Italian Icons: Bartali, Coppi and Pantani

Wilcockson / Sunada It’s Valentine’s Day. And for most modern cycling fans, it’s being remembered as the 10th anniversary of the sad, sudden death of Marco Pantani. The Italian racer is still revered as a national hero by the tifosi—right up there with Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali—…

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Wilcockson / Sunada

It’s Valentine’s Day. And for most modern cycling fans, it’s being remembered as the 10th anniversary of the sad, sudden death of Marco Pantani. The Italian racer is still revered as a national hero by the tifosi—right up there with Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali— even though the thrill of his exhilarating climbing solos has since been tempered by the knowledge of his drug use—and the cocaine addiction that eventually killed him at age 34.

I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, talking to a new friend, a photographer and everyday cyclist, who had only a slight interest in bike racing. He told me that one of his favorite books was a slim volume written by the famed Italian novelist, journalist and poet Dino Buzzati about the 1949 Giro d’Italia. That book was first published in 1981, nine years after the writer’s death. The Italian title was: “Dino Buzzati al Giro d’Italia: Un Epico Duello tra Coppi e Bartali” It was published in homage to Buzzati, a compilation of dispatches he wrote from the road during that initial postwar Giro—the first top-level bike race Buzzati had ever followed—for his newspaper, the Corriere della Sera.

The book was subsequently translated into French before the English-language rights were acquired in 1998 by VeloPress, a company I helped to start. We used a former professor of Italian, Julia Amari, to do an initial translation from the Italian, and I then worked on the manuscript, using the beautifully translated French version, to produce the 202-page paperback we called: “The Giro d’Italia: Coppi vs. Bartali at the 1949 Tour of Italy.”

The Afterword is written by Italian scholar Claudio Marabini, the man who had the idea to make a book out of Buzzati’s dispatches. Marabini captures the spirit of the novelist’s work in these two sentences: “On the backdrop of the Giro, the faces of the anonymous crowd were those of the common people of an Italy in which all of us, the war having just ended, were rediscovering the hope of a better tomorrow. The Giro was building its myth, reborn every day, after every evening’s dissolution.”

Fifteen years after that English version appeared, I was thrilled to learn that people in New York were still reading it (or discovering it). Indeed, last June, a Brooklyn-based writer Genevieve Walker, in an article for Guernica, the online magazine for arts and politics, called Buzzati’s book “a masterpiece of sports journalism…a beautiful account of a great bike race and a window opened onto an era’s uncertainty….”

In the seventh chapter of the book, Buzzati writes about southern Italy and the incongruity of racing through exquisite countryside in the early part of a stage: “There were two, three attempts to break away, involving Pasquini, Volpi…and others whose names escape us. But the surrounding landscape was too beautiful. Even those racers lacking artistic sensibility were tacitly in agreement: to start slaving away in such a place was tantamount to cursing. It was like walking in a garden laid out above the bluest sea ever seen: huge olive trees like cathedrals, daisies, flowers, lawns, wheat and other plants, all green, and birds singing more voraciously than usual. The racers proceeded side by side on the wide ribbon of asphalt, as if they were only there to satisfy their curiosity, nothing more.”

Buzzati’s words on that Giro, and the words of Italian journalists and broadcasters over the ensuing 65 years, capture the beauty of Italy and the part played by cycling in the country’s rich heritage. Before 1949, the Italians’ Giro (and their cycling in general) had largely been raced on a domestic level. But all that started to change in the immediate postwar years. First, in 1948, Gino Bartali won the Tour de France 10 years after his first victory. The next year, after winning Buzzati’s Giro, Fausto Coppi went on to become the first rider from any country to win both the Giro and the Tour in the same year.

Coppi did this historic Giro-Tour double again in 1952. Since then, the only others to have achieved the feat have been Jacques Anquetil (1964), Eddy Merckx (1970, ’72 and ’74), Bernard Hinault (1982 and ’85), Stephen Roche (1987), Miguel Induráin (1992 and ’93) and Marco Pantani (1998). It’s no wonder that Coppi, Bartali and Pantani remain as icons of Italian cycling, despite the merits of their many legendary compatriots, including Alfredo Binda, Felice Gimondi and Francesco Moser, while Vincenzo Nibali is a candidate to join that list.

Coppi led a more public life and shocked more than half of the Catholic Italian public when he left his wife for the “woman in white.” But when he died from malaria three months after his 40th birthday, thousands traveled to his remote Piedmont village to attend the funeral in January 1960.

Bartali, known as Gino the Pious, was so private that few people knew of his acts of kindness aiding Italian Jews to escape the Fascists during World War II; and it wasn’t until five months ago that he was posthumously recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem. Bartali died peacefully at his home near Florence at age 85: I remember it well because I was just heading out on my annual birthday ride, May 5, in 2000.

And so we come to Pantani, whose death was so shocking that few of us will ever forget it. As with Coppi, thousands attended Pantani’s funeral 10 years ago at the coastal village of Cesenatico. This weekend, Gimondi, Moser and Nibali will be among the guests attending a memorial there to celebrate Pantani—whose name remains in cycling’s palmarès as the last man to achieve the Giro-Tour double. I wonder what Dino Buzzati would have made of Coppi and Bartali’s tragic successor?

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