The Italian sees the future. Where everywhere people are saying, “My customers are asking for this. My customers are asking for that,” the Italian says, “Your customers don’t know what they need. They do not think of the future. They only read magazines and stare at the television.”
The future is in Urban riding, he says. He pronounces it “Ooor-ban,” and he doesn’t mean hipsters on fixies. He means a type of riding that includes your commute, your errands, picking the kids up from school, everything. Commuting, according to the Italian, is a bad word for cycling, because it implies only one use for the bike, to get from home to work.
Even Oorban doesn’t capture his meaning correctly, but it is closer, he thinks.
Cycling needs a new vocabulary, new words to express the benefits attendant thereto. “No other machine is so perfect,” he says. “Nothing else moves you from place to place, makes you healthier, eliminates pollution, connects you to the world.” The Italian uses only vegetable based lubricants. They are not the best lubricants, but when you use them correctly, they are good, and they do not destroy the environment.
The Italian doesn’t seem to care for Italians very much. “Terrible businessmen,” he says. In Italy, we only race. No one is riding Oorban. No one is touring. He rides the white roads of Tuscany, stops at a hotel, and gets greeted in English. “I am Italian,” he says. “Why are you here,” they reply. “Here we only have Americans and Germans.”
“Since Coppi and Bartali, we have only racing,” says the Italian. “They ruined everything.” Even riding with your friends is racing, in Italy. I ask him why they don’t win more races then, and he says, “Because they are terrible businessmen.” I laugh. He does not.
In the car, on the way to the bus, the Italian explains the entire European debt crisis to me, in detail, quoting the exact value of bond issue returns. The Spanish have been downgraded, he informs me. He then explains the difference between the quality and construction of various makers of merino wool cycling gear. Again, there are specific references to the percentage of wool and synthetics in each garment, the advantages of each. “Wool is the future,” he says, “as it was the past.”
The Italian is one of these people you meet in the bike business. There is a charisma and insanity to him. You don’t speak with the Italian. He speaks TO you. And you listen, because he sees the future.
Fausto Coppi had a big schnoz. I like to think it helped him cut through the wind. His hair was notoriously neat, Brylcreemed left and right, with a razor sharp part. No wind would take purchase there. He had a strange barrel chest that housed steam engine lungs, a narrow, almost feminine waist, and a pair of bird legs you would hardly believe could generate the power that made Coppi ‘il campionissimo,’ nearly untouchable on the road between 1949 and 1952, and the unquestioned top cyclist on this big blue marble in many of the preceding and successive years as well.
If one were to take the palmares of the top five or six riders in history and set them side-by-side, it would be hard not to conclude that Eddy Merckx is number one. In this exercise, Coppi would drift down the standings somwhere between Hinault and Anquetil. But this is the stuff of paper and statistics and apples and oranges and oddly colored fish on impossible bicycles. It’s nonsense.
Coppi won the Giro d’ Italia in 1940 and set the Hour Record in ’42. He then went off to war in North Africa where he was taken prisoner and lived in a POW camp. He didn’t race again, properly, until ’46, three seasons later. That year he won Milan – San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia, the Grand Prix des Nations, the Giro della Romagna and three stages of the Giro d’Italia. He won the overall again in ’47. Thereafter, he won everything in front of him, Spring Classics, Grand Tours, a World Championship. He was a climber of legendary ability, his signature move being to attack on a hard climb, distance the field and finish minutes before the next rider, alone, as they say, in photo.
It is difficult to separate Coppi from the history of Italy at that time or, for that matter, from the history of professional bicycling. While he, along with great rival Gino Bartali, gave Italians something to cheer about in the bleak post-war years, he also revolutionized bike racing, developing new standards for nutrition, rest, recovery, and preparation. He was a great contributor to modern team tactics at a time when the Grand Tours were just beginning to embrace the notion of competing teams rather than individual cyclists.
I would argue that, given back those three seasons during WWII, and without the toll of disease and ill-nutrition that POW camps and wartime rationing imposed on him, he would have set a standard that Merckx would have strained to see, even from his lofty perch.
For these reasons and many others, Coppi is my favorite cyclist of all time. Though I never saw him race, perhaps even BECAUSE I never saw him race, Coppi represents the absolute apex of what it means to be a PRO cyclist. He is a man who really did transcend himself, both athletically and culturally. With Coppi there are myths and legends, because we don’t always have the concrete language to describe the things he achieved.
