By Gino Bartali
—Translated from the French magazine, “Le Miroir des Sports”, 1960, by Owen Mulholland
Part I of IV
With the competition in the Tour de France between Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong, many Americans have come to appreciate the multifaceted nuances great cycling rivalries can produce. Our sport has been blessed with many such rivalries: LeMond and Hinault, Moser and Saronni, Anquetil and Poulidor, Kubler and Koblet, Binda and Girardengo, etc., but most long time observers of European cycling would attest that the war between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali achieved a level of intensity and fascination never paralleled before or since.
Bartali was born July 18, 1914, near Florence, Italy, and died May 5, 2000, while Coppi, his younger nemesis, was born Sept. 15,1919, in Castellania (Piedmont), Italy, and died on Jan. 2 1960. The five year separation was critical because by the time the young Fausto made his professional debut, Bartali was the undiputed master of Italian cycling, having won the Tour of Italy twice, the Tour de France once, and a pack of other major races as well. Indeed, Coppi began his professional career as a water carrier for Bartali.
In these so-touching reminiscences, written just after Coppi’s unexpected death, Bartali is almost unnecessarily candid. He freely admits that Coppi was superb, “even better than I,” and therefore the greatest rider who ever lived. But Bartali never gave in, sought to use brains over brawn wherever possible, and was rewarded with victory often enough to keep cycling fans enraptured from the late thirties through the mid fifties.
At times, sport can be more than merely sport; it can step out of the technicalities of the game played and become sort of a giant screen on which are projected our own psyches. Cycling, the most demanding sport ever devised, naturally carries this projection to levels unknown elsewhere.—O.M.
Gino Bartali begins his reflections on the muddy path returning from Coppi’s burial in Castellania’s small cemetery:
I will never forget this mud that sticks to my shoes all the way up to Castellania. Up there is the body of Fausto, where we have laid him in his bier. And I thought of other mud, mud that stuck to the legs of Fausto and me, during those terrible stages of the Dolomites … and the image of Fausto as a child, playing by this muddy road, images that cling to my spirit.
Fausto! The entire theory of afflicted friends mounts toward your new home to salute your hide. And my heart is heavy with an inexpressible sadness. I saw you, for the last time, immobile in the coffin. But the crowd around me only let me feel a sad confusion.
Fausto! Do not find fault with me if I did not cry before your still and frozen corpse. I have never cried, even in the unhappiest moments of my life. I never dropped a tear at the death of my brother, nor that of my son. The same sorrow, silent and profound, gripped me in front of your shroud, Fausto, and left my eyes dry …
From the moment you disappeared, Fausto, to finally end our old rivalry, to the time again when we will be reunited as comrades in a new sporting competition.
The pitiless sounds of the earth being shoveled onto your grave remind me all too clearly that everything is finished.
This same road to Castellania I walked before in 1951 in another sad circumstance: for the death of Serse [Fausto’s brother, victim of a crash during the Tour of Piedmont]. At first, his crash, close to me in the race, seemed not to be very serious. After the race Serse congratulated me on my victory, but later at the hotel, he slipped into a coma, and died a few hours later at the hospital in the arms of his traumatized brother, Fausto.
Serse was, with me, the only one who understood Fausto. Serse was truly good and sweet. After the finish of each race he would search me out and pose, ritually, the same question: ‘Why don’t you and Fausto come to some sort of an agreement? You two would win all the races, and me, poor teammate, I’d be a lot less tired!’
On this same road to Castellania’s cemetery I met Bruna Coppi (Fausto’s wife, although they had been separated about six years), whom I hadn’t seen for a long time. She looked disheveled, her eyes full of tears; she had come again to this cemetery. In order to avoid the photographers we found refuge in a car on the side of the road.
“I had always hoped Fausto would come back.” Bruna said. “At Christmas he telephoned to the house and I picked it up.”
“Ciao, Bruna.” he told me. “Marina [their daughter], is she there? I’d like to wish her Happy Holidays.
“Fausto often telephoned Marina. Only the three of us knew that. I was convinced that one day or other he would come back. He loved Marina too much to completely abandon her. I ignored that he didn’t love me anymore. But he adored his daughter. I wouldn’t change Fausto’s last wishes, but I will try to give to Faustino [Marina’s younger half brother] what he had a right to expect from his father.”
