Giro d’Italia 2021 – Re-Cycle: When Gino Bartali beat Fausto Coppi in the 1946 post-War 'Giro of Rebirth'
With his career derailed by World War II, Gino Bartali’s third Maglia Rosa came 10 years after his first. But he had to battle hard to deny his former apprentice Fausto Coppi overall victory by a margin of just 47 seconds. Their great rivalry came to a head with Italy in turmoil in the wake of conflict and in need of a unifying force, as Felix Lowe recalls.
Re-Cycle: When Bartali beat Coppi in the 1946 post-War ‘Giro of Rebirth’
The Giro di Lombardia might have run up until 1942 – and Milan-San Remo until one year later – but for five years during the Second World War, the Giro d’Italia was not contested. Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, but the devastating Italian Campaign was fought until 2nd May 1945, four days after the execution of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini on the banks of Lake Como.
Italy was left ravaged by the war and the Paris Peace Treaties had yet to be signed when La Gazzetta dello Sport, the chief sponsors of the Giro d’Italia, pushed for a reinstation of the national race in 1946. While the Tour de France wouldn’t resume until a year later, the Vuelta a España had run its fifth edition in 1945 – following breaks brought about by the Spanish Civil War and World War Two. The Giro organisers now wanted to help boost the national regeneration by holding their race.
“The people of Naples and Turin, of Lombardy and Lazio, of Veneto and Emilia, all Italians, many regions as part of a single civilisation and of a single heart, are all waiting for the Giro, the mirror in which they can recognise themselves again and smile,” ran an editorial in the sports newspaper.
When the 29th edition of La Corsa Rosa did take place – just weeks after a national referendum replaced the monarchy with a republic – it pitted against each other two of the nation’s greatest cyclists: the Campionissimo who had won the last pre-war edition in 1940 and his old teammate and mentor, whose first Giro victory had come a whole decade earlier. An epic duel between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali was just what Italy needed – but as these two men resumed their rivalry, another less renowned rider would emerge to become the unexpected hero Italy was searching for in its time of need.
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The show must go on
Hosting the Giro in 1946 was nothing short of a logistical nightmare. Not least because the Italian Campaign had left a trail of destruction in its wake all the way from the southern tip of Italy to Como, Turin and the Brenner Pass in the north. Years of battle and neglect meant the roads were in no state for motor vehicles, let alone bikes, while the nation’s infrastructure was a mess. Italy was still technically at war with most other cycling nations, and there was a huge question mark over the form of government best suited to getting the war-torn and divided nation back on its feet. Armando Cougnet, the Giro’s director, was set on the race going ahead. But the usual slot in May was impossible because of the referendum which would decide Italy’s political future.
The results of the vote in favour of a republic were announced on 5th June 1946 by a narrow 54% majority. A week later, King Umberto and the royal family packed their bags for Portugal, finally giving the Giro the green light to go ahead. After all the upheaval, the race was on call to help restore a semblance of normality.
“Sport has always been one of the few things that Italians seem to agree on,” says Colin O’Brien, author of Giro d’Italia: The Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race. “It was something that Mussolini had used extensively to project power and push propaganda. These days we might call it ‘sports-washing’. The Giro projected an idea of unity, even if the reality was very different, so having it go ahead must have seemed like a huge symbolic step in post-War recovery.”
The Giro being back on the national agenda was already a huge victory. A further boost to national morale came with the news that neighbours France, against whom Italy had been waging war, had not even considered getting its national race up and running that summer.
As Herbie Sykes, the author of Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia, says: “The Giro was a thing that united Italy and Italians. It transcended the sport of cycling in 1946. It mattered a lot, that race. On every level, it was really, really important. It mattered simply that it happened – because there had been five years of absolute carnage, and they had to rebuild the bridges and roads – but it also mattered that they got the Giro done, and the French didn’t get the Tour done.”
On 15th June, 79 riders divided into 13 teams congregated on the outskirts of Milan for the Grande Partenza, with the inner city’s roads unsuitable for racing after months of bombing. The peloton was entirely Italian, save for the presence of the American Joseph Magnani, born in Illinois in 1911 to Italian immigrant parents, who moved back to Europe during the Great Depression.
