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Interview: John Foot

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Pedalare! Pedalare! John Foot's Pedalare! Pedalare! offers an alternative way of looking at Italian cycling's Golden Age. We got a chance to put some questions to Foot recently:

Podium Café: You're a professor of modern Italian history at University College London - how did the passion for all things Italian come about?

John Foot: My grandmother was half-Italian, and I used to go to Italy on holiday when I was a boy.

I started studying Italy properly thanks to my PhD supervisor, Paul Ginsborg, who is an expert on contemporary Italian history. He ‘sent' me to Milan in the 1980s to carry out research for my PhD (about world war one and the post-war period in that city). I then became interested in that city, and began to work on other, more recent periods.

I also developed a fascination with Italian football and cycling, and I have since written books about the histories of both these sports.

PdC: Cycling you came to in the 1990s - the era of Chiappucci, Bugno and Pantani, yes?

JF: Yes. I started watching the Giro and the Tour on Italian state TV. They showed whole stages on terrestrial TV and I became a fan.

It takes time to understand cycling so you need to study it. The more you watch, the more you understand.

My first hero was Chiappucci, who was the yellow jersey on the first Tour I watched. But then Pantanimania came along, and everything changed (for the better, and for the worse).

I think the most exciting cycling I have ever seen was that involving Pantani.

PdC: Bloomsbury's back-of-book blurb for Pedalare! Pedalare! does the book a disservice by suggesting it is something it is not. How would you describe what the book's about?

JF: I intend the book to be a readable, entertaining history of Italian cycling, moving from the early days of the sport to the doping crises of the 1980s and 1990s. I don't cover everything, nor do I discuss every cyclist in detail - if I had the book would have been 1,000 pages long!

I am interested not just in cycling per se, but in the connections between cycling as a sport, cycling as an activity, politics, history, society and geography.

In the book I move through the stories of key individual cyclists (champions and gregari) chronologically, using their stories, and the stories and myths linked to their lives and their careers, to reflect on Italy and the changes which have taken place in the country over the Twentieth Century.

I hope the book cam be read cover to cover, and I hope it is well-written, fun and even, at times, moving.

I also hope it will help readers to think about Italian society, the motor car, and the stories and myths connected to cycling and cyclists.

PdC: Let's turn to some of the stories in the book. Track racing is something you touch on. This side of the sport has an unusual history, probably being born in the UK, having a Golden Age in the US, particularly in Madison Square Garden, before becoming the property of the traditional cycling nations. One of Italy's legacies to track has been marathon track stands during sprint contests. Do you think Chris Hoy should try this tactic as a way of out-foxing cheeky little upstarts like Robert Förstermann and Felix English?

JF: Well the rules changed, and you can't do this for more than thirty seconds any more! It might work for Hoy, but I think once you are not fast enough, that's it.

In the 1950s and 1960s the surplace, as it was called, had no time limit, and riders like Maspes used to train to stay still on the bike for long periods, even, at times, up to an hour!

I tell the story of one epic surplace in the book where one rider simply collapsed.

After the rules changed these epic surplaces stopped, which was a shame. They were boring and spectacular at the same time.

PdC: Central to Pedalare! Pedalare! seems - to me anyway - to be the power of myths. You open with the myth of Enrico Toti, who sounds like he stepped (well, hopped, I guess) straight out of a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch. For those not yet familiar with his story, perhaps you could explain who he was and why you think his story is important to Pedalare! Pedalare!'s overall narrative.

JF: Without giving away the whole story, Enrico Toti was a young man who lost his leg in an accident in Rome in the early Twentieth Century. He was a cyclist and he continued to ride even after this accident, and for very long distances (some versions say as far as China!).

When Italy entered the war in 1915 Toti, who was a nationalist, wanted to fight in the conflict. But the army would not accept a man with one leg.

However, in 1916 Toti died at or near the front, and a patriotic myth was created (and invented) which depicted his last heroic throw of the crutch as he was killed.

Statues with bicycles were put up all over Italy by the fascists in the 1920s and 1930s, who pushed the ‘Toti myth'.

But for the whole story and its ramifications, you need to read the book!

PdC: The main focus of Pedalare! Pedalare! is Coppi and Bartali, and some of the myths that have grown up around these two great rivals. Those myths obviously tell us a lot about the times they took root in. What does the way we deconstruct these myths today tell us about our present age?

JF: These myths have changed over time, and this tells us a lot about the ways in which Italy has changed as well.

At the time of the ‘great rivalry' between Coppi and Bartali (after 1945 up to, more or less, 1955) the divisions between fans of these cyclists reflected (on the whole) the political and cultural divides of the cold war (which was fought out bitterly in Italy).

