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Re-Cycle: Fausto Coppi's majestic ride from Cuneo to Pinerolo

Re-Cycle: Fausto Coppi's majestic ride from Cuneo to Pinerolo

23/05/2019 at 20:19Updated 23/05/2019 at 22:42

In the fourth of our historical Re-Cycle series, Felix Lowe looks at the 70th anniversary of Fausto Coppi's mythical long-range attack from Cuneo to Pinerolo. With stage 12 of the 2019 Giro running between the same two Piedmontese towns, the race this week pays homage to one of its most famous chapters. Eurosport spoke to Coppi's biographer Herbie Sykes about that famous day.

It would have been fitting for the misfiring Italian national champion Elia Viviani to have got back to winning ways in Novi Ligure this week – the second of two pan-flat stages in northern Italy which were always odds-on to end in bunch sprints.

The railroad town in Piedmont is the former capital of Italian cycling thanks to its ties with those champions of champions, Costante Girardengo and Fausto Coppi. When Coppi moved to Novi Ligure from the nearby village of Castellania to become a delivery boy, legend has it that the house of the two-time Giro champion Girardengo was on his delivery run.

Aged 13, Coppi had come to a town that lived and breathed cycling. It was while delivering hams, salamis and other items from the delicatessen – on a heavy delivery bike with a huge basket – that Coppi's love of cycling blossomed. As John Foot in his excellent Pedalare! Pedalare! explains: "It was the ideal place for a budding cyclist to grow up."

For Coppi, his "training and work merged into one" – and Italy's most famous cyclist was one of his weekly ports of call. What better motivation that calling in at la casa di Girardengo? Then Coppi met the most accomplished and experienced trainer and masseur in Italy – Biagio Cavanna, who famously saw with his hands – and it forever changed the course of cycling history.

A route stuck in the past

It's a route which recalls the defining moments in the careers of former champions – not just Moser's race against the clock in 1984, but Andy Hampsten's snowy ride up the Gavia in 1988, Marco Pantini's record-breaking ascent of the Mortirolo in 2004 and Ivan Basso's two ascents on the same climb en route to his overall wins in 2006 and 2010.

But nothing beats the throwback significance of seeing, one day after the finish in Novi Ligure, the words Cuneo and Pinerolo bookending stage 12 on Thursday.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of what John Foot describes as "the most legendary lone break in Italian cycling history". In a stage starting in the cold, driving rain in Cuneo and finishing in Pinerolo over nine hours later, Coppi rode 192km alone through the Alps to seize the pink jersey that secured him a third Giro crown in 1949.

Coppi "flew like a heron", crossing five huge peaks in the lead with his big rival Gino Bartali in fruitless pursuit, the two eventually separated by almost 12 minutes. Quoting Colin O'Brien from his book Giro d'Italia:

" As his friend Raphael Geminiani used to say, you didn't need a stopwatch to time Coppi's lead in those days. The church bell tower would suffice."

Speaking to Eurosport, the Italian-based cycling writer Herbie Sykes, author of the acclaimed Giro 100, Maglia Rosa and Coppi: Inside the Legend of the Campionissimo, explained the significance of Coppi's unprecedented ride from Cuneo to Pinerolo:

" In essence it's legion because it was the high watermark of cycling history as regards popularity, but also sporting performance. Keep in mind that nothing of that magnitude had ever been attempted before. So purely as regards the scale of the physical demands it was totally unprecedented."

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the stage, let's look a bit closer at the context of the ride and the effect it had on Italian cycling.

Coppi verses Bartali

The background to those nine hours nineteen minutes in the saddle are needed to fully comprehend its magnitude – and in particular the rivalry between the devout Bartali and the divorced Coppi.

Both riders divided Italy, with the tifosi split between coppiani and bartaliani. If carefree but health-conscious Coppi, who had served in the Italian army during the Second World War, had appealed to the industrialist north, the religious, conservative and chain-smoking Bartali, five years older and an outspoken anti-fascist before the war, was a hit with the rural south.

It was Bartali, aged 34, who unified a divided Italy by winning the 1948 Tour de France – 10 years after his first Tour triumph – and becoming a genuine national hero in the process. Then came the 1948 world championships in Valkenburg, when both riders climbed off their bikes rather than help the other.

Sykes says this was a seminal moment in Italian sporting history:

" In essence the rivalry had become so caustic that each had preferred to lose than to run the risk of the other winning. It suited Bartali because, following the Tour, he was very much in the ascendancy. Had Coppi won the rainbow jersey it would have compromised all that, and that in turn would have had a significant impact on his earning potential."

For his part, Coppi "daren't risk Bartali winning because he was already much more popular, and adding a rainbow to the yellow would have cemented his greatness and his legend."

Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali photographed later on in their careers when their rivalry had thawed

Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali photographed later on in their careers when their rivalry had thawedGetty Images

As a result of their scrap, Bartali and Coppi were suspended for three months by the Italian federation. But this had no effect to the expanding depth of Bartali's pockets.