Starting and finishing in Milan, the 20-stage, 3,417km race was an exercise in optimism that ran in a figure of eight. It ran as far south as Naples before winding its way north to the Dolomites via a stage finish in the disputed city of Trieste, which was claimed by both Italy and Yugoslavia, while under joint supervision of US and British military protection.
“Bitterness and distrust remained long after the civil war had finished,” says O’Brien. “And there were still foreign troops everywhere. The Giro would have given people hope that things were improving, or at the very least distract them from the miserable situation they were in.”
Such civil strife, ongoing conflict, simmering national tensions, and crumbling infrastructure was the backdrop to what became known as the Giro delle Rinascita. This ‘Giro of Rebirth’ was a celebration of Italy’s new start. But, as O’Brien makes clear in his history of the race: “It could just as easily have been a reference to the renaissance of the battle between the nation’s two greatest sportsmen.”
Fausto Coppi en Gino Bartali
Image credit: Eurosport
Coppi verses Bartali: tormentor verses mentor
The War over, a different battle was about to resume. And for the first time, its two opposing sides were not on the same team. Fausto Coppi had idolised Gino Bartali’s Legnano team as he progressed through the amateur ranks. So when he had the opportunity to join the so-called ‘Greens’ when turning professional in 1940, he didn’t hesitate to sign a contract for 700 lire a month.
Team hierarchy dictated that when Coppi was selected to make his Giro debut in 1940, it was as Bartali’s gregario, or helper. ‘Gino the Pious’ – a nickname, O’Brien explains, that could be taken “as praise for Bartali’s devotion to the church or a cheap dig at his religious zeal” – had won successive titles in 1936 and 1937 before becoming the second Italian to win the Tour de France in 1938.
He was the big favourite for the 28th edition of La Corsa Rosa following his second successive Milan-San Remo triumph earlier in the year. But a collision with a dog in the second stage saw Bartali hit the deck and dislocate his elbow. Although Coppi also went down, he quickly remounted. He didn’t wait for Bartali, fighting back to join the leaders, finishing third on the stage.
Despite shipping five minutes and being told by doctors to abandon, Bartali battled on. But the Legnano team manager, Eberardo Pavesi, had already switched allegiance to his debutant, who moved into the Pink Jersey after winning Stage 11 to Modena. Pavesi then had to talk Bartali out of quitting, sensing that the young Coppi could still struggle in the Dolomites.
A slight wobble on Stage 17 saw Coppi stop on the side of the road to vomit after eating a dodgy chicken salad sandwich. But ‘The Heron’, as Coppi was known, held on to win the Giro by well over two minutes on his nearest rival, with Bartali suffering the ignominy of finishing 46 minutes adrift of his new teammate. At 20 years, eight months, and 18 days, Coppi was and remains to the day the youngest rider to win the Giro d’Italia. His victory also marked the birth of one of Italy’s and cycling’s greatest rivalries.
Humbled, but motivated, Bartali reserved a few choice words for his teammate during the celebrations in Milan: “You can rest now, but don’t have too many illusions: give it a year and I’ll put things back how they should be.”
The advent of war meant one year stretched to five. But as the peloton rolled out of Milan, dodging the many potholes on the ruined roads, a fresh set of divisions stood between Italy’s two leading lights. Since Pavesi had decided to keep Bartali as his Legnano team leader, Coppi had signed for Bianchi a few months earlier along with his brother and loyal gregario, Serse.
Legnano’s ace mechanic, Pinella di Grande, also made the switch. Coppi made an instant impression with a crushing victory in the 1946 edition of Milan-San Remo. His solo attack from 147km out saw him beat fourth-place Bartali by more than 18 minutes. Then, in the Championship of Zurich in early May, the old tensions between the two riders came to the surface – where they would stay, simmering away, for the best part of a decade.
