Showing posts with label Giro d'Italia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Giro d'Italia. Show all posts

3 December 2019

Carlo Oriani - cyclist and soldier

Giro winner died in World War One

Carlo Oriani won the 1913 Giro d'Italia cycle race despite not winning a stage
Carlo Oriani won the 1913 Giro d'Italia
cycle race despite not winning a stage
The champion cyclist Carlo Oriani, winner of the 1913 Giro d’Italia, died on this day in 1917 in the aftermath of the Battle of Caporetto in the First World War.

The battle was a disastrous one for the Italian forces under the command of General Luigi Cadorna, with 13,000 soldiers killed, 30,000 wounded and 250,000 captured by the victorious army of Austria-Hungary. Countless other Italian troops fled as it became clear that defeat was inevitable.

Oriani, who had previously served his country in the Italo-Turkish War in 1912, was a member of the Bersaglieri, the highly mobile elite force traditionally used by the Italian army as a rapid response unit. He had joined the corps in part because of his skill on a bicycle, which had replaced horses as one of the means by which the Bersaglieri were able to get around quickly.

The Battle of Caporetto took place from October 24 to November 19, near the town of Kobarid on the Austro-Italian front, in what is now Slovenia.

Oriani survived the battle but it was during the retreat that Italian soldiers had to cross the Tagliamento, which links the Alps and the Adriatic and in the winter months is a fast-flowing river, with enemy forces in pursuit.

An Italian unit take up their positions in a trench during the month-long Battle of Caporetto in the First World War
An Italian unit take up their positions in a trench during
the month-long Battle of Caporetto in the First World War
The 29-year-old cycle racer was among the group ordered to take positions on the river bank to offer defensive protection as their comrades crossed the river, on makeshift rafts. Some records report that, as his attachment came under fire, Oriani jumped into the river’s icy waters. Other accounts suggest he had dived in to try to save a drowning comrade.

Either way, Oriani was himself almost swept away by the strong currents but eventually reached the western bank. But the consequence of having to remain in a wet uniform in bitter winter temperatures was that Oriani developed a fever.

When he was at last taken into the care of a hospital he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Doctors treated him as best they could but by early December it was clear that he would not recover. His wife was contacted and she arrived at his bedside shortly before he died.

Oriani was born in 1888 in what is now the town of Cinisello-Balsamo on the outskirts of Milan. He left school early and found work as a stonemason in nearby Sesto San Giovanni, a growing industrial town. He used to split his time between work and his passion for cycling.

The Maino squad for the 1913 Giro d'Italia. Carlo Oriani is second from the left
The Maino squad for the 1913 Giro d'Italia. Carlo Oriani
is second from the left
After racing at first as an independent, in 1909 he signed for Stucchi, one of the leading teams in Italian cycling, for whom he scored his first major win in the 1912 Giro di Lombardia, holding off his compatriot Enrico Verde and Frenchman Maurice Brocco in a sprint for the finish line in Milan.

After his service in the Italo-Turkish war, he entered the 1913 Giro d’Italia, this time for the Maino team. Oriani’s chances were improved when one of the pre-race favourites, Carlo Galetti, had to retire with a broken foot. Oriani did not claim a single stage win but his consistent point scoring meant that he took over the leadership of the race after the penultimate eighth stage.

The final stage to Milan was won by previous race leader Eberardo Paversi but by finishing second Oriani won the Giro by six points. This made him the first winner of a Grand Tour event to be crowned the champion without winning a stage. A crowd estimated at 100,000 turned out at Parco Trotter in Milan to witness his triumph.

After his death, Oriani’s body was laid to rest at the military cemetery in Caserta, north of Naples, which now contains the graves of more than 750 military personnel.

The church of Sant'Ambrogio, on Piazza Gramsci, is one of the main sights of the town of Cinisello-Balsamo
The church of Sant'Ambrogio, on Piazza Gramsci, is
one of the main sights of the town of Cinisello-Balsamo
Travel tip:

Cinisello-Balsamo, where Oriani was born, falls within the Milan metropolitan area, between Sesto San Giovanni and Monza, about 10km (6 miles) northwest of the city centre.  It is a pleasant town of which the Piazza Gramsci is the central square, overlooked by the 17th century church of Sant'Ambrogio.  Cinisello's Villa Ghirlanda Silva Cipelletti has one of the oldest landscaped gardens in Italy. It now houses the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

The 1200-room Reggia di Caserta - the Royal Palace - seen from the Grande Cascata waterfall in its magnificent gardens
The 1200-room Reggia di Caserta - the Royal Palace - seen
from the Grande Cascata waterfall in its magnificent gardens
Travel tip:

Caserta’s is best known for its former Royal Palace - the Reggia di Caserta - which is one of the largest palaces in Europe, built to rival the palace of Versailles outside Paris, which was the principal residence of the French royal family until the French Revolution of 1789. Constructed for the Bourbon kings of Naples, it was the largest palace and one of the largest buildings erected in Europe during the 18th century and has been described as "the swan song of the spectacular art of the Baroque”.

Also on this day:

1596: The birth of violin maker Nicolò Amati

1911: The birth of film music composer Nino Rota

1937: The birth of actress Angela Luce

1947: The birth of controversial politician Mario Borghezio


15 September 2019

Fausto Coppi - cycling great

Multiple title-winner who died tragically young

Fausto Coppi pictured after winning his second Tour de France in 1952
Fausto Coppi pictured after winning his
second Tour de France in 1952
The cycling champion Fausto Coppi, who won the Giro d’Italia five times and the Tour de France twice as well as numerous other races, was born on this day in 1919 in Castellania, a village in Piedmont about 37km (23 miles) southeast of Alessandria.

Although hugely successful and lauded for his talent and mental strength, Coppi was a controversial character. His rivalry with his fellow Italian rider Gino Bartali divided the nation, while he offended many in what was still a socially conservative country by abandoning his wife to live with another woman.

Fausto, who openly admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs, which were then legal, died in 1960 at the age of just 40 following a trip to Burkina Faso in West Africa. The cause of death officially was malaria but a story has circulated in more recent years that he was poisoned in an act of revenge.

