Enduring rivalry between Italian giants defined a golden era

Wed, Jul 2, 2008, 01:00

Gino Bartali v Fausto CoppiTHE BIGGEST rivalry in the modern Tour de France? Surely the one between the various drugs, such as EPO, that all guarantee higher levels of performance.

Of course, doping in the greatest cycle race in the world is not a modern phenomenon - it even precedes the first edition of the race, back in 1903. Then, though, alcohol and ether were the drugs of choice, used to dull the pain that accompanies the gruelling, long-distance race.

The Tour de France was originally dreamed up as a way to boost a newspaper's circulation figures. And it worked. L'Auto (ancestor to l'Equipe), which organised the competition, boosted its circulation from 25,000 before the first tour to 250,000 five years later.

But it was not simply the gruelling length of the race (by the fourth edition it was already over 4,500km) that captured the imagination and admiration of millions of fans - it was the great rivalries it created.

In the programme A History of the Tour de France, presented by Seán Kelly and narrated by David Duffield (the TV commentator who has given us such gems as "turn your granny to the wall" when cyclists are dangerously descending a mountain at high speed) touches on possibly the greatest rivalry in the history of cycle racing.

Seventy years ago this month Gino Bartali won the first of his two Tour de France titles. The Italian was a devout Catholic from Tuscany, who turned professional in 1935. His religious devotion and belief in hard work led to him being hailed in rural, southern Italy. Known as Gino the Pious, he was the polar opposite to the other hot property in the cycling world.

Born in Piedmont, the flamboyant, proudly secular Fausto Coppi - who would, in a highly publicised scandal, leave his wife for another woman - was the favourite of urban, northern Italy. The rivalry wouldn't just divide a sport, it split a country.

Bartali won the Giro d'Italia in 1936 and 1937, and, after abandoning the 1937 Tour de France following a serious crash, he returned the next season to claim cycling's biggest prize.

The following year, despite the rapidly growing reputation of his younger compatriot, Bartali helped Coppi secure a contract with his team, Legnano, and the 20-year-old repaid that faith by claiming the Giro in his first season - the last edition of the race before the second World War caused the suspension of all professional races for six years - surely robbing both cyclists of many titles.

Even in that brief, pre-war period, the intense rivalry between the two Italians was evident - as was their professionalism. When an early crash in that 1940 Giro ended Bartali's chances, the more experienced rider worked tirelessly to help Coppi to the title - the latter grabbing the red jersey after a race in torrential rain near Florence.

And even during the war, the two chose different paths. Coppi joined the Italian army and fought in Africa, where he was captured by the British and spent several years as a prisoner of war. Bartali helped Jewish Italians during the war by, under the guise of training, carrying messages and documents to members of the Italian Resistance.

By 1946 they were competing on the roads again, Bartali narrowly defeating Coppi in the Giro. Coppi gained quick revenge. In the Milan to San Remo race, he covered the 181 miles so quickly he beat Bartali by 18 minutes. The loudspeaker in San Remo announced: "First classified, Coppi - while waiting for the second classified we will transmit music for dancing."

The following year, they swapped titles, Coppi claiming the 1947 Giro d'Italia and Bartali taking the Milan-San Remo crown. The were the Golden Years of Cycle Racing and the two were ruthlessly carving the titles up between them.

The 1948 Tour de France, however, would define Bartali's career. Ten years after claiming the title for the first time, and now aged 34, he was considered to have his best years behind him.

Italy was in even worse shape.

Twenty minutes behind French favourite Louison Bobet after the first week, Bartali received a call from the Italian government. Italy was on the brink of civil war, and Bartali was told performing well in France would help unite the country. The next day he covered the 274km stage in just over 10 hours. He would win six of the final 15 stages, setting a 10-year margin between Tour de France victories - a record that still stands.

Coppi returned to the top of the pile in June, 1949, winning the Giro again, this time having 23 minutes to spare over his greatest rival in second place.

The following month the two combined to destroy the field during the 36th Tour. When Coppi suffered a puncture in the Alps, Bartali stopped and waited. Later the same day, Coppi returned the favour. The 16th stage, from Cannes to Briancon, fell on July 18th, Bartali's 35th birthday, and Coppi slowed, allowing Bartali take the stage and the maillot jaune.

However, Bartali suffered another puncture late the following day and Coppi won the stage, which finished in the Italian city of Aosta. Coppi kept the yellow jersey for the final four stages, Bartali having to settle for second place after the 4,800km, 21-stage race - 11 minutes behind.

It was the last of the great battles between the two. Five years younger than Bartali, Coppi would win his second Tour de France in 1952, securing his status as one of the greatest cyclists of all time - perhaps only second to Eddy Merckx.

The prospects of a similarly great rivalry emerging in the 21st century in the Tour de France are not good - it seems riders aren't surviving drug tests long enough to strike up a long-term rivalry.

Though that great 1940s rivalry didn't escape the smell of performance-enhancing drugs either. In The History of the Tour de France, Duffield speaks of Coppi's attitude to drugs: "When asked if he took drugs, he replied, 'Only when necessary.' And how often is that? 'Practically all the time,' he replied."