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Coppi, by Herbie Sykes


Coppip000bloomsbury_mediumTitle: Coppi: Inside the Legend of the Campionissimo
Author: Herbie Sykes
Publisher: Rouleur Books
Year: 2012
Pages: 320
Order: Bloomsbury
What it is: A sideways look at the life and times of Fausto Coppi, through stories told by men he raced with and against, illustrated with archive photographs.
Strengths: Allows the extras to take centre stage
Weaknesses: The photos are uncaptioned.

Herbie Sykes's Coppi: Inside the Legend of the Campionissimo is described as "an evocation of global cycling legend Fausto Coppi [...] a very different kind of sports biography." Told in words and pictures it's made up of twenty-one interviews with contemporaries of Coppi and more than a hundred fifty photographs. Rather than a conventional telling of Coppi's story it's a sideways look at his life and times, Sykes' interviewees telling their own stories along with their memories of Coppi and their memories of other riders of that era, in particular Coppi's great rival Gino Bartali, along with some stories about Fiorenzo Magni and a few others.

Arranged in a sort of chronological order, the stories move through the phases of Coppi's life, Aldo Ronconi opening the collection with memories from either side of the war years, Raphaël Géminiani rounding the collection out with his story about that final hunting trip to Upper Volta. In between are some names that will be familiar (Vito Ortelli, Ercole Baldini, Guido Messina) but mostly the stories come from names barely remembered elsewhere (Enzo Bellini, Pino Favero, Walter Almaviva). Complementing these oral histories are photos drawn from the archives of Olycom, Omega and Offside, some illustrating something that has been said, others simply illustrating aspects of Coppi's public life.

Coppi - a private man who was public property

Although there is but one English-language biography of Coppi currently in print, most people are familiar with the basic facts of his life, from birth through death and stopping off at the key highs and lows in between those two points. As such, Sykes doesn't need to retell stories already overly familiar to most of us and is, instead, able to concentrate on adding colour and shade, looking at old stories from a different angle or adding new stories. But while Coppi himself is the focus of the book, the real picture here is about what was going on around him, a picture of the world Coppi inhabited. By placing Coppi's life in the context of the lives of some of his peers fresh paint is added to the picture of the time Coppi lived in.


Were he alive today Coppi would be in his nineties, but he's already more than half a century in the grave. Each year more and more of the men who rode with and against him are fading away. Each year the links connecting us to the past and the era of Coppi e Bartali get fewer and fewer. Bartali is dead a dozen years. Nino Defilippis, Giancarlo Astrua and Steffano Gaggero passed in 2010, Ettore Milano in 2011. Magni passed last year as did Aldo Ronconi, one of Sykes' interviewees here. Those who have firsthand knowledge of Coppi's story - or parts of it - get fewer and fewer each year.

Why should this matter, at this stage? In death Coppi became a mini publishing industry in Italy, even in life acres of newsprint were given over to telling his story, what need is there for yet more? But just how accurate is that historical record to begin with? Just how much truth do newspapers - the first draft of history - contain about cycling? Consider a story told here by Giuseppe Minardi:

"All the journalists had to get copy in and so they'd blow things out of all proportion or just invent them. There was no TV, so it wasn't like you could watch an action replay. I'd reckon half of what was written about my career was made up."

Or consider a comment Sergio Maggini makes to Sykes about the 1948 World Championships and how the focus on Coppi and Bartali meant a lot of what was happening outside that small circle was, at best, under reported, at worst, ignored. 1948 was the year Coppi and Bartali neutralised one and other, each determined the other shouldn't win the rainbow jersey. Maggini's brother finished fourth, just outside the medals:

"Nobody took a blind bit of notice though. As usual they were too busy focussing on Coppi and Bartali. Everybody spent so much time discussing what they hadn't done that they barely noticed what he had..."

Even before his own death in 1960 Coppi had surpassed life and become a legend. In death he became a myth. One of the odd things with the life of someone like Coppi is that, the more that is told about it, the harder it is to peel back the layers of myth and get to the truth beneath. Truth, of course, is a flexible construct. What's true for one person may not be true for another. What people say about Coppi is often coloured by the relationship they had with him, both in life and in death. Stories told about Coppi are as much about the people who tell them as they are about the man himself, coloured by their interactions with his life and legend, coloured by their own values.


Consider, for a moment, a question of character. Consider, for a moment, what you know about Coppi's great rival, Gino Bartali. Il pio is generally presented as a deeply religious man. He's the bloke who delayed the peloton before stage starts so he could go to mass. He's the guy who believed that a victory in Lourdes was a sign of divine intervention. He's a man who was on friendly terms with the Pope. He was, in short, a model of probity, straight and true. That, though, isn't how everyone remembers him. Vito Ortelli has this to say of Bartali:

"The worst thing in the world is a hypocrite and a liar who hides behind religion. Ultimately we're all responsible for our own actions not only to God but also to ourselves and to those affected by them. Here was a person who claimed to have profound faith yet spent his life lying and breaking promises."

