An Italy divided

Two cyclists on opposite sides of the moral compass fought a politically-charged duel that lasted a decade

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.

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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.

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