1949 Giro d'Italia - Neither Coppi nor Bartali Stopped in Eboli
(additional material available on my blog) Aldo Ross Middletown, Ohio, USA http://www.49giro.blogspot.com
"They say that Christ stops in Eboli, leaving everything to the south in the hands of the devil and Mt. Etna"
Salerno, the night of Tuesday, 24th May 1949. Dino Buzzati writes a letter to the two great champions . . .
Dear Coppi, Esteemed Mr. Bartali (I address him this way because I am a little in awe of Bartali: he pedals with a frown on his face, and he is never seen strolling around, not even in the lobby or the corridors of his hotel; yesterday morning, for example, during the ferry crossing from Messina to Villa San Giovanni, all the racers were out in the open, so-to-speak, very visible to the passengers and quite approachable, all except Bartali, and I am still asking myself where the devil could he have been hiding?).
So I'll begin again:
Dear Coppi and Esteemed Mr. Bartali,
He who writes this to you is, at least in cycling terms, a complete blockhead; he knows nothing about gear shifts, chainrings and cogs; he has no clear understanding of race strategy, and during the past few days he has had to ask questions that were so naïve, they nearly caused a scandal.
That being said, I must add that your reasoning is certainly beyond questioning. I understand your responsibility to the companies that employ you, and to your teams. I know you respect them conscientiously.
It would be idiotic, I admit, for you to compromise the final results of a race as long and arduous as the Giro by yielding to the temptation to perform some great exploit. I recognize the weight, or at least I hope I understand how to measure, the terrible exertion of a stage like today's from Cosenza to Salerno, 292 kilometers, almost all of them in the mountains, with a discouraging and uninterrupted series of very steep climbs and descents that didn't let up for even one minute; combined with the violent storm that brought wind, cold, fog and rain, to say nothing of the depressing effect of the landscape, no doubt beautiful when the sun is shining, but which today was pallid, wild and repulsive.
For the organizers to include such a stage (I heard one of your colleagues say) is like a warning to the racers: "Measure your efforts with care, be very cautious about going all out, unless you want to ruin your health".
I don't know if that's true. Certainly, if someone had driven us along today's route, then told us that about a hundred men would be able to cover it on bicycles without ever dismounting, at a speed just under 30 kilometers per hour, I probably would not have believed it.
And finally I admit that, for all practical purposes, the way you approached the race was sensible; staying within the group, you committed yourselves only during the final kilometers in pursuit of Leoni, who had broken-away on the final descent before Eboli, with Bevilacqua and Cargioli: you then caught the three-man group right at the gates of Salerno's stadium, and in the final sprint the classiest rider came out on top: Coppi first; then Leoni, who they say would have won a normal sprint, but he had worn himself out with the unsuccessful break; and third, and deservedly so, Bartali. Which, all things considered, shows that you are completely right.
Now, however, being the incompetent person that I am, allow me to ask you a question:
Did you get a good look at the people who were waiting for you as you went through Calabria?
Do you remember those thousands and thousands of faces, anxiously turned in your direction, regardless of age or trade - peasants, shepherds, mothers, masons, little girls, monks, police, little old ladies, mayors, clerks, street sweepers, teachers, and a seemingly limitless number of children?
You crossed deserted valleys in which one could really have said that Christ never set foot (they say he stops at Eboli). And yet, on the boulders, at the edges of thickets, and standing on the steep banks along the road, men and women were waiting for you. Many of them had trudged a long distance just so they could welcome you, descending from remote villages perched on top of ancient crags.
You went through incredible towns hanging lopsided on the lofty flanks of the mountain, with main streets sloping as much as thirty degrees in places, absolutely out of a fairytale: looking at them from a distance, from the other side of the valley, who would ever have imagined that anyone up there was interested in cycling? You could call them strange islands of humanity, banished far from our world, improbable cities, pure mirages.
Nonetheless, those roads were packed on both sides with joyous people. Yes, they were absolutely delighted, these people we never would have guessed existed; they had such honesty and goodness of heart that you wouldn't find their equal in any other place. Even you two realized this, surely, because you are not stupid.
Even if all of your attention were focused on your efforts, you must have sensed instinctively what the Giro d'Italia means in those remote locales? They were laughing! Did you see how they were laughing? Yours was no longer mere sport, and you were no longer mere cycling champions. Without a hint of rhetoric, you were the incarnation of the affluent, happy world which finally came too say "Hello", even if only for a few seconds, to those ancient, long-forgotten villages. Even though it was storming, you brought to them the light of a sort of America. It was Milan. It was Turin. It was the wonderful cities of the North, remembering their distant, impoverished little sisters.
And do you know what those people asked the two of us riding in a car a few kilometers ahead of the race? Even if it was unfair to the other racers, who were perhaps working a little harder than you, they asked only two things, with almost desperate eagerness, as if for them it were a matter of life and death:
"And Coppi? And Bartali? What are they doing? Is Coppi leading? Is it true that Bartali has left everyone behind?"
Meanwhile, you were wisely saving your strength in accordance with a faultless plan. If some greenhorn broke away, one who could in no way create any problems for you, you let him go. You placed yourselves in the best position, right in the middle of the group, without straining yourselves. Between the two of you (even if this were only part of the plan), the typical tension was no longer there. You, Bartali - you had at least three flat tires today, but no one deigned to attack. Wise management, I repeat.
But those people, those simple souls, resembled us a bit in that we are donkeys when it comes to bicycle racing. They believed in you blindly, they considered you heroes, idols, perfect and unbeatable beings. They've found in you a connection to the foolish little dreams that each of us, no matter how humble, allows himself to have. They couldn't believe you were not leading, alone, shooting off in a dramatic breakaway. You are the most talented, aren't you? So why weren't you racing in the front?
It's nonsense I suppose . . . why should we expect that you, and no one else, would be in the lead down there, at the bend, in each of those towns, winning all of the stages, always leaving your companions behind on the climbs? There has never been and there will never be an athlete capable of achieving that.
Perhaps I was not being reasonable, a bit like the amateur who would like to see the great chess champions make ingenious moves in every match, when it is well-known that duels between great chess masters are actually more an epic display of boredom, characterized by excessive preoccupation with avoiding any risk or impulse. You do your job on the basis of wise decisions of which you have complete mastery, and today, once again, it all turned out for the best.
But be honest, my dear Coppi, my Esteemed Mr. Bartali: wouldn't it be
better, since you can, to do a bit more?
>From a rational point of view it would probably be an absurd mistake, but you would make so many people happy! And they would love you so much more! Think once in awhile about those children, those little girls, those old people, those police officers, those peasants, those priests, who waited for you yesterday and today; think of the inhabitants of Rosarno, Vito Valentia, Córaci, Rogliano, Tarsia, Lauria, Lagonegro, Auletta, and Eboli: the way they looked at you, smiled at you, suffered agonies for you. Think about it sometime.
On the other hand, I may be wrong. The day after tomorrow, on the road to Naples, both of you are quite capable of contradicting me magnificently.
In conclusion, please carry on as if I said none of this.