The fourth in a family of five children, Coppi had poor health as he grew up and would skip school in order to amuse himself riding a rusty bicycle he found in a cellar. He left at the age of 13 to work in a butcher’s shop in Novi Ligure, a town about 20km (12 miles) from his home village in Piedmont.

There were many cyclists among the shop’s clientele and it was they who sparked Coppi’s interest in racing. His uncle, a merchant seaman who was also called Fausto, clubbed together with Coppi’s father, Domenico, to have a manufacturer in Genoa build him a racing bike, made to his measurements. The cost was 600 lire, a considerable sum at the time.

Coppi (right) with his great rival Gino Bartali (centre) at the  Giro d'Italia of 1940, which Coppi won in controversial fashion
Coppi (right) with his great rival Gino Bartali (centre) at the
Giro d'Italia of 1940, which Coppi won in controversial fashion
He won the first race he entered, at the age of 15, and at 19 won one of the races counting towards the Italian championship by a distance of seven minutes, establishing himself as a rider of considerable talent and potential.

His professional career was almost entirely defined by his often bitter rivalry with Bartali, who was the established star of Italian cycling when Coppi came on the scene, having won the Giro in 1936 and 1937 and the Tour de France in 1938.

It began in 1940, when Coppi was hired by the Legnano team to help Bartali win the Giro again.  After Bartali suffered an early fall and struggled to stay with the peloton, a plan was devised in which Coppi would make an escape, leading the race at a punishing pace to tire the other contenders before dropping out and allowing Bartali to take charge.

Coppi is said to have agreed to the plan on the basis that he was unsure if he was in good enough physical condition to win the gruelling, 21-day race. Yet in the event he made his escape and never relinquished his lead, claiming afterwards that he felt stronger than he had anticipated and that, given that no one chased him, it was a chance to win the Giro that was too good to miss.  Bartali, predictably, was furious and never lost his sense of indignation.

Once Coppi had the lead in a race, he  was often not caught
Once Coppi had the lead in a race, he
was often not caught
All their subsequent meetings, therefore, became intense personal duels, in which both at times cared less about winning titles than beating each other, sometimes landing themselves in trouble with the national federation as a result. Following the world championships in the Netherlands in 1948, they were both suspended for three months for refusing to help one another, to the detriment of the Italian team.

The rivalry caused a sharp split among Italian cycling fans, too, and was seen by some commentators to represent the divides in the country. Bartali was seen as insular, conservative and religious, taking time to pray while he competed, and had the support of traditionalists, mainly in the south (although he was from Florence); Coppi, willing to be innovative with his training and diet, and to challenge convention in his private life, was seen as the more cosmopolitan, modern Italian, and as such became the hero of the economically ambitious urban north.

Coppi was the most successful, partly because he was prepared to travel in search of victories, winning prestigious races in France and Belgium and elsewhere, while Bartali preferred to stay close to home, although they each won the Tour de France twice. Coppi, however, took five Giro d’Italia titles to Bartali’s two.

The Second World War interrupted their rivalry.  Coppi spent much of the war as a prisoner, having been captured by the British while fighting in northern Africa. Bartali, famously, risked his life by acting as a clandestine courier involved in helping Italian Jews escape from being deported to Nazi concentration camps.

Coppi with Giulia Occhini, with whom he had an extra- marital affair that caused a national scandal in Italy
Coppi with Giulia Occhini, with whom he had an extra-
marital affair that caused a national scandal in Italy
Coppi was particularly dominant after the war, although Bartali did win the Tour de France in 1948, a remarkable 10 years after his first triumph. In other races, it was notable that once Coppi established a lead it was rare that he was caught.

Famous for his so-called innovative thinking in what he ate and drank in order to maximise his ability in the saddle, Coppi admitted he used supplements that would subsequently be banned, including amphetamines. Bartali became obsessed with what Coppi was taking during races, even sneaking into his rival’s hotel rooms to examine the contents of his waste bin, reasoning that if he could not accuse Coppi of cheating, since the use of pharmaceutical aids was not against the rules, he could at least anticipate how he was planning to ride.

Any opprobrium relating to his drug use, however, paled alongside the reaction to the news that broke in 1954 about Coppi’s private life and his relationship with Giulia Occhini, which caused a huge scandal in Italy and alienated many of his supporters.

Both he and Occhini were married, she the mother of two young children with her husband, who had been one of Coppi’s most passionate fans. At the time, adultery was still a criminal offence in Italy and eventually Coppi and his lover were arrested and put on trial for adultery, receiving suspended jail sentences. Later they married and had a child together, but the legitimacy of neither the marriage nor their son was recognised by the Italian authorities.

The monument to Fausto Coppi at Passo Pordoi, a  mountain pass on the route of the Giro d'Italia
The monument to Fausto Coppi at Passo Pordoi, a
mountain pass on the route of the Giro d'Italia
Coppi continued to race until, in 1960, following an invitation to race in Burkina Faso, he returned to Italy unwell.  He was diagnosed at first with hepatitis, then yellow fever and typhoid fever.  By the time it was concluded he had malaria it was too late for successful treatment and he died in Tortona, where he and Giulia shared an apartment.

In 2002, a report in the Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport claimed that a French Benedictine priest working in Burkina Faso had been told while listening to a confession that Coppi had actually been poisoned in revenge for the death of an Ivory Coast rider he had forced off the road during a race in the country two years earlier.  Requests were submitted to exhume his body and but they were declined.

Coppi’s honour has been rebuilt in recent years.   A bonus prize in the Giro, the Cima Coppi, is now awarded to the first rider to reach the course’s highest summit, while the village of his birth was renamed Castellania Coppi by the Piedmont regional council in 2019.  Numerous monuments to Coppi have been created, including one on the route of the Giro d'Italia at Passo Pordoi in the Dolomites,

The Palazzo delle Piane, one of several historic palaces in the Piedmont town of Novi Ligure
The Palazzo delle Piane, one of several historic palaces
in the Piedmont town of Novi Ligure
Travel tip:

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the town of Novi Ligure, where Coppi was introduced to the world of cycling, was a renowned resort for rich Genoese families, whose numerous noble palaces adorn the historical centre. These include Palazzo Negroni, Palazzo Durazzo and Palazzo Delle Piane, situated in Piazza Delle Piane.  Novi has retained part of its walls, erected in 1447 and partly demolished in the 19th century, together with the tower of the Castle.  There is a museum, the Museo dei Campionissimi, devoted to Coppi and another famous cyclist, Costante Girardengo.  The town is now a centre for the production of chocolate, notably the Novi brand.

