In the Academy Award winning film, Breaking Away, Dave Stoller exhaulted to his father, "Like the Nightingales they sing, like the eagle they fly... " in his exuberance to have a chance to not only see, but compete against his Italian heroes of the road,
Mr. Stoller, unimpressed, replied, "speaking of flies, I think that Italian cologne you've been wearing is attracting flies."
To the uninitiated, there's nothing special about Italian bicycles with hard to pronounce names and jaw dropping price tags. Not to mention the recent dilution of the brands who have struggled to compete with Asian producers. To many purists, the thought of a Cinelli made in China is as reprehensible as someone not pronouncing Cinelli with the same "ch" sound as China. Yet, the great labels of Cinelli, Colnago, Bianchi and others have at one time or another bore stickers proclaiming made in Japan, Taiwan or China. And the glorious art of hand building steel frames with silver brazing has become nearly extinct to exotic assembly line procedures using materials such as carbon fiber and aluminum. In today's world, it's easy to forget the central role Italy holds in the sport of cycling.
Cycling is an international sport. Many countries have produced heroes as well as the bikes they would ride to victory and into the history books. The Belgians have Merckx and the DeVlaemincks; France has Hinault, Anquetiel and Bobet; Ireland has Kelly and Roche; the UK has Tommy Simpson and Mark Cavendish; Canada has been dominant in the sport from the days of Torchy Peden, king of the 6 day, to modern day champs like Steve Bauer and Ryder Hesjedal; Australia boasts many from Phil Anderson to Cadel Evans; Luxembourg; Spain all have long lists of laurels. As do countries as diverse asAzerbaijan, South Africa, Norway and Japan. But none have the aura and allure as held by the Italians.
In 1979, when Breaking Away was released, Jimmy Carter was president and cycling was an obscure sport that small children did before buying a car. Adults tried cycling to beat the gas crisis, but were happy to be gone with their Schwinn and returned to their cars when gas prices dropped.
In a nation that had yet to discover the Tour de France it seemed unlikely that twenty years later president George Bush would have to make an appointment to pose for photo ops with Lance Armstrong who is a celebrity cyclist in ways unimaginable when the shocking image of Dave Stoller shaving his legs scandalized movie goers.
American Lance Armstrong has won more Tour de Frances than anyone. His record seven wins is untouchable by the nearest rivals who have only won five.
Belgian Eddy Merckx won more races than anyone and dominated the entire spectrum of specialties from sprintning to time trialing and climbing.
But it was a lanky Italian, Fausto Coppi who is known as Il Campionissimo, or "Champion of Champions." Like Merckx, he could dispatch specialists across the spectrum. But it was in the mountains, where he rode like an eagle on a primitive bike most afficianados would scoff at if required to ride today on their weekly Sunday group ride.
While his list of palmeres is extensive: winning 5 Giro d' Italiae, 2 Tour de Frances, 5 Giro d' Lombardiae, 2 Milan-San Remo, 2 Gran Prix des Nations (the world championships of time trialing). The skinny Italian also won against the hardmen of the North on the cobbles to Roubaix and the brutal Fleche Wallone. He won the world championships and set a long standing hour record on the Vigorelli velodrome in Milan.
French cycling genius, Raphaël Géminiani said of Coppi's domination,
"When Fausto won and you wanted to check the time gap to the man in second place, you didn't need a Swiss stopwatch. The bell of the church clock tower would do the job just as well. Paris-Roubaix? Milan-San Remo? Lombardy? We're talking 10 minutes to a quarter of an hour. That's how Fausto Coppi was"
Coppi overcame many setbacks in his career as well. The sort of thing that would play well in today's sports journalism that seems to need have some horrible backstory the athlete overcame to become champion. But this was a time this sort of thing was a hindrance to a career, not something that attracted book deals and sponsorships. Coppi was written off many times only to come back stronger. Even the fact that he left his wife for a mistress and was not reluctant to admit to being an atheist did little to deter the admiration of the family oriented devoutly Catholic Italians. Fausto's celebrity was based on achievement and the hard won victories made him impervious to tabloid foibles.
The many injuries Coppi overcame to win would have made the typical Jim McKay patented Olympic athlete overcoming tragedy stories look petty. It wasn't that Coppi broke his collarbone and shoulder three times, displaced vertabrae, suffered a broken pelvis and later a broken femur as well as numerous head and spinal injuries racing in the days before helmets. Or that he lost his brother who died of a head injury while racing. Coppi faced much more setback than any other rider who might try and lay claim to being the best racer ever. Coppi's career was interrupted by the second world war where he served at the front lines in North Africa in Mussolini's failed desert campaign against Monty and Patton. In 1943 he was taken prisoner of war and spent the remainder of the war a POW.