I well understood Bruna’s emotions. And perhaps it was cruel, but I asked if she didn’t have some grounds to reproach herself, if she had really understood Fausto?
“I know, I know.” she replied with a weary air. “I was too preoccupied with the dangers of racing. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t see anything more than Fausto in front of me. I couldn’t think of anything more than just him.”
Image courtesy Foto Locchi
When I look into my heart of hearts, I find a place of austere clarity. It contains a few abiding loves. One of the most significant among these is my complete adoration for cycling. Were I to win the lottery tomorrow I’d begin planning my escape forthwith. And what would I do? No different from many of you, I’d set course for cycling’s homeland. And though I love the cobbles and muur, my preferred playground is mountain terrain. Left to my own devices, I’d ride as many of Europe’s 2000-meter cols as I could in a month. I’d pray for the strength to ride two per day until I’d scaled them all.
So while I salivate at the very mention of Paris-Roubaix and see it as the ultimate hard-man test, my greatest love I reserve for Grand Tours in general and the Tour de France in specific. You see, my love for the Tour isn’t based on courage, brute force, macho cool or even tough-guy bravado, but my childhood sense of fun.
When I was a kid, bike riding—as we called it—was one of my all-out faves. The perfect summer day was a day spent riding as much as possible and the farther afield the better. Had it been possible, the perfect summer would have been three months with no school and hours of riding bikes each day. Had it been possible I could have enjoyed heaven on earth.
So imagine my surprise when I learned of the Tour de France. Three weeks of riding around France in the summer. Three weeks of being paid to ride bikes for five or six hours per day. Three weeks with your best friends. It was a dream come true.
When I learned that Greg LeMond typically trained eight hours a day, the depth of envy I felt burned through my shoes and the foundation of my parents’ home. Someone was paying this guy to do something my folks rarely allowed me to do for more than two hours at a time. Clearly, this world had options to which I was unaware.
To this day, a month spent riding around France tops most wish-list possibilities. A date with Pam Anderson, tickets at the fifty yard line for the Super Bowl, dinner at the White House, serving a case of Petrus to friends, and none of them match the excitement I feel when I think about riding mountains day in and day out for a whole calendar page.
And the pinnacle of the PRO life is the rhythm of a Grand Tour. Wake, eat, rest, eat, race, eat, rest, eat, sleep. Such a life could easily be a prison to some, but to me it has always been a chance to gorge on my favorite meal. Weeks of days defined by racing.
As I have come to know Grand Tours and how the are raced, my love for them has only increased. For all the flash and grandeur, they are won not so much on the coup de grace, but on conservation, efficiency and tactical sense. Sure, we applaud the rider who can deliver the withering attack, but discretion is as important as the attack itself. Delivered at the wrong time it isn’t just an effort wasted, but a nail in one’s own coffin.
The high water mark for each of my summers as a kid was the Fourth of July. From riding bikes to the parades, funny outfits, cookouts and fireworks, the Fourth was the perfect summer day. And what is the Tour de France but that day played out over and over again? With the last of the season’s Grand Tours coming to a close, I’m sad to be nearing the end of another season; I don’t feel I sucked quite enough marrow from this one. That’s more a statement of insatiability than actual hunger, I suspect.
I have often imagined how great life would be to be the lanterne rouge. I simply can’t imagine what it would be like to with the Tour itself, but I think I can fathom what it would take to be the guy just hanging on by the skin of my teeth in a Grand Tour. That perpetual state of disbelief—I’m still here; I’m still in it!
And then one day I learned that not all pros who wish to ride the Tour get to go. Oh the horror! To be considered and then to find out you didn’t make the squad. No fireworks, no adulation, no cool mountain roads. Cinderella should know such pain.
No soup for you. Come back one year.
Of all the world’s many privileges, that is one that if I had it to do over, I’d live a Puritan life. My refusals would be legion, my discipline harder than granite and my will as unyielding as the laws of physics, all just to have a crack at riding a Grand Tour just once.