The Piazza del Duomo in Tortona, the city in which Coppi lived at the end of his career
The Piazza del Duomo in Tortona, the city in which Coppi
lived at the end of his career
Travel tip:

Tortona is an elegant small city of around 27,000 inhabitants in the eastern part of Piedmont, roughly halfway between Milan and the Ligurian coast at Genoa.  It sits on the right bank of the Scrivia river between the plain of Marengo and the foothills of the Ligurian Apennines.  Lorenzo Perosi, along with his brother, Carlo, is buried at the Duomo, where his father was the choir director.  The Duomo has a 19th century neoclassical facade but the building itself dates back to the 16th century.

More reading:

Gino Bartali: The story of a secret war hero

Fiorenzo Magni, the last link with cycling's golden age

The tragedy of Marco Pantani

Also on this day:

1616: The first free public school opens in Frascati

1881: The birth of car manufacturer Ettore Bugatti

1904: The birth of Umberto II, the last king of Italy


19 June 2019

Francesco Moser - Giro d’Italia winner

Only two riders have won more road races

Francesco Moser was one of the greatest  road racers of his or any era
Francesco Moser was one of the greatest
road racers of his or any era
The cycling champion Francesco Moser, winner of the 1984 Giro d’Italia and the 1977 World road racing championship among 273 road victories in his career, was born on this day in 1951 in Palù di Giovo, a village about 10km (6 miles) north of Trento in northern Italy.

Only the great Belgians Eddy Merckx (525) and Rik Van Looy (379) won more road races than Moser, who was at his peak during the late 1970s and early 1980s.  One of his proudest achievements was to break Merckx’s record for the greatest distance covered in one hour.

He became renowned as a specialist in the so-called Monuments, the five road races among what are generally termed the Classics considered to be the oldest, hardest and most prestigious one-day events in cycling.

Of those events, Moser won the Paris-Roubaix three times, the Giro di Lombardia twice and the Milan-San Remo once.

Moser attributed his cycling prowess to growing up on the family farm in Val di Cembra, working in steep-sided vineyards in an era when most of the work was carried out by hand, rather than machinery.  Family members used bicycles to move around the estate, where he worked for four years between leaving school at 14 and beginning to focus on his cycling career at 18.

Moser competed for Italy at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich
Moser competed for Italy at the 1972
Olympic Games in Munich
He continued to help out on the farm for a couple of years after that, and attributes his physical strength to hours of manual labour.  In an age when nutritional supplements were not the norm, he felt his Mediterranean diet also gave him an advantage.

Before turning professional, Moser competed in the individual road race and team time trial events at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.  He had won the Girobio - the amateur Giro d'Italia - in 1971.

He was the most gifted and driven of four cycling Moser brothers, the others being Aldo, Enzo and Diego. His achievements clearly encouraged others in the family: a nephew, Moreno Moser, is a professional racer, and Francesco's son Ignazio Moser enjoyed success at the junior and amateur levels before retiring at the age of 22

Despite his success in the Giro d’Italia, in which he and his great rival Giuseppe Saronni broke the hold of the Belgians and French on the event, Moser always put the Classics ahead of the Grand Tours, considering his qualities were better suited to one-day races rather than the endurance events.

Of those the Paris-Roubaix was his favourite.  After finishing second in 1974 behind Roger De Vlaeminck and in 1976 behind Marc Demeyer of Belgium, Moser finally won the event three consecutive times. Only De Vlaeminck, with nine, had more podium finishes than Moser’s seven podium finishes in Paris–Roubaix; only De Vlaeminck, with nine, has more.

Moser pictured at the Giro d'Italia in 2011, after his retirement
Moser pictured at the Giro d'Italia in
2011, after his retirement
The 1974 season had been his first as a professional.  After he won Paris-Tours, the Tours of Emilia, Tuscany and Piedmont, as well as being second in Paris-Roubaix and seventh in the Giro d'Italia and the World Championships, it was clearly he was going to be a force.

After his two second places, in 1978 he beat De Vlaeminck and Jan Raas of the Netherlands; in 1979, De Vlaeminck and Hennie Kuiper of the Netherlands; and in 1980, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle of France and the German, Dietrich Thurau.

Moser came in third in 1981 behind Bernard Hinault and Roger De Vlaeminck, and was also third in 1983 behind Hennie Kuiper and Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle. He rode Paris–Roubaix in his final season as a cyclist in 1987.

His other Monument victories came in 1975 and 1978 in the Giro di Lombardia, and in the 1984 Milan–San Remo.

Moser won the 1977 world road racing championship in San Cristobal, Venezuela. He was also the silver medallist in 1976, behind Freddy Maertens of Belgium, and second in 1978 to Gerrie Knetemann of the Netherlands.

Despite his preference, Moser had some success in the three-week grand tours.

He rode the Tour de France in 1975, and although he won two stages, led the race for seven days and won the young rider competition, he never rode the Tour again, claiming the mountains did not suit him. He was never seen as a good climber.

One of the aerodynamic bikes produced by Moser at his factory in Trento. He broke the hour record on one similar
One of the aerodynamic bikes produced by Moser at his
factory in Trento. He broke the hour record on one similar 
It was against the odds, therefore, that he won the 1984 Giro d'Italia, coming home ahead of Laurent Fignon of France and Moreno Argentin of Italy. On an unusually flat course, Moser used time-trialing ability to overcome the setbacks he suffered in the mountain stages. He also won the points classification in the Giro in 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1982.

He said in an interview in 2015 he said that his team were always focused on the Giro ahead of the Tour de France and it was difficult to ride both in the same year.

Among Moser’s other Classic wins were the 1974 Paris–Tours, the 1977 Züri-Metzgete, the 1979 Gent–Wevelgem, and the 1977 Flèche Wallonne.

It was on January 19, 1984, in Mexico City, that Moser broke the 1972 hour record of Eddy Merckx, at the age of 32.

