Saturday, 15 September 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 15.09.12

On this day in 1912, the seventh Liège-Bastogne-Liège was held - one of two editions (the other being the ninth) to be held in September, rather than in Spring or Summer as had been the case previously and ever since. The parcours was 257km in length and winner Omer Verschoore (right) took 8h35' to complete it, beating Jacques Coomans in a sprint to the finish line. Little is known about Verschoore, other than that he was born on the 2nd of December 1888 in Moorslede, Belgium and died on the 6th of June 1931 in Paris.

Fausto Coppi
Ask cycling fans who the best rider in the history of cycling was and you can expect a range of different answers. Many, regardless of their nationality, will say Eddy Merckx; most French fans will say Bernard Hinault. Lots of people will say Briek Schotte, even though he won far fewer races than Merckx or Hinault. Some Americans would say Greg Lemond, most will say Armstrong - some of them meaning Kristin rather than Lance. Lots of Brits will say Simpson while those who are in the know will say Burton. I would say Charly Gaul, but only because Marianne Vos hasn't finished her career yet. If you ask the tifosi, Italy's notoriously and wonderfully biased, obsessive cycling fans, they'll all say Coppi.

Angelo Fausto Coppi was born in Castellania on this day in 1919, the fourth of five children. Like many of the giants in cycling history he was sickly in his youth and showed absolutely no interest in school. His health improved when he found a rusty, brakeless bike in the cellar at the family home, learned to ride it and fell in love; his school attendance did not - aged 13, he was caught playing truant and a teacher made him write "I ought to be at school, not riding my bicycle!" repeatedly on the blackboard as punishment. Not long afterwards he left school and went to work as a butcher. Gaul, incidentally took a similar route, working as a butcher and slaughterman; another similarity was that both men excelled at climbing and time trials. However, Coppi held a third ace: he was also a devastatingly fast sprinter, an unusual combination that didn't go unnoticed by his one childhood ally - a merchant seaman uncle with a lifelong love of cycling, who gave Fausto the money to buy his first racing bike.

Wisely, Coppi used the 600 lire to get a frame custom-built for him, planning to use his wages from his delivery boy job to buy components ("Oh how my legs used to ache at night through climbing all those stairs during the day! But I'm glad I did, because it surely made my legs so strong," he later said). Unfortunately, the frame builder ripped him off - after taking Fausto's money and telling him his frame would be ready in a week, he took much longer than agreed while working on frames for established riders, then gave him an off-the-peg frame instead. Fausto didn't yet have the confidence to demand he got what he'd paid for.

But Coppi was so good that it didn't matter if his frame didn't fit him - he won races anyway. His first race was one in 1934 for boys who were not members of cycling clubs; he didn't come first but he did win 20 lire and a sandwich. In 1938 he got his racing licence and won the next race he entered - this time, the prize was an alarm clock. At that time, Coppi still worked in the butcher's shop, which was where he met Giuseppe Cavanna, an ex-boxer who had lost his sight after one too many punches damaged his brain and then became a masseur, learning the finer details of cycling and of the reputation Coppi was already building from his clients. When they met, he encouraged the rider to become an Independent so that he'd be able to compete with professionals as well as with amateurs and suggested he enter the Tour of Tuscany in 1939. Coppi did so, following Cavanna's advice to "follow Bartali!" until a buckled wheel put him out of the race. However, less than a month later he won a race at Varzi with a lead of seven minutes on the second-placed rider - as one of the constituent races of the season-long National Amateur Championship, he had gone up against riders with far more experience and resoundingly beaten them all. He won six more races that year and signed to Legnano - Bartali's team.

In 1940, aged only 20, Coppi won the Elite National Road Race Championship and the Giro d'Italia - almost three-quarters of a century later, he remains the youngest ever winner of the Giro. The Giro didn't take place from 1941 to 1945 due to the Second World War, but he won the National Pursuit Championship in 1941, then the National Pursuit and Road Race Championship and set a new Hour Record in 1941, before Italian racing came to an end until after the war. During those years, he fought in the 38th Infantry alongside a man named Arduino Chiapucci - father of Claudio, who won the King of the Mountains twice at the Giro and the Tour de France in the 1990s - before they were captured by the British on the 13th of April 1943 and became prisoners of war. Like all POWs, he was required to work while incarcerated; British amateur cyclist Len Levesley was no doubt very surprised the day he realised that the man cutting his hair was a Giro d'Italia winner. Neither man spoke the other's language, but Levesley gave him a bar of chocolate.

