Thursday, January 22, 2009
Coppi and Me, Part I
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