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Fausto Coppi (1919-1960), Italian racing cyclist

Il campionissimo, one of cycling's most legendary figures, the counterpart and leading rival of Gino Bartali. He is widely considered one of the contenders for the greatest rider of all time, although his palmarès is shorter than that of Eddy Merckx or Bernard Hinault because of the years lost to the war.

Angelo Fausto Coppi was born in a small village in Piedmont, with a typical peasant background for a rider of the era. An excellent climber and rouleur, he progressed rapidly through the amateur ranks and turned professional at the beginning of 1940, riding with Bartali's Legnano team, but beat his own team captain in the Giro d'Italia of that year, the last before Italy entered the war. He continued to compete in such races as there were after joining the army, taking national championships in the pursuit and on the road in 1941 and 1942, and setting a new world hour record of 45.871 km at the Vigorelli velodrome in Milan between air-raids; however, in 1943 his unit was sent to fight in North Africa where he was taken prisoner in May that year. Whilst in POW camp in Algeria he contracted malaria, but recovered and spent the end of the war working as a batman to a Lieutenant Towell of the RAF who helped him train for his post-war career.

Coppi rebuilt his career, now riding in the distinctive blu celesta colours of the Bianchi team as Europe rebuilt itself. He was second to Bartali in the first post-war Giro, but went on to win the race four more times, to which he added two Tours de France in 1949 and 1952; in 1952 he became the first of a select few riders to win both Tour and Giro in the same season. He also won the world road race championship in 1953 and many classics including Paris-Roubaix, Milano-Sanremo and the Giro di Lombardia, as well as taking the world pursuit title on the track three times.

During the post-war boom years Italian society was, as ever, divided, and Coppi versus Bartali was one of the main fault lines. Compared with the sturdy, clean-living, reliable, "pious" Bartali, Coppi was physically and mentally fragile, mercurial, subject to massive mood swings and haunted by fear of failure; an adventurer—not least in seeking out interesting new forms of chemical assistance—and an adulterer: in 1954 he spent a brief spell in prison for his affair with his doctor's wife, named by the newspapers the dama bianca. Likewise Bartali's known Christian Democrat tendencies led to Socialists and Communists supporting Coppi by default. The personal rivalry, fed by the eager press, between the two was sometimes distructive, as their negative riding against one another sometimes opened the door to other riders, not least the overshadowed Fiorenzo Magni. Selection for Italian national teams for the World Championships and the Tour becaame a nightmare. However, the nature of the sport is one of ad hoc alliances with your opponents, and one of the most memorable and much reproduced images of the period is of the duo riding together on the attack on the Col du Galibier in the 1952 Tour; Coppi in front stares relentlessly ahead as he passes a bottle of water to Bartali behind him.

During the remainder of the decade Coppi's star went into decline; he was in his mid-30s, suffered several bad crashes (as well as bereavement when his brother Serse, also a professional rider, was killed in a crash in the finishing sprint in Milano-Torino in 1951) and his health was somewhat iffy. In the closing days of 1959 he travelled to Upper Volta for an exhibition race, and once again contracted the malaria he had suffered from while in captivity. On returning to Italy, a misdiagnosis (deliberately ignoring information sent by French doctors treating another rider, Raphael Geminiani) led to incorrect treatment and Coppi's death on 2 January 1960.

Fausto Coppi

var et fantastisk menneske

befandt sig bedst alene

Når han kørte i bjergene

kunne ingen følge ham, han

var et fantstisk menneske

Sagde tidligt farvel,

fausto coppi

fausto coppi.

Fausto coppi

was a fantastic human being

most at ease when alone


in the mountains, he

was a fantastic human being

Took leave of this world prematurely

fausto coppi

fausto coppi.

Jørgen Leth

From Sportsdigte (Sport Poems), Gyldendal, 1967

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