Feigning illness during the race in Switzerland, Bartali made a pact with Coppi, promising not to contest the final sprint as long as Coppi didn’t drop him before the final. As the finish approached and Coppi tightened his toe straps, Bartali took him by surprise, attacking to win the race in what O’Brien describes as “a very un-Christian manner, for such a pious man”.
This underhand move set the tone for the relationship between the two stars of Italian cycling. In many respects, you could say it was the most expensive win of Bartali’s career, for Coppi would never trust him again, and the two were at loggerheads for the rest of their careers – while riding on opposing teams and while wearing the same colours of the Italian national team. There was nothing unusual about the kind of agreement that Bartali and Coppi struck during the Championship of Zurich. But Bartali had overstepped the mark by refusing to honour the terms. It was a blot on his copybook in the eyes of Coppi – and a reflection of how the otherwise great man did business with his peers.
“It doesn’t change the fact that Bartali was a really great cyclist – because he was – there’s just a lot around him that was very unsavoury. It’s just how it was with him,” says Herbie Sykes.
Coppi’s biographer, who is based in Turin, has spoken to a great many riders from that era during his extensive research for his book, Coppi: Inside the Legend of the Campionissimo. And Sykes definitely spotted unanimity when it came to people’s feelings about the two Italian legends.
“The paradox, one of the things that is so intriguing about Bartali, is that the people who really knew him – and there aren’t any left now, because they’re all gone – they weren’t always terribly complimentary about him. You have Legnano and Bianchi, and this pie that is only so big. Everyone wants a piece of it – and let’s just say he was extremely protective of his. He was a bit of a t**t really. But I never found any rider who ever spoke badly of Fausto.
“I interviewed about 20 riders when I did my Coppi book, and a lot of them were very scathing where Bartali was involved. And these were octogenarians… You tend to find as people get older, they soften a bit, the hard edges get knocked off a bit, you know? They tend to be better disposed in their dotage to people than they would have been when they were riding against them – that’s just human nature. But there were a lot of them who really, really didn’t like Bartali. Because he wasn’t straight.
“Gino was also a really bad loser – he wasn’t particularly magnanimous when he lost. He always had excuses and some of them were really tenuous. When Gio Valetti beat him [in the Giro d’Italia of 1938 and 1939], he wasn’t very sportsmanlike. But that’s the way he was.”
Sykes makes the comparison with Frenchman Raymond Poulidor, the so-called ‘Eternal Second’ who resonated deeply with the French public, but was also a rider not overly popular in the peloton.
“The public perception of them and the reality of the individuals tends to be quite different,” he says. “And what happens is people tend to remember the old Gino Bartali – this affable guy in his 70s trundling around on the Giro – and that tends to become conflated with Gino Bartali the cyclist, who was a ruthless bastard.”
As their rivalry resumed at the first post-War Giro, one aspect of the race played into Bartali’s hands: the 29th Giro had no time trials, an event in which Coppi stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Broken rib puts Coppi on the backfoot
Breakaways went the distance in the opening four chapters. Antonio Bevil-acqua, who would win Paris-Roubaix five years later following Italian victories on the cobbles for both Serse and Fausto Coppi, held the Maglia Rosa for three days off the back of the first of his two stage scalps.
Held on a Tuesday afternoon after the short 30km fourth stage in the morning, Stage 5 provided the first skirmish between Coppi and Bartali. The former took a tumble and cracked a rib on the road over the Apennines to Bologna. He still managed to pip his rival in the sprint to take the win that day, but the pain caught up with him as the race headed south. At this point, Fermo Camellini led the race, following through with the form that saw him win Paris-Nice six weeks earlier. Camellini, who would take French citizenship two years later, rode for the Olmo squad and had the American rider Magnani as a teammate.
Tall and broad-shouldered, with a centre parting of commendable rectitude, Magnani was a previous winner of the now-defunct Marseille-Nice race. During the war he continued racing in southern France until the Germans arrested him in 1943 as an American and sent him to a concentration camp. He survived the two-year ordeal before being selected for the Olmo team to support Camellini in the Giro, where he became the first American to take part in one of cycling’s Grand Tours. The 34-year-old would ride a solid race until crashing out in the 13th stage.