Ortelli was once a coming man of Italian cycling, seen as a possible rival to Coppi and Bartali and his opinions could be considered to be coloured by this fact, by the occasions on which the two combined against him to protect their own prestige and keep him in his place. Yet of Coppi Ortelli has this to say:

"I had a lot of time for Coppi because he was serious, honest and professional. He took pride in what he did and he was totally concentrated on it. We had our ups and downs but we respected one another and he never lied to me. We didn't speak for eighteen months once but that was a stupid misunderstanding. In many ways it was typical of cycling back then, because it was a jungle."

Giovanni Corrieri, once one of Bartali's most loyal gregari, says this of his former boss:

"Gino was always hung up about money. He'd sleep in cheap hotels, and he was convinced that people ere trying to rip him off. I'd say: 'Look, if you look after people they will look after you. It doesn't need much, but you have to have people on your side to win the Giro. Look at Bianchi!' He wouldn't have it though. He'd say: 'I don't buy races and I don't sell them. He was as stubborn as a mule sometimes, and it cost him."

Armando Barducci remembers the two like this:

"Of the champions I'd say that Bartali was the one I didn't get on so well with., because he'd say one thing and do another. Magni was all right, but Fausto was my friend. He wasn't one of those champions who thought he was some kind of God, not at all. He was a champion but he was also just a good, honest man. When he came to ride here in Romagna we always went hunting together. He was good company, Fausto."

Such criticisms of Bartali should not just be seen as repainting the legend of il pio, taking some of the gilt off - though that they undoubtedly are - but should be seen for what they say about Coppi too. Time and again in these tales Bartali is described as being tight, or a liar. Few, if any, say the same of Coppi. Riccardo Filippi remembers him like this:

"All the riders respected Fausto and as long as everybody knew their place he was fair. Basically on flat stages he'd close the race down and then at twenty, thirty kilometres from the finish he'd let people go. That's why most riders were on good terms with him. He gave them the crumbs and they were content with that. That's the way it was - Fausto dominated the cycling world."

Pippo Fallarini remembers this about Coppi:

"Fausto didn't say much but he was a good man. If somebody did him a favour, or if he liked someone, he made sure they were looked after. If that person tried to get in a break, for example, Fausto would have Bianchi work for them or he'd organise it that the break stayed away."

Contrawise, if you crossed Coppi, he could hurt you. Renzo Zanazzi saw this firsthand after the 1952 Giro. During the race he'd led a mini riders' rebellion, briefly going on strike and then attacking Coppi once the stage got underway again.

"Bianchi had to chase, which exhausted them, and so Fausto was left with no team. He came up to me and said: 'What are you doing this for? It's pointless!' That really annoyed me and so I said: 'Look, I rider for Ganna, not for you! I'm here to put food on the table, and I'll ride as I see fit!' He said, 'Just pack it in!' and I thought, 'Pack it in? Who the hell is he to tell me to pack it in!'

"I was absolutely incensed and so I attacked again,. This time nobody could hold my wheel and so I found myself along off the front. Eventually Massocco came across and they caught us on the outskirts of Ancona but I made Fausto work all right. He saw to it that I didn't ride any of the track meets after the Giro and so I lost a hell of a lot of money."

That incident notwithstanding Zanazzi was generally fine with Coppi:

"There are all sorts of things I could tell you about Fausto. There are things which Serse told me in confidence which I'll take to my grave. Let's just say that Fausto was more or less as good as his word. Usually more, but sometimes less..."

* * * * *

Herbie Sykes has already published two books about Italian cycling, The Eagle of the Canavese and Maglia Rosa. Talking about those two books, Sykes said this when he was interviewed for Podium Café in 2010:

"I think as an Anglo-Saxon cycling person you often get the same Tour de France based stories rehashed over and over again. I didn't have anything new to say about Coppi or Anquetil, because it's done to death. My feeling was always that the great champions aren't by definition more interesting characters, rather they just won more bike races. [...] The overwhelming majority of cyclists don't win bike races, and so I have a responsibility to try to reflect that fact in what I do.

"Moreover, the great joy in doing what I do is in spending time with people, winners or otherwise. Everyone has a story to tell, and I feel genuinely privileged to be given the chance to do inform people about Brunero, Ponzin and the like. My starting position as a writer is that I have to be bothered on a human level, because for me bike racing is the most human of all sports."


Coppi: Inside the Legend of the Campionissimo is, in part, more of the same: not so much the life of a man who has become a myth, more an attempt to understand a little of that life by letting Coppi's contemporaries tell their own stories and, by and by, tell stories about Coppi. While the book is sold under Coppi's name, it is for the other stories that you should really read it. Read it for Aldo Ronconi's account of the 1947 Tour and the ill-feeling in France towards all things Italian. Read it for Vito Ortelli's tales about deals done and undone. Read it for Franco Franchi talking about the life of a professional water carrier. Indirectly, through these stories and others, you learn more about Coppi than you immediately realise.