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By Fabio
Date: 1/2/2003

FAUSTO COPPI. IL CAMPIONISSIMO L’AIRONE (“The Heron”). Or, as a famous radio commentator of the 50s was used to say while narrating Coppi’s most legendary rides, “A man, alone, at the top of the race. His jersey is white and light-blue, his name is Fausto Coppi”.

Fausto Coppi: as several cycling journalists, fans and “suiveurs” have said and written, perhaps not the best rider of all time (the achievements reached by Eddy Merckx aren’t comparable to anyone else’s, and so is the Cannibal’s palmares, and maybe another Italian legendary rider of the past, Alfredo Binda, might compete with Fausto in this sense), but likely the Greatest.

The greatness of Fausto Angelo Coppi, born at Castellanía, a very small town on the Piedmont hills, located at an altitude of 380 m above sea level, doesn’t come just from his extraordinary palmares, featuring several victories at Giro d’Italia, Tour de France (in 1949 he became the first rider to make the “double” in the same year, later followed by Merckx himself, Roche, Hinault and Indurain), Milan - San Remo, Classics of the North and many, many other races (you will find Coppi’s full palmares in very the last part of this special report).

What many call “the legend of Fausto Coppi” goes well beyond cycling though: along with his “historical” arch-rival Gino Bartali, the tall (1.87 m.) thin (usually around 76 kg.), seemingly fragile, large-nosed rider from a small, agricultural hamlet lost in the Piedmontese countryside, managed to accomplish an extremely rare, if not unique, thing: to have his own performances and results on the bike taken as a kind of symbol of a WHOLE COUNTRY during a definite historical period.

In order to realize how Coppi (and Bartali) may have been taken as a symbol of a whole nation, you’d better think of Italy’s situation at the time (late 40s, early 50s): you’d better think of a country that just came out from an awful World War and a long dictatorship, a country that suffered heavy destructions and humiliations during the 5-year-long conflict, but was strongly looking for immediate redemption and reconstruction, and found in the successful rides of those two great champions a way of redemption, a positive symbol of a “rising” nation.

Two champions who, thanks to their victories at home but especially abroad, and more particularly in France (whose relationships with Italy weren’t exactly the best possible ones at the time, as the wounds left by WWII had not yet completely been healed), had turned into “unofficial ambassadors” of the country, of its eagerness to get back to being normal, of its wish to win and be able to smile again. Coppi and Bartali were among the biggest symbols of that period of Italian history going under the name of “primo miracolo economico” (“First economical miracle”).

Another event may help understand the “historical” importance of Fausto and Gino, an event dating back to July the 14th, 1948. Just while the French were celebrating their Bastille Day, Italy almost got to the brink of civil war when, in a politically split country, the secretary of the local Communist Party (PCI), Palmiro Togliatti, was shot and seriously wounded by an extremist, and furious workers and activists of Togliatti’s political side took to the streets to protest the attack. Right after the first clashes between activists and policemen reportedly left a few people dead, there was little room for optimism.

But at the same time something else was happening somewhere else: Gino Bartali got a sensational triumph in a Tour de France stage (going from Cannes to Briançon) and gained more than 20 minutes on provisional overall leader Louis Bobet. That stage win, followed by another similar triumph the next day (in the stage from Briançon to Aix les Bains), paved the way for Bartali’s second overall victory at Le Tour, at the age of 34, and ten years after his first success. But, more important, reportedly prevented the civil war’s outbreak as, according to sources of the time, news of the Italian achievement in French territory acted as a “unifying force”, turning protests into celebrations, with (former) protesters and policemen rejoicing alike, and political quarrels into a more or less heated (but definitely less dangerous) debate on which gears should be used in the next mountain stage. Even a phone call made by Italian President Alcide De Gasperi (a Democratic-Christian) to Bartali in order to ask him to win “for Italy’s sake” and later congratulate him (and timely made public) helped to ease off the tension. To know more about the Bartali-Togliatti affair, you can have a look to this site or this one.

Actually things didn’t go completely that way: true that Bartali’s winning streak was much of help, but some years later, analysts and people more into politics of the time told that both violence lessening and civil war avoidance were rather the result of the way politicians handled the situation, and their own political strategies, than of the rejoicing linked to the pure cycling event. But nonetheless the simple fact that the image of Bartali as saviour of the country and of social peace thanks to his victory was commonly accepted and became part of a kind of “popular legend” is a significative evidence of the importance this sport had in Italy at the time.

Fausto and Gino were not just Italy’s “unofficial ambassadors” or “saviours of civil peace”. Besides the nation’s desire for redemption, they became also symbols of the inner divisions of a country split between two different tendencies, two opposite and hardly reconcilable points of view: the push for modernization and the importance of older traditions, mainly linked to (Catholic) religion and its precepts.

So it comes as no surprise that Gino “Il Pio” (“The pious man”), the devout guy reportedly with religious images often in his pocket, was somehow taken as symbol of Italy’s most traditionalist side, whereas Coppi, (actually a religious man himself anyway, although not to the same extent as his friend-rival), was adopted by the “other” Italy, more secular and progressive (and “sinner” according to part of the public opinion). In the 50s Italy’s sport divisions might turn into social ones, and vice versa.