He rode 50.808km (31.57 miles) on an aerodynamic bike with full disc wheels more advanced than the conventional bike Merckx used in 1972. Later, in 1997, the Union Cycliste Internationale banned hour records set on bikes featuring technological advantages. Under these new rules, Merckx's record stood until 2000.

In retirement, Moser started a bike company, Moser Cicli, in a workshop in Trento, and was appointed the first chairman of the CPA (Cyclistes Professionels Associés), a union for professional riders. He held the position from 1999 until 2007.

Moser also continued his father's winery with his children Francesca, Carlo and Ignazio on the family estate, Maso Villa Warth, experimenting with new grape varieties. A passionate hunter, he hosted a television series A Caccia con Moser - Hunting with Moser.

The Piazza del Duomo in Trento, the city considered one of the most attractive places to live in Italy
The Piazza del Duomo in Trento, the city considered one
of the most attractive places to live in Italy
Travel tip:

The cosmopolitan city of Trento is considered to be one of the most desirable places to live in Italy on the basis of job opportunities and quality of life. With a population of 117,000, it is situated in an Alpine valley on the Adige river between the northern tip of Lake Garda and the border city of Bolzano, about 115km (71 miles) north of Verona. Settled by the Romans in the first century, it changed hands many times before becoming a major city in the Holy Roman Empire. The Austrians took charge in the 14th century and it remained under their control, with the exception of a spell of French domination in the Napoleonic era until the First World War.  It is notable in the 16th century for hosting the Council of Trent, the ecumenical council of the Catholic Church that gave rise to the resurgence of the church following Protestant Reformation.

The Church of Santa Maria Assunta di Giovo, with its 50m (262yds) tall bell tower
The Church of Santa Maria Assunta di Giovo, with its
50m (262yds) tall bell tower
Travel tip:

The Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Verla di Giovo, site of the parish church of Giovo, was built in the years 1766 to 1774, designed by the Como architect Caminada, Built in late Baroque style, it has a solemn facade, punctuated by pilasters and stucco cornices . On the southern side rises the bell tower, also eighteenth century, 50m (262 yards) tall and dominated by a characteristic pear-shaped dome.  The high altar is the work of Domenico Sartori, as are the statues of San't Antonio Abate and San Sebastiano placed on the same altar.

Also on this day:

1918: The death of flying ace Francesco Baracca

1932: The birth of Hollywood actress Pier Angeli

1932: The birth of Pier Angeli's twin, Marisa Pavan


11 August 2018

Alfredo Binda - cyclist

Five times Giro winner who was paid not to take part

Alfredo Binda is presented with a  bouquet after the 1933 Giro
Alfredo Binda is presented with a
bouquet after the 1933 Giro.
The five-times Giro d’Italia cycle race winner Alfredo Binda, who once  famously accepted a substantial cash payment from the race organisers not to take part, was born on this day in 1902 in the village of Cittiglio, just outside Varese in Lombardy.

The payment was offered because Binda was such a good rider - some say the greatest of all time - that the Gazzetta dello Sport, the daily sports newspaper that invented the race, feared for the future of the event - and their own sales - because of Binda’s dominance.

He had been the overall winner of the coveted pink jersey in 1925, 1927, 1928 and 1929, on one occasion winning 12 of the 15 stages, on another racking up nine stage victories in a row.

Binda, who was perceived as a rather cold and detached competitor, was never particularly popular outside his own circle of fans and his habit of ruthlessly seeing off one hyped-up new challenger after another did nothing to win him new fans.

By 1929 it became clear to the Gazzetta’s bosses that interest in the race was waning, sales of the famous pink paper were falling and advertisers were less willing to part with their cash.

Although in today’s market, football is the driver of the Gazzetta’s popularity, at that time the Giro was its lifeblood. There were fears that another Binda procession in 1930 could mean that the race would have to be discontinued, even that the paper might be forced to close.

Binda struggled to win over Italian fans. who did not care for his cold and ruthless nature
Binda struggled to win over Italian fans. who
did not care for his cold and ruthless nature
As a result, the Gazzetta approached Binda and made him an unprecedented offer, rumoured to be in the region of 22,000 lira, in cash, NOT to take part in the 1930 Giro.  The story is that Binda did not need long to think about the offer, calculating that it was enough to buy a property in Milan, possibly two, that he could keep as investments and guarantee him a future income.

Instead, he took part in that year's Tour de France, winning two stages.  He returned to the Giro in later years, however, winning for the fifth time in 1933.

Binda’s early career was in France, where he had moved as a teenager, working for an uncle as an apprentice plasterer. He and his brother Primo spent all their free time cycling.

A gifted time trialist and climber, he began racing in September 1921, aged 19. He rode from his home in Nice to Milan in order to compete in the 1924 Tour of Lombardy, where he believed he might win the 500 lire prize on offer for the King of the Mountains. He did win it, in fact, finishing fourth in the race, and was offered a contract with the Legnano professional team.

Yet he could not endear himself to the cycling public, in which respect he was not helped by what happened in the 1925 Giro d'Italia, his first.

Binda's popularity increased after he won the World Championships in Rome
Binda's popularity increased after he
won the World Championships in Rome
The race was to be the last of the legendary champion Costante Girardengo and virtually the whole of Italy was willing him to come out on top. So when Binda, the 23-year-old debutant in the 22-day 3,520km (2,188 miles) event, turned up and won, it dashed a nation’s dreams.

In the event Girardengo continued racing, and he and Binda developed an abrasive rivalry.

In 1929, Girardengo introduced his protégé, Learco Guerra, as the latest "anti-Binda". Not only was Guerra, an expansive and open personality, popular with the public and the press, he also was favoured by the Italian Fascist Party. Binda was not cowed, however, and every defeat of Guerra only increased the antipathy towards him.

Not until 1932, when Binda won a third World Championship in front of a patriotic crowd in Rome, did the public start to warm to him.  World Champion in 1927, 1930 and 1932, he was the first to achieve three victories.

Afterwards, he could not be accused of giving nothing back to the sport.  Under his guidance as manager of the Italian national team, Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Gastone Nencini all became Tour de France champions.

Binda died in his home village of Cittiglio in July 1996, aged 83.

