Part 5: Staring at the Ceiling
The penultimate stage of the 1953 Giro was only 125km, but included the first ascent of the Stelvio in the race’s history. Swiss Hugo Koblet was the race leader, having put in a near faultless performance for almost three weeks.
He led Fausto Coppi by two minutes, and the previous day Coppi had graciously admitted defeat when the two finished together on the velodrome in Bolzano. Coppi had tried his best to lose Koblet on the climbs but the Swiss rider always made a spectacular recovery on the descents.
Coppi’s Bianchi team-mates knew that Koblet was vulnerable on the high mountain passes and suspected the Stelvio represented a real chance for Coppi to win the Giro. But their leader seemed distracted and surly, and refused to agree that an attack was worthwhile. Everyone knew that Koblet used amphetamines and was prone to over-indulge at times. So on the morning of that final stage, Bianchi rider Ettore Milano went over to Koblet and asked him for a picture. Obligingly, Koblet removed his sunglasses and Milano could see that his pupils were dilated and his face haggard. Surely, Koblet had taken too many pills the day before and had a terrible night’s sleep – he’d joined the ‘Staring at the Ceiling’ club.
Yet even when Coppi heard Milano’s account, he didn’t commit to attacking Koblet. Once the stage had started, Koblet did indeed seem to be suffering, yet as the Stelvio began he was keeping pace with Coppi, the ageing Gino Bartali and Nino Defilippis. Coppi’s best mountain domestique set a fierce pace on the lower slopes, then Coppi asked compatriot Defilippis to attack. He did, and Koblet made the mistake of following him, despite Defilippis being out of contention for overall honours.
As soon as Defilippis was caught, Coppi counter-attacked with astonishing force. He flew up the Stelvio, between banks of ice and snow. Near the summit he saw Giulia Locatelli, the woman who was destined to become his mistress, known forever as the woman in white. Coppi called out to ask her if she was going to be at the finish in Bormio, and she shouted back that she would. Suitably inspired, by the finish he was over three minutes ahead of Koblet, who had crashed and punctured on the descent, his luck and concentration totally gone.
The final stage into the Vigorelli velodrome in Milan was a formality. Coppi had won his fifth Giro. Reportedly, that night he encountered Koblet in the corridor of the Milan hotel where they were both staying. Koblet just glared at him and went into his room, slamming the door.
The moral of the story? That the power of love is a better way to win bike races than a tub of amphetamine pills.
In its 101 editions the Giro d’Italia has entertained, enthralled and excited. It has become synonymous with explosive racing through spectacular landscapes. And it has created many stories, encompassing every human emotion we can imagine. As the 2018 race spins its way towards Rome, Soigneur brings you seven stories from the race’s beautiful history.