Coppi, meanwhile, effectively lost the race nine days in when he had to stop to adjust a defective brake on the 244km stage to Naples. With his principal adversary waylaid – and also, some reports say, suffering with stomach problems – Bartali kicked on with his Legnano teammate Mario Ricci, who won the stage from a select group of five.
1949 Giro d'Italia Bartali Coppi
Image credit: Imago
Entering Stage 9 just five seconds down on Bartali, Coppi had fallen the best part of four minutes behind his rival. He was reportedly on the verge of quitting the race, but was talked out of it by Bianchi teammate Adolfo Leoni, who had helped limit his losses and keep him in contention. Overnight leader Camellini shipped 25 minutes to lose the Maglia Rosa as Vito Ortelli took over the lead, Bartali just over two minutes down in third place, four seconds behind his teammate Ricci.
Despite holding a solid advantage over Coppi, the race was now heading back north through Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany en route for the controversial stage to Trieste and then the Dolomites. The race was far from won, and Bartali was increasingly paranoid about his rival. During the 12th stage to Florence, it has been said that Bartali spotted Coppi discarding a water-bottle on the side of the road. Never mind that such an action would earn you a fine or disqualification in the current WorldTour, what really caught Bartali’s eye was the mysterious green liquid in the bottle.
As soon as the stage finished, Bartali drove back along the route with a Legnano soigneur until he found the bottle – the contents of which he later had analysed. It was allegedly found to contain a common pick-me-up, made in France. To make sure he wasn’t being outwitted by Coppi, Bartali is said to have subsequently ordered an entire case of the stuff.
He was so anxious during that Giro that he even paid a chambermaid to let him into Coppi’s hotel room, where he checked everything – his medicines, lotions, potions, even suppositories – just to ensure that he wasn’t missing a trick. Amid all this suspicion and skulduggery, it’s perhaps telling that the stand-out event of the 1946 Giro involved neither Bartali nor Coppi, but the man who’d already won the opening stage and taken the race’s first Pink Jersey…
Shots fired at Trieste as tensions rise
Giordano Cottur was born in Trieste in 1914, when the city wasn’t part of Italy. He’d won two stages in the Giro in the late 30s and finished third in the 1940 race, almost 12 minutes down on Coppi. The 32-year-old all-rounder may have won the opening stage of the Giro delle Rinascita to be the first post-War man in pink, but it was the fourteenth stage to his hometown that he had circled in his calendar.
Contested territory for decades, Trieste had served as the main seaport for the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War. More than half a million Italians lost their lives to ‘regain’ a small pocket of land that included the city: the jewel in the crown. In the 20s and 30s, the old Slovenian population was repressed as Italian fascism took hold. Then, during the Second World War, the city exploded in a bloody mess of civil and class war, ethnic hatred and political extremism.
Revolt came in May 1945, as Yugoslav leader Josip Tito’s partisans liberated Trieste from the Nazis, set the clocks back to Yugoslav time, and deported or killed many Italians and non-communists. The whole area was then put under Allied control; like Berlin and Vienna, the area was divided into zones run by Soviet, French, American and British troops.
With peace talks still happening in Paris, this melting pot came to a head in the spring of 1946 with Allied soldiers, local communists, Slovenians, Italian nationalists and neo-fascists all jostling for positions in the city like riders of La Primavera going hammer and tongs ahead of the Poggio. Tensions were rising and there was a sense that things could ignite.
As John Foot says in Pedalare! Pedalare!, his history of the Giro: “The timing of the proposed arrival of the Giro in Trieste was therefore either disastrous or perfect, depending on your point of view.” All talk was of an ethnic dividing line – an Iron Curtain, if you will – being drawn up to divide the city and split Italy from Yugoslavia. So for the organisers of the national bike race to attempt a stage finish in the city was foolhardy, at best.
