Monday, January 26, 2009
Coppi and Me, Part III
This is the first time I have told these stories to anyone. Believe me, it’s not because I want to create a scandal. There can be no question of scandal between Fausto, my memories of him, and me. But you must know something of this background to fully appreciate what the public saw—the misstatements, the outrageous explanations, the outbursts, our relationship, hot and cold, and all those episodes, human and sporting, that made Fausto a rider unique, and one who impassioned millions of fans.
When Fausto was first engaged by my team [Legnano] for the 1940 season, he appeared to be no more than a skinny kid. I had shaken his hand when he had won the Italian Independent Championship [this was a class between pros and amateurs] the year before, but honestly, if you’d asked me then if I saw a future superman I would certainly have said, “No.” Even after he won the Tour of Italy in 1940 I wasn’t totally convinced. I had been leading until I crashed.
It wasn’t until the Tour of Emilia in 1942 that I realized he was something special. At our team meeting the night before the race, Fausto asked if he might escape early in the race as he was feeling a little sick and wasn’t in good form. If he made others chase and gave me a free ride that was about the best he could do with his limited resources. I told him I didn’t see any problem with that. But come the race it was a different matter. He escaped early, as planned, but when it came time to chase we couldn’t make a dent in his lead. Needless to say, I was furious, and after the race I went to his hotel room.
“So, you’re not in form?!” I confronted him.
“But no one came after me.” he replied, lamely.
“If you were so sick you should have abandoned.”
“But I wasn’t sick. The race made me well.”
“Thanks for the explanation.”
On the way out I noticed a race map well traced by Fausto, himself. In those days race maps were not normally given out to the riders. I picked it up. “So what’s this?”
“This is the profile of the race course.” he responded ingenuously.
“Did you need a map to find which road you were going to exit the race because you were sick?”
“But I outlined it before I became sick.”
“You should have told me that racing is a remedy for maladies.”
“If I hadn’t won our team might have lost.”
His logic was impeccable. But it was he who had won in my place. This was the day I finally understood the danger Coppi represented. Seeing that he hadn’t quit, I ordered the whole team to chase, me along with them. Not only had we not been able to catch him, we hadn’t even been able to stay even. At the finish we were 7 minutes down. “Be careful, Gino.” I told myself that night in the obscurity of my room. This kid is something special. “Be careful! He’s dangerous!”
I wasn’t mistaken.
I will tell you more stories of the intricacies of our rivalry, but it wasn’t always that way, especially as we got older. In 1955 I had retired and was following the Tour of Italy as a television reporter. Early on a quiet stage near Venice he saw me and called me over to the peloton. He held up a picture.
“Gino, look at this.”
I saw the image of a beautiful baby. “Who is it?” I queried.
“This is my son!” he cried out as he continued to pedal.
He was so happy he was practically transformed. I grabbed the picture and said, “I’m going to show everyone.”
“No, Gino! Wait! Wait!”
Too late. My car was already making a passage through the peloton, and holding the picture up for everyone to see, I yelled, “Look at this! This is Faustino, Fausto’s new son!” For 4 or 5 kms. Fausto pursued me, screaming for me to return the photo. Then he gave up the chase and recuperated on the grass at the side of the road where the entire peloton stopped to congratulate him. I was as happy as he. All the racers were happy. Even after they resumed riding no one attacked. The greatest champion of all time had a son.
Image courtesy Foto Locchi