The Giro d’Italia (Coppi Versus Bartali at the 1949 Tour of Italy) by Dino Buzzati
When I met Gino Bartali in Florence one September evening in 1993, I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask him what it felt like that day at the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) in 1949 when Fausto Coppi beat him by seven minutes in a mountain stage. Then again, it might not have been the best way to start an acquaintance with one of Italy’s all-time great bicycle racers, reminding him of the beginning of the end of his racing career.
The 1949 Giro d’Italia marked a turning point in the history of a nation and in the personal careers of two of Italy’s greatest cyclists, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. Italy in 1949 was a divided nation seeking unity. Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler and subsequent entry into World War II had brought this primarily agricultural country to its knees. Italians found themselves bitterly divided between monarchists and fascists on one hand and socialists and communists on the other. Barely a year old at the time of the May 1949 Giro, the Republic of Italy rallied around the banner of bicycle racing – the "poor man’s sport" – to celebrate their national champion, Gino Bartali. Bartali had won The Race in 1938 at the age of twenty-four and, to everyone’s surprise, came back to win it again in 1948.
On the horizon, though, was Fausto Coppi, a rising star and great hope for Italians who could see the aging Bartali begin to wane. Coppi had won the Giro d’Italia twice (1940 and 1947) and all of Italy was divided between these two champions, the one representing past glories, the other the new hope for the future.
Yet the crowds watching the Giro were unified as, in Buzzati’s words, they shouted:
"’Hurrah for Bartali, hurrah for Coppi,’ [they] shouted almost with despair: ‘Hurrah for the Giro, hurrah for Cottur, hurrah for Doni,’ and wanted to say something quite different." (Cottur and Doni were other popular racers).
Dino Buzzati, one of Italy’s great twentieth-century writers, was assigned by Milan’s newspaper, Il Corriere della Serai, to follow the Giro and report on this great race. As an artist and humanist, Buzzati was anything but a sports writer. Furthermore, although he grew up in Italy and had ridden a bicycle as a child, he had never seen the Giro d’Italia. Buzzati was given "free reign" by the paper to cover the race in his own style. He did just this and has left us a masterpiece of sports writing to savor more than half a century later.
Buzzati is a romantic and a philosopher. Applying his literary optic to this great race he describes the riders (and all cyclists): "They are pilgrims traveling to a distant city that they will never reach: they symbolize, in flesh and blood, as depicted in an ancient painting, the incomprehensible adventure of life. . . they are knights errant who leave for a war where there are no lands to be conquered. . . . they are young slaves, prisoners of an ogre who has tied them to an enormous leaden grinder and they churn around. . . they are madmen, because they could cover the same ground without exerting themselves, and instead they labor like animals. . . and they are also monks; belonging to a special brotherhood ruled by its own, tough laws. Each one of them hopes for grace, but it is granted to very few, one or two per decade."
How did it end? Bartali was indeed a waning champion, while Coppi was on the ascendant. Bartali took second to Coppi’s first place. A month later, in July 1949, the two dominated The Race with Coppi winning and Bartali in second place again, thrilling the Italian public beyond measure, especially since Coppi was the first person in history to win the two great tours in the same year.
It took Dino Buzzati’s book, The Giro d’Italia, to open my eyes and to remind me that, indeed, I have met and actually shaken hands with three of the great protagonists in that 1949 race. What an honor.
At the very least I should have invited Bartali to lunch to ask him to tell me about winning the Giro d’Italia three times (1936, ’37, & ’46) and the Tour twice. Maybe he would have reflected on how his racing career might have been different, if it hadn’t been interrupted by the alliance between Hitler and Mussolini and the Great War that ravaged Europe from 1940 until 1945.
And when I think about this missed conversation, I wonder why, when we bought our first fleet of bicycles at Bike Across Italy in 1972 from the Vicini bicycle factory in Cesena, Italy, I didn’t ask Mario Vicini what it was like to race in The Race in 1937, the year before derailleurs were allowed on bikes in the Tour. I could have asked him how it felt to come in second in the greatest bike race in the world and what it was like to ride with Coppi and Bartali at the 1949 Giro.
But then I’m consoled by the chance conversations I’ve had over the years with Aldo Ronconi who won stage three at The Race in 1947 and wore the yellow jersey for two days. More than anything I’m impressed with his unrelenting bitterness some fifty years later as he tells of being "boxed in" by two French riders, resentful of a young Italian taking over the lead of a "French" race. He speaks of it as if it happened yesterday. He too rode with Bartali, Coppi and Vicini in 1949.
Ronconi is still alive, tending his bicycle and sporting goods shop in Faenza, Italy, near where ExperiencePlus! has its European base. Maybe he’ll be free for lunch sometime next summer and I can ask him some of these questions which escaped me in the past.
The book cover notes that "the 1949 Tour of Italy was perhaps the most famous Giro of them all, pitting arch-rivals Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali against each other as they battled it out in an Italy still ravaged by World War II." In fact, ask any Italian over the age of fifty who the most famous Italian cyclists were, and they’ll name Coppi and Bartali without blinking. Just as Lance Armstrong represents resilience and hope for cancer victims today, Coppi and Bartali spoke to an Italy rising from the ashes and shame of World War II. All three symbolize hope when others would despair.
Buzzati’s book is an ode to the bicycle, a salute to a twentieth-century Italian renaissance, and a eulogy to Bartali, a champion in the twilight of his years. If you love Italy and bicycling, you’ll find this book a delight.
Aldo Ronconi lives in Faenza, Italy and turned 90 on September 20th 2008. Click here to read an ExperiencePlus! customer’s encounter with Aldo while on a Pisa to Venice bike tour. Mario Vicini died on December 6, 1995. Vicini bicycles are still produced by the family-owned factory in Cesena, Italy. Gino Bartali died on May 5, 2000. Fausto Coppi died at the age of forty on January 2, 1960, after contracting malaria on a vacation in Africa. Rick Price, ExperiencePlus! founder and the author of this piece, was born on May 26, 1949, the day the Giro d’Italia finished in Naples. Coppi and Bartali came in fourth and fifth that day.
Coppi and Bartali would likely have dominated the Giro and the Tour again in 1950, but Coppi fractured his pelvis in the Giro that May and didn’t ride in the Tour. The Italian team, led by Bartali, quit the Tour in protest after completing Stage 11, during which Bartali was jeered and pummeled by French fans after a fall in the Pyrenees.
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