What's Cool In Road Cycling

The Legend of Fausto Coppi, A Man Alone

Fausto Coppi Remembered: Today, the 2nd of January is the 60th anniversary of the death of Fausto Coppi. Leslie Reissner takes a look at the life and times of ‘Il Campionissimo’ the Champion of Champions, who was either loved or hated by the fans, the general public and even the Pope. Coppi’s life was full of triumph and tragedy, but he was unquestionably a ‘Superstar’ of the road.

“Un uomo solo al comando, la sua maglia è biancoceleste, il suo nome è Fausto Coppi”.
“A man alone in the lead, whose jersey is white and blue, and whose name is Fausto Coppi”

These were the words uttered on the radio by Mario Ferretti on Italian radio during the 1949 Giro d’Italia although nobody can actually confirm this, another piece of the legend surrounding Fausto Coppi, Italy’s greatest cyclist who proved it that day in 1949. It was June 10th and the Giro’s mountain stage that day ran over five passes from Cuneo to Pinerelo, a loop of 254 kms that looped into France. With 192 km to go, Coppi went clear on the first pass, riding for five hours alone in the cold and rain, coming to the finish line nearly 12 minutes ahead of the second finisher, his great rival Gino Bartali. It won Coppi the Giro that year (one of five times he was victorious) and still astonishes.

Coppi and Bartali

Italy had invested greatly in the study of malaria as swamps were drained around the country for productive agricultural use and was considered Europe’s most advanced nation in this research. It is ironic then that Fausto Coppi, Italy’s greatest cyclist, died from malaria on January 2, 1960 at the age of 40. His doctors had been unable to correctly diagnose the disease but the symptoms had worsened so quickly it was unlikely much could have been done. Triumph had raised up Coppi yet tragedy had dogged him. His father died suddenly in his 40s, worn out from hard manual labour on the farm; his beloved brother Serse, who rode with Coppi as a teammate, died, aged 28, at the end of a race when he fell and sustained a fatal concussion; Coppi’s second wife died two years after entering a coma following a car accident.

Fausto Coppi and Giulia Occhini

Superstars also eat oranges

Sixty years later Fausto Coppi — World Road Champion, Hour Record Holder, Classics Winner, Giro Winner, Tour de France Winner, Track Pursuit World Champion—remains an iconic figure in cycling. It is a sport whose followers very much value the past and great performances. Coppi was special — coming from nowhere in Piedmont, he built up his strength as a butcher’s bicycle delivery boy, leaving the local hotshots behind on his heavy machine. Costante Girardengo, Italy’s first great Campionissimo, had grown up nearby and was an inspiration. Coppi’s talent was recognized early and he was taken in hand by a blind masseur, Biaggio Cavanna, who was a trainer, tactician, coach and manager. And, in cycling lore, something of a sorcerer.

Coppi and Anquetil with Cavanna

What sets Coppi apart, besides his enormous athletic accomplishments which included being the first to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year, and his too-early end, is the images that we have, the superb black-and-white photos from the news services, the colour drawings in magazines. Certain athletes have attained legendary status perhaps because we could have never seen them in action — Babe Ruth, Joe Dimaggio, Ottavio Bottechio, Hugo Koblet, the 1954 German World Cup Team, Red Grange, Tazio Nuvolari — and we think of Coppi at his best, immaculate, relaxed, a man alone. It is estimated that between 1949 and 1952, when he escaped at the head of the race he was never caught, something like 3,000 kms riding by himself. Coppi earned the kind of money that saw him dress perfectly, always elegant and motoring along in gorgeous Alfa Romeos or Lancias. He knew about “la Bella Figura,” the very Italian concept of how to make a good impression. “Sprezzatura” is another excellent Italian idea, that of a studied carelessness, mastery without seeming effort. He introduced trends and systems into pro cycling in the 1940s that we take for granted today.

1953 Giro d’Italia

Even his bicycles were beautiful — from 1945 until 1955 (and again in 1958) he was the star of the Bianchi professional team, riding bikes from the oldest bike company in the world, bikes whose distinctive colour, celeste, had supposedly been approved by the Queen of Italy after Edoardo Bianchi had given her cycling lessons. Unlike Bartali’s Legnano or Koblet’s La Perle, Bianchi is still with us and happy to remember Coppi in its marketing.

A very young Coppi in 1940

1952 Tour de France

Unlike Gino Bartali (Gino il Pio—Pius Gino), Coppi was to see his private life become a public one as the newspapers, which had filled the sports pages with him, later filled the front pages with accounts of his affair with “La Dama Blanca,” the mysterious lady-in-white who appeared at his races. The affair and subsequent divorces of both principals was a national scandal and not how anybody (or a society) needs to be remembered.

1952 Tour de France

Instead, we will think of Fausto Coppi a monumentally talented albeit fragile figure who once ruled the world of pro cycling. Someone who played up his rivalry with Bartali, the Anti-Coppi in some many ways. Someone who brought lustre to so many races he entered. Someone, in both his riding style and personal posture, who was truly “a man alone.” With his career interrupted by World War II, one can only wonder what more he could have accomplished but what has been left behind for us to consider is enough for anyone. Sixty years gone. Viva Fausto Coppi!

Coppi – The Monument

# More on Fausto Coppi this Sunday as Leslie Reissner reviews two books about Il Campionissimo: “Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi” by William Fotheringham and “Le Bici di Coppi” by Palolo Amadori and Paolo Tullini. #

Leslie Reissner, when not reflecting on the 400 kinds of pasta known in Italy, may be found counting all his bicycles whose names end in vowels at www.tindonkey.com

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