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On a cold, sunny day in early January 1960, 40-year-old Fausto Coppi was laid to rest in the small church of San Biagio, which sits on a hill above the village of Castellania, his birthplace. The crowds began their pilgrimage to the church at dawn. Parked cars lined the roads for miles around, buses ferried in cycling clubs and everyone trudged up through the mud and melting snow to pay their respects.
Some perhaps hoped to see Coppi’s wife Bruna Ciampolini come face-to-face with his infamous mistress, the Lady in White, Giulia Occhini; the photographers knew how much the newspapers would pay for a picture of the two standing together by his coffin. But the majority of the crowd, estimated at at least 20,000, was simply there to say good-bye to their hero. His cortege consisted of family, gregari, former rivals and, in the midst of it all, the sleek Bianchi team car that the tifosi loved to cheer at races.
Coppi passed into myth, forever to be deified, discussed and romanticized. And for Italian cycling there was a very large hole to fill. A generation of Italian riders suffered constant comparisons with Coppi. As soon as a young rider showed promise or, better still, took a big victory, he was christened the “new Coppi.” The Italian media dubbed these riders meteore, or meteors. They burned fast then faded.
The list is long. There was Gianni Motta, the Lombardy rider who won the 1966 Giro and had a reputation for rudeness; Franco Bitossi, nicknamed Crazy Heart because he had an arrythmia that forced him sometimes to stop at the roadside and wait for his pulse to calm down; Ercole Baldini, a fast and stylish rider who had ridden with Coppi in his final years, who won a Giro and held the world hour record yet still failed to reach the heights of his former leader; Franco Balmamion, the Piedmontese who twice won the Giro and was honored with the nickname The Pharmacist because he so carefully measured out his efforts (though that’s not a nickname a rider would want these days!); Italo Zilioli, the rider from Turin who came second in the Giro three times; and Gastone Nencini, winner of the 1960 Tour de France, chain smoker and demon descender.
Finally, there was the gentlemanly Felice Gimondi. Winner of all three grand tours, Gimondi was a cut above the other pretenders. He won the 1965 Tour de France at age 22 as a first-year pro, an incredible achievement that marked him out as a talent potentially as domineering as Coppi. But Gimondi hit an obstacle: a larger-then-life Belgian named Eddy Merckx. And while sometimes the pair fought closely enough for it to be called a duel, more often than not Gimondi helplessly watched Merckx disappear up the road and had to settle for second place. Gimondi, though, took his defeats in good grace and accrued a great deal of respect and love from both fans and fellow riders. Merckx himself counted himself a close friend of the great Italian.
So, none of these riders, for all their qualities, could ever quite measure up to Fausto Coppi. It was an impossible task. Because something deeper had changed in the way the country related to the sport. In the 1940s and ’50s Italy was a poor rural nation. For the majority of working people, the bicycle was their principal mode of transportation, between home and work, school, shops. The bicycle was a simple machine that gave the peasants enough mobility to make their lives better. So the connection to cycle sport was natural. Everyone knew what it was like to ride on their local roads, so everyone could identify with the slender young men who took it to the next level. Coppi was the apogee of taking it to the next level.
Italian society saw an enormous, and relatively speedy, shift in lifestyle in the 1960s. As the country industrialized, cars became the transport of choice. If a family couldn’t afford a car, they certainly aspired to own one. Giant car plants in Milan and Turin expanded their production, and towns were developed to accommodate motor vehicles, not people. Motorways proliferated. Cycling in the cities was now dangerous. Bicycles—an embarrassing association with the past—were swiftly forgotten.
Another technological innovation profoundly altered the way that Italy connected to cycle sport: television. In the ’50s, sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Italian racing, news of their heroes’ exploits came to fans either by word of mouth, excitable radio commentaries or newspaper reports. Or, of course, the tifosi could stand by the roadside in all weathers, wait for an hour or two and see the peloton shoot past. Coppi’s enigma was rooted in this scenario. He was the product of the byline and the byway. In the following decade many households in Italy acquired a television set and watching sport on television, as opposed to on the street or in the football stadium, exploded in popularity. For cycling, one show in particular changed the way the public perceived the kings of the road.