An attitude further strengthened by some facts of Coppi’s private life too: more particularly the love story between “L’Airone” and Giulia Occhini, also known as “la Dama Bianca” (“the Lady in White”), which gave him some serious troubles. The “scandal” came out first in August 1953, after the rider won the World Championships in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and gave the flowers he received during the awards ceremony to a smiling woman standing besides him, with a gesture denoting a certain “familiarity”. The girl, who was reportedly seen many a time besides Coppi during that period, was not his wife Bruna Ciampolini though, but the “lady in white” (the nickname was due to the white dresses she used the wear when following Fausto during the races), who had known Coppi a few years before, as she was married to Enrico Locatelli, himself a personal friend of the “Heron”. But the friendship between Giulia and the “Campionissimo” later turned into love, and in the same 1953 Fausto and Giulia went to live together and moved to Novi Ligure.

According to the morality still dominating at the time, what was mainly regarded not as a love story, but simply as the “extra-conjugal affair” of married man (even worse if the man was a public figure) with the consequent separation from his wife, couldn’t be accepted by the more traditionalist part of Italy’s public opinion, that never forgave him.

And a similar stance (although probably for reasons more linked to sensationalism than moral values) was taken by the majority of Italian medias, which launched an aggressive campaign against “Il Campionissimo” and “la Dama Bianca”. The couple even underwent a trial when Mr. Locatelli accused his wife of adultery, desertion and outrage to conjugal rights, and Giulia Occhini was jailed for a few days (having a clean record, she managed to escape major punishment), and later forced to move to Argentina to give birth to the couple’s son Faustino in 1955, since it was the only way for the baby to take his father’s surname (something Italian laws didn’t allow instead). As for Fausto, he wasn’t either allowed to pay visit to his (and Bruna Ciampolini’s) daughter Marina.

Both in his life and career the “Campionissimo” went through plenty of bad times, like the ones mentioned before and the several accidents and fractures he suffered, but even more the tragical death of his brother Serse, after the man crashed, hit his head on the pavement and fractured his skull during the 1951 edition of Giro del Piemonte, at a few hundred meters from the finishing line. A tragedy (similar to the one that occurred to Bartali, who lost his brother Giulio a few years before) that upset Fausto to the point he even thought of pulling out of cycling, but eventually the man chose to keep racing, and got more and more great achievements.

As if all the above mentioned reasons weren’t enough, Coppi’s legend was fueled also by the tragical, unusual circumstances of the Heron’s premature death, at the age of 40. During a vacation in Africa, where (besides going hunting, one of his favorite “hobbies”) he also took place to a criterium run to celebrate the independence of Upper Volta (the country currently going under the name of Burkina Faso, whose national Tour is now used to take place in the month of November), Coppi caught malaria, a treatable disease even in the 60s, provided it was diagnosed in time.

But things didn’t go that way: whereas his French friend and colleague Raphael Geminiani (who took part in the same races and “safaris”, and caught the same disease as Fausto) was visited and treated properly, as quinine treatement proved enough to save his life, Coppi’s illness was mis-diagnosed by the Italian doctors (they reportedly thought it was a simple flu, even in spite of phone calls from Geminiani’s wife telling them the disease was malaria), and on January the 2nd, 1960, the Heron closed his wings, 40 years after opening them, and 23 after taking part in his first race (a short competition both starting and finishing in his hometown Castellania, a contest he was forced to pull out from due to mechanical problems). A sad day for the whole Italy, and cycling worldwide.

But nowadays, more than four decades later, his whole nation, as well as cycling fans worldwide, still remember the thin, tall, long-nosed man from the small Piedmontese town. The web features several sites dedicated to the “Campionissimo”, with contacts and messages from all over the planet. More than a memorial has been set up to honour his memory, and the Heron continues to fly atop the majority of opinion polls concerning Italy’s greatest sportsman of all time, even after 40 years marked by plenty of Italian wins in the most different disciplines, from Ferrari (the car) to skiing talent Alberto Tomba, from sprinter Pietro Mennea (200mr. World Record holder from 1979 to 1996) to the football (soccer) team that captured the World Title in 1982.

And one of the most recent tributes to Coppi’s figure was the opening of a special museum, located in the same house were he was born, in the 40th anniversary of his death (January the 2nd, 2000). The “Daily Peloton” too paid homage to Coppi by visiting the museum. And our website is now pleased to invite you to our special “cyber-tour” of FAUSTO COPPI’S MUSEUM.

- Click Here to continue to the second half of Part One of Fausto Coppi's Special Report.

- Click on the links below to get access to the successive parts (2 and 3) of the report

Fausto Coppi – The Legend: Part 2

* PAGE 3 (Outside the Museum)

* PAGE 4 (Inside the Museum – Historical Pics)

Fausto Coppi – The Legend: Part 3

* PAGE 5 (Historical Bikes)

* PAGE 6 (More relics at first and second floor)

Fausto Coppi – The Legend: Part 4

* PAGE 7 (Coppi's Grave and the "Trophies Room")

* PAGE 8 (Fausto Coppi's detailed Palmares)

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