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 Lemond, but most will still say Armstrong - though a few of them mean Kristin rather than Lance. Fans who love the mountain stages will say Gaul or Bahamontes, while those who love the sprints will say Cipollini or Cavendish. Lots of Brits will say Simpson while those who are in the know will say Burton. I would say Marianne Vos, because she's won more races at the age of 26 than Merckx had, and she hasn't finished her career yet (Merckx, incidentally, admits to being highly impressed too). If you ask the tifosi, Italy's notoriously and wonderfully biased, obsessive cycling fans, they'll all say Coppi.
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|
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 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|
|Coppi memorial on the Pordoi Pass on the Dolomites|
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.
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.
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.
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).