Only a cyclist or a Puritan could see day after day of suffering as a vacation.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
In February of 1998 I drove to Ramona, California, the home of the famed Eddie B. and the location of the spring training camp for the wet-behind-the-ears U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team. Two years in and they were still finding their way in leadership and management. I was down to interview the team’s new signing, a hopefully renewed Lance Armstrong. My instructions were to interview Armstrong and during the interim while I was waiting to get time with him I was to interview any other Americans capable of delivering the goods in Europe.
I got an hour with Armstrong, one-on-one, but while I was waiting for that, I spent nearly two hours with Jonathan Vaughters and his roommate, this kid, a prodigy barely out of the junior ranks and Project 96. He was the son of a former Olympian and I was being told he was, with one possible exception, the next big thing.
Christian Vande Velde struck me as goofy, dislocated and awe-struck. I’d been steered to interviewing him by Dan Osipow of the team’s management. Osipow told me they were expecting big things from the rangy kid.
Vaughters and I had had a rocky first meeting. In an interview during the team presentation for Comptel/Colorado Cyclist (John Wordin’s first imploded team), I’d asked about racing tactics and how he might handle tactical mistakes. When I gave examples I’d seen in collegiate racing his response was laced with a tone of seething indignation. It was rather reinforced by his unequivocal, “This is pro racing, not college.” Oops, my bad.
So when I was unsuccessful at hiding my skepticism that this goofy kid whose suitcase was more yard sale than traveling tool, Vaughters immediately stepped in with a litany of notable pursuiters and team pursuiters who had gone on to stage racing greatness. He began with Viatcheslav Ekimov and threw in Eddy Merckx just for good measure.
What transpired in the next moment was a bit much to handle. I realized that:
1) Vaughters was a man of strongly held beliefs.
2) He was a smart guy.
3) He believed in Vande Velde’s potential more than team management did.
4) Vande Velde had the gee-whiz air of a kid told he’s the second coming.
To be fair, the poor guy couldn’t have been more disoriented. As part of Project 96 he hadn’t done massive mileage and his ’97 training schedule had been handed to him in a binder on January 1—for the entire year. Every day had been planned to a T, right down to the last BPM. Since joining Postal his direction had been to ride. Just ride lots and keep it easy. Truly, his training couldn’t have changed more. And given that Project 96 hadn’t really delivered a slew of medals for the U.S., his wonder was well-matched to my skepticism. The true believer, the skeptic and the kid—we were quite the trio.
So when Vaughters announced that he had signed Vande Velde to his team this winter, I was curious to see how it might play out. This spring I heard the first mentions of Vande Velde’s name in conjunction with Tour de France GC. And if you recall, for much of the world there was a collective gasp when Vaughters announced that Vande Velde would lead Garmin/Chipotle at the Tour.
Fifth place is, unfortunately, forgettable. Name one other fifth place performance in Tour de France GC that you can remember. We’ll remember this for no reason other than the fact that Vande Velde is American; it’s okay, we’re supposed to be jingoistic. It’s a very fine performance for an American. By cracking the top 10, Vande Velde can be counted as a peer to Lance Armstrong, Greg LeMond, Levi Leipheimer, Bobby Julich, Andy Hampsten and Tyler Hamilton.
To the degree that you may be wondering how Vande Velde rode like a real contender in the mountains, consider the following: John Pierce said that when Vande Velde got to the Tour he had to, “Look twice. He has lost a tremendous amount of weight.” This is backed up by a contact at Pearl Izumi who said that each of the riders who went to the Tour had to have their clothing resized relative to what they were wearing at the Spring Classics. Pearl was so surprised by the changes and had so little time to deal with the resizing that rather than custom sizing all the clothing they had to go with their semi-custom sizing—six sizes, each in three lengths.
So fifth place is fourth among losers. Big deal, right? It is. Vaughters has been proven right on a few fronts. First, that he could field a team worthy of the Tour and not be an embarrassment. Second, he did it in as conspicuously clean a manner as has been done, proving you can race the Tour clean. And finally, he has proven a belief he has held for some 10 years, that Christian Vande Velde is the real deal. I’m almost happier for Vaughters than I am for his old roommate.
Photos courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International