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Book Review: fallen angel - The Passion of Fausto Coppi
 
By Staff
Date: 6/3/2009
Book Review: fallen angel - The Passion of Fausto Coppi
 

Book Review: fallen angel - The Passion of Fausto Coppi
William Fotheringham's biography of Fausto Coppi, the first specifically targeted at the English speaking audience, paints a picture of a sporting hero who, though beset by rivalry, tragedy and scandal, remains at the top table of Italy's sporting icons and cycling's legends.

Giles Belbin

In 1949, Fausto Coppi, the 'Campionissimo' (champion of champions) completed an unprecedented feat when he won the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France double. Until Coppi's achievement the Giro/Tour double was considered to be an impossible undertaking. The races were too long, too arduous and too close together for it to be possible to win both the same year. But Coppi did the impossible, cementing his place in the sport's history and his native Italy's affections. William Fotheringham, the author of the excellent Tom Simpson biography, Put Me Back on my Bike, marks the 60th anniversary of Coppi's double with the publication of his biography of the great rider, the first specifically written for the English speaking reader.

Angelo-Fausto Coppi was born in 1919, to Domenico and Angliolina Coppi, in the village of Castellania in north-west Italy. Fausto was the fourth child in the family, a fifth, Serse forever to be linked with Fausto, would be born some four years later. The family lived a rural life, farming the land with their neighbours, Domenico even tending to his crops as the future cycling legend was being born. It was a tough existence that was to set the young Coppi up well for his life of suffering on the bike.

Leaving school at 12 years old, Coppi first worked on the family farm before leaving home to work for a butcher some 20 kilometres away. Soon though he longed for his home and began to cycle to and from his place of work every day, riding as fast as he could so that he could stay in bed for as long as possible. Fotheringham tells of the young Coppi sprinting past serious amateurs on his way to work, even beating a former professional rider up the steep climbs. He was already beginning to show the talent that would whisk him away from Italian rural life.

Coppi was introduced to a masseur and former cycling team manager, Biagio Cavanna. Cavanna had gradually gone blind and by the mid to late 1930s was completely sightless. Fotheringham describes the meeting of Coppi and Cavanna as being “a key moment in Coppi's story, probably the single most important event.”

Cavanna took the young Coppi under his wing and stayed with him throughout his entire career (barring a brief falling out late on). Fotheringham highlights his importance to Coppi stating, “He taught him [Coppi] how to train, how to ride his bike, how to behave as a professional sportsman should. Eventually he provided him with team-mates, sympathy and magic mixtures to make him go faster” - Coppi would later freely admit the use of amphetamines to assist his performances (this at a time when such practices were not outlawed).

Coppi made startling progress under Cavanna's tutelage, turning professional in 1940, riding for the Legnano team, and incredibly claiming his first victory in the Giro d'Italia at just 20 years old. He would then move on to the team with which he is most famously linked, Bianchi, and, despite the disruption to cycling's calendar because of World War II, would go on to win the Giro a further four times, the Tour de France twice, the World Championships, the Giro di Lombardia five times, Milan - Sanremo three times and Paris-Roubaix. He was a fearsome climber, a talented time-trialist and an expert in judging the solo breakaway. One of his most celebrated rides was a mammoth solo attack over five alpine passes in the 1949 Giro that would land him his third maglia rosa.

Coppi was meticulous in his planning and training. Fotheringham tells us that Coppi's training programme would consist of long rides, the final 100 kilometres of which he would be joined by Cavanna's other charges who would take turns to attack the campionissimo and replicate racing conditions. Other training sessions would involve riding as fast as possible for shorter distances before returning to a more steady tempo, in effect interval training long before the term was coined. It was felt this helped him maintain high speeds deep into long distance races.

As well as an innovator in training techniques, Coppi also turned conventional wisdom on its head when it came to diet. The cyclist's breakfast of steak was not for Coppi, who suffered from digestive problems. He would eat small amounts often, keeping his stomach light. He would also shun protein for carbohydrate, against the advise of Cavanna. He also paid particular care to tactics and back up staff. He would isolate the key points, or stages, of a race and target those, choosing to defend his position at other times, and ensure he had the best mechanics possible to guarantee his equipment was in the best possible condition.

Whilst Fotheringham describes a professional rigorous in his planning and preparations, he also reinforces that Coppi was unquestioningly more artist than robot on his bike. His pedaling style is described as “perfect” and that solo attack in the 1949 Giro is testimony to his racing instinct as well as his unbelievable stamina. To attack so early in a stage (there was over 190 kilometres still to go) was an impetuous move but one that must have felt right to the Italian. He was a rider that listened to his gut instinct, and cycling history is unquestionably richer for it.

