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Pedalare! Pedalare! by John Foot

Pedalare! Pedalare!

Title: Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling
Author: John Foot
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 372
Year: 2011
Order: Bloomsbury
What it is:  A history of Italian cycling - focused very much on the era of Alfredo Binda, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi - that tries to place the sport within the context of changes in Italian culture, economics and society.
Strengths: Foot brings an off-centre gaze to the sport, doesn't view Italian cycling as existing in a hermetically sealed bubble, without influence from the outside world, without influencing the outside world.
Weaknesses: Italian cycling does not exist within a hermetically sealed bubble, without influence from the wider world of cycling, without influencing the wider world of cycling, but too often Foot treats it as if it does.

Alfredo Binda. Gino Bartali. Fausto Coppi. For some, they are the Holy Trinity of Italian cycling, of a particular era of Italian cycling. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. In this most Catholic of sports, in Italy, that most Catholic of countries, such a comparison is not entirely inappropriate. Binda, Bartali and Coppi, they are the men against whom all Italian cyclists who followed - and even, to an extent, all who preceded them - are now measured.

Between 1925 and 1955 those three men won half of the twenty-six Giri d'Italia raced. Those three men were not just champions, they were champions of champions, campionissimi. And, in the six decades or so since the last light of their fiery reign over Italian cycling spluttered out, the tifosi have lived in hope and expectation of the second coming.

In those six decades or so of the post-campionissimo era, many meteori have flashed across the heavens and the tifosi expectantly followed their stars. But they were chasing rainbows. All too soon those men - a host of names that reads like a Biblical listing of Kings: Magni, Zilioli, Nencini, Baldini, Balmamion, Adorni, Motta, Bitossi, Gimondi, Saronni, Moser, Argentin, Visentini, Fondriest, Bugno, Chiappucci, Pantani, Simoni, Cipollini, Basso, Ballan, Di Luca - burnt up in the atmosphere of hope and expectation. Atlas himself would have struggled to support the level of hope and expectation the tifosi heap upon their heroes.

John Foot's Pedalare! Pedalare! is not - despite the claims of the back-of-book blurb - the first comprehensive history of Italian cycling to be published in English. It is just one of a trio of books about Italian cycling to have landed this year. And it is not a comprehensive history of Italian cycling. Mostly it is a story of those three Gods of Italian cycling - Binda, Bartali and Coppi - and of the Italy they came from. Italy made them. And they, in their turn, helped make Italy. Pedalare! Pedalare! tries to place the story of these men - and of the legacy they left behind them - not just within a sporting context, but within the context of some of the cultural, economic, social and political changes Italy has gone through.

* * * * *

In the early years of the last century, bicycles became part of the struggle for the control of a country sill only recently (1861) unified. For a time, the Church banned its priests from riding bikes. Italian socialists saw the bike as being in "the vanguard of our propaganda and our movement, quick means for our people in every village and every town to remain united." But while bikes were part of the class struggle cycling, as a sport, was anathema to the socialists, seen as "a powerful way of diverting the attention of the workers, and of young people in general, from an understanding of social problems and the importance of political and economic organisation." Cesare Lombroso, the famed criminologist, claimed that the bicycle was "the quickest vehicle on the road to criminality, because the passion for pedalling leads people to steal, to fraud, to swindle." How right he was.

Regardless of those who railed against the bike, or against the notion of racing bikes, cycling as a sport took off. Even a socialist member of parliament acknowledged that men like Carlo Galetti, Luigi Ganna and Giovanni Gerbi were "as popular as the heroes of the circus in Ancient Greece." Though whether that's a compliment or a criticism I'm not sure. Eventually, even the Church embraced our sport, granting us our own patron saint - the Madonna dell Ghisallo - and seeking to hitch a ride in the slipstream of the Corsa Rosa by blessing the girini each year before they set off on a cycling equivalent of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella.

The fascists, of course, loved sport. And cycling gave them one of their earliest heroes, Enrico Toti, who definitely had only one leg, who may or may not have cycled around the world, and who may or may not have given his life heroically in the Great War. For Foot, Toti's story is an important part of the story of Italian cycling. Here's why:

"Toti's martyrdom formed the basis of an extremely potent myth, one which was to lead to dozens of monuments, plaques and books. His published letters were studied in schools everywhere, and were particularly successful during the fascist period. It was also a myth intimately connected to the sport and practice of cycling, and many of the monuments dedicated to Toti depict either his bike or a bicycle wheel. Of course, as in most patriotic myths, the greater part of the story was pure fiction."

