Milano, 1908. Sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport is in dire financial straits. The boss is looking for ideas and quick. Enter one Armando Cougnet, he who, in 1898 aged 18, cycled from Reggio Emilia to Milano to take up a position with the pink-papered publication. Armando had twice followed the Tour de France in his role and witnessed how effective a marketing tool it had proved to be for the Parisian newspaper L’Auto. La Gazzetta’s competition, Il Corriere della Sera, had, along with Bianchi bicycles and the Italian Touring Club, already been mooting a similar venture to L’Auto. With Milano-San Remo and the Giro di Lombardia already furnishing its bike race patronage stable la Gazzetta made sure it struck first and announced the inaugural Giro d’Italia would be held in May – to avoid a clash with the French race - of 1909. It would be another 22 years, however, until the iconic Maglia Rosa leader’s jersey would make an appearance; pink in colour to match the newspaper’s printed sheets just as the Tour de France’s Maillot Jaune took its hue from the yellow pages of L’Auto.
And so it was that 127 adventurers, labourers, racers and chancers took to the start-line in Milano for the 8 stage, 2448km race on the 13th May 1909; the first stage alone was nigh on 400km – but was followed by two rest days. 18 days later, with the usual, de rigueur cycle-race shenanigans and chaos of the time (not least surreptitious train journeys for the tired limbed yet creative-minded, an in-race chicken leg snack putting paid to one poor chap’s chances), 49 exhausted souls, of which only 5 were non-Italians, returned to Milano in the wake of Luigi Ganna, the Giro d’Italia’s first winner. Ganna’s victory was sealed on the then-used points system rather than by time, a system which, if it had been used, would have seen him finish third. A bricklayer by trade, Ganna was asked by Cougnet how he felt in his great moment of triumph: “My arse is killing me!” exclaimed the brutish, newly crowned Campione.
Italy had fallen hopelessly in love with both the bicycle and the race that drew the fledgling nation together - in a sporting and geographic manner at least; socially and politically there was still much work to be done. It was still only some 40 years after the politically devious and viciously bloody wars and annexations of the Risorgimento that had led to the eventual unification of the country. The advancement of the industrial, enriched north was juxtaposed by the tragic, grinding poverty of the south. The bike, its mobility and relative – again, to northerners more than those in the south - affordability was a tool of empowerment of the masses and, as such, seen as a politically ripe item for propaganda to both the Communist Left and the Nationalistic Right. Those on the Right extolled the virtues of sporting superiority and triumph through strength of the individual over rivals in Nationalistic terms; the Socialists deemed the mobilisation the bike offered to the down-trodden proletariat a potent force in the marshalling of protest and strike action against the Elite. They were less enamoured with the sporting ideal of cycling which was considered a distraction from the pressing social issues and injustices of the time, the Giro viewed as mere opium for the masses. As one socialist commentator put it, workers who should have been out in the streets and at the picket lines fighting for social justice were more “concerned with making love and racing their bikes”.
But let us move away from the socio-politicking. The Giro has, of course, thrown up many a great sporting rivalry: the acrimonious Moser and Saronni era, the handbags at the team-bus door of Simoni and Cunego. But the undisputed golden age of Giro rivalry was that of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. It was a sporting rivalry that divided the nation along the unifying line of cycling. You were either one or the other: A Coppiani or a Bartaliani.
Which side of the divide you came down on, as John Foot intricately dissects in his seminal Pedalare! Pedalare! A History Of Italian Cycling, boiled down to a complex mix of geography, age, politics, religious views, social strata – or perhaps something as simple as who had captured your imagination and tickled your colour preference in their respective Legnano or Bianchi team livery as you stood cheering on the roadside
Coppi was the face of modern Italy: urbane, elegant and shrewd to the point of a cold vengefulness at times. He was scientific in his approach to training and diet. He was far less religious and infinitely more controversial, leaving his wife and daughter for the Lady in White, Giulia Occhini, the wife of an army captain. In the deeply Catholic Italy of the 40’s and 50’s the adulterous affair was nothing short of a national scandal.
Bartali on the other hand was deeply religious – Gino the Pious was his nickname - a salt of the earth type and faithful to his wife until death. A man of iron compared to the physically fragile Coppi (who suffered many broken bones during his career due to childhood malnutrition). A face of old Italy in many ways compared to Coppi, Bartali was of an era when cyclists trained by simply getting on their bikes. Considered fearless and a ‘good person’, Bartali refused, dangerously, Mussolini’s invitation to dedicate his 1938 Tour de France victory to the fascist leader, thus denying Il Duce the propaganda coup he wished for from the victory. Only after Bartali’s death did the true extent of his defiance, bravery and humanity during the Second World War come out. At grave risk to the lives of himself and his family he worked with a resistance network that arranged safe passage to Italian Jews, whom the Nazis were rounding up as part of the holocaust. Bartali carried documents crucial to the underground resistance movement through the countryside hidden in the frame of his bike as he went about his ‘training rides’ under the noses of the Nazis. To have been caught would have meant certain death.
Despite the intense rivalry they were, underneath it all, friends who respected each other – though it could often be a fraught affair with periods ranging from not speaking to borderline hatred and mistrust. But they knew they needed each other to cement their symbiotic rivalry, a rivalry from which they (and the press!) made a great deal of money. They raced together on the same national team under brokered truces and shared the intimate life on the road of the professional racer. It was a rivalry and understanding so complete and compelling that they sometimes declined to race at all. So in tune with the other’s weaknesses and strengths were they that they simply cancelled each other out and let the rest of the world get about the business of achieving victory, each content with a day’s work merely denying that pleasure to the other. Perhaps the most (in)famous instance of this was at the 1948 World Championships 1948 in Valkenberg, Netherlands. With seemingly no thoughts of victory in their national colours the pair circled like hissing cats until they were sure the other was in no position to win and then promptly retired from the race in unison to the boos and fury of the tifosi, not to mention the national governing body which handed them a two month ban apiece.
A less than popular racer from Tuscany and firmly in the shadows of the adored Coppi and Bartali, Fiorenzo Magni, was the usual benefactor of such episodes. An undeniably strong rider in his own right, Magni’s lot in life was seemingly to play a bit part role as third wheel in the all-consuming rivalry and media frenzy of Coppi and Bartali. He was the nearly man, an afterthought despite 3 Giro victories and national titles and a host of victories on the cobbles of Northern Europe. But additions to his palmares were rarely met with the enthusiasm of the Italian public, notably his triumph in the 1948 Giro. Magni set his overall victory up while part of a forceful breakaway which put a whopping 13 mins into Coppi and Bartali on stage 9 into Napoli. Coppi fought back with a masterclass through the towering Dolomites, taking two legendary stages, but the wily Magni had thought ahead and had had a bus load of hired hands drafted into the mountains to provide a quite literal helping roadside hand as he laboured over the passes. Coppi and his Bianchisti were livid. Even more so when the organisers handed Magni only a paltry 2 minute penalty for the ruse (even though, truth be told, getting yourself pushed up the climbs was not an unusual tactic for the era). The Bianchi squad withdrew from the race in protest (the French and Belgian squads did likewise as they concluded a non-Italian victory was nigh on impossible). Magni held the Maglia Rosa from Trento all the way to the finish in Milano where his victory lap was met with scorn and jeers. Herbie Sykes notes in his definitive history of the race, Maglia Rosa-Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia, however, that most reasoned observers judged his overarching crime was hardly his skewering of the result with less than sporting behaviour but being neither Coppi nor Bartali…