Part 2: Fausto Coppi
On the eve the 100th Giro d’Italia, Herbie Sykes takes us back in time to five decisive moments in the Giro’s rich history.
Pinerolo, 9 June 1949
Every populace has its iconic sporting moments, and obviously they’re rooted in performance. However, it’s not, per se, the athlete who ushers them into the collective conscience. Rather they are televisual constructs, opiates bestowed upon the secular masses by the small screen. They are delivered in glorious Technicolor, but remembered (and here’s the paradox) not so much for their imagery as for their soundtrack. Almost without exception they’re acoustic as distinct to graphic, given root by and indivisible from their commentary. The pictures tell the story but also, in the media age, vice versa.
Very few in England remember the minutiae of the 1966 World Cup Final, but most sports fans can recite Kenneth Wolstenholme’s “Some people are on the pitch…” voiceover. In Belgium it’s the 1975 Tour of Flanders. Merckx won as usual, but the abiding memory is of poor, gallant Frans Verbeeck. Interviewed afterwards by Fred De Bruyne, Verbeeck issued a requiem for competitive cycling. He had gone so deep as to black out several times, and yet still the insatiable Merckx had ridden away. Finally and heartbreakingly, he lamented that the Cannibal is “five kilometres per hour too fast for us.” In Holland, Jack van Gelder’s paroxysm as the rapier Bergkamp eviscerates Argentina is legion, and so it goes.
The 32nd Giro d’Italia had begun with Italy in lutto. On 4 May the plane carrying Torino Calcio, her greatest sports team, had come down at Superga. Now more than ever, ordinary Italians looked to the Giro, the great human opera, to provide an emotional and psychological bolthole. Specifically, they looked to the champions Fausto Coppi (a Torino fan and friend to many of the deceased) and Gino Bartali.
Coppi had begun the 1940, the last before the war, as a scrawny 20-year-old gregario working for Bartali. He’d usurped the great man there, and post-war their rivalry had enraptured not only their homeland, but the entire continent. Bartali had narrowly won the 1946 Giro, Coppi had run away with that of ‘47. Fausto had won both San Remo and Lombardy in 1948 but Bartali, his fame and popularity seemingly boundless, had won a second Tour aged 34. Coppi was the better time trialist, Bartali the superior climber. Coppi was fragile and ethereal, Bartali cast in iron. Gino was catholic probity, Tuscan conservatism, pane è salame. Fausto was northern, post-religious, ‘modern’. In short, cycling was Coppi and Bartali or, if you will, Bartali and Coppi.
Stage 17 would comprise 254 devastating kilometres. Deep in the guts of Coppi’s Piedmont they would attempt Cuneo to Pinerolo over the giants Maddalena, Vars, Izoard, Monginevro and Sestriere. There had been longer stages, but nothing, in the history of bike racing, even remotely as percussive. These Gazzetta people were out of their minds.
A rancorous sky, incessant, spiteful rain, the shit-kicker Primo Volpi jumping off the front, Coppi distracted and nervous. He was condemned to this lunacy, and he was cold. On the lower slopes of the Maddalena, he began to untangle himself. Surely he wasn’t going to? Surely he didn’t think he could…
Precisely 192 kilometres to Pinerolo. The road to Damascus.
90 seconds at the summit, 4’29” over the Vars, 6’54” as he began the descent of the giant Izoard. Then, as RAI went live with radiocronista Mario Ferretti, the European sporting paradigm was redefined…
“Un uomo solo è al comando. La sua maglia è bianco-celeste, il suo nome è Fausto Coppi…”
Cuneo-Pinerolo represents the high watermark not only of the Giro, but of Italian sporting history. Cycling exploits come and go, but none has ever resonated with the public the way Coppi’s did. He put twelve minutes into Bartali, and later that summer confirmed his greatness in becoming the first to capture the Giro-Tour double. That, the context in which it occurred, and above all Ferretti’s breathless declaration, explain why it remains an integral part of the Italian argot.
In Italy they say that Merckx was the best, but that the campionissimo was the greatest. That’s evidenced by the fact that whilst he predates television, his legend, and that of Cuneo-Pinerolo, has survived it. And that, if you think about it, is really quite something.
Still today he’s a man alone in the lead, and his jersey remains that glorious celestial blue. Sixty-eight years on from Cuneo-Pinerolo, there’s still only one Fausto Coppi.