In trying to untangle Toti's myth - and demonstrating how it changed subtly down through the years - Foot neatly sets up a way to see almost all the other stories that are central to the story of Italian cycling, such as the mysterious death of Ottavio Bottecchia and the curious case of a civil war which Gino Bartali's victory in the 1948 Tour de France may or may not have averted. It feeds straight through to the strange incidents of Eddy Merck's fall from grace at Savona and Marco Pantani at Madonna di Campiglio. Such understanding is key to understanding the myths crafted about all this sport's heroes. The past is always seen through the prism of the present. It is constantly being rewritten, reinterpreted. Pedalare! Pedalare! then is John Foot's contribution to that process.

* * * * *

It is Italian cycling's past that Foot loves most. The years before Binda, Bartali and Coppi were the Heroic Age. The years of Binda, Bartali and Coppi were the Golden Age. Now, they're a Lost World. The years that followed are years of Crisis, of Slow Death and a Tragic Odyssey. They end with Cycling on Trial and an age of Sprinters and Cowboys.

The first two-thirds of Pedalare! Pedalare! bring the story of Italian cycling up to the post-campionissimi era. While the stories of Binda, Bartali and Coppi are oft repeated and well known to most of us, Foot's approach to them is almost like Benjo Maso's approach in The Sweat of the Gods. He explainssome of the myths associated with this era of Italian cycling, and how they have evolved over the years. The story Foot tells is, I think, one well worth reading, though I offer that recommendation with many caveats.

There were times - many - when I wanted to scream at Foot for some of the things he says. Despite twenty-six pages of endnotes and an eleven page bibliography Foot has a tendency to make claims which just don't ring true. They may be impeccably endnoted but Foot really should have run them past the bullshit meter before repeating them.

What makes me willing to put such quibbles aside and not dismiss Pedalare! Pedalare! with the same bilious scorn I heaped on Chris Sidwells' piss-poor A Race For Madmen is that Foot is good at the big picture and the broad picture and does offer what I think is an important alternative way of looking at cycling. But that's actually what makes some of those quibbles most annoying for me. Foot can see Italian cycling within the broader context of Italian history, but he doesn't seem to understand how Italian cycling sits within the broader context of continental European cycling, of which it is one of the founding fathers.

So much for the first two third of Pedalare! Pedalare! - what of the final third? That covers the post-campionissimi era. Here's how it begins:

"The 1956 Giro saw the end of the golden age of Italian cycling. After that, the sport began to live largely in the past despite continuing in the present. At the time, and since then, the power of CoppiandBartali obscured almost everything else. [...] The shadow of the 1940s and the 1950s hung over Italian cycling for the rest of the century and beyond. Nobody was able to truly emerge into the limelight. Apart from Merckx, those who followed were pale imitations, mere parodies, bad copies."

Why 1956? That was the year the Giro summitted Monte Bondone in a snowstorm. (If you don't know the story of the Bondone ... I can recommend a couple or three books. Herbie Sykes' Maglia Rosa. Bill and Carol McGann's The Story of the Giro d'Italia (Volume One). And, of course, John Foot's Pedalare! Pedalare!. Each has its own way of telling the story and I won't repeat that story here, good and all as it is.) For some of us, the Gavia in 1988 is our Bondone. And - as Herbie Sykes told us when interviewed recently - the 1962 and 1965 Giri also produced days to rival the Bondone. But the Bondone is the one that's really gone down in cycling's mythology.

Monte Bondone is situated in the north of Italy, in lands that once belonged to Austria-Hungary. Lands that Italy claimed during the Great War. Lands that Enrico Toti may or may not have given his life trying to claim for Italy. These are lands seeped in myth, in claim and counter-claim. Is Foot himself then just adding to the mythology with this claim that Italian cycling died there in 1956? It would be ironic if he were, given how his approach elsewhere is to deconstruct myths and demonstrate why you should have an open mind to most of the stories told to you. But if you are going to mythologise the death of Italian cycling, 1956 and the Bondone is, I suppose, an apt place to do it. Thursday, June 8, 1956. RIP Italian cycling.

Part of the reason for killing the Giro in 1956 is it fits with changes in the Italian peloton - Coppi was fully in decline now, riding only on his reputation - but also with changes in Italy itself. The motorcar and the scooter were in the ascendancy. The economy was booming. New motorways were speeding up the process of urbanisation. And cycling was beginning to be shown for what it really is, as TV cameras captured a truth newspaper and radio journalists had for so long kept well hidden: as a spectator sport, cycling can be spectacularly dull. Worse, as a TV sport it doesn't adhere to a TV station manager's need to stick to the programming schedule.

