Monday 2 January 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 02.01.12

Fausto Coppi, 1919-1960
Fausto Coppi
The 2nd of January is one of the saddest dates in cycling and the saddest of all for Italian fans - it was on this day in 1960 that Fausto Coppi died, aged just 40.

Coppi won the Giro d'Italia five times and the Tour de France twice, also winning the King of the Mountains a combined total of five times. A list of his other successes - Paris-Roubaix, Giro di Toscana, Giro dell'Emilia, Milan-San Remo, Giro di Lombardia, Coppa Bernocchi, La Flèche Wallonne, Trofeo Baracchi, Gran Premio di Lugano, Giro del Veneto, Tre Valli Varesine and more - reads like a list of the most prestigious bicycle races of the 20th Century; few cycling fans who were not there to see it do not feel a deep wish to have witnessed his legendary duels with rival Gino Bartali. He is the only rider to have won both the first and last Tours he entered.

Coppi entered a deep depression during the last years of his life; when he died he was buried in soil collected from the Col d'Izoard where he achieved some of his most memorable victories, became the subject of some of the most iconic photographs in cycling and sport in general and where there is a monument in his memory. The cause of Coppi's death is generally accepted to have been malaria, as was recorded following autopsy; however, there are still some who believe he succumbed to an overdose of cocaine - or that he was murdered in Burkina Faso with, in the worlds of a mysterious monk named Brother Adrien, "a potion mixed with grass." For a brief while, a court considered the possibility of exhuming the rider's body to test these claims; when no evidence was found to support them - Coppi's doctor, Ettore Allegri, termed the rumours "absolute drivel" - the case was dropped with no exhumation taking place.

Random Fact: after being captured by the British and becoming a prisoner of war in WW2, Coppi became friendly with a man who later fathered Claudio Chiappucci, one of the leading lights of professional cycling in the 1990s.

Victor Fontan, leading the Tour through the mountains
in 1928. He was a remarkable rider who rode three
remarkable Tours.
Victor Fontan
Another rider who died on this day was Victor Fontan, aged 89 in 1982. Fontan, who achieved limited fame in the Pyrennean commune of Nay as a young man after some success in local races, never won a Tour (though he won the Volta a Catalunya twice) but was nevertheless a remarkable rider and, in some ways, can be seen as the embodiment of the early Tours. Firstly, he was the son of a cobbler, yet his own son became a heart surgeon - emblematic of how, in the first two thirds of the 20th Century, cycling presented the best chance many young men would ever get to lift their families from grinding poverty and, in some cases, peasantry. Secondly, after a short pre-war professional career, he saw action and was shot twice in the leg; yet returned to racing almost immediately after his demobilisation in 1920 and soon made a name for himself as the strongest rider in the south-west of France.

He entered the Tour for the first time in 1924 as a touriste-routiere (an individual, private rider allowed to take part provided he paid for his own equipment, food and lodgings) but did not finish, most observers deciding that at 32 (and with his war injury) he was already too old to make an impact. Then, aged 36 in 1928, he won two stages - one, Stage 7, was a team time trial (as were all flat stages that year); but the other, Stage 9, was a difficult mountain stage over 387km from Hendaye to Luchon. Unfortunately, Fontan's team were weak and other than that one stage, they proved far from his equal in the rest of the race and as a result he was forced to spend a great deal of time looking after them and trying to hurry them up a little, so he finished the race with an overall time 5h7'47" behind winner Nicolas Frantz. However, when journalists worked out the total time he had spent attending to the needs of his team, they discovered subtracting that time would have left Fontan as the overall winner.

That wasn't the last mark he made: one year later he was back, riding as an independent again in a Tour that was unique because at one point there were three yellow jerseys after Fontan, Frantz and André Leducq recorded identical elapsed times. He did not remain a race leader for long due to a crash after he was either knocked off by a dog or rode into a gutter and damaged his bike (explanations vary; it seems likely, therefore, that he rode into the gutter while trying to avoid the dog) - this happened just 7km into a stage that began before dawn, so it was still dark. Riders were permitted to continue on a replacement bike provided a race official had deemed their original machine was beyond repair but, when they showed up, they had no replacement bike to give him; he was forced therefore to run to the nearest village and go from door to door waking people up and begging to borrow one. Finally, somebody provided him with one and, since the rules dictated that a rider needed to cross the finish line with an officially approved bike, he set off aboard the borrowd bike with the broken machine strapped across his back. By 6am, he'd punctured and the broken bike had cut his back badly, leaving him exhausted and in agony - journalists Alex Virot and Jean Antoine of L'Intransigeant discovered him in tears, sitting on a fountain in Saint-Gaudens, Haute-Garonne, and took pity on him. The journalists were also providing radio coverage for the Radio Cité station, which played a recording of Fontan's sobbing a few hours later. Fans were deeply moved to hear the rider's distress. One of them was Louis Delblatt, another journalist at the Les Echos des Sports newspaper, who would later write:
"How can a man lose the Tour de France because of an accident to his bike? I can't understand it. The rule should be changed so that a rider with no chance of winning can give his bike to his leader, or there should be a a car with several spare bicycles. You lose the Tour de France when you find someone better than you are. You don't lose it through a stupid accident to your machine."
In response, Henri Desgrange - who hated change - altered the rules for the 1930 Tour, adopting those suggested by Delblatt. For the first time riders could have their bikes repaired by team mechanics and no longer had to finish each stage on the same bike with which they started without seeking official approval.