Coppi with Bartali
Cycling started up again in 1946 and Coppi won Milan-San Remo. He was determined to win another Giro too and took three stage victories, but he couldn't hold off Bartali who fought hard for his third and final overall victory (Bartali beat him in the King of the Mountains too; while Coppi had been sent off to fight, Bartali, who was five years older, had spent much of the war smuggling Jewish refugees over the Alps into Switzerland using a special trailer with a secret compartment - he was, therefore, as good at climbing as he'd ever been), then later in the year he won the Giro di Lombardia. In 1947 he was all but unbeatable, winning the National Road Race Championship, the National and World Pursuit Championship, another Giro di Lombardia and three stages plus the General Classification at the Giro d'Italia (Bartali beat him again in the King of the Mountains). In the 1948 Giro he won the General Classification and the King of the Mountains, as well as the National Pursuit and Road Race Championships, Milan-San Remo and the Giro di Lombardia; but his greatest moment came the following year when he won the Giro and the Tour de France, something no other rider had ever done. He also won the King of the Mountains at both races, the National Road Race Championship, the World Pursuit Championship and another Giro di Lombardia.

In 1950, Coppi won Paris-Roubaix, the hardest of the ultra-hard Northern Classics (some say the hardest race of all) that fans and riders alike traditionally said Italian riders could not win. He also won the Waalse Pijl, one of the difficult Flemish Classics. In 1951 he won stages at the Giro and the Tour but missed part of the season due to a broken collarbone suffered at Milan-Turin; he was also hit hard by the tragic death of his beloved younger brother Serse, also a professional cyclist, following a crash in a race at the Giro del Piemonte. In 1952 he missed some opportunities again due to a broken shoulderblade, but repeated his 1949 achievement of winning the Giro and the Tour; though this time he was second in the Giro's King of the Mountains.

Coppi leading Richard Filippi at the Trofeo Baracchi, 1953
Coppi won his final Giro - the fifth, a record that has not yet been matched - in 1953; he also won his only World Road Race Championship that year. In the two years that followed, he scored excellent results: he won the King of the Mountains at the 1954 Giro but was fourth in the General Classification, then in 1955 he was second overall and won the National Road Race Championship. It was obvious, though, that the years in which he dominated European cycling had ended - in the subsequent four years, he won only six times; more than the majority of cyclists could even dream of winning, but very poor indeed for the Champion of Champions.

Coppi declined as fast as he had once ridden. He had always been unusually forthright about his drug use, a subject most riders preferred not to discuss despite the fact that many of the drugs that would now result in suspension were not then banned - he was once asked if cyclists used la bomba, amphetamines. "Yes," replied, "- and those who say they don't are not worth talking to." The interviewer asked if he had used la bomba himself: "Yes, when it was necessary." When was it necessary? "Almost all the time!" (Bartali, who believed that everybody should live life as honestly as possible, was very much opposed to any sort of cheating, including doping. He took to mounting secretive raids on Coppi's hotel rooms and took away the empty phials and pill boxes he found there so that his own doctor could tell him what they were. In time, he became such an expert on the drug's effects that he was able to accurately judge how Coppi planned to ride the following day). If la bomba hastened his decline, it wouldn't have come as a surprise: he was well aware of what the drug could do, once telling René de Latour: "What is the good of having world champions if those boys are worn out before turning professional? Maybe the officials are proud to come back with a rainbow jersey. But if this done at the expense of the boys' futures, then I say it's wrong. Do you think it normal that our best amateurs become nothing but gregari [domestiques]?" He went on to name four riders who had shown great promise as amateurs but failed to live up to expectations as professionals, in his opinion because of drugs, and practically invited them to sue to him for defamation. That way, he said, "the facts will be brought to light and this may mean a change in our methods."

