Cycling | 2 comments
The story of Fausto Coppi
By Zdenko Kahlina
A tribute to one of the greatest cyclists
If… in this bad, beautiful world competitive cycling has any relevance other than being the pursuit of adolescent endeavors, then perhaps the life of the Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi might serve to illustrate at least some of cycling’s sometimes complex involvement with the world at large.
Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the death of “Il Campionissimo”, Fausto Coppi. Five-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, twice a victor of the Tour de France and the hour record holder, Coppi succumbed to malaria contracted during a racing/hunting trip to what was then Upper Volta and is now Burkina Faso.
Like many sporting champions, Fausto Coppi started from humble beginnings; worked long hours from the age of 13 and became thoroughly dedicated to his profession by way of training, diet and racing tactics. As a boy, Coppi would ride the 20k each way to his work in a butcher’s shop in the north-western Italian town of Novi Ligure. The return journey, to his home in the tiny hamlet of Castellania, set high in the beautiful Piedmonte hills, would entail some 12k of often severe climbing out of the Serravalle, the long valley corridor that now allows motorway and railway access from Turin and Milan in the north to the port of Genoa on the Ligurian/Mediterranean coast.
However, by the time the young Coppi was to turn professional and go on to become one of the youngest winners of the pre-war Giro D’Italia, the war intervened and during the period 1943-45 Coppi was to remain a guest of the British forces, as a prisoner-of-war, in North Africa. The war, and the subsequent occupation of Italy, meant that Coppi would lose some of his best years as an athlete; however, he would still go on to stamp his authority on the European cycling world.
If his share of such misfortune had been similar to that of other champions of this and subsequent eras, it is certain that his Palmarès would have been much more impressive than his actual tally of 138 road and 84 track pursuit victories indicates.
Eventually his list of major successes would include five Giros, two Tour de France, the Hour record and all the single-day cycling classics, including world road champion. Only Eddie Merckx, the mercurial Belgian of a later generation would excel this record.
From 1946 onwards, Fausto was a “marked man” but still he frequently left his rivals standing, apparently “as and when” he wanted. Some respected journalists stated that Fausto’s most magnificent ride was the 254km Cuneo to Pinerolo Stage of the 1949 Giro d’Italia where he was in the lead for 190 km over all six Cols and rode the last four climbs alone to win by a margin of 12 minutes over Bartali, with Cottur, Ricci and Conte much further behind. I rate his 1953 World Road Race Championship win in Lugano as his greatest due to the fact that his rivals must have been well-prepared, had ridden ten of the eighteen laps before Fausto attacked, knew that they would need to work together to keep within striking distance but instead, Fausto kept increasing his lead, to finish 6 minutes ahead of Germain Derijcke (who had been trying to stick to Fausto’s wheel) and more than 7 minutes ahead of Stan Ockers and Michele Gismondi.
Fausto also suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1951 Tour de France. On the Stage from Carcassonne to Montpellier, in stifling heat, he lost 30 minutes to the Stage (and overall) winner, Hugo Koblet. However, it may have been caused by a nervous breakdown or simply loss of morale as his brother, Serse, had died only five days prior to the start of the Tour, due to a fall near the end of Tour of Piedmont (their local race) in which they were both riding. Fausto recovered during the rest day and, with the support of his teammates, continued, and actually won the Stages from Briançon to Aosta and from Colmar to Nancy (Time Trial).
Coppi’s great rival, a cyclist who was equally adored by the Italian public, was the rather sombre and dour-looking Gino Bartali, whose adoration was perhaps due to the obvious suffering and seriousness he displayed when racing on his bike rather than due to any personal charisma (Bartali died three or four years ago much loved and a doyen of the Italian cycling media).
One of the major differences between the two cyclists was that Bartali was a devout Roman Catholic and this outlook and belief would separate the two men throughout their careers.
Around 1953-54 people and media began to notice that at the finish of Coppi’s races was an unknown woman, the wife of one of Coppi’s fans, and a woman who invariably dressed in white. Of course, Post-War Italy, although undergoing many changes in the process of re-building itself, remained a solidly devout Catholic country.
By 1954 it had become clear to the media and then to the general public – cycle racing, then as now, being, alongside football, one of the two most influential and loved Italian sports – that Signora Giulia Locatelli, La Dama Bianca – the Woman in White – and wife of Dr Locatelli, was taking more than a purely cycling interest in Coppi. In that same year, Dr Locatelli, now an ex-fan of the famous rider, denounced his wife as an adultera and in the following social hysteria she was imprisoned for several days until the moral outrage and the judicial process followed their course. By this time, Coppi had left his own wife Bruna and family, and in 1955 he and Giulia had an illegitimate son, Faustino. The Pope then decided to ex-communicate Coppi and Italy, sporting and social, was ripped apart, some fans and public following the devout Bartali, the others, the rebel and social outcast Coppi – traditionally Il Papa blesses the Giro D’Italia, but not if Fausto Coppi is riding………
There was always some kind of melancholic elegance about Coppi, on and off the bike, and, unsurprisingly, towards the end of his career. Even physically he seemed a little unusual as his large rib-cage appeared to be quite disproportionate to the rest of his torso. His younger brother Serse, also a professional cyclist, had been killed racing in 1951. And although increased fame brought increased wealth and he was able to buy a large villa in the valley near Novi Ligure, the community in that area, then as now, was a closed one and Coppi and Giulian found themselves increasingly ostracized. Even today in Novi, the elegant and extensive recently built museum dedicated to cycling and the history of Italy’s most accomplished cyclist, contains no mention of, no photographs about or reference to La Dama Bianca.
At the end of his career, in 1959, Coppi rode in Africa on a demonstration tour. He returned, with mis-diagnosed malaria, was subsequently wrongly treated in the local hospital and died in Alessandria in 1960 aged 40, not far from his lovely Piedmonte hills – apparently at the time, followers of his funeral cortege and devotees thronged the surrounding countryside for miles around and flowers and wreathes tumbled everywhere. Giulia lived on as a recluse in their house that became known as Villa Coppi. During the mid-nineties she was involved in a car crash which left her in a coma for eighteen months before she died isolated and lonely.
Their son, Faustino, lived, lives, on in their rather grand but increasingly forlorn-looking villa. The villa is situated mid-way between the towns of Novi and Serravalle and sits by the side of the long, straight valley road. The area has now been massively re-developed and there are numerous shopping outlets and services some of which, perhaps a touch ironically given that it is now quite dangerous to ride a bike in these parts due to traffic volumes, sponsor local racing cyclists. At the junction of the Villa and the extremely busy main road is a most convenient stopping place for the locals to pull over and select from the group of prostitutes often to be found hanging about the area, especially at weekends when the clash and glamour of the valley commerce is at its greatest.
Away to the north, in the hills, where Coppi was born, the tiny hamlet of Castellania now houses the two brothers’ tombs, a museum containing many of Fausto’s trophies and winners jerseys and a chapel dedicated to this most renowned of Italy’s racing cyclists. Here, amid the surrounding glorious mountains it is not difficult to imagine that the man and the cyclist – like the boy before him – has found the peace that was never to be his in the busy valley below. Unwittingly or otherwise, the controversially adored racing cyclist played no small part in the re-ordering of his country’s family structures and the subsequent re-working of its marital laws and values.
Passo Pordoi: in memory of the great champion Fausto Coppi