That program was called “Il Processo alla Tappa” [“The Anatomy of the Stage”], first aired on May 20, 1962; it was an instant success. The format was simple. Not long after each stage of the Giro this live show recapped the action, brought in well-known commentators and journalists to give their opinions, picked out interesting stories from behind the scenes of the race, and interviewed riders who had finished the stage barely an hour earlier and usually hadn’t even had time to take a shower. Host Sergio Zavoli was suave, charismatic and engagingly modern. His party trick was to interview riders during the stage, leaning over from the back of a motorbike to thrust his ever-so-1960s pencil microphone under the poor rider’s nose.
In the studio, without the guidance of a press officer, riders were put in the unenviable position of having to discuss cycling with intellectuals like Pier Paolo Pasolini, the controversial writer and film director who was a regular on the show. And this was after racing for four or five hours. Unsurprisingly many could barely string a sentence together and the result was sometimes awkward, sometimes hilarious, sometimes insightful. The audiences loved it.
Balmamion, the winner of that 1962 Giro, wasn’t at all well-suited to the show. He was reserved and quiet. But some cyclists performed well on their new stage. One favorite of Zavoli’s was Vittorio Adorni. Hailing from Parma, Adorni was tall, handsome and articulate, as elegant off the bike as on it. He appeared often on the show, endearing himself to viewers by holding his own with Zavoli and the other journalists. In 1965, riding in the sky blue of Salvarani, Adorni won the Giro by more than 11 minutes, taking three stages into the bargain.
Three years later Adorni won the world road championship at Imola in equally dominating fashion. He was 31 at the time, and moving into the late phase of his career—he was riding on the same FAEMA team as the young Eddy Merckx and played an instrumental role in teaching the Belgian how to rest and eat during a grand tour—but Adorni was undaunted by the 277-kilometer course based on the famous motor-racing circuit. He set off in an early break of four, shed his companions with 90 kilometers to go and won the rainbow jersey by nearly 10 minutes. Straight out of the Fausto Coppi playbook. Yet Adorni was no Coppi. Those two emphatic victories were the pinnacle of his career, and he never quite untangled himself from doping rumors. After his retirement in 1970 he didn’t become a television host, as Pasolini had predicted, but took on various roles in management and public relations.
Another rider to benefit from the exposure of television was Vito Taccone, a rumbustious little climber from Abruzzo. Taccone was the opposite of Adorni, being punchy in both pedaling and verbal style. Given a platform to address the nation Taccone was more than happy to provide his opinions about every aspect of the race. And he was rarely complimentary. But he was genuine in his reactions, particularly to his own travails, and that endeared him to the tifosi. Sometimes he broke into an Abruzzese folk song. Once, when asked about a stage victory, he told Zavoli all about his mother’s cooking: “Dear Sergio, I win and she prepares me roast kid goat. What a scent, what a taste!”
“Il Processo alla Tappa” ushered in a new age of cycling. Television has evolved since then and riders have become more adept at handling interviews, but the basic premise of how the sport is conveyed didn’t really move on much until very recently. Today, social media is having a similarly transformative effect; athletes can now engage with fans on their own terms, without being patronized by an Italian poet smoking a cigarette and lounging about in an expensive suit—though it’s entertaining to imagine Peter Sagan in such a scenario.
Cycling is a sport obsessed with its own history, as this article probably demonstrates. No bad thing, especially in the midst of the 2020 season when the Giro looks set to be run in the fall. Searching for new versions of old heroes is a symptom of this obsession. It’s natural because we want to believe we are witnessing history, in the same way those who saw Coppi witnessed history. But it’s not healthy to make these connections. Riders are too often crushed under the weight of expectations.
Was Felice Gimondi the new Fausto Coppi? Is Remco Evenepoel the new Eddy Merckx? No. The notion is ridiculous because our concept of a rider changes from generation to generation. Society changes, culture changes, cycling changes. For a host of Italian riders in the 1960s Fausto Coppi’s legacy was something to run away from, to define themselves in spite of. And even if any of them had the physical and mental strength to replicate Il Campionissimo’s feats, they still would not have been the new Fausto Coppi. Why? Because television would never have allowed them to be quite so enigmatic.