" After the 1948 season, Bartali cleaned up commercially in the way that Beckham, Michael Jordan and Valentino Rossi would."

Praised for his devout catholic virtue, Bartali's fame grew. "Bartali-branded Chianti, clothing, razors, bikes and even scooters became ubiquitous," says Sykes.

Coppi kept his rival in check with a third Milan-San Remo win before the riders went their separate ways ahead of the Giro: Coppi dominated the Giro di Romagna while Bartali won the Tour of Romandie. The scene was set for a winner-takes-all showdown in front of the tifosi.

Stage 17, Giro d'Italia 1949: Coppi's ride to immortality

What Coppi achieved that day was unlike anything that came before or since. It cemented his campionissimo status and marked a watershed moment in cycling history where the baton was passed from Bartali to his successor definitively.

Entering the 254km stage, 29-year-old Coppi was second in the general classification, 43 seconds down on Adolfo Leoni, and Bartali was third. Think of Leoni here as Valerio Conti with the likes of Primoz Roglic and Simon Yates snapping at his heels ahead of the queen stage in the mountains: he knew full well he'd be giving up the pink jersey in Pinerolo – it was just a question of to whom.

"This was about Coppi and Bartali and their obligation, unwitting or otherwise, to their country’s cultural and sporting patrimony," Sykes writes in an article for Mondiale magazine.

In atrocious conditions, Coppi made his move early on the Maddalena – also known as the Col de Larche, the first of a gruelling succession of five peaks. The opening climb was the only one which was asphalted, and in preparation for four climbs – the Vars, Izoard, Mongenèvre and Sestrière – over the sterrata tracks, Coppi had his mechanic mount a 46x24 gear ratio on his bike.

Defying heavy rain, Primo Volpi had broken away early. Described deliciously by Coppi's gregario Vittorio Seghezzi (as recalled by Sykes) as "a Tuscan s***-kicker," Volpi was a rider who annoyed Coppi immeasurably. He caught him on the climb, with Bartali giving chase, but then had to stop to fix an issue with his chain.

Volpi and then Bartali rode past before Coppi remounted and reeled them in – dropping them before the summit and with 192km remaining. He rode solo over the Vars and Izoard; the gap on Bartali – who was forced into a "furious and fruitless pursuit" according to the writer Daniel Friebe in Mountain High – was pushing seven minutes on the Mongenèvre; eight minutes at Sestrière and a whopping 11 minutes 52 seconds at the finish in Pinerolo.

Un uomo solo è al comando

Part of what made Coppi's ride so mythical that day was the fact that it occurred in the pre-TV era, making the written and spoken word all what remains of the devastating brilliance of the ride.

Rather than grainy images of Coppi soloing to glory, what immortalised Coppi's odyssey were the words of Mario Ferretti, RAI's radio broadcaster, who began his commentary with the words which would be forever associated with Coppi's career:

" Un uomo solo è al comando, la sua maglia è bianco-celeste, il suo nome è Fausto Coppi!"

In his Mondiale article, Sykes writes that these words "would come to define an era not only in Italian sport, but in Italian history. It's as ubiquitous as Kenneth Wolstenholme's "Some people are on the pitch…", and it embodies the high watermark of cycling's popularity. Never before had the sport been so good, and never again would it so enrapture the European public."

What was so impressive about Coppi's ride was that, take him out of the equation, and Bartali's performance would have been considered extraordinary in itself. Runner-up Bartali had arrived in Pinerolo almost eight minutes clear of third place Alfredo Martini – and yet ended the stage 23 minutes down on his great rival Coppi in the overall standings, the latter now in pink.

In one of his most celebrated pieces, the Italian novelist Dino Buzzati found a metaphor in Homer's epic final battle between Archilles (Coppi) and Hector (Bartali) in which the stronger Archilles, favoured by Zeus, coldly slays Hector.

Describing Bartali's doomed pursuit through the Casse Deserte of the Izoard, Buzzati also wrote:

" He was caked in mud, his face grey with earth and static in effort. He pedalled, pedalled, as though something horrendous was giving chase and he knew that getting caught would mean all hope was lost. Time, nothing but irreparable time was giving chase. And what a spectacle it was, that man alone in the wild gorge, fighting a desperate battle against the years…"

Off the back of the victory – and, in particular, those words by Ferretti – plays, exhibitions, concerts, films, photographs, monuments, plaques, street signs, museums, archives and books have been created.

What happened next: Coppi's double

Fausto would win the third of his five Giro crowns by 23 minutes 47 seconds over Gino Bartali. In July, the two riders were teammates in the Italian team at the Tour de France with a confident Coppi supposedly offering Bartali stage 16 – and the race lead – as a 35th birthday 'gift' before winning the next day to leapfrog his teammate in the standings.

Coppi held the maillot jaune from there to Paris, where he became the first man in history to secure the Giro-Tour double (a feat he repeated three years later). Coppi crashed out of the 1950 Giro and Bartali finished runner-up behind the Swiss charmer Hugo Koblet in his absence. Bartali never won a Grand Tour again while Coppi would add two Giri and a Tour, as well as a Paris-Roubaix, a fifth Giro di Lombardia, and the rainbow jersey in 1953.