Coppi and Occhini
By the end of his career, his reputation was in tatters - nowadays, when Italians have become used to Silvio Berlusconi, most of them are virtually unshockable when it comes to the behaviour of public figures; but in the 1940s and 1950s Italy was a deeply devout Catholic nation and the population was horrified to discover that their great hero had been having a secret affair. The Woman In White was Giulia Occhini, the strikingly beautiful wife of army captain Enrico Locatelli. Locatelli was a cycling fan; his wife - who was not - accompanied him to see Coppi race in 1948. Afterwards their car was caught next to Coppi's in a traffic jam, which was where the affair began. That same evening, she sought the rider out at his hotel to ask for an autographed photo. They were not exposed until 1954, when a press photographer snapped her waiting for him at the end of a race, and the scandal broke. Coppi left his wife, Bruna Ciampolini, and moved in with Occhini; but their landlord threw them out. Ciampolini refused to agree to a divorce (which was still illegal in some parts of Italy at the time), the Pope became involved and asked Coppi to return to her, then influenced the president of the National Federation to send a letter claiming that his conduct caused St. Peter "very great pain." When Coppi raced, spectators spat at him as he passed.

Coppi memorial on the Pordoi Pass on the Dolomites
In 1959, the year that Coppi rode the Vuelta a Espana and, according to Pierre Chany, was the first rider to be dropped on every stage (he was, Chany said, "a magnificent and grotesque washout"), he was invited with Henry Anglade, Jacques Anquetil (who beat Coppi's Hour Record in 1956), Raphaël Géminiani, Roger Hassenforder and Louison Bobet to compete in a race in Burkina Faso, then to a hunting expedition with the nation's president Maurice Yaméogo afterwards. Géminiani shared a room with Coppi and later remembered that they had been troubled by mosquitoes; both of them contracted plasmodium falciparum, a form of malaria that causes the vast majority of all deaths attributed to the disease each year. Géminiani recovered, Coppi did not - he died on the 2nd of January in 1960, when he was 40 years old.

In 2002, a rumour emerged suggesting that Coppi's death had in fact been caused by a cocaine overdose. Details were sketchy, but newspaper Corriere dello Sport claimed to have got the story from a mysterious figure known as Giovanni, who had in turn got it from someone named Angelo Bonazzi. Meanwhile, another story attributed to a monk named Brother Adrien said that Coppi hadn't been killed by malaria or cocaine, but by a poisonous potion apparently widely used in Burkina Faso. Coppi's doctor rubbished both claims, but a legal investigation was launched and, for a while, it looked as though his body would be exhumed for analysis; after a year the investigation was shut down and the case dismissed after no evidence to support either claim, or an exhumation, could be found.

Monika Valvik-Valen
Born Grethe Monika Eikild Valen (she later married Olympic discus thrower Svein Inge Valvik) in Porsgrunn on this day in 1970, became National Junior Road Race Champion on Norway in 1987 and won all five stages at the Swedish Tygrikeskupen, the Elite National Championships for road racing and time trial, Stage 2 at the Tour de France Féminin and fifth place in the Olympics road race in 1992.

In 1993, she won three stages at the Tygrikeskupen, enough to win the General Classification again, then successfully defended both her National titles; in 1994 she retained the National Road Race title but lost the time trial - no real upset, as she replaced it with a gold medal at the World Road Race Championship. In 1997, having signed up to Serotta and riding for the first time as a professional, she became National Champion in road racing, time trial and criterium. She was Road Race Champion again the following year, then Criterium Champion again in 2000 and Stage 7 at the Women's Challenge in 2002. Valvik-Valen's older sister Anita Valen-de Vries (married to Gerrit de Vries, who rode seven Tours de France) was also a professional cyclist and was herself National Champion in road race, time trial and criterium in 2003.

