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Fausto Coppi - Il Campionissimo

It was 65 years ago today......

Fausto Coppi -  Il Campionissimo (The champion of champions) -  was a true giant of the sport, beloved of the Tifosi in part because he helped heal the soul of post war, cycling mad Italy. A true champion of the working class he represented the communist party as opposed to his biggest rival Gino Bartali who was a catholic supporter of the Christian Democrats. Whatever their beliefs for many years there was no greater rivalry in sport and it is even said that Bartali’s win in the 1948 Tour avoided a civil war.

Despite Bartali’s palmares it is Coppis exploits that that led to him being tagged Il Campionissimo. 5 Giro’s, 2 Grande Boucles, first man to do the Giro/Tour double in the same year (1949), World champion, World Hour record, Lombardia 5 times, Milan-San Remo 3, Paris-Roubaix and La Fleche Wallonne. He was innovative with regard to training, kit and diet as well as being a very classy and stylish bike rider - even on the hardest mountain stages his upper body hardly seemed to move as his legs described smooth circles.

Innovation and a hatful of wins will only get you a certain amount of adulation though – to be considered a Legend of the sport, as Fausto surely is, then sometimes the nature of your wins has to seem out of this world and extraordinary. 

June 9th, 1949 was once such day for Fausto Coppi on Stage 17 of the Giro. The 254km stage from Cuneo to Pinerolo was an epic in what came to be known as the ‘Tour of Wonders’. Often quoted as one of the best days racing ever in what has been voted one of the top 3 Giros of all time (1988 Andy Hampsten in the snow and 1998 Pantani are the other two), it was a monster day, in poor weather covering 5 major climbs – Maddalena, Vars, Izoard, Montgenvre and Sestriere.

Primo Volpi attacked at the foot of the first climb and Coppi , starting the day in second place, went with him. This was predicted by Bartali – who claimed that Coppi would go early but he would peg him back by the fourth climb, Montgenevre.

Accounts differ about early hostilities. Some say Coppi was annoyed by his former teammate and grimpeur Volpi attacking so went after him. Other accounts have Volpi attacking when Bartali flatted and Coppi taking advantage of that. Yet again there are former pros who claim that Coppi noticed Bartali having problems with his brakes neat the bottom of the Maddalena and decided  to put in an early dig.

Whatever the catalyst was, Coppi went early and went hard. Even when he had his own mechanical (chain) ,and had to get off his bike thereby allowing Volpi and Bartali to draw leve,l he was still clear at the top of the Maddalena.

With 190km and 4 more mountain passes to go, and despite the prospect of the miserable weather continuing all day, Fausto ground on.  Maybe he was buoyed by his own supporters massing on the mountains.

Maybe he was driven by the talk that suggested this would be Bartali’s stage but regardless he stuck to his task and slowly pulled out his lead.  By the time he got to Sestriere he had 8 minutes over Bartali, chasing alone in second.  At the finish in Pinerelo Il Campionissimo had put over 11 minutes into Bartali and nearly 20 minutes into any other rider. 190km, on largely dirty tracks and solo for 90% of the ride. Simply incredible.

The Black Sheep are far too young to have been there(yes, even me!)but that doesn't stop us marvelling at Fausto's exploits all those years ago. We love the stories of this stage so much that we just had to commemorate it on one of our Tees. Wear the 'Forza Fausto' and you're bound to be asked the story behind the stage and so now you know. What you waiting for !!! http://www.black-sheep.cc/forza-fausto.html

Fausto was in the Maglia Rosa and obviously held onto it for the final two stages. His winning GC margin was 23 minutes  47 seconds – or about half a mountain in today’s terms! A few weeks later he swapped Pink for Yellow and triumphed in the Tour De France for a historic, first time double. Interestingly, riding for the Italian national team, he was aided and abetted in that victory by non other than Gino Bartali.

How intense rivalry one month turned to decisive teamwork the next is a story for another day !!