A strong team, Wilier Triestina, had been put together for the race, with sponsorship ties to the city. Local man Cottur was the team captain – described by Foot as “probably one of the best Italian cyclists never to win the Giro”. Balding, toothy, and capable of suffering in the saddle, Cottur learned his trade pedalling in the steep hills above Trieste, on his champion cyclist father’s custom-made bike.
When Cottur won the opening stage of the race, many saw it as a response to the news that the stage to Trieste had been taken off the race itinerary. Foot references a report from Il Corriere della Sera: “Cottur, a cyclist from Trieste riding for a team sponsored by a Trieste company, on a Trieste-made bike, won the first stage of the Giro d’Italia.
“When he rode into the Turin velodrome, alone, the crowd recognised him, and the applause for the winner – through a kind of tacit agreement – became an ovation for Trieste. The celebration of this sportsman developed into a passionate display of patriotism.”
The story of Cottur could easily be drawn out to form an entire edition of Re-Cycle in itself. But for now, let’s focus on the main factors that saw the stage to Trieste acquire mythical status.
Its political and social impact should not be underestimated, thanks to one man’s determination to ride into his home town as part of the peloton, which ostensibly helped prevent an ethnic civil war. When the Allies backed down at the 11th hour and agreed to allow the stage through contested territory, it looked like the Giro had won their battle. Just 46 riders from the original 79 set off for the 228km schlep from Rovigo, each rider equipped with a special pass to grant them access through the checkpoints.
Around 40km from the finish, though, they encountered makeshift barbed wire barricades and Slavic rebels throwing stones. Amid shots being fired, the stage was cancelled – prompting riots on the streets of Trieste, where Italians had heard misleading reports of riders being murdered. The peloton was torn, with a faction – led by Cottur – wanting to make it to the port. After some serious debate, it was decided that those determined to continue could do so under armed guard – even though the stage had been officially annulled and the results would not stand.
Understandably reluctant, Bartali and Coppi were not among the 17 riders who were driven to the outskirts of Trieste in a US military transport vehicle. From there, they set off to contest a final sprint for the sake of honour and prize money. After a 7km ride along the coast, it was Cottur, led out by his Wilier Triestina teammates, who took the spoils in front of a rapturous crowd at the Montebello racecourse.
As Foot writes: “Cottur was greeted as a conquering hero, a symbol of Trieste’s Italianness, but the arrival of the Giro was also symbolic of the fact that the war had finally ended, and that normal life was beginning to return, even in this troubled region.
“The fact that a local rider had won, in a local team, and despite a violent attack from ‘Slav-communists’, added to the momentousness of the occasion. Symbolically, the cheering crowd who welcomed Cottur were also welcoming Italy back into their city, the Italy of old, before the bloody divisions of the conflict with its occupations, arrests and hardships.”
Displaying almost forgivable hyperbolic verbiage for the occasion, the next day’s edition of La Gazzetta reported: “The gardens of Trieste have no more flowers. The bells of San Giusto cathedral no longer ring. The flags of the city no longer wave. The lips of Trieste have no more kisses. The flowers, the sounds, the waves, and the kisses have all been given to the Giro d’Italia.”
Dolomiti double for Coppi as Bartali feels the pinch
As Cottur and his teammates celebrated with the locals, Bartali and Coppi and the rest of the peloton were heading north to Udine, where the next stage would start following the second rest day. It was during Stage 15, over 125km to Auronza di Cadore, where the fight for pink intensified as the race headed into the Dolomites.
Now recovered from his cracked rib, Coppi put in a searing attack on the Passo della Mauria which only Bartali was capable of following. The two finished together with Coppi taking the stage and Bartali the Maglia Rosa, with a gap of 4’08” now separating the two. The next day, Coppi soloed clear on the Falzarego Pass to put Bartali under serious pressure. With 35km remaining, the lone leader had a five-minute gap on his former mentor, putting him in the virtual Pink Jersey.
With Bartali running out of steam in his solo pursuit of Coppi, his Legnano manager Pavesi resorted to a bit of chicanery. He told Bartali to ease up and wait for his teammate Aldo Bini. As youngsters, the pair were bitter adversaries on the Tuscan amateur scene, with Bini usually coming out on top of the man who would go on to eclipse him as a pro.