Visitors to Cittiglio want to visit the village's three waterfalls
Visitors to Cittiglio want to visit the
village's three waterfalls
Travel tip:

Alfredo Binda’s home village of Cittiglio is in the province of Varese and forms part of the mountain community Valli del Verbano, about 60km (37 miles) northwest of Milan and 15km (9 miles) from Varese.  Formerly the seat of the noble Luini or Luvini family, it has a well-preserved centre and the parish church of San Giulio has some interesting architectural features but most visitors to the area are drawn to the Cascate di Cittiglio, a series of three waterfalls set in woodland behind the town formed by the San Giulio stream, at heights between 474m and 324m above sea level.

The fifth of the Sacro Monte di Varese's chapels
The fifth of the Sacro Monte di Varese's chapels
Travel tip:

The city of Varese is in an area in the foothills of the Alps that owes its terrain to the activities of ancient glaciers that created 10 lakes in the immediate vicinity, including Lago di Varese, which this elegant provincial capital overlooks.  Most visitors to the city arrive there because of the Sacro Monte di Varese (the Sacred Hill of Varese), which features a picturesque walk passing 14 monuments and chapels, eventually reaching the monastery of Santa Maria del Monte.  But the town itself and the handsome villas and palaces in the centre and the surrounding countryside are interesting in their own right, reflecting the prosperity of the area. The grand Palazzo Estense is one, now the city's Municipio - the town hall.

More reading:

The forgotten champion Gastone Nencini

The cycling star who was a secret war hero

The tragedy of Marco Pantani

Also on this day:

1492: The controversial Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope Alexander VI

1967: The birth of football coach Massimiliano Allegri


2 June 2018

Roberto Visentini - cyclist

One half of the Giro d’Italia’s most controversial duel

Roberto Visentini had the reputation of a  playboy in a working-class sport
Roberto Visentini had the reputation of a
playboy in a working-class sport
Roberto Visentini, the Italian road racing cyclist who won the 1986 Giro d’Italia but the following year was a central figure in the most controversial race since the historic tour of Italy began, was born on this day in 1957 in Gardone Riviera.

The son of a wealthy undertaker from Brescia, Visentini had been an Italian and a world champion at junior level in 1975 and won the Italian national time-trial championship in 1977 as an amateur, before turning professional in 1978. Despite his success, he was not universally respected by his peers, some of whom felt his penchant for fast cars and a playboy lifestyle were not in keeping with what was traditionally a working-class sport.

The Giro was always his focus. Riding for the Inoxpran team, he was runner-up in the 1983 edition behind his fellow countryman Giuseppe Saronni and looked set to win the event two years later, holding the race leader’s pink jersey for nine consecutive stages to the half-way point, only to become unwell, dropping back to finish 49th overall behind the Frenchman Bernard Hinault.

In 1986, now with the Carrera team, Visentini finally claimed the prize as his own, taking the lead at stage 16 as he turned the tables on Saronni, with the 1984 winner Francesco Moser, another Italian, in third place.

Visentini was the 1986 Giro d'Italia champion
Visentini was the 1986
Giro d'Italia champion
Come 1987, he felt he should begin the Giro, naturally, as team leader, and if he found himself positioned in the race well enough to have a chance of defending his title successfully, expected his teammates to do all they could to support him, as did the team management.

But one member of the team, the ambitious Irishman Stephen Roche, had other ideas. A high-profile signing in 1986, he had endured a wretched first year wrecked by a knee injury. He arrived at the Giro fresh from winning the Tour de Romandie in Switzerland and was in great form. He felt he also had a claim to be team leader.

Much to Visentini’s chagrin, Davide Boifava, the Carrera team manager, was reluctant to name a team leader when the race began in San Remo, announcing that “the road would decide”.

In the event, Visentini won the prologue but Roche claimed the overall lead on the third stage, a time trial between Lerici on the Ligurian coast and Camaiore, just over the border in Tuscany, and defended it for the next nine stages until the race reached Rimini, on the Adriatic coast.

Yet Visentini was never far behind and as the pair prepared for the uphill time trial from Rimini to San Marino, Roche’s lead over the defending champion was just 25 seconds. What’s more, he was suffering some pain after a crash a couple of days earlier.

Stephen Roche was an ambitious rider who failed to see why he should not try to win the Giro in his own right
Stephen Roche was an ambitious rider who failed to see
why he should not try to win the Giro in his own right
Now Visentini made his move and beat Roche decisively in the 46km climb, finishing 2 min 47 sec ahead of his teammate, taking the pink jersey as race leader in the process. He reasoned that with that the road had ‘decided’ and that the Giro was as good as his.

However, Roche was having none of it. There had been an assumption among the journalists reporting the race and the fans watching that an agreement had been reached where Roche would support Visentini in the Giro and the Italian would return the favour in the Tour de France the following month.

But Roche says he saw Visentini give an interview on the night of the San Marino stage in which he said he was not planning to ride in the Tour, something the Italian later denied.

Either way, on stage 15, which took the riders through the Dolomites, Roche broke away from the Carrera group, forming a new leading group with two other riders on the descent of Monte Rest. Despite Boifava sending his second-in-command to drive alongside Roche and tell him to abandon the move, he continued with the move, scrambling down the hill at speeds he admitted later were too fast.

The upshot was that though he did not win the stage his 12th place was enough for him to reclaim the pink jersey.  Encouraged by his Italian supporters, some of whom spat at or attempted to strike Roche as he went past them, Visentini tried to fight back on stage 16, between Sappada in the province of Belluno and Canazei, in Trento, but could not pass Roche. He ultimately faded and abandoned his race after a crash on the penultimate lap.

By the end, despite the opprobrium of the Italian newspapers, many supporters were applauding the Irishman as the stronger rider. Indeed, he went on to win the Tour de France and the road race at the World Championships, the first rider to win all three in the same year.

The career of Visentini, by contrast, went the other way. He never won another significant race and retired in 1990 to take over the running of the family firm, and thereafter had little to do with the sport, pointedly staying away from Carrera team reunions.