"It was sort of implicit that Cuneo-Pinerolo would settle the argument once and for all," Sykes tells Eurosport. "Of course it didn't and, given the five years age difference, never could have. It doesn't alter the fact, however, that Coppi did something super-human that day, that subsequent events served simply to underscore the magnitude of it."

" There's never been an individual sporting performance even remotely as significant."

Froome: a modern-day Coppi?

Italy's wait for an heir to Coppi continues and will not be over soon: after the likes of Binda, Girardengo and Bartali, Coppi really was the champion of champions. But Vincenzo Nibali – the closest comparison today with victories in all Grand Tours and two different Monuments – is never likely to pull off something in the same vein as Coppi's exploits between Cuneo and Pinerolo.

In that sense, perhaps the closest performances we have seen in terms of replicating Coppi's legendary ride came last year from Chris Froome, whose 84km solo attack on the Colle delle Finestre saw the Briton stay clear on the climb to Sestrière before securing both the stage and the maglia rosa in Bardonnecchia. Herbie Sykes agrees.

" My belief is that Froome's stage last year was, in purely sporting terms, a modern-day version. It wasn't so far off as regards execution, though of course the electricity it generated could never match 1949."

There were, of course, differences. Coppi's gregari did not wipe out Leoni the same way as Team Sky did Simon Yates; but Froome's attack did recast that stage – and the Giro as a whole – as a race between him and Tom Dumoulin, just as Coppi's attack made it a race between him and Bartali.

" For me it was worthy of Coppi, and also of Eddy Merckx. Lance Armstrong never accomplished anything remotely like that, and nor did Hinault, Lemond or Indurain."

Then again, as Sykes is quick to stress, Froome and Dumoulin's rivalry is nothing compared to that of the two Italian greats. Meanwhile, what Froome achieved that day – even if it did deliver him a grand slam of Grand Tour wins – "did not define an era, a sport or indeed a country, the way Fausto did."

Stage 12, Giro d'Italia 2019: a cop out?

On Thursday the 102th edition of La Corsa Rosa will revive the memory of Bartali's sorry pursuit of Coppi with a celebratory stage which starts in Cuneo and finishes in Pinerolo – but that's where the similarities end.

With the previous stage culminating in Novi Ligure – where Coppi's cycling days begun – stage 12 is very much Cuneo-Pinerolo decaffeinated: instead of those five mythical climbs, the organisers, perhaps mindful of the challenges ahead in the final week, have opted for a 158km route featuring just the one peak, the Cat.1 Montoso, which comes 35-odd kilometres from the finish.

Poor Fausto would turn in his grave. It will be enough to eliminate the likelihood of a third successive sprint finish, but it won't be the stuff that legends are made from.

A Cuneo to Pinerolo stage evoking Coppi's ghost is hardly a new thing. Franco Bitossi won such a stage in 1964 and Giuseppe Saronni in 1982. Ten years ago, on the 60th anniversary of Coppi's solo break, the Giro returned with another lite version (including climbs of Moncenisio, Sestrière and Pra Martino) won by the controversial Danilo Di Luca.

Prior to the stage, a plaque was placed at the precise point at which Coppi had attacked on the Maddalena. The ceremony was held in the presence of his two children, Marina and Faustino, and Claudio Ferretti, the son of Mario Ferretti, the radio reporter whose name was also (and forever) linked to that day of racing.

"They've been evoking Cuneo-Pinerolo ever since," says Sykes. "But it doesn't really matter who wins it. The only thing that matters is 1949."

Is the route this year a disappointment when set against the profile of that stage 70 years ago?

"I don't think it's a cop out per se," says Sykes. "And whatever they do they can't replicate it. Ultimately, though, the modern Giro is all about cash. Everything else is really collateral to that."

The reason why the Giro is coming to Pinerolo in 2019 is not so much to celebrate and consecrate Coppi's memory, argues Sykes, as much as because of the money on offer from Elvio Chiatellino, a rich cycling aficionado from Pinerolo who owns a host of nursing homes and wants his name associated with a stage finish.

That doesn't mean that Coppi won't be central to proceedings. This year alone there will be at least 15 books published about Il campionissimo in Italy; it's an industry, argues Sykes, that is immune to recession and, often, to good taste.

In the preface to his own book on Coppi, Sykes makes the following observation about the steady flow of Coppi-themed books:

" When you live in Coppi's Piedmont and have an interest in bike racing, the books come to assume pretty much the same status as bottles of the local plonk. Nobody ever seems to buy them and yet somehow they proliferate."

But Sykes also tells Eurosport that it has only been through living in Italy that he realised what set Coppi apart from the other riders considered great, such as Merckx, Hinault and Anquetil.

" Now I understand that Coppi informs everything that Italian sport is, and that nobody – not anybody – better embodies the Italian century."

Next on Re-Cycle: Andy Hampsten secures pink on the snowy Gavia in 1988.