Hello loyal (or foolhardy) readers, belated Happy New Year. Due to our computer being at the shop in Livorno for a broken hard disc and us being in Perugia for almost two weeks, I’ve been off the grid. But you’re used to that I know. Below you’ll find something I wrote for my good friend Michael Haddad of Brooklyn and a group he founded called the “Brooklyn Vintage Velo Wheelmen”, he was too polite to say no thank you.
Coppi in action
It’s probably presumptuous of me to write about the great Fausto Coppi but for my friend Michael Haddad I’ll give it a try. Since moving to Italy over 21 years ago I developed a real thirst to learn about the golden age of bicycle racing in Italy. First though I had to teach myself to read Italian and the real motivating factor was so I could become a student of Italian cycling history.
For Italy and Italians, Coppi was much more than a just a bike racer. He represented national pride, the tenacity of a nation to over come the incredible destruction of WWII that came on the heels of 20 years of an iron fisted fascist dictatorship. In a real sense Coppi and Bartali carried the aspirations of an entire nation on their shoulders.
Coppi was born om September 15th 1919 into a farming family in a place so tiny you couldn’t even call it a village, Castellania, province of Alessandria in the Piedmont. He had two sisters and two brothers, Livio, Dina, Maria and Serse. From an early age it was apparent that Fausto didn’t possess the hardy constitution necessary to work the land. He was extremely skinny, frail even. As he entered his teenage years his father found him work in a ‘salumeria’ shop in Novi Ligure about 15 kilometers down in the valley. Fausto’s job was to deliver the goods produced by this shop to local stores and individual clients. This he did from the saddle of a heavy delivery bike, up and down hill all day long five days a week. He would ride the bike home on weekends to stay with his family. He already knew he wanted to become a cyclist but his family didn’t possess the money to buy a real bike. His uncle, a merchant seamen, bought Fausto his first racing bike.
It wasn’t long before he was noticed, cleaning up in the local races. He may have been too frail to work as a farm hand but he sure had the physique to race a bike. Soon he was forced to make a choice, he wasn’t able to deliver salami and prosciutto all day and still train. With his father’s approval Fausto began to race seriously, driven by the need to win in order to bring the winnings home. After a special victory in the provincial capital of Alessandria against a large field with grown men he was noticed by the famous blind coach and massage therapist Biagio Cavanna. Cavanna ran a sort of cycling academy in Novi Ligure where young, promising racers lived and trained, coached by this racing guru. After an attentive examination of Fausto, using his hands and listening to Coppi’s low pulse (34 bpm) Cavanna took him on. That was the beginning of a friendship and partnership that lasted almost to the end of Coppi’s life.
Competing in ever more important races it wasn’t long before Coppi’s results were noticed by teams in the big leagues. With Cavanna’s connections Coppi signed a contract with Legnano, Gino Bartali’s squadra. It was Coppi’s fourth place in the Giro del Piemonte, where Bartali won, that the decision was made to include Fausto in the team for the 1940 Giro d’Italia. Coppi was a skinny 21 year old, so shy he barely spoke at all. Bartali was the team’s captain, he had already won the Giro twice, in 1936 and ’37 as well as the Tour de France in 1938. Coppi was there as a humble ‘gregario’ or team worker. Until the famous stage Firenze-Modena that crossed the Appenine mountains between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. Bartali had a mechanical problem and Coppi was given permission to ride his own race, he won the stage and took the Maglia Rosa, the leader’s jersey. Which, with generous help from Bartali, he held until the end of the race. A champion was born but Coppi’s road to fame would be obstructed by the war.
Though he’d been drafted he was still able to race, however the European racing schedule had been heavily influenced by the onset of the war. Under threat of air raids, Coppi made a successful attempt at the hour record on the Vigorelli velodrome in Milano in early November of 1942. Wearing a normal wool jersey on a normal track bike using a 52X15 gear (7,38 meters) Fausto rode his heart out, beating the Frenchman Archimbaud by 31 meters, establishing a new record of 45,871 km. 10 days later he was on a troop ship, headed into the war. He wouldn’t be back in Italy until the spring of 1945, having spent much of that time as a prisoner of war. He contracted malaria for the first time there in the camps, an illness that would kill him only 15 years later at the age of 40.
Fausto Coppi & Fiorenzo Magni
It wasn’t child’s play regaining the athletic supremacy that Coppi was known for before the war. His stomach especially had become very touchy, long months were spent building up his strength as the nation slowly began to return to a semblance of normalcy. It wasn’t until 1946 that the important races were back on the schedule. With his new team, Bianchi, he lined up for the Milano-San Remo intent on proving that he was still Coppi, that he hadn’t lost his ability. He had spent the winter training like a mad man, logging over 7,000 kilometers, keen on putting his form to the test. Bartali on the other hand was engaged in a war of nerves with his sqaudra, Legnano, insisting that they give him the same fee that Bianchi were paying Coppi. Legnano refused, Bartali let it be known that he wouldn’t be giving it his best. Coppi attacked from way out, going away with an early suicide break on the plains of Lombardy where only back markers ever made a move. By the time he was climbing the Passo del Turchino only the Frenchman Teisseire was still glued to his wheel. Once down on the Riviera Coppi got rid of him and rode the final 152 kilometers solo, winning by 14’00″, Bartali came in with the remainder of the peleton at 24’00″. Their rivalry was born, Italy would fuel this dualism for over a decade.