Sappada enjoys a picturesque setting in the foothills of the Alps, developed largely by Germans.
Sappada enjoys a picturesque setting in the foothills of
the Alps, developed largely by Germans 
Travel tip:

The small town of Sappada, also known as Bladen, is in an area of rich natural beauty in the Dolomites located at 1,245m (4,085ft) above sea level at the northeastern end of the range, on the border between Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Austria.  A tourist destination in winter and summer, despite being only 130km (81 miles) north of Venice it is largely German-speaking, with a Bavarian dialect known as Sappadino in Italian or Plodarsich in the local vernacular.

Gardone Riviera is an elegant resort on Lake Garda
Gardone Riviera is an elegant resort on Lake Garda
Travel tip:

Gardone Riviera is a small resort about one third of the way along the western shore of Lake Garda, in the province of Brescia. Several hotels can be found along the waterfront, as well as a small piazza providing a peaceful lakeside setting to eat lunch or dinner or enjoy an ice cream at an outdoor table. The town was the home of the poet, soldier and revolutionary Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938), who built the extravagant monument named Il Vittoriale degli Italiani, an estate in the hills above Gardone Riviera, which he planned with the help of Giancarlo Maroni. It now houses a military museum and library.

More reading:

The launch of the Giro d'Italia

How Attilio Pavesi became Italy's first Olympic cycling champion on the road

The cycling champion who was a secret war hero

Also on this day:

1882: The death of unification hero Giuseppe Garibaldi

The Festa della Repubblica, commemorating Italy becoming a republic in 1946


1 March 2018

Gastone Nencini – cycling champion

Lion of Mugello won both Tour de France and Giro d’Italia

Gastone Nencini in buoyant mood after winning the Tour de France in 1960
Gastone Nencini in buoyant mood after
winning the Tour de France in 1960
Gastone Nencini, sometimes described as Italy’s forgotten cycling champion, and certainly one of its least heralded, was born on this day in 1930 in Barberino di Mugello, a town in the Tuscan Apennines, about 38km (24 miles) north of Florence.

Nencini won the 1957 Giro d’Italia and the 1960 Tour de France, putting him in the company of only seven Italians to have won the greatest of cycling’s endurance tests.

He followed Ottavio Bottecchia, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi and preceded Felice Gimondi, Marco Pantani and the most recent winner, 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali.

Yet often even cycling fans asked to name the seven Italian champions sometimes forget Nencini, despite his courage and resilience earning him the nickname The Lion of Mugello.

This may be in part because he died very young, a month short of his 50th birthday, after developing a rare disease of the lymphatic system.  Others, in particular members of his family, believe it was his maverick nature, his refusal to comply with the sport’s etiquette, that damaged his reputation.

In his era, some claim, there were unwritten rules in cycling by which the so-called domestiques – i.e. those not expected to be in contention for honours – would ride purely for the benefit of their team, giving the best riders maximum chance of success.

Rival rider Fausto Coppi was accused of plotting against Nencini
Rival rider Fausto Coppi was accused
of plotting against Nencini
Nencini, a powerful all-rounder who was strong in the mountain sections and was a particularly fearless descender, was not willing to be told what to do for the benefit of someone else’s race and became known for ignoring team orders.

This was evident in 1955, in only his second year as a professional, when he put himself in a position to win the Giro d’Italia against the odds, in a field that included three previous champions in Hugo Koblet, Fiorenzo Magni and the five-times winner Coppi.

His family believed that Magni and Coppi were part of a conspiracy on the penultimate stage, the 216km (134 miles) leg from Trento to San Pellegrino Terme, when Nencini suffered multiple punctures but often found the support vehicles were slow to be on hand, meaning that wheel changes, often completed in as little as 15 seconds, sometimes cost him more than a minute.

The two champions drove on hard whenever Nencini had to stop, with the result that Coppi won the stage and Magni regained his place as race leader, which he kept over the final stage into Milan.

Two years later, with both Coppi and Magni absent, Nencini took the title, this time benefitting from a feud between the defending champion, Luxemburg’s Charly Gaul, and the Frenchman Louison Bobet, which saw Gaul determined to wear down Bobet in the closing stages, enabling Nencini to claim the title.

Nencini leads the field in the 1960 Giro d'Italia
Nencini leads the field in the 1960 Giro d'Italia
His 1960 victory in the Tour de France was achieved without winning a single stage, one of only seven winners of the race with that distinction.  This time, he took advantage of the misfortune of the French rider Roger Rivière, who was in a position to win the race when he crashed over a wall trying to keep up with Nencini on a descent, suffering damage to his spine that left him permanently disabled.

Only the Frenchman Henry Anglade was a match for Nencini in a descent. He had come out on top in a one-to-one challenge down an Italian mountain in 1959 but had warned Rivière not to attempt to emulate him. 

After quitting competitive racing, Nencini, whose free-spirited, anti-authority nature also extended to smoking cigarettes and drinking wine with dinner even during races, owned a bike shop and indulged his talent for painting, taking lessons from Pietro Annigoni, who had painted portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John XXIII and President John F Kennedy among others.

He died in hospital in Florence in February, 1980. His memory has been honoured with a plaque mounted on a wall by the roadside at the Futa Pass, which has been part of a Giro d’Italia stage that passes close by Barberino.

Travel tip:

The Castle of Cafaggiolo was a Medici summer residence
The Castle of Cafaggiolo was a Medici
summer residence 
Barberino di Mugello is one of nine municipalities in a pretty area of the Tuscan Apennines close to Lago di Bilancino on the road between Florence and Bologna. The locality was popular in the Renaissance years with the powerful Medici family, the rulers of Florence, who had several residences there including the Castle of Cafaggiolo, a former fortress that was converted into a summer residence by Michelozzo, best known for designing the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence.

The Giro d'Italia traditionally finished with the riders entering the Arena Civica, the neoclassical amphitheatre
The Giro d'Italia traditionally finished with the riders
entering the Arena Civica, the neoclassical amphitheatre
Travel tip:

The Giro d’Italia of today has stages outside Italy – this year, for example, it will start in Jerusalem, in Israel – but traditionally it began and finished in Milan, the riders setting off from Piazzale Loreto and finishing at the Arena Civica, the neoclassical amphitheatre inside the Parco Sempione, behind the Castello Sforzesco. The stadium, commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte soon after he became King of Italy in 1805, was at one time the home of the Milan football club Internazionale. Known nowadays as the Arena Gianni Brera, named after Italy’s most famous football journalist, it is a venue for international athletics, also hosting rugby union as well as Milan's third football team, Brera Calcio FC.

