by Kurt Bauer
Those of us of a certain tooth-length might remember that slightly jarring experience when, way back as high-schoolers or maybe undergraduates, we opened the newspaper to find an ad for a new movie that by all appearances looked to have something to do with . . . bicycle racing!
It was pretty startling. Our nice little oddball obsession had somehow found an advocate in Hollywood, and it was coming to a theater near us! In Breaking Away, Peter Yates and his crew had made a funny little film about a group of rudderless Indiana teenagers, one of whom salves both his ennui and his overactive hormones with large doses of interval-induced endorphins. He does so astride a full-Campy (pre-California) Masi Gran Criterium, and we subject matter experts scoped out every detail of the bike and its rider. Both looked correct right down to the matching yellow decals and cable housing, the properly positioned bars, and Dennis Christopher’s woolen kit, including perforated black Italian cycling shoes (Duegis, I think). Christopher’s character, Dave, goes on long training rides, upsets the neighbors by blasting opera on the stereo in his bedroom (the walls of which are plastered with posters of Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi), and spouts ersatz Italian phrases at his indulgent mom and his increasingly irritated dad.
Things play out along predictable lines: Dave and his pals—townies in a Big Ten town—flirt with coeds way out of their league, rub the cops and the frat rats the wrong way, make a mess of things, rail against fate, then come up good, more or less, by winning a bike race (the Indiana University “Little 500”). The upshot, back in 1979, was that we kind of felt validated. Somebody had flipped the light switch on our little secret, but at least that vague outcast aroma that we all carried around with us like foot-stink seemed a little less dense and funky after the movie was so well received (it won an Oscar for best screenplay). I was reminded just how cute the film is a couple of months ago when I watched it with my wife on Turner Classics. It all came back to me. Much of the movie’s appeal came from its almost pitch perfect ear for what we thought of as the romance of cycling: the Euro ambiance; the sense that it was a sport from another age; the colors and sounds and smells and secret language that compelled us not only to ride but to read and re-read the same back-issues of International Cycle Sport.
My uncle got me interested in cycling. He had won the Texas Senior (over 18) road title in 1971, and before that he had ridden and won for Yale in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference. He kept boxes full of tools and old parts and magazines and books in my grandparents’ garage in Fort Worth. I loved fishing around in there. The magazines hooked me, but the books and training manuals were awesome. And strange. In a well-worn English translation of the C.O.N.I. (Italian National Olympic Committee) cycling manual, I learned to scrape off—not wash off—embrocation after a winter ride (presumably, if you washed off old embrocation, you risked violating another tenet, which was to avoid too-frequent bathing). A British cycling handbook recommended placing a fresh cabbage leaf under one’s cap to stay cool in the hot sun and inserting a slice of raw steak into one’s shorts to relieve the pain and chafing of saddle sores. The best parts of the books and manuals were the photos. Grainy, gray, hazy shots of machines with names like Galmozzi, Guerciotti, and Pogliaghi. And just as cool were the riders’ portraits: Ottavio Bottecchia, Constante Girardengo, Alfredo Binda, Gino Bartali, Fiorenzo Magni. The Italian heroes were always pictured in dramatic, triumphant poses, swarmed by fans. Champions lived in big villas shaded by oaks and splashed with bougainvillea, drove sexy automobiles (Lancias, Alfas, Isotta-Fraschinis), and courted beautiful women. Only actors and grand prix drivers were more adored. But one man truly stood out—especially in the photographs. Fausto Coppi, il campionissimo, the “champion of champions,” more than any of the others, looked the part of the romantic cycling hero. Lanky, birdlike, all arms and legs, Coppi, even as a new professional in 1939, looked like a modern athlete, in the same way that his contemporary, the young Joe DiMaggio, replaced the rotund Babe Ruth and announced a new age of elegant superstars in American sports. In fact, Time Magazine once tried to explain Coppi’s grip on Italian sporting passion in an article describing the cyclist somewhat ironically as “Italy’s Joe DiMaggio.” When I researched, I was struck by the two stars’ oddly parallel careers.
DiMaggio was born in the San Francisco Bay area, following the outbreak of WWI in the fall of 1914. His father was a fisherman who had emigrated from Sicily, bought his own boat, and made enough money to send for his family. The elder DiMaggio wanted his boys to become fishermen as well, but they would have other ideas.
Coppi was born in Piedmont in 1919 – just after the end of the war, in a tiny village between the Ligurian coast and the Milanese uplands. His parents were hardscrabble farmers, occasional vendors of homemade wine, and agricultural laborers-for-hire to their neighbors. Neither kid embraced school. At early ages, both worked to bring in extra money for their families.
