?’

For many years Rino raced in most local races around Alberta, as the significant number of medals on his wall in the basement can serve as a prove. His favourite course was in Nameo, just north of Edmonton, where a flat course guaranteed a sprint finish and he almost always won there. Even as a veteran, he would participate in more than forty races every year.

Being a cyclist, Rino transferred his love for bike to his sons. Rudi, Alex and Paolo become very successful cyclists themselves. Even a cousin Claudio was a cyclist. That’s how they earned the name ‘Ongaro’s clan’.

Rino (right) and John Brian on the podium

Rino’s competitors of the same generation in Alberta were: John Brian (from Calgary), Maurice Johnson, Jim Horner, Lino Bovo, Joe Zombor, John Morrison all from Edmonton. He remembers many others and all the good times he always had in cycling.

But as he was aging, and not getting any younger, one day at his work in Glenrose hospital, Rino fell and hurt his knees. After the accident, he couldn’t press on the pedals with the same intensity and his climbing suffered because of that. He left his job at the hospital, and continued to work with his son Rudi in his private business.

His cycling carrier finished after another incident in 1994 – this time on his bike. At the Cabotto criterium, bike race in the north Edmonton, during one of the sprints, he made a mistake when he rode his front wheel into the wide and deep pavement crack. Rino lost balance and fell heavily at full speed. He broke his collarbone and suffered concussion. Later he couldn’t remember what happened to him, but for his wife this was the last stroke. She told him: no more racing! And that was it for Rino, than aged 60. He never showed up at another race.

Still looks like new: red ‘Battaglin’ bike hanging on the wall

Rino with one of his bikes: this ‘Cinelli’ is ready to go…

These days Rino lives still in his old house in Delwood area with all of his trophies at home. He proudly showed me pictures of him with some well-known cyclists, some of them much younger than him. He also has, framed on the wall yellow jersey from the Tour de France, which he received from Alex Stieda as a present for his 80th birthday. Two of his road bikes are in perfect condition just waiting in his basement to be ridden… one is beautiful red ‘Battaglin’ and the other is full chrome ‘Cinelli’ frame with campy components! Something special…

Last spring I joined ‘Ongaro’s clan’ for some training rides. They all gather at Rudi’s house in Ardrossan every weekend early in the morning. The group would than cruise at fair speed around Strathcona County for two hours and the ride always ends with all of the guys sprinting for that last pole on the side of the road. With all of them being very good sprinters (Alex always wins!) it is very difficult for me even just to hold onto their wheels.

‘Ongaro’s clan’ leaving for a ride: Alex, Rudy and friends

Back in Rudi’s house, there is always some Italian pasta and bottle of vine on the kitchen table, for the exhausted group. Like real Italians, they all talk and discuss the ride and what could’ve been in that last sprint…

Can’t wait for the next spring and the rides with ‘Ongaro’s clan’ to resume again…






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3 comments to “The Ongaro clan”

  1. Comment by Paolo:

    Great job Zdenko,

    thank you so much for taking the time to honor my Dad.
    I will drop off the printed copy to him tonight as he does not have the Internet.

    I know he will be very proud

    Thanks again
    I look forward to riding with you in the spring

  2. Comment by Aspen:

    This was very interesting read. You’re a very skilled blogger. I’ve joined your RSS feed and look forward to seeing more of your great posts. Also, I’ve shared your website in my social networks! Cheers!

  3. Comment by Sophia:

    Wonderful post along with very easy to read story. I am not from Canada, but it’s pleasure to read stories like this. Must be hard to be a cyclist in a cold country like Canada… Cheers!

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