Bartali was the Catholic symbol, Coppi modern and ‘on the left'. Over time, these divisions have softened, so that CoppiandBartali have come to represent Italy.

Also, in retrospect, the power of sport has increased in terms of its historical experience and interpretation. This is particularly true of what I call the Bartali myth, whereby Gino Bartali's 1948 victory at the Tour is seen to have ‘defeated' a revolutionary upsurge back in Italy.

So sporting myths change and develop, and become part of history, and an analysis of these myths helps us understand Italy and Italians.

PdC: You say the Golden Age of Italian cycling died in 1956, that from there on the sport began to live in the past despite continuing in the present. Wouldn't that be true of cycling practically since its inception in the nineteenth century, that this year's hero is always compared not just with his peers, but also his predecessors? Cycling - like most sports - has always had one foot in the past and one foot in the present.

JF: What you say is true up to a point, but I think something very important happens to the sport of cycling in the 1950s, with the introduction of TV and the arrival of a motorised society (and the motor car) at around the same time.

First, the car becomes more important than the bike in everyday life (and also in sport) and then football takes over from cycling as the biggest sport of all in Italy.

Thus, the age when cycling was the biggest sport of all, which captured the popular imagination and arose naturally from everyday life (where the bike was everywhere) was over, and this had a deep impact on the sport as a whole.

PdC: Three films show the changing face of Italian roads - the 1948 film Bicycle Thieves, 1953's Roman Holiday and 1962's The Overtaking. You show how these map Rome's change from a city full of bikes through the rise of the Vespa and on to the power of sports cars like the Lancia Aurelia B24. As with elsewhere in Europe, the bike is making a comeback today, with free bike schemes and new up-market urban bikes, like Cinelli's Bootleg. Cycling as a civic activity still seems to have some legs in Italy.

JF: Yes it certainly does, above all in the centre of the country where some cities like Ferrara are really dominated by the bike and bikers, and many people go out riding at weekends on nice racing bikes in the full gear.

There are still problems in the big cities, however, with a lack of cycling lanes and motorists who pay no heed to cyclists. This is slowly changing but it will be a long struggle.

PdC:  On the sport side of it, cycling is - as it's always been - in a state of flux. Old races like Milan-Turin have (once again) slipped off the calendar but new races like the Strada Bianca are capturing the public imagination. What do you think of these new 'white road' races?

JF: I think this is a great idea and it has been very popular with the public, as you say.

Cycling had become almost too easy, with perfect roads and massive team back-up. This type of race makes it more difficult and evens out things a little.

I like these ways of livening up traditional races, something which has always been true with the search for new hills and climbs as older ones became defunct.

PdC:  I like the way you say cycling has become almost too easy - that strikes me as a very Italian response! One thing I think the Italians get right is changing the percorso in order to shake things up. The French on the other hand currently seem to think that eliminating race radios is the way to resolve the issue. Do you have an opinion on the silly little contretemps the sport is engaged in at the moment over the use of earpieces?

JF: I would prefer them not to have the radios. It takes away the mystery of the race and the spontaneity. But I think there is little that can be done.

Italy has extraordinary advantages in terms of its geography over France - it has active volcanoes, it has Venice, it has many more climbs and mountains, and more coastline.

There is no better country in the world that Italy when it comes to organising a national race.

PdC: You've an eleven page bibliography backing the book, most of it Italian. Do you have a fave book on that list, one which ought be translated into English?

JF: Daniele Marchesini's history of the Giro and of Italian cycling is a fine piece of work, and deserves an English audience.

If I can have another choice, I would go for Gianni Brera's extraordinary portrait of Fausto Coppi (Coppi e il diavolo).

Calcio PdC: Brera is a man who's cast a long shadow on Italian sports journalism. You deal with him in more detail in Calcio, because he was first and foremost a football writer. He certainly sounds like quite a character, flawed but a genius with words.

JF: He loved cycling, and in particular he became obsessed with Coppi. He was very caustic and dealt in gossip quite a lot, but an extraordinary writer, a genius, a one-off who invented a whole new language. His books on cycling and its history are masterpieces.

PdC: Doping isn't specifically an Italian problem, but through a combination of factors has become particularly problematic in Italy. Without fans pushing for reform, people like Angelo Zomegnan are under no real pressure to play a role in resolving the problem. But with heroes like Diego Maradonna and Marco Pantani revealed as inveterate dopers, Italian sports' fans are caught in a difficult position, their heroes being shown to be less than heroic. Generally speaking, what do you think of the Italian public's attitude to the problem, both in cycling and in football?

JF: Doping takes up too much of this book! But I had no choice here.