More reading:

The tragedy of Marco Pantani

Alfredo Binda - the champion so good he was paid not to race

Gino Bartali - cycling's secret war hero

Also on this day:

1773: The death of Luigi Vanvitelli, designer of the Royal Palace in Caserta and the backdrop to the Trevi Fountain in Rome

1869: The birth of sculptor Pietro Canonica

1926: The birth of movie star Cesare Danova

Selected reading:

Giro d'Italia: The Story of the World's Most Beautiful Bike Race, by Colin O'Brien

Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling, by John Foot

(Nencini by Harry Pot; 1960 Giro from Dutch National Archives; Coppi by J.D.Noske; Castle by Massimilianogalardi; all via Wikimedia Commons)

18 July 2017

Gino Bartali - cycling star and secret war hero

Tour de France champion was clandestine courier

Gino Bartali on his way to victory in the 1938 Tour de France
Gino Bartali on his way to victory in the
1938 Tour de France
Gino Bartali, one of three Italian cyclists to have won the Tour de France twice and a three-times winner of the Giro d’Italia, was born on this day in 1914 in the town of Ponte a Ema, just outside Florence.

Bartali’s career straddled the Second World War, his two Tour successes coming in 1938 and 1948, but it is as much for what he did during the years of conflict that he is remembered today.

With the knowledge of only a few people, Bartali repeatedly risked his life smuggling false documents around Italy to help Italian Jews escape being deported to Nazi concentration camps.

He hid the rolled up documents inside the hollow handlebars and frame of his bicycle and explained his frequent long-distance excursions as part of the training schedule he needed to maintain in order to keep himself in peak physical fitness.

In fact, he was carrying documents from secret printing presses to people who needed them in cities as far apart as Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican in Rome.

Sometimes he would pull a cart that contained a secret compartment in order to smuggle Jewish refugees in person into Switzerland, explaining that hauling a heavy cart was also essential to his training routine.

Bartali resumed his career after the War, winning a second Tour
Bartali resumed his career after
the War, winning a second Tour
He even hid a Jewish family in the cellar of his house in Florence, in the full knowledge that were they to be discovered he would have almost certainly been arrested and sentenced to death.

Bartali, who died in 2000 at the age of 85, never spoke publicly about his secret role and revealed details only gradually to his family in later years. 

They concluded that the motivation for his actions lay in his devout Catholicism and his opposition to the policies being pursued by Benito Mussolini.

In a speech in September 1938, Pope Pius XI had proclaimed that anti-semitism was incompatible with Christianity, yet earlier in the year Mussolini had published his Manifesto on Race, which would lead to Italian Jews been stripped of citizenship, barred from public office and from working in any recognised profession.

When Bartali won the 1938 Tour de France, Mussolini hailed him as a national hero for having provided evidence through his sporting success that Italians too belonged in the ‘master race’ that Mussolini’s murderous ally Adolf Hitler aimed to create.

Bartali was horrified. Determined to distance himself from Mussolini, he refused the invitation to dedicate his triumph to Il Duce.

Mussolini was less than pleased but Bartali’s popularity with the Italian public, who had cheered him to victory in the Giro in 1936 and 1937, dissuaded him from any punitive action.  Bartali’s standing was also helpful on the occasions he was stopped and questioned about his long-distance ‘training’ exercises.

Bartali is said to have been born in rooms above a bar in Ponte a Emo
Bartali is said to have been born in rooms
above a bar in Ponte a Ema
He would allow himself to be interrogated but asked Fascist officials not to dismantle his bike because it was precisely calibrated for optimum performance and to disturb it would jeopardise his future success.

For the early part of the War, the Catholic Church’s position on anti-semitism meant that Italy remained a country in which Jews could take refuge, despite Mussolini’s malign intentions. 

It all changed, however, when Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943. The German army occupied northern and central parts of the country, setting up a puppet republic with Mussolini in charge, and immediately started rounding up Italian Jews and sending them to concentration camps.

It was at this point that Bartali was asked by the Cardinal of Florence, Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, to join a secret network offering protection and safe passage to Jews and other endangered people.  His talents were almost tailor-made for him to become a courier.

The work of this network and other organisations and individuals sympathetic to the plight of minorities meant that around 80 per cent Italian-born and refugee Jews living in Italy before World War Two survived.

After the War, Bartali resumed his cycling career and, remarkably, won his second Tour de France in 1948, matching the achievement of Ottavio Bottecchia, who won twice in the 1920s, and setting a standard that Bartali’s rival, Fausto Coppi, would attain when he won in 1949 and 1952.

Bartali's 1948 Tour de France bike on display in the  museum at the church of Madonna del Ghisallo
Bartali's 1948 Tour de France bike on display in the
museum at the church of Madonna del Ghisallo
Again, it was a victory with political significance.  Coinciding with the unrest in Italy in the summer of 1948, when a power struggle was under way between the United States-backed centre-right Christian Democrats and the Italian Communists, Bartali’s victory came at a critical moment for the country, when the attempted assassination of the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti threatened to push Italy into civil war.

It meant that newspaper headlines were suddenly dominated by the fairytale story of Bartali, who had won the Tour at the age of 24 in 1938 and was winning again at the age of 34.  Commentators believe the distraction changed the mood of the country just enough for tensions to dissipate.

Bartali, who quit racing at the age of 40 after suffering injuries in an accident, had been born into a strictly religious family in Tuscany and his nickname on the circuit was ‘Gino the Pious’.

He was posthumously awarded with the honour Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and education centre in Jerusalem.

Travel tip:

Bartali’s former home at Via Chiantigiana 177 in Ponte a Ema is now the home of a museum dedicated to his life and success on two wheels.  All Bartali’s medals and trophies are on display in the museum. There is also a room with items relating to many other cyclists and a collection of bicycles from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.  The museum is open from Wednesday until Saturday from 9.30am, remaining open until 7pm on Thursday and Friday.

