Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. The terrible Col du Galibier, on the Tour de France 1952. The handover of the water bottle immortalised between two icons of Italian cycling history: nobody ever knew which of the two was so generous with their bitterest rival. But no matter: in that photo, which has marked the history of Italian sport, Coppi is wearing the Bianchi-Pirelli jersey. 70 years later, seeing that image once again transports you immediately into that most glorious era of cycling where our Top Champion from Castellania, a little town in the province of Alessandria, achieved a unique track record. Becoming an idol for millions of Italians, a symbol for a country laboriously recovering from the War. A racer outside of time: a formidable chaser as well as an exceptional climber and also equipped with a rapid burst of speed. In effect he was a complete cyclist and suited to every type of road-racing competition. Not to mention on the racetrack.
Indeed, with an incredible track record
The “little fellow with wheels” (as he was extolled by the singer/songwriter Gino Paoli in a famous song) triumphed everywhere, irrespective of the location. Five times he won the Giro d’Italia (1940, 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953), and twice the Tour de France (1949 and 1952). On the second occasion, he achieved the double exploit which distinguishes a top champion from a champion: he was the first to carry home the Corsa Rosa and the Grand Boucle trophies, something which over the next 70 years was only managed by six people. The Heron – another of Coppi’s nicknames – was also remarkable in one-day competitions: five wins in the Giro di Lombardia (1946, 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1954), three in the Milan-Sanremo (1946, 1948 and 1949), and then his successes in the Paris-Roubaix and in the Flèche Wallonne in 1950. Becoming professional World Champion in 1953, he also excelled on the track, becoming pursuit world champion in 1947 and in 1949, as well as holder of the world hour record (with a distance of 45.798 km) from 1942 until 1956.
One man alone in the lead
The dates are important: much of the saga took place while Coppi – from 1951 to 1955 - wore the white & sky-blue jersey of the Bianchi team. That was the one made famous by Mario Ferretti’s radio broadcast during the Cuneo-Pinerolo race of 10th June 1949: the Top Champion decided to attack during the first of the five ascents, at 192km from the finish line. He succeeded in leaving everyone behind and staying in the lead until the finish, on that itinerary, at those altitudes, for all that time, on his own. Coppi reached Pinerolo around nine hours after leaving from Cuneo. The man in second place, Bartali, came along 12 minutes later. Ferretti opened his broadcast with an introduction which is still famous today: “One man alone in the lead, with his white & sky-blue jersey, his name is Fausto Coppi”. Amongst the journalists following the Giro was also the author Dino Buzzati. In his summary the following day he spoke of Hector and Achilles and of a “stage that devoured men”, in describing the exploits of Coppi and Bartali.
The cyclist Fausto Coppi at Giro d’Italia 1953 Coppi and Bartali: Of Men and Demigods - Fondazione Pirelli
The triumph of the World Championships
The Heron – in his Bianchi-Pirelli colours – started with two stage victories in the Giro d’Italia and one in the Tour de France. Then, in 1952, came the amazing double exploit. Coppi won the Giro d’Italia again in 1953, a season during which he also had the joy of wearing the rainbow jersey. Now 34 years old, he decided to try once again to compete in the World Championships, four years after his last attempt. The competition was held in Switzerland, in Lugano, and Coppi took on the challenge of the race in his own way: he attacked on the Crespera ascent which was still 85km from the finish line and only the young Belgian talent Germain Derycke managed to stay with him. He would put up a laudable resistance, but at 30km from the finish, during the last-but-one passage over the Crespera, he was obliged to run up the white flag. For the ace of Castellania this was the summit of his career, and for Italy a place on top of the podium after a 21-year wait. Behind Coppi in his rainbow jersey, the photographers glimpsed a femme fatale: Giulia Occhini, the White Lady. The victory in Lugano is partly the start of a downward trajectory, even though the Heron carried on racing for two more years, winning the Giro di Lombardia and the Italian Championship.
The recollection of Gianni Brera
Coppi – after a couple of seasons in the Carpano team – would return to race for Bianchi-Pirelli in 1958 without achieving any results. He would not race for much longer: in December 1959, during a transfer in the Upper Volta, he fell ill with a bout of malaria. He was treated poorly, and died in Tortona, on 2nd January 1960, at the age of just 40. Italy lived for days between incredulity and pain: 50,000 people jostled to attend the funeral in Castellania. The story of the Heron was already a legend, and became a myth. Gianni Brera, in a memorable commemorative article, celebrated him thus: “Death was waiting for him at the gate. It stole him away and took him intact into the eternal life. A place where he will never lose a single scrap of glory, nor suffer the indignity of growing old. Fausto will remain immutable in legend as if on a bronze pedestal. Fausto will no longer race. And anyway, heroes have always been stolen for heaven; they cannot live among us at our mediocre level. Requiescat in pace, poor friend. Only the certainty that you can finally be at rest, can in part comfort those of us who remain here”.