Fausto wouldn’t win his next Giro d’Italia that year, he finished second, 47″ behind his eternal rival Gino Bartali. Though he did win four stages. He also took the Giro di Lombardia, a Classic which he won five times. In all he won the Giro d’Italia five times; 1940, 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953. One of his greatest stage victories was the Cuneo-Pinerolo in the Giro of 1949. A mountainous stage in the Alps, 254 km with the passes of the Maddalena, the Vars, the Izoard and Monginevro, Bartali was touted as the favorite on the day. On the first climb, the Maddalena, there was already only a handful of the best as Bartali pressed the pace. Coppi dropped his chain shifting gears and had to chase to get back on, in that moment Bartali punctured and Primo Volpi attacked. Coppi went after him, and after ridding himself of Volpi, rode to glory in one of the longest solo breaks of his career, 192 kilometers. Bartali chased alone the entire day, arriving 11’52″ in second, Alfredo Martini third at 17’40″.
Fausto with a young fan
Because Fausto didn’t possess a sprint he was forced to attack early in order to win. His greatest victories were almost entirely solo, that was his trademark. It’s calculated that he won on solo breaks totaling over 3,000 kilometers during his long career. He was the first rider to complete the Giro-Tour double in a single season, doing it twice, in 1949 and 1952. This was during the era when the Tour was disputed with national teams, exactly like the modern day World’s Championship race. The first ‘Campionissimo’ Alfredo Binda was the director of the Italian team then, imagine the effort of getting Coppi and Bartali to race for each other instead of against each other. For three weeks at the Tour de France.
Coppi was forced into many long periods of convalescence due to his brittle bones, every time he came off the bike he seemed to fracture something. Some journalists even go so far as to speculate that these periods of rest allowed him to prolong his racing career. For Coppi raced, practically the entire year. In the winter months he would take to the indoor velodromes of Europe, disputing the Six Day circuits. He commanded lucrative purses, so much so that he couldn’t say no to them.
One of the events that shaped Coppi’s life was his relationship with a woman named Giulia Occhini. She was the wife of one of Coppi’s most ardent fans. What began as a friendship with the couple soon turned into a clandestine affair. By 1953 she was following him to races, standing by the side of the road to watch him pass. She wore a white Montgomery coat and was christened “The Dama Bianca” by the Italian press. In 1954 Coppi left his wife and daughter to move in with Giulia who had left her husband and two sons. Though initially the press respected his privacy, he was “Il Campionissimo” after all, soon the word was out and Italy was scandalized. They were even arrested! In an action brought about the husband of Giulia, the police raided their home in the middle of the night and found two warm spots in the same bed, proof that they were sleeping together, in sin. There was a trial and Giulia was sentenced to live in Ancona in the Marche, far from the Piedmont where Fausto was, for a period of several months. She became pregnant in 1955 and in order to give the child Coppi’s surname she was forced to leave Europe for his birth, flying to Argentina where a son, Faustino was born.
Coppi surrounded by fans in Venice
It is known that all was not rosy in the Coppi household. Accustomed to a wealthy standard of living, Giulia encouraged Fausto to live like the celebrity he was. They bought a sprawling mansion near Novi Ligure, employed liveried servants and had all the trappings of near royalty. Though quite wealthy after a long successful career, Coppi was not used to such expenditures and worried constantly about how much money his companion spent. So he raced, every engagement was taken if the pay was enough. Some say he raced to be away from home, raced because it was all he knew. He continued long beyond what his battered body was capable of, the final years were no where near his standard. He was even planning on racing the season of 1960, in a team that was being directed by his old rival Gino Bartali, the San Pellegrino. Though he was 40 years old his name still garnered publicity and crowds.
Coppi appears in early Campagnolo literature
He made the mistake of excepting an invitation to race in Africa in early December of 1959. Along with other names of the European peloton, he flew to what was then called Upper Volta for 12 days, some of it spent racing and the rest spent hunting. Coppi, true to his country upbringing, was an avid hunter. While there he contracted malaria, again. He fell ill upon his return to Italy, being hospitalized just after Christmas. His doctors were unable to determine the cause of his fever, he languished, worsening with each passing day. A call came from France, it was the brother of Raphael Geminiani, a fellow pro with whom Coppi had shared a room in Africa and who was in hospital too and being successfully treated for malaria. ‘Gem’ as he is called, had heard that Coppi was ill and wanted to make sure that his doctors knew what it was. Coppi’s physicians haughtily brushed them off, telling them that it wasn’t malaria at all and to more or less mind their own business. On January 2nd 1960 he passed away. His funeral in Castellania was oceanic, tens of thousands of people made the journey to pay their respects to one of the century’s great sportsmen.
The most important victories:
Giro d’Italia: 1940, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953
Tour de France: 1949, 1952
Milano- San Remo: 1946, 1948, 1949
Giro di Lombardia: 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1954 (he would have won in 1955 but for a singular event, he was chased down with a vengence by a furious Fiorenzo Magni after Giulia Occhini, following the race in a convertible team car, gave Magni the crooked arm salute as she passed, standing on the seat. Coppi was the Fausto of old that day, getting away early and then soloing for what looked like a true triumph in his style. He was caught in the final kilometer, summoning from the depths of his champion’s soul the strength to contest the sprint which he lost by a tire width. He sobbed on the infield of the velodrome afterward.)
Fleche Wallone: 1950
World Champion road: 1953
World Champion Individual Pursuit (track): two times
Italian National Champion (road): four times
Italian National Champion Individual Pursuit (track): five times
Giro di Emilia: three times
Giro di Romagna: three times
Giro del Veneto: three times
Tre Valli Varesine: three times
Baracchi Trophy: four times
Gran Prix Lugano: three times
Gran Prix des les Nations: twice
total victories on the road: 151
total individual pursuit victories: 84