Lorenzo Bernucci
Born in Sarzana, Italy on this day in 1979, Lorenzo Bernucci turned professional with Landbouwkrediet-Colnago in 2002 and stayed with them for three years, gaining some good results - including third place finishes in the Under-23 World Championships and Paris-Roubaix and, in 2002, the Giro d'Italia. He went to Fasso Bortolo in 2005 and won Stage 6 at the Tour de France, then signed to T-Mobile in 2006.

In September 2007, Bernucci tested positive for anorexiant drug Sibutramine, used to control weight. The drug, which has since been banned throughout the European Union and in several nations around the world after it was connected to heart failure, renal failure and strokes, had been on the UCI's list of banned drugs the previous year; Bernucci claimed that he had been taking it for four years and was not aware that it was now banned - since he had failed to inform T-Mobile's doctors of this, he was deemed to have acted negligently by the team and fired.

Bernucci returned to cycling with the San Marino-based Cinelli OPD in June the following year, then went to LPR Brakes for 2009 and Lampre-Farnese Vini for 2010, picking up good - if not superb - results along the way. However, it appears that anti-doping agencies and the Carabinieri were not convinced his earlier run-in with the law had taught him a lesson and kept him under suspicion: in 2010 his wife, Valentina Borgioli, was stopped at Pisa airport after suspicions that she might be carrying doping products to the Belgian Classics, then in April the couple's home was raided. Police found a perfluorocarbon product used to increase the number of red cells in the blood (similar to EPO) and human albumin, the latter having a number of properties of interest to cheating athletes including being the ideal sunstance with which dilute the blood in order to get around haematocrit counts. The Italian Olympic Committee sought a six-year ban; the Tribunale Nazionale Antidoping granted them five years - as Bernucci was 31 at the time, his career is likely to be finished. Several members of his family were shown to be involved with the supply of doping products and were also banned from involvement in sport: his father, mother and wife for four years each and his brother initially for four, later reduced to three.

Pierino Baffi
Pierino Baffi, born in Vailate on this day in 1930, was a very good cyclist but not a great Grand Tour-winning one. He could win stages, however - Stages 6 and 9 at the Vuelta a Espana in 1955, Stage 10 at the Giro d'Italia in 1956, Stages 8 and 19 at the Tour de France in 1957, Stage 6 at the Giro in 1960 and Stage 2 at the Giro in 1963. Nevertheless, he earned a far bigger place in cycling history: in 1958, he won Stage 12 at the Giro, Stages 10, 16 and 24 at the Tour and Stages 3 and 14 at the Vuelta, thus becoming the second rider ever to win stages at all three Grand Tours in a single year. The first had been Miguel Poblet, two years earlier; the feat has since been repeated only by Alessandro Petacchi in 2003. Baffi's son Adriano also became a cyclist and won the Points comptition at the 1993 Giro, then became a directeur sportif for LeopardTrek after retiring from racing.

Sebastian Lang, born in Sonneberg, East Germany on this day in 1979, became National Time Trial Champion of Germany in 2006. In 2008, he led the King of the Mountains between Stages 12 and 14 at the Tour de France.

René Haselbacher, born in Vienna on this day in 1977, was National Road Race Champion of Austria in 2002.

Giancarlo Bellini, born in Crosa, Italy on this day in 1945, won the Baby Giro in 1970 and turned professional with Molteni the following year. In 1972 he finished Stage 5 at the Giro d'Italia in second place, but he would not win a Grand Tour stage until 1978 when he won Stage 12 at the Giro. However, in 1976 he won the King of the Mountains at the Tour de France.

Other cyclists born on this day: Brent Emery (USA, 1954); Yeung Alexandra (Hong Kong, 1972); Anthony Peden (New Zealand, 1970); Viktor Romanov (USSR, 1937); Tapani Vuorenhela (Finland, 1947); Roby Hentges (Luxembourg, 1940); Daniel Goens (Belgium, 1948); Pak Jong-Hyeon (South Korea, 1938); Tanja Žakelj (Slovenia, 1988); Gustavo Artacho (Argentina, 1967); Porfirio Remigio (Mexico, 1939); John Stenner (USA, 1964, died 1994); Mees Gerritsen (Netherlands, 1939); Kaspars Ozers (Latvia, 1968).

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