Thursday, January 24, 2008
Fausto Coppi: Il Campionissimo
Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi was one of the most successful and popular cyclists of all time.
Like Gino Bartali his career was interrupted by WWII; however, the big difference was, he was five years younger than Bartali; Coppi was 25 when war ended, Bartali was already past 30.
His pre-war successes came early, he won his first Giro d’Italia in 1940 at age 20; to this day the youngest ever to do so.
During the war in 1942 he set the world hour record (Unpaced.) at the Vigorelli Velodrome, in Milan.
He covered 45.798 kilometers (28.457 miles.) in one hour. (Picture left.) A record that would stand for 14 years until broken by Jacques Anquetil in 1956.
One year after setting this record Fausto Coppi was in the Italian army, captured by the British, and held as a prisoner of war in North Africa; where he remained until the war ended.
Coppi’s post war career in the late 1940s and early 1950s is the stuff of legends. When on form he was unbeatable, many times simply riding away from the opposition to finish solo often minutes ahead.
For example in the 1946 Milan-San Remo race; Coppi attacked with nine other riders just 3 miles (5 km) into the 181 mile (292 km) race. On the climb up the Turchino, Coppi dropped the nine riders and went on to win by 14 minutes over the second placed rider, and by 18:30 over the rest of the peloton.
Anyone who has raced knows how difficult it is for a solo rider to stay ahead of a group of riders working together. To take 14 minutes out of such a group is phenomenal.
Fausto Coppi won the Giro d’Italia five times; a record he shares with Alfredo Binda, and Eddy Merckx. He won the Tour de France twice in 1949 and in 1952, both times, dominating the competition and winning both the mountains jersey and the overall race.
Coppi was 1.87 meters (6’ 1 ½”) tall, and weighed 76 kg. (167 lbs.) obviously a great athlete with a huge rib cage that no doubt housed a large heart and lungs. However, he was fragile physically with brittle bones, brought on by malnutrition as a child.
He suffered no fewer than twenty major bone fractures from falls while either racing or training. At different times, he broke his collarbone, pelvis, and femur, as well as displacing a vertebra.
He also had a sensitive immune system and suffered several serious illnesses over the years. As a result, there were sometimes large gaps in his career when he was either injured or sick.
Fausto Coppi also suffered a personal tragedy in 1951 when his brother Serse Coppi died from a head injury after he fell in the finishing sprint of a race. This happened just five days before Fausto was to ride the Tour de France. Deep in mourning with his mind not on racing, he finished in tenth place.
There is speculation even to this day that had it not been for the war, the injuries and the other setbacks over the years, Fausto Coppi’s career may have equaled or even surpassed that of Eddy Merckx.
He was around at a time when there were so many other great riders. Bartali, Kubler, Koblet, Bobet, Robic, Geminiami, to name but a few. On his day Fausto Coppi was head and shoulders above all of them.
Above: Fausto Coppi with Ferdi Kubler leading by a nose.
With Hugo Koblet.
With the diminutive Frenchman Jean Robic on his wheel.
Sometimes rivals, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi share a drink.
Made out to be arch rivals, Bartali and Coppi in real life were probably friendly rivals. Bartali was certainly instrumental in helping the young Fausto early in his career. Taking him on as a domestique in his team, and when Bartali crashed in the 1940 Giro and lost hope of winning, he assisted the young Coppi to his victory.
One has to understand the mood of the Italian people at that time. Coming out of a terrible war and a long dictatorship, the nation was crushed both physically and morally. They looked for redemption, and found it in their cycling heroes. Bartali and Coppi were unofficial ambassadors for their country.
There were two factions that the Italian press played on; Fausto and Gino became symbols of divisions within the country. Two opposite, and sometimes irreconcilable points of view.
The push for modernization and new thinking on the one hand, and the importance of traditions, mainly linked to the Catholic religion on the other. So it became “Gino the pious” verses “Fausto the sinner,” at least in public opinion. Italy’s sports divisions in the 1950s reflected the country's social ones.
Further strengthening pubic opinion were some facts of Coppi’s private life. Right after he won the World Road Championship in 1953, Fausto, a married man, was seen with another woman. Giulia Occhini, known in the press as La Dama Bianca. (The Lady in White.)
What would be seen today as a love story, was at that time seen as scandalous behavior by a man who was a public figure. After a vicious campaign by the Italian press, Fausto and Giulia actually stood trial and Giulia spent a few days in jail. Finally she was forced to move to Argentina where she gave birth to a son, Faustino, in 1955.
In late 1959, Coppi went on a hunting trip in North Western Africa, where he contracted malaria. He became ill on returning to Italy; the disease was treatable even at that time, but was miss-diagnosed by doctors. Fausto Coppi died on January 2nd, 1960; he was 40 years old.
So came a tragic end to the life of a great cyclist, one of the best there has ever been. Today in Italy Fausto Coppi is mostly remembered as Il Campionissimo or “The Champion of Champions.”
Pictures from: .Progetto Ciclismo
To view more great pictures (Including some shown here.) go to www.FaustoCoppi.it Click on "Cartoline," chose number of pics per page (9, 15, 30, 60.) Click on "Guarda" to enlarge.
Posted by Dave Moulton at 1/24/2008 09:59:00 AM