THE HERON AND THE COCK HOW COPPI AND BARTALI DIVIDED ITALY

9.15

When referring to Italian cycling legends, it goes without saying that Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, are the greatest and most famous cyclists in Italian history.

Gino Bartali, l’intramontabile or everlasting (1914-2000), was the most renowned Italian cyclist before the Second World War. He won the Giro d’Italia three times (1936, 1937, 1946) and the Tour de France twice, in 1938 and 1948.

Fausto Coppi (1919-1960) was the dominant international cyclist pre and post the Second World War years. His successes – five times winner of Il Giro d’Italia (1940, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953), twice winner of the Tour de France (1949 and 1952), and once winner of the World Championship of 1953) – earned him the title Il Campionissimo or champion of champions.

The fierce rivalry between the two polarised the country, as they were the two perfect opponents in a chivalrous dance.

Bartali, strong and conservative, was venerated in the rural south, while Coppi, extremely shy, all skin and bones but innovative in his dietary habits and training, was the hero of the industrial north.

‘Bartali belongs to those who believe in tradition… he is a metaphysical man protected by the saints. Coppi has nobody in heaven to take care of him. His manager, his trainer. He is alone, alone on a bicycle… Bartali prays while he is pedaling: the rational Cartesian and skeptical Coppi is filled with doubts, believes only in his body, his engine’, the writer Curzio Malaparte described the athletes perfectly.

To be fair, there was not such a strong division between north and south of Italy: the crowd simply would not let go of the old idol to make room for the brand new champion. And this is why there were two ‘Bartaliani’ for each ‘Coppiano’. Even in Castellania, Coppi’s hometown, on the facade of the building were he was born, a huge Viva Bartali! would appear every time he competed.

The French, on the other hand, always preferred Faustò to Ginò.

Bartali was considered too strong and cocky and the sympathy for Coppi only increased when his successes in Italy started to fade, during the 1951 Tour.

In Paris, they used to say that Coppi was French, and Bartali Italian.

The reason behind it is easily explained: Coppi didn’t look like an athlete. He had long skinny legs, a thin, pale face with a certain ever-present melancholy expression. Following a triumph, he would just smile shyly and reply to his interviewers in a quiet voice.

Coppi was the perfect French hero: unlucky, nostalgic. So slim, so chic.

Coppi appeared so French to the French people that they even preferred him to another great – and French – champion road cyclist of the time, Louison Bobet.

To make clear how incredibly important those two champions were: when Coppi died, in 1960 after having caught malaria on a trip to Africa, Italian journalist Orio Vergani wrote a long obituary about him as the most famous headline in the history of Italian journalism ‘Il grande airone ha chiuso le ali’, ‘the great heron has finally closed his wings’ was coined.