Five giri, two Tours de France, five editions of Lombardy. Three Sanremo, the hour, the Worlds (road and pursuit), ten maglie tricolore. The Gran Prix Des Nations, Paris-Roubaix, Flèche Wallonne. All the races he needed to win and hundreds – quite literally – that he probably didn’t. It’s a list that tells you everything that you need to know about Fausto Coppi, and nothing that you need to know about Fausto Coppi. Let’s put it another way. Girardengo and Binda, Guerra and Bartali, Merckx, Gimondi and Hinault. They were carnal, temporal and, in the final analysis, profoundly secular. They never transcended what they did because, for all that we build myths around them, what they did was all that they were. Coppi was all that they were as well, but also so much more besides. These others were merely great bike riders, but being a great bike rider has nothing to do with greatness.


"...being a great bike rider has nothing to do with greatness."


If we have learned to invest in the sport of bicycle racing (and by extension ourselves) with celestial qualities, it’s thanks overwhelmingly to him. The things he did on a bike were unthinkable not in some facile, ephemeral, literary sense. By 1949, the pinnacle of his career, he was routinely doing things which were simply unthought. As such the winning of the races, the pounds, shillings and pence of it, was reduced almost to mere consequence. The results weren’t inconsequential as such, but they didn’t begin to articulate who he was, or the magnitude of his accomplishments.


In achieving the impossible Giro-Tour double he reinvented cycling, but his true legacy is the profound effect he had – and still has – on his country’s social, cultural and even geopolitical landscape. His was an Italy emerging not only from unprecedented human carnage, but from moral torpor and something approaching psychological paralysis. Duped into fascism by the charlatan Mussolini, Italy’s had been a catastrophic war. It had been characterised by strategic ineptitude, military insolvency and, worst of all, ideological schizophrenia. As a consequence ordinary Italians endured their post-war grief denuded of the ethical certitude which now fortified the allies.


Neighbouring France had suffered appalling hardship, with incalculable loss of life and the obliteration of vast acreages. Germany lost generations, territory, just about everything. The Nazis were unspeakable, but even they had fought with a (mongrel) form of ideological conviction. In truth Italy, a country and a people intrinsically unsuited to warfare, had been broken before it had started. In the post-war blame game it was an extremely soft target, a byword for duplicity, mendacity and moral degeneracy. Everything was broken now, and France was broken. However in some respects the French, the Russians and the Dutch had been lucky. They had been left with nothing, but with conviction something can be made of nothing. Italy had less than nothing or, more precisely, worse than nothing. Worse than its wretched self.


"More than ever it needed heroes and cycling, the sport of every man, would bestow them."


More than ever it needed heroes and cycling, the sport of every man, would bestow them. In Coppi and Gino Bartali, Tour de France winners both, Italians had something, finally, to be proud of. The Tuscan Bartali was immensely popular. In capturing the 1948 Tour he produced a monumental sporting performance, but he singularly failed to capture French hearts and minds. The transalpini didn’t understand him and didn’t like him, and he gave the distinct impression that the feeling was mutual. The press portrayed him as myopic and regressive, his team as stealthy and untrustworthy. In short the perfect Italian sporting metaphor.


The Piedmontese Coppi was his polar opposite on and off the bike. While Bartali was the blood, snot and soil cycling archetype, Coppi’s exploits began to assume celestial qualities. If, as they said, Bartali’s climbing was superhuman, his closely approximated the supernatural. His talent defied belief just as Italy, hitherto the catholic bulwark, was beginning to defy believing. That 1949 season also saw him ride away at Sanremo and Lombardy and thus conclude, finally and definitively, any meaningful debate about their respective talents. He anointed him with the Il Campionissimo sobriquet and nobody, not even Merckx, has come close to appropriating it since. Some are simply chosen. Norma Jeane Mortenson to be Marilyn Monroe, Cassius Clay to be Muhammad Ali. He, Fausto Coppi, was chosen to be Fausto Coppi, but he was in no way equipped. Those who rode for, with and against him speak endlessly of the generosity of his spirit, but also of an innate sadness, a profound and beautiful melancholia. It’s no exaggeration to state that they loved the guy, and those who remain love him still.


"Some are simply chosen. Norma Jeane Mortenson to be Marilyn Monroe, Cassius Clay to be Muhammad Ali. He, Fausto Coppi, was chosen to be Fausto Coppi."

The loss of brother Serse at the 1951 Tour of Piedmont visited upon him utter desolation, and marked the beginning of the end. A string of surrogates came and went, his marriage unraveled and he fell under the spell of Giulia Occhini, the so-called Dama Bianca. Their affair and his subsequent divorce scandalised Italy, but also trapped him into a life which would never again be his own. Their son Faustino was born out of wedlock and as such, by catholic decree, in Argentina. Only in this way could he assume his father’s name, but for Fausto there would be no happy ending. By the late fifties his relationship with Giulia was in terminal decline and, as he approached 40, his legs had deserted him. He parodied his own greatness by continuing to compete, but rumours circulated that he did so simply to be out of the house. There was talk of a Milanese bolt hole, but the censure of a second Italian divorce, for a sensitive sole like he, would have been terrifying. His demise, on 2 January 1960, from malaria contracted during a cycling trip to Burkina Faso is a matter of public record. The great fugitive went to Burkina Faso ostensibly to ride a bike, but in reality to escape, just for a few days, the wreckage of his own life. It left Italy in lutto, but the tragedy of Fausto Coppi was the latter part of his being, not his passing.

There is a school of thought that Merckx was the more complete cyclist. Of course comparisons are specious, but it’s inarguable that he was more robust, faster and stronger. That being the case you could argue that he was he was a better rider than Coppi, but to do so would be to miss the point completely. That’s because in sport “better” is categorically not the issue. The issue with Fausto Coppi is greater, and in that sense nobody comes even remotely close …