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Fallen Angel, by William Fotheringham

In a career that spanned two decades, Fausto Coppi helped drag cycling into the modern era, along the way setting new standards by which champions are to be judged. William Fotheringham's new biography of il campionissimo looks not just at Coppi the cyclist but also at Coppi the man in an attempt to understand the myth be has become.

Fausto Coppi on l'Alpe d'Huez
Fausto Coppi on l'Alpe d'Huez

Fa_medium Title: Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi
Author: William Fotheringham
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Year: 2009
Pages: 283
Order: HERE
What is it?: A biography of Fausto Coppi
Strengths: Fotheringham's objectivity, married with the many original interviews he conducted when researching this book, make for a balanced look not just at Coppi, but at cycling itself during his era.
Weaknesses: Fotheringham is reluctant to address the doping issue.

I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day

William Fotheringham's biography of Angelo Fausto Coppi is built around a letter written to him during the 1949 Giro d'Italia and a photograph taken four years later, after he had won the road race at the World Championships.

The letter takes us back to another time, another world. Each afternoon, back home in the Apennine village of Castellania, Coppi's family - his aunt and uncle Albina and Giuseppe and his mother Angiolina - sit around their radios awaiting the voice of Mario Ferretti and news of Coppi and his younger brother Serse. Albina writes a letter to the two brothers, telling Coppi how proud everyone is of him and reminding both that they are in the thoughts and prayers of the family.

The photograph is a routine podium photograph. Routine except that the presence of one woman in it, Giulia Locatelli, reinforced a rumour that had been floating around the peloton: Fausto Coppi - loving husband, caring father, il campionissimo -  had a mistress. For Fotheringham, that photograph "marks the moment when the idol was shown to have feet of clay, when the simple country boy of the letter became a far more complex and controversial figure." Fotheringham then sets himself this question: "how did the Faustino of the letter become the Fausto of the photograph?"

The climb to the pinnacle of his career - at which that 1949 Giro was the heart - was meteoric. The son of peasant farmers, he fell under the influence of the blind soigneur Biagio Cavanna who, in the space of about eighteen months, took him from raw talent to the Legnano squad of the reigning campianissimo, Gino Bartali. In his first season in the pro ranks - 1940 - he was selected to ride the Giro and surprised everyone by winning it. Then came the war, and the hour record. After the war, his rivalry with Bartali exploded when Coppi switched to the Bianchi squad.

Initially the two seemed evenly matched, trading important victories. But between the Autumn of 1948 and the Spring of 1950 Coppi was the dominant rider. He ended the '48 season with a win in the Giro di Lombardia - his third on the trot - and began the '49 season with success in Milan-San Remo. Then came the Giro/Tour double and a fourth win in Lombardia. He opened 1950 with wins in the Paris-Roubaix and the Flèche Wallonne. And then his career began its long and painful decline.

That description makes the climb to the pinnacle of his career seem easy and straightforward. It wasn't. Coppi didn't follow the standard script. As an amateur, he didn't beat all comers, his successes being few and far between. He's famed for his solo victories, breaks of a hundred, two hundred kilometres on his own, often in the driving rain and freezing cold. But victory was never straightforward. Fotheringham takes the time to go through those years in considerable detail. He doesn't describe every day of every race but instead picks the key moments of key races and builds a narrative on reports from the likes of L'Equipe's Pierre Chany, and Corriere della Sera's Orio Vergani and Dino Buzzati.

Fallen Angel is also built on the bones of the biographies - generally Italian and French - that have come  before it. That is not to suggest the book is a clippings job: Far from it. Fotheringham has conducted many original interviews with Coppi's contemporaries, within and without the peloton, but especially with some of his former gregari. Through them he builds not just a picture of Coppi himself and of some of his greatest exploits but also of a cycling world long since vanished but which forms the foundations of the racing we watch today. Foundations which Coppi himself helped lay.

He was among the first to adopt interval training. He helped change cyclists' diet, away from the big heavy breakfast steak of old and toward eating little but often. Coppi was also at the front when it came to doping, and this is the one area I personally would criticise Fallen Angel for, as it dances over the doping issue, devoting very little space to a subject which is intrinsically linked with Coppi.

* * * * *

Coppi's long and painful decline began with an innocuous crash in the 1950 Giro in which he broke his pelvis and couldn't race again until September. A collar bone broken early in 1951 disrupted his Giro preparation. And then in June, just days before the Tour started, came the crash which many see as ending Coppi's career - his brother Serse fell in the Giro di Piemonte and, hours after the race finished, died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

Coppi and Serse were night and day. As children Coppi was well behaved, Serse less obedient. But the closeness between the two was evident even then, with Coppi refusing to attend school unless his younger brother was allowed accompany him. Serse eventually became one of his bother's gregari at Bianchi and came to describe himself as his brother's "gregario of the mind." Fotheringham suggests that the older brother "lived vicariously through Serse, who did the frivolous things he did not permit himself to do."

Mentally fragile, Coppi also relied upon his brother for psychological support. Fotheringham quotes Buzzati, who described the younger Coppi as his brother's "good luck charm, his guardian spirit, a sort of living talisman - a little like the magic lamp without which Aladdin would have remained forever a beggar. It is Serse who really wins because without him Fausto would have fallen apart a hundred times. Neither is capable of living without the other."

The fall was occasionally arrested by some great victories. He went through 1951 without a major win to his credit but bounced back the following year with a second Giro/Tour double. The following year he doubled the Giro and the World Championships.

And then there was Giulia Locatelli. La Dama Bianca. The wife of a doctor who was a fan of Coppi, Locatelli has often been painted as the Emma Bovary of her day. They had met several years earlier when she sought his autograph at a race. And when he broke his pelvis in 1950 she and her husband visited him in hospital. Sometime after Serse's death - either in 1951 or 1952, the myths conflict and Fotheringham refuses to choose one over the other, the essential point being that it happened rather than when - they began to meet socially, initially in the presence of her husband, though without Coppi's wife being present. The relationship proper - or, if you prefer, improper - began after the 1953 Giro.

Coppi chose to sit out the 1953 Tour. The July break afforded him time to spend with Locatelli. Romantic that he was, he took her to watch the Tour. Paris would have been nice. He took her to the Casse Déserte. People gossiped. They gossiped some more when Locatelli was photographed on the podium of the World Championships with him. And at the Giro the following year L'Equipe asked the question that was on everyone's lips: Who is Fausto Coppi's lady in white?

Adultery was against the law in Italy. Had Coppi done what Enzo Ferrari did - kept separate houses for wife and mistress - perhaps there would have been no scandal, no arrest, no court case, no interventions from the Vatican. But nothing in Coppi's life followed the proper script.

Coppi died, as everyone knows, of malaria, contracted on a trip to Upper Volta. He was just forty years old. His funeral was attended by tens of thousands. Perhaps if he'd lived, the myth would never have taken hold, the world would have grown bored with him. Perhaps. But the myth did take hold, and has only grown stronger with each passing decade.

By the end of Fallen Angel Fotheringham has, I think, answered the question he set himself, the question of how Faustino became Fausto. He also offers good reason for why the Coppi myth endures in Italy: "Coppi and his gregari stood for Italy at a certain age in her history. They are the men of the reconstruction which finally united this diverse country." The nostalgia for Coppi, Fotheringham says, is not for the era itself, not a dream of a golden age. Rather it is for the inspiration a nation building itself anew took from Coppi. And continues to take to this day.