In the internment camp in Tunisia he was just a number. Although he was recognized by some. He cut hair, where one soldier, London bike-shop mechanic Len Levesley, recognised him from magazines. He was afterwards known as "Holy Head" by his cycling chums. Coppi remained the enemy. Campionissimo or not, life was hard and rations small. He survived his time in the camps much impart by being befriended by a fellow cyclist named Chiapucci who saw to it his lean compatriot kept his strength, often sharing his rations with Fausto. After the war, Coppi was released and rode a bike home and went on to win The Circuit of the Aces after four years off the bike.
Chiapucci and Coppi stayed close until Fausto's death at the age of 40 from Malaria.
Coppi's legacy is unrivaled. And the stories of Fausto the elder Chiapucci told his young son Claudio inspired the boy to train, race and become a professional. Unlike Fausto, Claudio was a pure climber rather than an all rounder. But like his hero, he enjoyed winning with leads that didn't require a swiss watch to measure. In 1992 Chiapucci equaled one of Coppi's records becoming the only other rider to win the best climbers prize in both the Giro and Tour in the same year. He also won some of the most impressive solo victories in the Tour taking his first big mountain stage in the Tour by 10 minutes. In 1992 he started the stage with a promise to win for his father's friend, Fausto, as the mountainous stage finished across the Italian border in Sestriere. It was a brutal fight of many of the Tour greats, but Claudio kept his word and won the stage after breaking away in the early kilometers and attacking anyone who dared to challenge him.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to buy the bicycle Chiapucci rode over those legendary passes of the Tour de France. It was brought to the Las Vegas bike show by Antonio Mondonico, the aging legendary frame builder who made the bicycle Chiapucci rode to victory. I had been shopping for a more modern aluminum or carbon fiber machine, but the chance to own a legend was too good to pass up.
I rode the bike a few wonderful times, but felt too guilty to risk harming a piece of history. And so it's been stored a special icon and a talisman that I hope would one day lead me to owning my own bike shop where it could be displayed as a center homage to the legendary Italian cyclists and artisans who made their machines. Over the years I collected autographed king of the mountain jerseys from his epic dual wins of the Tour and Giro in the same year. I also obtained a replica of the yellow jersey he wore in the Tour while riding this bike.
In many ways, it's odd to own this bike. I've never considered myself a gearhead often opting to ride lower end components. My motto in response to claims of superiority of one brand over another has always been, "they all make the same noise when the hit the pavement."
And really, it's the truth. It's not about the bike, but the rider. As I said earlier, the bike Fausto rode away from so many outstanding riders would be considered ridiculous to show up at the starting line with one of similar weight and technology to even a local beginner's race. But you and I both know, if Fausto were time travelled to the present day, he'd make today's champions on their carbon fiber machines hurt like the Spanish Inquisition on the outdated tool he so eloquently rode up the steep mountains of his day.
Much of my perspective on equipment was taught to me years ago by Nestor Evancevich when I was shopping to buy my first real racing bike. He told me about a review he read in a magazine of the actual bike Lucian Van Impe rode to victory in the Tour de France.
"It was nothing special", he told me, "Mafac brakes and Simplex derailleurs: the sort of stuff your average Chicago Schwinn Paramount aficionado would scoff at. Yet he rode it in ways most could hardly imagine."
Nestor told me, "it's not the bike that makes the rider, but the work that you put in day after day that maybe someday, even if it were just for one day, you could have to the ability to ride a bike as well as Van Impe rode that very plain ordinary road machine." That advice motivated me to train hard to achieve that goal. I never won the Tour, but I can look back at a few good rides that I would say were rides in which I rode well beyond my abilities. I set a Junior 20k record, the state record stood for many years but the National record was broken a few months. And I had other good rides, some were just fantastic days out training alone or with friends. Others were rides I came close to winning some big races and others were days I won some small races. But more than anything, it is the memory of the people I rode with and met through racing I value most and the understanding of sportsmanship they taught me. Lessons that challenge me to this day to be a better person.
Still, having ridden a wide variety of bikes over the years, I still get a childlike joy riding the Mondonico. It fits me perfectly and the geometry and craftsmanship makes the bike disappear as you dance up the mountains or rocket down the switchbacks. It is a truly humbling experience. Not to just realize that someone could make such an incredible machine with their hands, but to think that despite my many exploits, it had been ridden in ways I can't even begin to imagine.