Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Coppi and Me, Part IV
Who knows what kinds of records Bartali and Coppi would have accumulated without the intervention of World War II? They were 25 and 20 when the war started, 30 and 25 when it ended. But for them the resumption of their rivalry after the war was as though the last episode had been yesterday, rather than half a decade earlier. The 1947 Milan-San Remo classic is a good example. It was the 18th of March, the night before the race, and Bartali was struggling with a miserable cold.
I felt incapable of winning the race, but if I couldn’t win, I surely didn’t want Fausto to win either. But how to stop him? He’d been untouchable the previous year, and then I was well. I went for a stroll that evening, still wondering just how to stop my young nemesis. I hadn’t gone far when I ran into Serse Coppi and another faithful teammate of Fausto’s, Casola.
We greeted each other, and to my utter amazement, they asked if I’d like to go to a movie with them. My first thought was that I didn’t like westerns, but in a flash I saw this could be the answer to my prayers. If I could keep two of Fausto’s teammates up late enough, he’d be deprived of their help in tomorrow’s race. So I readily agreed, and off to the movie we went.
We emerged at midnight and Casola asked I intended to go straight back to my hotel. “I’m starving.” Casola confessed. “I know a great restaurant nearby.” This was too good to be true. I readily agreed to join them. All this time, of course, Fausto slept the sleep of the pure of heart. Two hours later the empty plates of superb tortellini and empty bottles of fine white wine attested to our late night pleasure. Then we smoked cigarettes under the stupefied gaze of the other clients who couldn’t believe that on the eve of the most important race in Italy such key characters in that event could break every rule known to the cycling regimen.
Finally we left the restaurant, bid “good night” to each other, and retreated to our rooms. The race was to start in less than six hours! In passing by Fausto’s room I put my ear to the door and could hear his regular breathing.
Puffy eyed and a bit hung over, I was at the start, and glad to see Serse and Casola had the same look. The race began gently, as always, but near the first obstacle, the Turchino Pass, a stick got in my front wheel and took out 8 spokes! This did not go unnoticed by Coppi, who stepped up the pace. Upon getting a new wheel, I chased like a madman and was pleased to catch Coppi by the summit. Those tortellini weren’t so bad for me, after all! I thought to myself, “If you could catch Fausto when he attacked, maybe you’re not as bad off as you thought. Maybe, you should have a go, yourself.” And damned if that isn’t what happened! We won, the tortellini and me!
The following year  I went on to win my second Tour de France, and even though Coppi wasn’t in that race, the win in France did nothing to diminish my reputation. Coppi was not at all pleased. Things came to a head at the World Road Championships in Valkenburg (Holland). We both wanted to win and we both didn’t want the other to win.
At the critical moment in the race the decisive break went away and neither Fausto nor I budged. We rolled along, side by side, and I said to him, “Listen, Fausto, you can’t expect me to act as your gregario. You let everyone else escape and then you want me to chase them down while you sit on my wheel. If you can, go for it, and I’ll quit.”
Fausto replied harshly, “I only want to do one thing, go to my hotel.”
“Very well, you go to the hotel, and I’ll rejoin the break.”
“If you go, I’m coming with you.”
He turned his head, allowing no reply. I understood then that Fausto only raced to make me lose. On the next lap when the group passed by my hotel, I put my foot on the ground, and abandoned the race. I never made it to my room, but was quickly attacked by the press and member of the Italian delegation. While I was defending my actions I saw Fausto quietly pass through the hallway, enter his room, and no doubt collapse in tears. Seeing Fausto also out of the race, I attempted to run outside and remount my bike, but it was too late. Just then I saw the leaders go by with a lap to go. I would have been a lap behind them.
At the Vigorelli track in Milan a few days later the public hissed at us derisively. As you can see, this rivalry placed both Fausto and me in the most awkward positions. We were, in a way, encouraged to do things that neither of us really wanted to do. And not just in the moment. Do you think I would have raced until I was 40 unless Fausto had still been going strong? For the two of us, the others didn’t count. My only adversary was he, and vice-versa.
We were, at bottom, two big children, timid, two children of country folk, both of us modest, who fought for the praise of our countrymen. Occasionally, Fausto even referred to me in the third person, as Mr. Bartali, a sign in our language of the greatest possible deference.
But on the bikes, this was something else. In that same year, 1948, Fausto announced he wanted to win the Tour of Tuscany. Imagine, he wanted to beat me in my home territory in front of all my friends and supporters! What presumption! He wanted to humiliate me in my back yard!
For this race I trained as never before. So Fausto wouldn’t notice, I trained at night and had my wife drive behind me to illuminate the way. He had already beaten me once in this race, in 1941. Never again! I worked on my climbing, I worked on my sprinting, nothing could be left to chance!
In the race itself, Fausto was soon on the attack, but I was always on him before he could take a second breath. I feared that my aggressive defense would force him to find a way to make me lose, rather than for him to win. After 180 kms. of the race had passed, a few riders had gotten away. I rode up to Fausto and asked him, What do you say we chase them down?
He replied, “Sure, let’s go.”
I was relieved. When Fausto and I were in agreement, no one in the world could stay with us. Soon enough we caught the break, and then dropped it. When we had a two minute lead, Fausto flatted. I pedaled gently to let him catch. He flatted a second time. I responded the same again. I didn’t want for him to be able to say that I had beaten him because of his bad luck. And at the finish in Florence I was indeed the victor.
That night, after dinner, Fausto came to my house with a photo of himself as a present for my son, Andrea. Fausto had written on it, “To Andrea Bartali, son of my great adversary, with the hope of meeting you again during the years ahead as I ride against your loyal father on the sporting roads of the world.”
All of Fausto was in those words….