In some ways, it is too late. Look what happened to Riccò who almost died after injecting himself with his own blood this year... It should have been dealt with in the mid-1990s, and certainly after 1999 and Pantani, but it wasn't.

I think fans have lost a lot of faith in cycling as a sport, and they are very reluctant to support riders as heroes, as they suspect they may be found positive sooner or later.

This situation is not helped by the Gazzetta, who can't kill the golden egg which is the Giro.

I am pessimistic about the future. Doping is still widespread.

PdC: Italian football was the subject of your second-to-last book, Calcio. That sport has, in some ways, had it worse than cycling, being caught up not just in doping scandals but also match fixing trials and allegations of Mafia involvement. Despite this, Italian football today seems to be in rude good health. Cycling on the other hand, with its own doping problems, is suffering - you yourself are, as you say, particularly pessimistic about its future. What would you say is the key difference between the way the two sports have tackled their problems in Italy?

JF: I don't think Italian football is in good health at all. Despite Inter's victory last year, Italian teams are regularly beaten in the Champions League, and the standard of football has been in decline for years. I also fear for the national team.

The really big players don't come to Italy any more because of the press and the stress and the tactical nature of the championship.

I think both sports have been mismanaged and are rife with corruption (as is Italian society as a whole) but cycling is better off than football (which also has deep financial problems).

PdC:  I'll confess to not knowing too much about football, it's just never caught my imagination for one reason or another. Maybe what I mean by 'rude good health' then is a perception issue. When people talk about cycling, they have to confront the doping problem. But football - not just in Italy - seems to have better media management of the issue. Silence for access seems to operate more strongly in football than it does in cycling.

JF: And doping in football does not provide the same advantages. Running faster or for longer does not necessarily help you play better, whereas pedalling longer and faster clearly does in cycling.

I think that EPO was used in football in the 1990s, and I think it helped the players who took it, but it was also very dangerous.

Doping in football is seen as an individual problem, in cycling it is seem as systemic.

PdC: Has cycling beyond Italy's borders caught your attention? With the obvious exception of the Tour de France, I mean.

JF: Certainly writing this book has expanded my interest in cycling beyond Italy, with the one day classics in Belgium and France and also the role of Armstrong (who has strong connections with Italy).

This book doesn't just discuss Italian cyclists, but also the foreign cyclists who became famous in Italy (Merckx, above all). I also discuss classics abroad when they involved Italian riders - the Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders.

PdC: On Merck, it is often overlooked that he rode for Italian teams - Faema, Moltini, Fiat - rather than Belgian, or even French squads. You have an interesting quote from him in Pedalare! Pedalare!, explaining why he chose Italy, him pointing out that one of the attractions of Italy was that "there was a structure, organisation, proper medical supervision." Italy seems to have been ahead of the doping curve even in the sixties and seventies, not just the eighties and nineties. I guess Italians didn't hold doping too much against Merckx though because two of the three positives he tripped resulted in Italy's Felice Gimondi inheriting what would otherwise have been Belgian victories, at the 1969 Giro d'Italia and the 1973 Giro di Lombardia.

JF: True. And many fans and commentators refused to believe that Merckx was the only one taking drugs in 1969. They saw what happened as a conspiracy.

There were a lot of drugs being taken in the 1960s, but I don't think they helped too much and if they did, they did as much harm as good.

It is only with blood doping that drugs really start to make a structural difference to performance.

PdC: Merckx is up there with Binda and Coppi in winning five Giri. Binda's five were spread out between 1925 and 1933, but - famously - the organisers felt he was so dominant they paid him not to ride the race in 1930, after three back-to-back victories. Merck's five victories came between 1968 and 1974, and also included three on the trot. Do you think the Giro organisers should have tried to buy him off in order to protect the Giro, which has never really loved foreigners winning?

JF: Well, Merckx was extremely popular in Italy, and many Italians were furious when he was kicked out in 1969.

Also, he rode with Italians (so the Italians could take some of the credit) and for Italian teams. He spoke (and speaks) good Italian, they adopted him, and the duel with Gimondi was legendary.

I think he was pretty spectacular and he brought a new generation of fans to the sport and, every so often, he did actually lose.

* * * * *

John Foot is the author of Milan Since the Miracle: City, Culture and Identity (Berg), Modern Italy (Macmillan), Calcio: A History of Italian Football (Fourth Estate), Italy's Divided Memory (Macmillan) and Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling (Bloomsbury).

You'll find Foot on Twitter @footymac.

You'll find a review of Pedalare! Pedalare! on the Café bookshelf.

Our thanks to John Foot for for taking the time to participate in this interview.