Sunday, January 25, 2009

Coppi and Me, Part II

A memory came to mind. It was in 1945, at Ospedaletti, on the eve of Fausto’s marriage to Bruna. During the race there I asked Fausto what he’d like as a wedding gift.

“If you win,” he responded, “give me your bouquet of flowers so I may offer them to Bruna. The would be the most beautiful of gifts.”

Towards the end of the race, Fausto got away and I didn’t have the courage to block his way en route to victory.

At the finish line he came to me with an unhappy look. “It was all arranged. You were supposed to win. I only wanted your flowers.”

I had a hard time convincing him that on this day he was too strong for anyone to have beaten him.

This was the real Coppi, my friend, Coppi, with whom, during 20 years, we fought each other across all the roads of Europe … under the sun, under the rain, under the snow … and I assure you I always did my best not to be beaten by him. But if I couldn’t win I did everything possible to see that he didn’t win. We were, him and me, two unchained rivals, animated by a struggle without comparison. But never did our deep appreciation for each other suffer. We preferred to be in train with each other at the head of the peloton, making sure that neither of us got away. We almost made a race of two, so little did we worry about the others.

Coppi, for me, was always a big kid, even when he turned 40. He never had the time to become an adult. He was only afraid of the day when he could no longer race his bike. It was the same for me. My only preoccupation was to race, and race well. I never had the time to think of anything else. “How do you have the courage to quit?” I once asked Fausto. This is a courage I never had. I could never see farther than the saddle of my bicycle.

And now this terrible illness he brought back from Africa. [Coppi had joined a number of other riders for a racing and hunting trip to the Ivory Coast in December of 1959. He got malaria, which was misdiagnosed, and he died a few days after returning.] Without his passion for racing, wanting to still be one of the boys, he would never have made this fatal trip to Africa.

Fausto was truly the greatest rider of all time. Of that there can be no doubt. I am proud to have been one of his most loyal rivals. In my long career I have had many adversaries, but none have measured up to Coppi, none had his class. He went beyond everyone; he was superior to them all. He was even superior to me … he even went beyond me.

I was an excellent climber and I could be faster than him in the sprint. But Fausto, not at all bad in those two specialties, was unbeatable on the flat and as a pursuiter on the track. I’m not embarrassed to say that I needed help, a teammate, to stay with him on the flat. But not Fausto. For him, victory was at his door on every kind of course. This was not my case. He was, taken as a whole, more complete. We had two different physiques, although our motors were always revved up.

On his bike, he was beautiful, like a god. When he descended from the saddle he became again an ordinary mortal. But while he pedaled he presented a picture of surpassing beauty. No matter how hard the race, he always seemed to be a man out for a ride on his horse. He had this suppleness, this form, a sort of moving plastic that made a perfect spectacle. One can understand how the crowds, during so many years, were so excited to see him pedal.

But fatigue even marked his organism, leaving certain traces that didn’t escape my critical eye. During the times of our first clashes I studied ever centimeter of his hide. I knew him almost better than myself. Having once been on my team, and knowing all my weaknesses, I was forced to minutely study him to find his weak points.

This story began during the 1940 Tour of Italy, where Coppi, supposedly my gregario [water carrier], was the winner. In my position as leader of the team I had explained to everyone my vulnerabilities so they could help me when I needed it most. I had naturally taken Fausto into my confidence, along with the others. At that time I was far from supposing he would become my greatest rival. You know, it’s like I gave state secrets to the enemy!

I could hardly ask him to return the favor. So I studied him, I looked at him, I scrutinized him, passing all I observed through a sort of sieve set to catch the least eccentricity that would imply fallibility. And then, one day, my tenacity was repaid. I perceived something. Finally, I had it!

Behind the right knee a vein inflated along 5 or 6 centimeters, apparently under the pressure of ridding his leg of toxic waste. This apparition made itself obvious between 160 and 180 kms into a race. At this moment Fausto became vulnerable and he lost a bit of that fluid plastic motion he normally displayed.

One day, in the 1948 Tour of Italy, the stage to Naples, I decided to see if I could profit from my research. I told my lieutenant, Corrieri, to survey the hollow behind Coppi’s right knee and let me know if he saw any change. Sure enough, right about the time I expected, Corrieri came rolling through the peloton crying at the top of his voice, ‘The vein! The vein!’ Of course no one knew what he was yelling about, least of all Fausto, but I knew and I slid through the group to verify the good Giovannino’s spy operation. One look and I could see the vein was indeed inflated!

’Go! Go!’ I yelled to Van Steenbergen, to Koblet, to Kubler, and anyone else around me. ‘Coppi is in difficulty!’

‘Are you nuts?’ queried Van Steenbergen.

’Follow me!’ I yelled. Everyone attacked, and at the finish Fausto had lost four minutes!

Image courtesy Foto Locchi

1 comment:

Andrew said...

This is a great read. Thank you.