The underlying theme throughout fallen angel is that Coppi is defined by his relationships. His cycling career is seen through the filter of his rivalry with Gino Bartali, the incumbent great Italian champion when Coppi first came on the scene. Bartali and Coppi endured a rivalry for nearly fifteen years and the two would refer to each other not by name but by the terms “that one” and “the other one”.

However, Fotheringham notes that the rivalry held financial benefits for both the riders and the two would perhaps play up the extent of their rivalry for their mutual benefit. It is clear that both had an interest in maintaining their status as intense rivals - when Coppi was riding against Bartali circulation of La Gazzetta dello Sport was said to rise by some 700,000, a fact that wouldn't be lost on the organisers of the Giro.

Coppi was also incredibly close to his younger brother Serse, who was also a professional bike rider on the same team as Fausto, riding as one of his gregari (domestiques). Fotheringham points to a deep relationship between the two, where Serse's mere presence made Fausto more relaxed, highlighting Serse's own description of himself as Fausto's “gregario of the mind.”

Serse's premature death, in 1951, hours after suffering a seemingly innocuous fall during a race in Turin, predictably hit Fausto hard. Fotheringham notes the guilt that Coppi must have felt at his younger brother's death - he was riding in Turin to prepare to support Fausto in the upcoming Tour de France. What is clear, says Fotheringham is that Coppi changed the day of his brother's death writing, “There is a consensus among those who knew Fausto that the death of his brother was a turning point in his life....after this nothing was quite the same. To his contemporaries... [all that happened next]...seemed to stem from this initially banal crash on a tramline in Turin.”

And there was plenty that happened next. Most notably Coppi's affair with the White Lady, Giulia Locatelli which led to the very public failure of two marriages (Coppi's and Locatelli's). At a time when adultery in Italy was punishable by imprisonment, there was public outcry as details of the affair were made known. The accounts in fallen angel of the media coverage of Coppi's relationships with his wife Bruna and his mistress Giulia are, at times, reminiscent of today's celebrity, scandal obsessed weekly magazines.

Fotheringham clearly attempts to provide an objective view of the affair but his cause is not helped by the reaction of his interviewees to his questions. He writes of Giulia of being referred to not by name but by “various derogatory terms” and that interviewees provide “usually one small anecdote, enough to make it clear she is not approved of, before eyes are raised to the heavens, and the former cyclist says he cannot say more, for fear of offending her son Faustino.”

Such was the extent of the scandal that the Vatican intervened and attempted to encourage Coppi to reconcile his marriage although this was unsuccessful and Coppi, who had a daughter Marina with Bruna, fathered a son, Faustino, with Giulia. Seemingly the only person to emerge from the situation with any credit is Bruna, who remained quietly dignified in the background, apparently ever hopeful that Fausto would return to her.

His career went into decline from 1957 onwards, still attracting big appearance money because of his past achievements. However, he won little and certainly there were no major race triumphs from 1955 onwards.

Almost befitting a man touched by tragedy and scandal, his own premature death at the age of 40, came at the ill hand of fate. Coppi was a keen hunter and was invited to join a trip to Africa to ride in some races and take some time to go hunting. He was not originally on the list to go but took the opportunity when Louison Bobet withdrew. Whilst in Africa many of the party suffered mosquito bites and some, including Coppi, fell ill. Two weeks after his return from Africa, on 2nd January 1960, Fausto Coppi died of malaria in hospital.

William Fotheringham's book is an illustration of biography writing at its best. It paints a picture of a man imperious on the bike, yet ultimately susceptible to life's difficulties off off it. A man, a family even, stalked by tragedy. The book includes some 32 photographs (including front and back cover), the best of which, on the back cover , shows Coppi and Bartali, forever to be referred to together, alone in the mountains with cloud seemingly about to descend around them.

Fotheringham's sources are extensive. Interviews with family members, team-mates, rivals, journalists punctuate the book and he quotes from a wide selection of Italian language writings on the rider. One of the books strengths is its ability to recognise the impact of Coppi's exploits on an Italian nation and a Europe that was in the process of dragging itself up from the pit of a world war. The hopes and aspirations of a nation were raised by the successes of the enigmatic Coppi at a time when it was needed most. Perhaps it is because of this that, despite his later indiscretions that so outraged a nation at the time, he remains Italian cycling's favourite son.

Fallen angel is a biography worthy of the great campionissimo and deserves a place on the bookshelves of any cycling fan interested in the history and legends of this fantastic sport.

fallen angel  The Passion of Fausto Coppi
(ISBN 9780224074476)
by William Fotheringham, is out now, published by Yellow Jersey Press.

The Legend of Fausto Coppi
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