Showing posts with label Tour de France. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tour de France. Show all posts

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


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


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.

19 October 2016

Fiorenzo Magni - cycling champion

Rider from Tuscany won Giro d'Italia three times

Fiorenzo Magni
Fiorenzo Magni
Italy lost one of its finest professional riders and its last link with the so-called golden age of Italian cycle racing when Fiorenzo Magni died on this day in 2012.

Tuscan-born Magni was a multiple champion, winning the Giro d'Italia three times, as well as three Italian Road Race Championships.  He had seven stage wins in the Tour de France, in which he wore the yellow jersey as race leader for a total of nine days.

His other major victories were in the demanding Tour of Flanders, in which he became only the second non-Belgian winner in 1949 and went on to win three times in a row, a feat yet to be matched.

Magni might have been even more successful had his career not coincided with those of two greats of Italian cycling, the five-times Giro champion Fausto Coppi, who was twice winner of the Tour de France, and Gino Bartali, who won three Giros and one Tour de France.

His reputation for toughness, however, was unrivalled.  He relished racing in harsh, wintry weather, as often prevailed in the Tour de Flanders, and refused to give in to injuries if he happened to have a fall.

Fiorenzo Magni finished second in the 1956 Giro d'Italia by  using a tyre inner tube gripped in his teeth to steer
Fiorenzo Magni finished second in the 1956 Giro d'Italia by
using a tyre inner tube gripped in his teeth to steer
The classic example of this came in the 1956 Giro d'Italia, his final ride in Italy's foremost event, when an accident left with a broken left collarbone only halfway through the race.

He was taken to hospital but refused a plaster cast and continued the race with his shoulder wrapped in an elastic bandage. Unable to apply force with his left arm, he effectively steered the bike using his teeth, with which he pulled on a piece of rubber inner tube attached to his handlebar.

However, unable to brake with his left hand, he crashed again after hitting a ditch by the road during a descent.  This time he broke his left elbow, while the pain from landing on his already broken collarbone caused him to pass out.

Yet even then he refused to retire, screaming for the driver to stop when he regained his senses in the ambulance.

Amazingly he finished second, although his cause had been helped by 60 competitors abandoning the race because of treacherous snow and ice in Trento.

Magni pictured in his army uniform in 1943
Magni pictured in his army uniform in 1943
Given his reputation as one of the hardest cyclists in the history of the sport, it was somewhat ironic that when, in 1954, he became the first rider to be sponsored by a commercial backer outside the sport, his contract was with Nivea, who manufactured cosmetics for women.

Controversy haunted his life away from cycling.  His wartime service with the Italian Army began with four years based with the 19th Regiment in Florence but in 1944 he was enlisted to the Italian Voluntary Militia for National Security, which was originally the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party, commonly known as the Blackshirts.  Its members had to swear allegiance to Mussolini.

His unit was involved into a violent confrontation with Calenzano partisans in the Apennines, which became known as Battle of Valibona. After the war, identified by a cycling fan among the partisans who claimed Magni stood over him with a gun, he appeared in court, facing a possible 30 years in prison if found guilty of taking part.

In the end he was cleared, testimony from a fellow cyclist supporting his claim to have arrived at the scene of the incident after it had ended.  Later, evidence emerged of Magni fighting on the side of the partisans near Monza, but many Italians remained sceptical and his reputation suffered, even at the height of his career in the saddle.

The Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo
The Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo
Born in Vaiano, a small town in Tuscany about 25km from Florence and 10km north of Prato, in 1920, Magni settled in Monza towards the end of his career, opening a motorcycle dealership and then a car dealership.  He was still working into his mid-80s.

He retained an interest in cycling, helping to establish and maintain a museum and cyclists' chapel at the top of the climb at Madonna del Ghisallo, above Bellagio on Lake Como.

In his later years, he lived in Monticello Brianza, a small community north of Monza, close to the road linking Bergamo with Como in Lombardy.  He died there aged 91.  His funeral took place at the Duomo in Monza.

The Abbey of San Salvatore at Vaiano
The Abbey of San Salvatore at Vaiano
Travel tip:

The town of Vaiano in the northern hills of Tuscany, just above Prato, is notable for the Abbey of San Salvatore, built in the ninth of 10th century, which is at the heart of the medieval village around which the town grew.  The bell tower was built in 1258.  Vaiano prides itself on its tortelli, a form of stuffed pasta, and holds a Tortello Festival every June.

Travel tip:

The Madonna del Ghisallo, the name given to an apparition of the Virgin Mary the medieval Count Ghisallo claimed saved him when he was being attacked by bandits, became the patroness of cyclists at the suggestion of a local priest after the hill upon which a shrine to the Madonna was built was included in the Giro di Lombardia and later the Giro d'Italia.  The Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo honours cyclists who have died in competition and an adjoining museum contains many bikes and shirts worn by riders down the years.

More reading:

The first Giro d'Italia

Attilio Pavesi - Italy's first Olympic road race champion

(Photo of Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo by Marco Bonavoglia CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Abbey of San Salvatore by Massimilianogalardi CC BY-SA 3.0)