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Il Campionissimo

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Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe

Along with a shiny selection of Campagnolo bits and an even shinier array of designer jerseys, most Italian bike shops have one thing in common: somewhere on the premises will be a picture of Fausto Coppi, as ubiquitous as the Madonna.
The icon can take many forms: the faded, torn black-and-white picture on the wall of the single room where an old man tightened my spokes near Venice, a signed team postcard in Milan, the vast poster on the wall of a far more modern boutique in Tuscany, T-shirts, bottles, calendars on the roads of Coppi’s home region in eastern Piemonte.
Most often, the image will be the most discussed and disputed picture in Italian sport: Coppi and Gino Bartali on a mountain in the Tour de France in 1952, both with their hands on a bottle. I’m choosing my words carefully here: the question of which of the two is passing the bottle to the other has spawned thousands of words of analysis in Italian cycling magazines. Where the bottle came from, which mountain it was – it has all been ploughed over time and again.
Given the way the Italians love an argument, I’d be astonished if somewhere, sometime, Coppiani and Bartalisti have not come to blows over the question – and it matters. Whoever is actually passing the bottle is engaged in a noble act; if it is Bartali, he is playing the role of the loyal team mate as Coppi seals one of the greatest Tour wins of all time. If it is Coppi, he is not bedazzled by his status, or embittered by their rivalry, but is still giving Gino a drink. It really, really matters.
The pictures and the picture underline one simple fact: Italian cycling has never got over Coppi. His rival Bartali lived long enough to lose his mystique, but Coppi retains his iconic status as one of cycling’s glorious, doomed heroes, one of the most influential figures in the development of the sport in the 20th century.
Researching a new biography of Coppi, Fallen Angel, has raised more than a few thoughts. Firstly, why go over a story that the Italians have told and retold? Well, past experience of writing about Tom Simpson has shown me that the more a story has been told, the more it has to hide. In Coppi’s case, as in Simpson’s, there is much that we don’t know about the great man.
Every Italian campione is seen in the context of the campionissimo, every rivalry is compared to the definitive love-hate relationship, between Fausto and Gino. The Italian cycle industry and professional cycling owe a colossal debt to the man. As well as every Italian cyclist, he has inspired others: Simpson, Anquetil, the designer Paul Smith. And those photos on the walls of those bike shops are the best illustration of the continuing passion.
What surprises most about Coppi is that the signs on the roadside are true. They say “Eviva Coppi”, long live the great man, and he lives on, in all sorts of surprising ways: films, opera, sculpture, and, of course, those pictures on every bike shop wall.
This article appeared in issue 7 of 1 Magazine, published in November 2007.

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