I could go on and on, but you’ve read all this before by other people’s hands.
This week’s Group Ride seeks to leave behind the troubling times of our current top cyclists and would-be legends. What we want to know is: Who is your favorite cyclist of all time, and why?
Rhapsodize, my friends. Wax poetic.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In every bike race there is a race, and there is a performance, a narrative of sorts that plays itself out over 130 or 150 or 212 kilometers. On occasion, the race and the performance are the same, which is to say that the driving force of the narrative is the winner of the race and the manner in which he or she has won. But then, much of the time the race and its result are distinct from the performance. In fact, sometimes the two diverge later, as when a rider wins a big race, but is later separated from the result by a doping conviction. Reading the order of finish or scanning the standings of the general classification don’t usually tell you, in any compelling way, what happened on the road.
It is this dichotomy that crept into my brain as I continued to ponder the enduring value, the legacy, of Marco Pantani, or, for that matter, Johan Museeuw, Bjarne Riis, Frank Vandenbroucke, Floyd Landis, Richard Virenque, Tom Simpson, or even riders not tainted by allegations of doping like Raymond Poulidor or Gino Bartali. The comments on my last piece here, É Andato da Solo, sent me back to the proverbial drawing board.
The thing is, it is easy to look up a rider’s palmares and think you know what his or her career was like. I do it all the time, especially for those legends of the sport I never got to see race. But then how do you explain why some riders, indeed some individual performances, remain in memory, while others do not?
Bike racing is hard. No other statement, perhaps, has been written so often, by so many, about our sport. It’s hard. Its conflicts and denouement play out at the ragged end of human capacity. It is epic, operatic and internecine.
And this narrative quality explains a lot about the way we see our past as well as our present. For example, on paper, there is no qualitative difference between the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. They are three-week stage races that include difficult climbs, time trials, beautiful scenery, etc. They all attract the very best riders in the peloton. And yet, the Tour remains the most important, I would posit, because it spins the best narrative about itself. Call it history. Call it marketing. The Tour captures the imagination more completely than the other two Grand Tours.
And though Pantani, Museeuw, VDB, Landis, Riis, Virenque, Simpson, et. al. all cheated (either by conviction or by their own admission), they also told us these amazing stories about cycling, about what happens out there at the ragged edge of things, where most of us will never get to go, and so we hang onto them.
You might even argue that the performance is more important than the result. For this reason, we can elevate a rider like Pantani above a rider like Andy Hampsten, though Hampsten is likely more worthy of our reverence. Hampsten was a great champion, but Pantani told better stories. Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi both won five Grand Tours, but we don’t talk about them as much as we talk about other riders of that caliber. Why?
Among those who are ostensibly more pure than the Pantanis and Virenques, Poulidor or Bartali for example, it is still the performance that matters. Poulidor is revered because of the efforts he made and the grace with which he lost, first to Anquetil, and then to Merckx. Bartali’s rivalry with Coppi was itself a great story, but further, the character of Bartali, the devout, working class hero, always plays well, regardless of results, though his were pretty good.
If we tell ourselves that only the results obtained in perfect honesty matter, we retain only a few threadbare icons. Many of us will, however, choose to perform the complex calculus of weighting the manner of cheating against the quality of the performance. Merckx is legend, perhaps, because his use of amphetamines is gauged less egregious than blood-doping AND his performances were bravura, dominating, crushing and relentless. The recently deceased Frank Vandenbroucke was a blatant cheater, but his brilliance on the stage was, perhaps, equally blatant.
It is difficult to express the creation of a legend mathematically. Each of us gives different weight to the performance versus the result, but we all most certainly do it. We have to. In cycling, because of the evolving manner of cheating, a simple asterisk won’t serve to differentiate the pure from the chaste. Our cheating exists on a continuum that starts with a bidon full of brandy and spans the illicit universe to include, in the present day, bags full of oxygenated blood. Shall we create a code to denote all the forms of illegality to which a rider has prescribed? Their names might trail strings of alphanumeric characters, like pscyho-pharmaceutical periodontists with legal degrees.
It is good and right to acknowledge those who have done things the right way, the aforementioned Andy Hampsten, for one. Riders like him deserve a special reverence. Greg LeMond too. But we can’t factor out the quality of the performance either. The opera is full of overblown characters, usually heavyset men and women with lungs like…well…like cyclists. Some of them are good and some are villains.
I love them both.