The church of the Madonna del Ghisallo
The church of the Madonna del Ghisallo
Travel tip:

The bike on which Gino Bartali won the 1948 Tour de France can be seen at a fascinating museum within a church on top of a hill overlooking Lake Como in Lombardy. The church of the Madonna del Ghisallo is said to have been commissioned in the 11th century by a local count – Ghisallo – on the spot where he claimed an apparition of the Virgin Mary saved him from an attack by bandits. Soon, the Madonna was adopted as the patroness of local travellers. When, many centuries later, the hill - which offers spectacular views as well as demanding conditions for those on two wheels - became part of the Giro di Lombardia cycle race and, on occasions, the Giro d’Italia, a local priest proposed that the Madonna del Ghisallo be declared the patroness of cyclists and Pope Pius XII duly obliged. This prompted competitive cyclists to donate all manner of memorabilia, including bikes and jerseys, building a collection so large that the church ran out of space to display everything and an overflow building had to be constructed in the grounds. As well as his bike, outside the church there is a bust of Bartali, alongside busts of Fausto Coppi and the five-times Giro d’Italia winner Alfredo Binda.

13 January 2017

Marco Pantani - tragic cycling champion

Rider from Cesenatico won historic 'double'

Marco Pantani - instantly recognisable in his trademark bandana
Marco Pantani - instantly recognisable in his
trademark bandana
Marco Pantani, the last rider to have won cycling's Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France in the same year, was born on this day in 1970. 

Recognised as one of the sport's greatest hill climbers, Pantani completed the historic 'double' in 1998 and remains one of only seven riders to achieve the feat.

A single-mindedly fierce competitor, Pantani had won the amateur version of the Giro - the Girobio - in 1992, after which he turned professional.  Winner of the Young Rider classification at the Tour de France in 1994 and 1995, he might have enjoyed still greater success.

But Pantani's career was blighted by physical injuries and later by scandal after he was disqualified from the 1999 Giro d'Italia just two days from the finish - and with a clear lead - after a blood test revealed irregular results. He died tragically young in 2004.

Growing up, Pantani's home town was the port of Cesenatico, on the Adriatic Coast, about 30 minutes' drive away from Cesena, in Emilia-Romagna.  His mother worked as a chamber maid in hotels in Cesenatico and in neighbouring Bellaria, while his father, Paolo, was an engineer.

His grandfather bought him his first bike, which he would ride alongside the canal near the family home, worrying his mother constantly that he would fall in, but it was after the family moved to a bigger apartment a couple of streets away that his interest in competitive cycling took off.

Pantani in action in the Tour de France in 1997
Pantani, regarded as one of the sport's greatest hill climbers,
 in action in the Tour de France in 1997
Among his new neighbours was Nicola Amaducci, sporting director of the Fausto Coppi Cycling Club.  The club's training rides used to start in a nearby square and one day Marco, then aged just 11, could not resist the urge to tag along, which required him to pedal so hard he almost passed out through exhaustion. Given his lack of experience and fitness, he did surprisingly well and it was not long before he was accepted as a member.

His father wanted him to obtain the educational qualifications to equip him for a career and he was sent to a technical institute in Cesena to study radio technology. But after winning his first race - a 75km hill climb from nearby Forlì to Montecoronaro, a town on the border with Tuscany - Marco convinced him that his ambition to become a professional cyclist was worth pursuing.

His aggressive, attacking style in the saddle made him a favourite with cycling fans.  Instantly recognisable by his shaven head, his earrings and a trademark bandana, he was nicknamed 'Il Pirata' - the Pirate.

After finishing third on his Girobio debut in 1990 and second in 1991 before winning in 1992, injury delayed Pantani's professional debut in the Giro d'Italia until 1994, when he was runner-up. He finished third in his first Tour de France the same summer.

He missed part of the 1995 and 1996 seasons after another serious injury and suffered a setback when the Carrera Jeans sponsorship of his team ended in 1996.  However, he was soon installed as leader of a new team, Mercatone Uno, in whose colours he achieved his famous 'double' in 1998.

The Pantani monument in his home town of Cesenatico
The Pantani monument in his home town of Cesenatico
Coming only a year after the Festina team scandal had raised fears of widespread drug use in cycling, Pantani's 1999 test failure sent shockwaves through the sport and rumours began to spread about the Italian.

The test he failed was not sophisticated enough to detect drugs but the high level of hematocrit in his blood - 52 per cent compared with the maximum permitted 50 per cent - was consistent with values found in athletes using the substance erythropoietin - the hormone better known as EPO.

Pantani never tested positive for any banned substance and was inclined to believe stories that he had been the victim of a doctored test result linked to illegal gambling activities.  However, he was affected by the negative publicity and his performances in subsequent seasons suffered.

He was found dead in a hotel room in Rimini in 2004.  The coroner's verdict was that he died from a cocaine overdose, which has been supported by evidence that he was also taking prescription drugs to combat depression, creating a lethal combination.  An investigation into his possible murder, launched after a long campaign by his parents and others, was closed in 2016.

Travel tip:

Cesenatico is one of many resorts along the Adriatic coast that benefit from wide sandy beaches and is very busy during the summer months.  Originally it served as the port of Cesena, built around the mouth of a canal reputedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci.  It enjoyed a boom period in the early part of the 20th century, when there was an expansion in hotels, including the impressive neoclassical Grand Hotel Cesenatico, built in 1929, which resembles a Liberty-style palace.

The canal in Cesenatico, along side which Pantani used to ride his bike as a boy growing up
The canal in Cesenatico, along side which Pantani
used to ride his bike as a boy growing up
Travel tip:

The life and achievements of Marco Pantani are remembered in a museum and exhibition centre, called Spazio Pantani, which is situated next to Cesenatico's railway station in Viale Cecchini, which contains photographs, memorabilia and video footage dedicated to preserving the memory of the rider.  There is also a monument to Pantani in a park off Viale Carducci.

More reading:

Fiorenzo Magni - three times Giro winner in golden age of Italian cycling

How Attilio Pavesi won Italy's first road cycling Olympic gold

Also on this day:

1898: The birth of the brilliant operatic baritone Carlo Tagliabue

(Picture credits: Pantani portrait by Aldo Bolzan; Tour de France pic by Hein Ciere; Pantani monument by Brianza2008; Cesenatico canal by SimonePascuzzi all via Wikimedia Commons)