DiMaggio helped in the fishing operation, but he was soon sickened by the roll of the small boat on the choppy waters of the bay and by the ever-present stench of fish. Coppi, who had been chronically ill as a small child, helped out as best he could on the farm, which meant that he generally wandered off as frequently as possible. DiMaggio eventually bailed on the ocean-going career path, and was likely heading toward a future as a street criminal until he discovered that, like his friends, he loved playing baseball in the park, and unlike his pals, he was really good at it. So good, in fact, that the San Francisco franchise of the old Pacific Coast League gave him a tryout. DiMaggio was a solid outfielder but he was a hitting genius. At 19, after winning a contract, he batted safely in 61 consecutive games. This feat got the attention of the New York Yankees, who promptly bought Joe. Following one more year in the minors, DiMaggio debuted with the Yanks in 1936 and quickly became recognized as arguably the best player in the game. Similarly, Coppi chafed at the small world he had been consigned to: harvesting maize and grapes, shoveling manure, slopping this year’s pig to make next year’s salsiccia. When offered a job as a butcher’s delivery boy – and with it, access to a heavy but intact deliveryman’s bicycle – Coppi knew he had been set free. Fausto’s delivery job strengthened him. He had chased groups of training cyclists on his mule of a bike and fantasized about winning great road racing victories, but an influential training savant called “Biagio” convinced him to train properly with his stable of riders. Coppi won his first race, and more successes came quickly. Fausto began to develop a habit: he would ride off the front and win solo, often by as much as 15 or 20 minutes over his rivals. Like his sweetswinging Italian-American alter ego, Coppi embraced both fame and its financial rewards while maintaining a cool aloofness, a distance, and an intense desire for privacy. Both Coppi and DiMaggio were careful never to get too close to fellow competitors or even to teammates. The cultivated posture of the brilliant loner began to feed two burgeoning legends.
From 1936 to 1942, DiMaggio batted .341, was twice the American League MVP, and led the Yanks to five World Series titles. In the same time span, Coppi had moved from dominant junior to winning the Giro d’Italia. He followed that up with victories in the Tour of Tuscany, the Giro dell’Emilia, the Tre Valli Varesine, and the Italian road championship. Oh, and he shattered the hour record.
An unending string of athletic successes may have been expected and might in fact have ensued, but life, as it does with annoying frequency, soon happened. War again broke out in Europe. DiMaggio enlisted in the U.S. Army and was posted to Hawaii as a physical training instructor, meaning he mostly played exhibition ball games with teams made up of college and minor league players, primarily for the wagering amusement of other soldiers and officers. DiMaggio’s major league career was, at least for the time being, put on hold.
Coppi’s war experience was a little different. Conscripted into Mussolini’s forces, at first he was favored by his officers and allowed to continue training on the bike. But the war turned sour for the Italians, and in March 1943 Coppi was sent to North Africa with infantry reinforcements to fight the British in Tunisia. Fortunately for him, he was captured within a month. The British fed their prisoners well and saw that they received good medical care, so Coppi fared better than many of his countrymen. Several British soldiers recognized him from photos in cycling magazines and shared food with him. When transferred to a camp in Italy, he was assigned a job as servant to a young British lieutenant who didn’t know cycling but was inclined to listen to his men and the other prisoners, all of whom revered Coppi as a ‘great champion,’ and so he was given time and freedom to resume training.
After the war, things began smoothly for both as far as sport was concerned, even as conditions on their respective home fronts began to erode. DiMaggio, who had married a struggling young actress in 1937, saw his home life disintegrate as his fame and fortune grew and his desire to have his wife near him rather than in Hollywood intensified. Coppi had married a shy young woman from a neighboring village at the outset of his career, but the stresses of postwar fame would soon end that relationship for all practical purposes as well.
After returning to the Yankees, DiMaggio led New York to four more World Series titles, leading the American League in homers and RBI and winning another MVP award. Then a chain of niggling injuries began to reduce his effectiveness, Bone spurs in his heel and bone chips in his elbow made it impossible for DiMaggio to perform with the same seemingly effortless grace and style, and his pride dictated that he couldn’t allow himself to be a merely ‘good’ player. Following a final World Series title in 1951, in which DiMaggio played surprisingly well in spite of his injuries, he announced his retirement.
