1949 Giro d'Italia - A Slightly Crazy Grandfather Pedals in the Wake of the Champions
(additional material available on my blog) Aldo Ross Middletown, Ohio, USA http://www.49giro.blogspot.com
Cosenza, the night of Monday, May 23. Dino Buzzati writes...
This morning in Messina the racers boarded the ferryboat and were extraordinarily excited by the strangeness of this seagoing contraption, with it's belly full of cars, and all its little stairs, bridges, gangways, verandas, turrets, lounges and small restaurants. The racers were like schoolchildren out on a fieldtrip: they laughed and joked, threw glasses of water on each other from one level to another, and forgot all about what was waiting for them on the opposite shore.
Calabria in the morning sun, with its delicate blue shadows, looked like one of those posters radiating happiness in the travel agency window. But behind this fairytale backdrop, the treacherous mountains were waiting. The ferryboat sailed on with its cargo of multicolored jerseys - meanwhile, someone had already crossed the strait in secret and was, even now, climbing laboriously toward the town of Scilla.
In the Piazza Municipio the mayor of Villa San Giovanni made a little speech to mark the occasion, then candy was handed out and the race set off. At that hour and in that place, the world was wonderful. The mood of a school fieldtrip was still prevalent, inspiring in the giants of the road a moment of self-indulgence.
Below them, the sea was playing - yes, really - with the little rocky outcrops along the shore; at that very moment a young mermaid emerged from the water, visible to her waist. she turned shamelessly toward the racers and laughed. Mario Benso, the little imp on Gino Bartali's team, answered her with a rather rude gesture, at which she flipped her tail gracefully, then vanished.
Meanwhile, the lone rider we mentioned before was pedaling ahead as hard as he could, but he was visibly beginning to lose ground.
The fishermen's nets were spread on the small beaches to dry in the sun. Smoke from a distant ship appeared on the horizon, while a bizarre-looking stray dog with two tails, one in the normal place, the other hanging from its chest, loped along in the middle of the procession for quite some time, which showed how slowly the racers were pedaling.
There were two or three attempts to breakaway involving Pasquini, Volpi, Selvatico, Pasotti and others whose names escape us. But the surrounding landscape was too beautiful. Even those racers lacking artistic sensibility shared in the unspoken agreement that slaving away in such a place was tantamount to cursing. It was like walking in a garden laid out above the bluest sea imaginable: big cathedral-like olive trees, daisies, flower gardens, lawns, fields of wheat and other grains, all green, and birds singing more enthusiastically than usual.
The racers rolled side by side on the wide asphalt ribbon, as if merely to satisfy their curiosity, nothing more. And yet, despite their passivity, when they caught up with that solitary cyclist we mentioned, they passed and left him miserably behind. One of the champions shouted something at him; what it was, we don't know because in these situations cars can stay in front of or behind the peloton, but not alongside. But it must have been something witty, since everyone broke out in laughter, while the other fellow was left more alone than ever, and yet he kept pedaling as hard as he could.
Which was not very hard really, but what can you expect from a man of fifty-seven who, in the wake of the Giro, yesterday and the day before, has covered the roads from Palermo to Catania, and from Catania to Messina, over the mountains?
Each year, they say, the Giro has its extra followers who, of their own free will, join in the adventure and with Herculean efforts try to compete with the real racers. Last year it was a soldier who was AWOL from his barracks; this time, an even more pathetic case, an old man, a certain Vito Ceo, a day-laborer from Carbonara di Bari, who claims in his youth to have broken the New York-to-Los Angeles bicycle record in twenty-five days.
Setting out from Bari with nothing but a racing bicycle, without even a single spare tire and without a penny, he traveled to Sicily during the past few days, leaving early in the morning the day before yesterday, well before the champions started, riding the same route as them. And he did reach Catania; his last ounce of strength exhausted, he'd been obliged to spend the night at Regalbuto. But yesterday he pushed on from Regalbuto as far as Messina. And this morning he was back in the saddle.
Is he a madman, a maniac, a bicycle mystic, some sort of knight errant? And what about his wife - because Vito Ceo has a wife, two children, and a little granddaughter - what has she to say about it? "She's pathetic, that woman. she does nothing but eat and drink," he replies, taking from his pocket some mysterious and extremely greasy documents to prove he is a veteran cyclist.
He wears a jersey bearing the name of the manufacturer of his bicycle, full length knee-breeches, knee-length socks, a pair of sports shoes, and that's it. He is short, fat and stocky, a Don Quixote in the body of a Sancho Panza. He vows he will make it to the finish in Milan. And he pedals, pedals, ever so slowly.
