By Susannah Osborne
The rivalry between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi reveals the tensions in Italy between the wars. The two cyclists could not have been more different – their riding styles, their moral conduct, their motivations and their physical appearance. Bartali was a heavy-set, strong man with the look of a boxer. Stork-like Coppi was lean, wiry and could break away and never get caught.
Bartali was a Catholic, born in Tuscany and worshipped by working-class Italians. Signed in 1936 to the Italian Legnano team as a successor to Alfredo Binda he won the Giro d’Italia three times, the Tour de France twice (10 years apart) and seven one-day Monuments. After his Tour de France win in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, Mussolini proclaimed him as living proof that Italy was a master race. The Vatican’s favourite sportsman, ‘Gino the Pious’ was blessed by three different popes.
Coppi was not concerned with religion. He was worldly, outward-looking and non-conformist. Some claim he was the bridge between the romantic days of pre-war cycling and the science-based sport of today; he was known to experiment with his training and his diet. Feted as one of the best riders of all time he won the Giro d’Italia five times, a record held jointly with Binda and Eddy Merckx, and the Tour de France twice in three attempts. When it came to the the Classics Coppi won the Giro di Lombardia a record five times, Milan-San Remo three times, Paris-Roubaix and the Flèche Wallonne; in 1953 he claimed the world championship. Raphaël Géminiani once said of Coppi: “He rode like a Martian on a bike.”
From their first encounter in 1940 until 1949 the cycling careers of Gino and Fausto were intricately intertwined. Coppi was introduced to Bartali as a domestique for the 1940 Giro. But the pair quickly locked horns after Bartali collided with a dog, allowing Coppi to set his sights on the podium. When Coppi attacked on the Abetone Pass an angry Bartali ordered his team-mates to chase him down. Bartali was brought into line by the team manager and Coppi won. It was a result that incensed Bartali.
When racing resumed after the Second World War so did their rivalry. Bartali beat Coppi in the 1946 Giro but it was Coppi who was victorious a year later. The animosity between the riders reached fever pitch at the 1948 World Championships in Valkenburg when the two men focussed solely on beating each other, forgetting they were riding for Italy. Once they had established that neither of them would win they both withdrew from the race. Booed by the Dutch fans and castigated by the Italian media the pair received a two-month ban.
Bartali was convinced Coppi was taking drugs and he sneaked into his rival’s hotel rooms to extract evidence from the bins. Yet surprisingly, at the 1949 Tour, when tensions between the two were at their height, a ceasefire was declared. Misfortune struck Coppi early on in the race as crashes and mechanical problems lost him valuable time. A broken bike in stage five worsened his position and to make matters worse Binda, Italy’s coach, and the team car were shadowing Bartali. Coppi was furious.
Convinced that he should carry on and still had a chance Coppi regained his verve in the mountains. Stage 16, from Cannes to Briançon, featured the ascents of the Col d’Allos, Col de Vars, and Col d’Izoard. In 1938 and 1948 Bartali had proved his dominance on these climbs and, as before, he broke away. Coppi followed but as they tackled the Izoard Coppi punctured. Bartali waited. Nearer the summit Bartali punctured and Coppi waited. They rode together into Briançon, having gained 20 minutes on the race leader Fiorenzo Magni. Coppi eventually won the race and Bartali finished second.
Coppi died of malaria aged 40, his later years overshadowed by the scandal of an extra-marital affair. Bartali died of a heart attack at 85; it was later revealed that he played a significant part in aiding the passage of Jews to safety during the Second World War. In life and death these two men couldn’t be more different.
*Rapha read William Fotheringham’s ‘Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi’, Aili McConnon and Andres McConnon’s ‘Road to Valour: Gino Bartali – Tour de France Legend and World War II Hero’ and Peter Cossins’ ‘The Monuments’ while researching this article.