Coppi went on a tear unrivalled in the annals of cycling. It was said that between 1946 and 1954, whenever Coppi opened a gap on his rivals, he was never seen again until the finish line. He assembled a palmares not remotely challenged until the advent of Eddy Merckx. He won the Giro d’Italia four more times, for a total of five – still the record shared with Binda and Merckx; he twice won the Tour de France, both times winning the Giro-Tour double and becoming the first man to do so; he won the Giro di Lombardia five times, Milano-Sanremo three times, the World Pursuit Championship, Paris-Roubaix, and La Fleche Wallonne. In 1953 he won the World Road Championship. He was seemingly unstoppable on the bike. Off the bike, things got complicated.
Coppi had a fan, a Doctor Locatelli, who took time off from his practice to attend races around Italy. On these trips he’d bring his wife, a beautiful young brunette named Giulia. The woman had no interest in sport in general or cycling in particular, but when Locatelli and his wife approached Coppi for an autograph after one event, Giulia suddenly discovered that she had found one. Giulia Locatelli began to follow Coppi’s exploits religiously in the press, keeping scrapbooks and listening to broadcasts on the radio. She and her husband hosted Coppi in their home. Then Giulia began to travel to races on her own in the hopes of being near Coppi. Locatelli was scandalized but kept quiet at first; soon enough, though, the cat found its way out of the bag. Coppi and Giulia began to meet in secret at races. Eventually, a photographer snapped a picture of Giulia on the podium following Coppi’s world title win. Now everybody—Locatelli, Coppi’s wife, politicians, the Pope—knew everything. And oddly, for Italy, Coppi’s behavior did little to damage his overall legend. His reputation among the religious and the working class was dinged somewhat, but Italy was a country trying desperately to emerge from the twin disasters of Mussolini and World War II, and middle-class Italians seized upon anything that lent them an air of sophistication, including sporting triumph spiced with a little common-knowledge adultery.
Back in the States, one might have expected Joe DiMaggio to fade away like most retired ballplayers, but he, too, had a nose for notoriety. After a brief meeting and a fix-up date, DiMaggio, America’s ‘greatest living athlete,’ began seriously courting America’s ‘most desirable woman,’ Marilyn Monroe. It was a romance on speed, and they soon married. Nothing DiMaggio could have done would do more to fix his iconic image in the minds of most Americans of that generation than that visit to the justice of the peace in San Francisco. The fact that the marriage lasted only 274 days did nothing to douse the spotlight.
For DiMaggio, the rest is familiar: he held various positions as a PR representative for corporations and organizations, basically trading on his name and reputation among the Mad Men generation, showing up at ‘old-timers’ celebrations at ballparks (for a healthy fee), and playing golf with executives. Most of us know him better as ‘Mr. Coffee’ than as an athletic hero. He remained Marilyn Monroe’s confidante, protector, and probable lover until her death, and he famously sent fresh roses to her grave twice a week until his own.
Coppi, like DiMaggio, also suffered a series of injuries, including a skull fracture, broken collarbones, and a broken femur, that saw his career deteriorate rapidly. He and Giulia, whom the press had dubbed Coppi’s dama bianca (‘white lady’) because of the white trench coat she favored, set up house in Coppi’s villa near Novi Ligure. As Coppi's racing career dwindled, his brief domestic life with Giulia Occhini flourished, more or less. They had a son together, Faustino, in 1955. Giulia and the boy ignored the occasional insult whispered at them by their less tolerant neighbors. Fausto did the same when roadside fans decided to vent their own moral indignity.
Through all this, Coppi won races—small ones, generally, but lucrative nonetheless, and he amassed a pile of money. He relieved stress by hunting, his favorite off-the-bike pastime. He enjoyed hunting more and more as he approached age 40 and his world-class prowess on the bike ebbed away. In November 1959, Raphael Geminiani phoned Coppi and invited him to accompany himself and a handful of French champions—Jacques Anquetil, Roger Riviere, Henri Anglade—on a combination racing exhibition tour and safari in the Republic of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). You probably know how this story ends. Sleeping without window screens or mosquito netting in their hunting camp, both Geminiani and Coppi were tortured by the voracious insects, and both men eventually contracted malaria. Geminiani fortunately was treated on his return to France by an ex-army doctor familiar with tropical symptoms, and he was saved. His frantic phone calls to Coppi’s villa, however, went unanswered; Coppi’s misdiagnosed case had become so severe that he was hospitalized. News of Geminiani’s successful treatment and recovery came too late to save Fausto, who had slipped into a coma following the improper handling of his condition. Coppi died two days into the new year.
DiMaggio has been celebrated in literature by Hemingway and elegized in song by Simon and Garfunkel. Coppi has become a de facto secular saint among Italian sports fans, the Ghisallo chapel above Lake Como and the museum at the Bianchi bicycle factory serving as his temples. Both men now are icons, for better or worse.