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Tales from Lombardia: The Rise and Fall of Fausto Coppi

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Fa_mediumWilliam Fotheringham's recent biography of Fausto Coppi, Fallen Angel, covers a lot of ground in a relatively small number of pages. Fotheringham takes the tale of Coppi from his parents' farm in Castellania, through his meeting with the blind soigneur Biagio Cavana, past all the polemica between Coppi and Gino Bartali, on to his meeting with Giulia Locatelli, the famed dama bianca of cycling legend, and through to that hunting-and-cycling trip to Upper Volta, where the campionissimo contracted the malaria which killed him. Along the way, Fotheringham squeezes in as much racing action as he can.

But consider this: four copper polls stand in the churchyard of Castellania, memorialising Coppi's palmarès. Each is a metre high. That's how much space it takes to list all the races he won. They include victories in track pursuit championships. National road race championships. The World Championship road race. The Hour Record. The Giro d'Italia. The Tour de France. Paris-Roubaix. The Flèche Wallonne. Milan-San Remo. The Barrachi Trophy. The Giro di Lombardia. There's too many victories to do them all justice in a small book.

There's a part of me, now with the cycling season drawing to a close, that wishes Fotheringham could have given the Giro di Lombardia more space. Equally there's a part of me knows it's unfair to criticise Fallen Angel for not doing so. And there's a part of me that actually likes that the one edition of Lombardia that Fotheringham goes into any great detail on comes in the twilight of Coppi's career.

Lombardia first features in Fallen Angel in 1940. Coppi's first pro season. Riding in the green of Legnano, supposedly in support of Gino Bartali. But in that year's Giro d'Italia Coppi had revealed himself, taking a victory which even today the tifosi celebrate. Come the close of the season and the race of the falling leaves, Coppi and Bartali were still trying to assert their supremacy over eacher. Coppi believed he was the stronger. And to prove it he launched an attack on the climb of the Madonna del Ghisallo.

The Madonna del Ghisallo is eight kilometres of hairpins, climbing from the shores of Lake Como to a little chapel that has become a shrine to cycling. It's a climb that's rich in cycling lore. It's been part of the Giro di Lombardia since 1919. It was here in 1924 that Alfredo Binda had won a 500 lire prime, the offer of which had prompted him to turn pro. It's where cycling and Catholicism - God and mammon - meet. In 1949 the Madonna del Ghisallo would be declared the patron saint of cycling. Pope Pius XII would visit her chapel and light a votive candle. Other Pontiffs would follow his example. Paul VI in 1973. John Paul II in 1979 and 1998. And in the years to come, this little climb would be where Coppi would launch victorious attacks which would see his name indelibly linked with the Giro di Lombardia.

But victory would not be his in 1940. Coppi had a fragile stomach. It had almost cost him success in that year's Giro. It would affect him many times in the years to come. In the 1940 Lombardia, it was his downfall. His stomach went on the climb to the little chapel that chimes the close of the cycling season as the race passes its door. Three hundred metres from the top of the climb Bartali overtook him and that was that. The old campionissimo took the victory and the young campione had been put in his place. For now.

Time rolls forward. 1946. A straightforward victory for Coppi in the end of season classic. "A win worthy of Binda or Giradengo," wrote La Gazzetta dello Sport, referring to the first two campionsismo. It was also a win that would keep the columns of the Gazzetta buzzing for a while into the close season. It was soon discovered that Coppi had paid Michele Motta 30,000 lire to let him escape from the race-winning break.

Coppi's victory seems to have been even more straightforward in 1947. Whatever happened, the important thing was where his great rival, Bartali, il pio, finished in this most Catholic of bike races. He was five minutes back.