In the area around Mileto, the deafening noise of the race caravan caused a little horse to bolt madly across the fields. Natuzzo Evolo, the young woman who "drips blood and hears voices," came out in front of her doorstep carrying one of her children (she had just finished ironing five scarves that she has decorated in her own blood with tiny, mysterious outlines of saints, holy vessels, tree branches, and Latin religious phrases).
"Who is leading? Are they very far away?" we were asked by several seminary students wearing red sashes, standing in a line along the shore. On reaching the sea, the road began to rise again, climbing into the greenish, inhospitable mountains. Inevitably, as the climb "cracked its whip", the dawdling bunch stretched out, stretched to the point where it broke into numerous little pieces.
And back there, who knows how far away by now, old Vito Ceo, the scatter-brained grandfather, the Don Quixote with Sancho Panza's face, was dragging himself, push after push on the pedals, along the wide deserted road.
The sun disappeared, replaced by leaden skies. No more garden-like scenery, but dark ravines instead where nobody has any desire to linger. Now and again a town appeared (an incredible thing to find up there in such a remote spot), its houses in situ and its crowd of people who asked us, the journalists, just one thing: "Bartali or Coppi?"
To avoid disappointment, as it was obvious that any other option would have saddened them, we said not a word.
Bartali and Coppi were not committing themselves. In the lead and well clear of everybody, Alfredo Pasotti (g.s. Benotto) and Guido De Santi (g.s. Atala), two young unknowns, were struggling up and down the fearfully steep inclines. The black rags hanging over the field to frighten birds away were a beacon to Bartali, as if to encourage him; but Bartali did nothing more than was absolutely necessary. De Santi, pedaling with all his might, caught up with Pasotti, then took off alone. "Who is leading?" the people asked from all sides, their eyes gleaming. But we did not have the heart to tell them.
And meanwhile, where was old Ceo? Had he collapsed on the side of the mountain, beckoning to trucks to stop, or was he still holding on?
In a scene extraordinarily reminiscent of Carducci (19th century Italian poet who wrote "Il Bove"), two oxen stood motionless at the edge of the road, staring into the valley, that is, staring away from us, and they didn't turn their heads even one millimeter when the army of cars thundered past, right by where they were yoked.
The road pushed on into a sort of thicket which, judging by its appearance, I could swear was inhabited by hyenas and bandits, but nothing threatening came out of it. Even though he had almost reached the end of his strength by now, De Santi bounded alone through the little towns of Soveria, Manelli, Marzi, Rogliano, and on toward Cosenza. Then came a long straight stretch and a quick final climb.
De Santi was first at the finish, winning the stage but not the one hundred thousand lire offered by a local savings bank for the first finisher if he could win with a two-minute advantage - Pasotti arrived just thirty-six seconds later. Another minute-and-a-half and the main group arrived. Even before he had a chance to get his feet on the ground, Bartali fell beneath an avalanche of admirers, taking a hard knock.
The Italian-American Di Bacco (see footnote) was thrown from the race for having been towed by a car with license number RC4730. Vittorio Seghezzi (g.s. Edelweiss) received a letter here from his fiancée, telling him (between the lines) that they will never get married if he doesn't put some money aside, hinting at the chance of his winning at least a few cash prizes. And because of an illegal push in the sprint, Mario Fazio (g.s. Bottecchia) was relegated seven places in the stage results.
And the grandfather? It is nine o'clock, and he has yet to arrive. Will he get here before midnight? Are we to imagine him humiliated and defeated, a gasping wreck, picked up by a compassionate trucker, to be delivered to his home as if he were some piece of furniture? Or can we believe in the triumph of a simple soul over the decrepitude of old age? I imagine him in the heart of the darkening forest, struggling on clumsily, ridiculous but heroic.
"Take heart, old Ceo. You don't see them, but the spirits of the dead champions have joined you, and with spectral legs pedal ghostly racing bikes. They too are old and decrepit, very tired, and a bit crazy. They escort you silently; and now, to give you courage, all the frogs of Calabria will sing you their little marching songs; and now, to guide you all along` the way, the lightening bugs, usually so uncharitable, will light their tiny lamps just for you.
(Note: I have no idea who Buzzati is referring to (di Bacco?) - there's no one on the start list by that name. Anyone have any idea who this is? AR)
ORDINE D'ARRIVO 1 Guido DE SANTI Italia gs. Atala chilometri 214 in 7 ore 03'31" media: 30,317 2 Alfredo PASOTTI a 1'38" 3 Luciano MAGGINI a 3'13" 4 Soldani st 5 Leoni st 6 Martini st 7 Jomaux st 8 Ronconi st 9 Peverelli st 10 Fondelli st
CLASSIFICA GENERALE 1 Giordano COTTUR Maglia Rosa 2 Carrea a 1'07" 3 Fazio a 1'18" 4 Schaer a 1'34" 5 Ronconi a 1'49" Maglia Bianca: Carrea