Danilo Di Luca
(image credit: Michal Sagrol/Procycling CC BY-SA 2.5)
Danilo Di Luca
Happy birthday to Danilo Di Luca, the mountains and Classics specialist who is currently riding for Katusha. Danilo was born in 1975 and became a professional in 1998, winning the Under-23 Giro d'Italia in his first year. Seen originally as a rider who could perform well only in races lasting for a few days, he surprised many by finishing the 2005 Giro in 4th place overall, having won two stages - just one of several misjudgments by team management, which is partially the reason he has ridden for so many different teams during his career.

He proved just how wrong they were in the 2007 Giro when he won an incredible eight stages and the overall General Classification. In 2008, his LPR-Brakes Ballan team received a wildcard entry for the Giro and he won the Points classification, finishing 2nd overall. This feat was mired, however, by a positive test result that showed the presence of banned CERA, a form of EPO. His placing was declared void and he received a two-year ban and a 280,000 euro fine. The fine was later reduced, but the UCI state he will still have to pay the full amount. His ban, meanwhile, was reduced and he returned to racing in 2009 but has not yet found the form he once displayed.

Paul Litschi, Swiss National Road Champion in 1927, was born on this day in 1904. There appears to be no further information available - could it be that he's still with us? Let us know!

Frenchman Jérôme Pineau, a rider with Quick Step, was born on this day in 1980. He wore the King of the Mountains jersey for four stages in the 2010 Tour de France and won the Combativity award in Stage 7.

Félix Sellier
Sellier after being hit by a car in 1920. He looks reasonably
relaxed, but note that the car's occupants have squeezed
up on the opposite side - perhaps to try to distance
themselves from an angry verbal onslaught!
Félix Sellier was born in Spy, Belgium on this day in 1893 and had to abandon the 1920 Tour de France after he was hit by a car - a photograph survives showing his bike under the car while he leans in through the window and delivers what was doubtless an angry lecture.

In the 1921 Tour, when he was riding as an unsponsored touriste-routier, he won Stage 13 - however, it wasn't the most glorious victory in the race's history because Henri Desgrange had decreed that the independent riders would set off two hours before the profeesionals for that stage as he wanted to punish the sponsored entrants for refusing to compete against Leon Scieur, who was riding so powerfully that they'd given up hope of beating him and were vying with one another for second place.

Sellier should not be remembered as an also-ran who once got lucky though. The next year he returned with a sponsor, and he won both Stage 14 and 4th place overall fair and square

Other births: Peter Aldridge (Jamaica, 1961); Bunki Bankaitis-Davis (USA, 1958); Svetlana Bubnenkova (Russia 1973); Chen Weixu (China, 1966); Ottavio Dazzan (Argentina, 1958); Gabriela Diaz (Argentina, 1981); Piet Ikelaar (Netherlands, 1896, died 25.11.1992); Helge Jacobsen (Denmark, 1915, died 02.08.1974); Ritchie Johnston (New Zealand, 1931, died 18.07.2001); Vlastibor Konečný (won bronze in 100km Team Time Trial at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, born Czechoslovakia 1957); Leijn Loevesijn (won silver for the Netherlands in the 1968 Olympics, born 1949); Jiří Mikšík (Czechoslovakia, 1952); Marino Morettini (won gold and silver medals at the 1952 Olympics, born Italy 1931, died 10.12.1990); No Yeong Sik (South Korea, 1977); István Pásztor (Hungary, 1926); Gérard Quintyn (France, 1947); Ihor Tselovalnykov (born 1944, Armenia, won gold for USSR at the 1972 Olympics, died 01.03.1986); Maria Paola Turcutto (Italy, 1965);

Tomorrow: Lucien Buysse, one of the hardest men in the history of cycling, and how he won the Tour de France after hearing of his daughter's death in 1926.


  1. Thanks John! Just one thing, I guess the surname of the cyclist from New Zealand is Johnston not Johnson. At least the Wikipedia says so. Of course if you still say otherwise, I'd believe in you, not them. :)

  2. You're right. Keep pointing out any errors you find - it's difficult to proof-read something you've written yourself. :-)