Coppi almost missed a chance to make it a treble in Lombardia in 1948. In the Worlds that year he and Bartali had ‘disgraced' themselves, and the Italian nation, being more concerned to ensure that the other didn't win than to bring about a victory for an azzurri jersey. Both were banned for two months for ‘a lack of willingness to compete.' Not that the ban actually lasted two months. It was quickly rescinded and Coppi rounded out the season with victory in the Giro dell'Emilia, followed two weeks later by a ride in Lombardy that typified Coppi at his best. He went clear before the Ghisallo, shot up the climb and stayed out alone for eighty kilometres - un uomo solo - reaching the finish, covered in mud and sweat, five minutes up on his nearest rival.

Of 1949's victory what is there to say? The Ghisallo was again the launching pad of a stinging attack. Again Coppi soloed to victory. Only this time he did it in record pace. Alfredo Binda's record of three Giri di Lombardia in succession was now history and his record of four victories in total had been equalled. Coppi was rewriting the history books.

Coppi couldn't make it five in a row. In 1950 he was in the race-winning break but as they lapped the Vigorelli vélodrome they caught up with a slower group and Coppi's shot at victory was spoiled. The next year, he again lost the race in the Vigorelli. Coppi was again in the winning break - himself, Bartali, Fiorenzo Magni and Louison Bobet - but it was the Frenchman, Bobet, who took the victory.

It was 1954 before Coppi again won in Lombardia. His fifth and final victory. He again attacked on the Ghisallo. A group of nine chasers weren't going to let this be another solo victory and reeled him in. But come the sprint on the track of the Vigorelli Coppi showed he still had what it took and outwitted his rivals.

There is obviously so much more that could be written about those five victories. Not just about how each race unfolded. Some of the victories were more important than others. The icing on the cake of a glorious season. Something rescued from a season that failed to shine. They have to be seen as part of the whole of Coppi's career. And that's what Fallen Angel does best, looks at the big picture, places each race in the context of a life. Which is what makes it a book worth reading.

Fotheringham doesn't finish with the Autumn classic in 1954. As famous as the five victories are, there's a famous defeat, 1956. A defeat all but sealed by a silly comment and a rude gesture from la dama bianca. Once again, Coppi had attacked on the Ghisallo. As he raced toward Milan he had the company of just one other rider, Diego Ronchini, a former team-mate of Coppi's at Bianchi. Behind them, the chase group contained Magni. The previous year, Magni had beaten Coppi in the Giro d'Italia. Coppi had been no spent force. Magni's victory over the aging campionisimo was a mere thirteen seconds.

Realistically, Coppi and Ronchini had a comfortable lead over their pursuers. And even in the twilight of Coppi's career, you'd have been a brave man to bet against him not having the beating of Ronchini in him once they hit the Vigorelli. But behind their pursuers, in the race convoy, was la dama bianca. And as the car carrying her overtook the chasers she couldn't resist firing a stinging comment at the man who had beaten Coppi so narrowly in the previous year's Giro. The words were innocuous enough. Magni recalls them as being "Eh, Fiorenzo, my Fausto has got you!" But it was the gesture that accompanied the words - one fist raised, the other hand clasping the bicep - that set the seal on what would happen next.

Magni - pride stung and now fuelled by something stronger than any amphetamine - powered a chase which caught Coppi and Ronchini as they entered Milan. They swept Coppi up. But didn't spit him out. As they sped around the Vigorelli, Coppi tried to use all his track nous and all his knowledge of this old stadium - it was here he set the hour record in 1942, it was here he won many pursuit titles, it was here his five Lombardia victories had all finished - and as he came off the banking into the finishing straight the old campionissimo seemed to have done it. Only for the French sprinter André Darrigade - another former Bianchi team-mate - to squeeze past in the closing metres and steal the victory by the width of a tyre.

Even in defeat, the tifosi cheered for their campionissimo. In a corner of the track, Coppi cried, before being lead away through a side door. The last leaf of a glorious career had fallen.

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William Fotheringham's Fallen Angel is published by Yellow Jersey Press. You'll find a review of it, along with an interview with the author, on the Cafe Bookshelf.