Foot makes an interesting argument to defend his opinion, one worth reading, but he himself doesn't seem to really believe that 1956 was all that important in the grand scheme of things. As he sprints through the eighties he again declares cycling dead, and here he picks a new date, the two days in 1984 - January 18 and 23 - when Francesco Moser set not just one new record for the Hour but two, on the Thursday sticking thirteen hundred seventy-seven metres onto Merckx's old record and then the following Monday adding another three hundred forty-three metres to the new record. Moser, as you well know by now, was aided and abetted by our good friend, Francesco Conconi, who numbered among his colleagues in Mexico that January Michele Ferrari and Aldo Sassi.

Cycling dies for a third time, on Saturday June 5, 1999, with Pantani's fall from grace at Madonna di Campiglio. Foot, it is important to point out, is himself a cycling fan. He came to the sport when Claudio Chiappucci was setting Italy alight, when Gianni Bugno was winning World Championships. And then came il pirata, Pantani, Foot's favourite of them all. But, as a fan, Foot seems to have fallen out of love with cycling. There is a relentless air of pessimism about this final third of the book, and even contempt for the new heroes.

Take Mario Cipollini's surpassing of Binda's record for forty-one stage wins in the Giro (Cipo made in forty-two in 2004). This is dismissed as "a sad reflection of what the sport had become by then." Yes, Foot is correct, cycling had changed, but cycling has always been changing. And if you are going to dismiss Cipo because of the role his team played in his victories, can you really celebrate Coppi and his loyal gregari?

And, yes, Foot is correct, Cipollini was investigated by the fiscal authorities for dodging tax. But if you are going to dismiss Cipo because of a little bit of creative accounting, can you really celebrate Coppi too, who also had to spend time talking to the taxman about cycling?

And yes, Foot is correct, Cipollini probably doped. His name was in the files of the University of Ferrara's Centre for Biomedical Studies Applied to Sport. He was a client of Michele Ferrari and Luigi Cecchini. His name has been linked to Operación Puerto. But if you are going to dismiss Cipo because of the role doping played in his victories, can you really celebrate Coppi, who doped too?

Foot's analysis of doping is limited to seeing doping as it related to Italian cycling. Here he misses an opportunity to actually add to the debate rather than merely repeat a series of familiar tales. Having written a history of Italian football, Calcio, Foot is an ideal position to bring a fresh angle to the issue of doping in cycling. Italian football had its own doping scandals in the sixties. Later it had its own Marco Pantani in the form of Diego Maradonna. It had more doping scandals in the nineties and noughties. Even better, it had match-fixing scandals and links to the Mafia. And both sports are, ultimately, overseen by CONI, the Italian national Olympic committee, responsible for both promoting sport and catching those who cheat. And having written histories of Italy, Foot is again in an ideal position to bring a fresh angle to the issue by examining how Francesco Conconi's rise to power was on the back of helping Italy win bangles and baubles at the Cold War's five-ringed circus, the Olympic Games.

Criticising Pedalare! Pedalare! for what it is not though is unfair. What it is an alternative way of looking at what undoubtedly was a golden age in Italian cycling. Perhaps it would have been best if it had ended when that era ended.

* * * * *

For traditionalists, the cycling season begins with la course au soleil in March, Paris-Nice. Even despite the years of the Irish annexation of the Race to the Sun, for me the cycling season really begins in Italy, where seven months later it also ends. Milan-Sanremo to the Giro di Lombardia. La primavera to the race of the falling leaves. Spring to Autumn. Hope to regret. Let's not end this with regrets about Pedalare! Pedalare!'s missed opportunities. Let's celebrate one of its triumphs.

So much has been written about the golden age of Italian cycling, the age when Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali went tyre-to-tyre and Alfredo Binda was given the invidious task of bringing them together on national teams for the Tour and the Worlds. But what of Fiorenzo Magni?

Magni has become ... well not quite the forgotten man of Italian cycling's golden age, but certainly one who has been over-looked somewhat. He was and remains the Third Man of the Coppi and Bartali era. Foot notes that there has been but one book written about him so far (Gian Motta Dossena's Il Leone delle Fiandre, 1991). You could probably stock a small bookshop with books about Coppi and Bartali.

Foot helps redress this imbalance, giving-over two dozen pages to Magni's story and explaining how politics helped eclipse his exploits. You want to know Magni's story? Go read Foot's book. Even if you're not all that fussed about Italian cycling, Magni might appeal to you. Look at the title of that book written about him: The Lion of Flanders.