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Giro History: Entering Gino Country

As the 2006 Giro d’Italia enters the Alps tomorrow it’s fitting to remember one of the greatest riders of all time, Gino Bartali. At the age of twenty in 1935, Gino won the first of his seven Giro mountain jerseys. Along with this 70th anniversary it is also remembered that he won three Giro’s (1936, 1937 and 1946) and added to his enduring fame through epic battles with his archrival Fausto Coppi.

Toughness and Heart
Looking as though someone had smacked him in the face with a sledgehammer, his tough looking face and boxer’s nose were easy clues to the toughness of the man. A great story relates to his ruthless treatment to other riders on the road. Very early in his career two famous Italian sprinters tried to box him in at a race finish. Most other riders would have tried to ride around them. Not Gino, he ploughed right between the two of them consequently bringing the lot of them down in a bloody mess. After that nobody messed with Gino. This little story is one that Robbie McEwen must surely appreciate!

In 1960 Gino was instrumental in discovering a new Italian star named Romeo Venturelli. Astoundingly Venturelli beat Jacques Anquetil in the first long time trial of the 1960 Giro and took the maglia rosa. A few days later Venturelli was out of the race and back home complaining of a stomach ache. Bartali remarked “He’s got the legs, the lungs, but not the heart. I would never have quit the Giro just for a stomach ache. I would have been ashamed of myself.” Venturelli was a shooting star with limited success, whereas Gino was a truly great champion for twenty years.

In addition to his three Giro titles, Bartali also won the Tour de France twice. The 1938 win was the first in which a rider won both the overall and mountain jerseys. Like so many great athletes WWII robbed Bartali of his prime racing years. In 1946 the Giro resumed in impoverished Italy and Bartali showed that he had lost none of his power. He won the race and the mountains jersey.

By 1948 the famous Bartali-Coppi love-hate relationship was at its peak. In Italy the nation was split between Bartali-ista and Coppi-ista. In that year’s Giro Fiorenzo Magni was wearing the maglia rosa when, in the mountains, hordes of his fans pushed him uphill to ensure that he keep his lead. The organizers handed Magni a paltry two minute penalty. Second placed Coppi was appalled and together with his entire team withdrew from the race. Bartali, who had been sparring with Magni throughout the race, filled the void but it was not to be and Magni won the race.

A month later Gino was next destined to ride the Tour but having just lost the Giro by a sizeable margin to Magni many ‘experts’ claimed that with the racing vacuum created by the war, and the fact that he was now 34 years old, he was past it. Not helping matters, ridiculous stories fueled by the press were blowing the Bartali-Coppi feud out of all proportions. The selectors, turning a blind eye to the media hype, selected both Bartali and Coppi to ride for the Italian team. Each accused the other of destroying the others chances in previous Tours. Coppi flatly refused to ride with Bartali and so Gino went to France as Italy’s hope for the big race.

Gino Bartali (l) and Fausto Coppi are immortalized in bronze at the Madonna del Ghisallo church near Bellagio on Lake Como.

Bartali won the first stage but by the time the race reached the Pyrenees he had relinquished his leader’s jersey to a very young Louison Bobet. Now twenty minutes behind Bobet, Bartali set about putting things straight. He won the first mountain stage and then the next one. On the long hard haul across to the Alps the inexperienced Bobet fell apart while the old warrior Bartali bided his time. Deploying his magnificent climbing skills and unmatched descending skills, Gino won three Alpine mountain stages back to back. For the second time, and ten years apart, he rode into Paris with both the leader’s jersey and mountain jersey.

The great man passed away in 2000 at the age of 86 and this year his spirit will be remembered throughout Italy as the modern peloton traverses the Giro climbs that he loved and conquered. Long ago the rift between Bartali and Coppi was closed as the two men approached the twilight of their racing careers. They became close friends and following Coppi’s sudden and tragic death in 1960, a distraught Bartali read the funeral oration at the ‘Campionissimo’s’ funeral.

This year both men are honored at the Giro. For Bartali it is the 70th anniversary of his first great Giro ride while Coppi’s epic performances are remembered on the feared Passo Gavia which has been designated the 2006 “Cima Coppi” – the highest point in this year’s race.

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