Bini, who had been dropped long ago, somehow managed to close the gap to Bartali at that very moment – probably after some form of motorised assistance. With help from an unlikely source, Bartali was able to contain the threat, reducing the gap to 72 seconds at the finish in Bassano del Grappa. Coppi was now up to third in the standings, but almost three minutes down on Bartali. He complained publicly about the suspicious nature of the cap-in-hand alliance between Bartali and Bini, but it fell on deaf ears.
It was not all beef between the rivals, however. In the first stage in the Dolomites, they had ganged up to ensure Ortelli lost the Pink Jersey. And when Bartali was sick later on in the race, Coppi was first to come to his assistance, clean him up with some water, and offer a few words of encouragement. It was pure theatre the kind of which we would come to expect of the two – right up to that iconic moment in the 1952 Tour when tensions appeared to ease with the sharing of a water bottle on the Col d’Izoard.
In Stage 17 to Trento, Bartali led going over the Passo Rolle before fading a touch to finish nine seconds behind Coppi, who’d run out of both roads and fizz in his bid to turn the tables. Time bonuses did see him move to within just 47 seconds of the Maglia Rosa, but with the final few days not featuring any climbs, that’s how it stayed.
There was still time to rub a bit of salt into Coppi’s wounds, too – although it was entirely self-inflicted. The final stage finished in Milan’s Arena stadium, where Coppi thought he had triumphed. But far from taking a fourth victory to make up for his overall loss, the great man had celebrated one lap too early, which opened the door to Oreste Conte to take the prestigious win. It was an ignominious end to a Giro that Coppi could easily have won if things went a little differently.
As O’Brien confirms: “Had Coppi not imploded on stage nine, he would probably have won the GC comfortably. But that’s the beauty of stage racing. It showed that Bartali still knew how to manage his efforts and grind out a Grand Tour, despite not taking a stage win.”
Bartali’s third and final Giro victory came a decade after his first – a record that still stands today. And, for the first time in the race’s history, a black jersey had been introduced for the last-placed rider in the classification, with Luigi Malabrocca coming out ‘on top’, so to speak.
Insensitively nicknamed ‘The Chinese’ on account of his dark, almond-shaped eyes, Malabrocca, a great friend of Coppi’s, made the Maglia Nera his speciality, winning it again the next year and forming a fierce rivalry with compatriot Sante Carollo. Bartali may have come out on top of his clash with Coppi, but for many the moral victory of that Giro went to Giordano Cottur. After the final stage to Milan, both Bartali and Cottur were given garlands and wrapped each other up in the Italian flag, with the rider from Trieste completing a kind of lap of honour with the overall victor.
What happened next: Coppi domination
A week after his victory, Bartali was in Zurich for the Tour of Switzerland, where he emerged victorious by over 16 minutes. Coppi’s own fine form continued that season with victories in the Grand Prix des Nations and the Giro di Lombardia. The following season, Bartali was the man Coppi feared most. So much so, that ahead of Milan-San Remo, Fausto, well aware of his rival’s habit of staying up late smoking and telling tales, ordered his brother Serse to make sure Bartali had a big night out. But the plan backfired: although Coppi was tucked up early, he abandoned the race with conjunctivitis; Serse and his hung-over pals all abandoned, while Bartali rode to a third win in La Primavera.
Il Campionissimo got his own back in the Giro, prising the Pink Jersey off Bartali’s back with a merciless attack on the Pordoi. When Coppi crashed out of the 1948 Giro, Bartali was a distant eighth as Fiorenzo Magni triumphed. In Coppi’s absence, Bartali then snared seven stages and won the Tour in 1948, a decade after his first victory before the War. The win, it is said, did enough to distract sports-mad Italy from potential civil war.
Later that year, at the World Championships in Valkenburg, the fractious relationship reached its nadir when both riders, joint leaders of the Italian squad, refused to work for one another, preferring to let anyone else win – so long as it wasn’t the other rider. The shameful scenes disgusted the entire country, and both men were banned for two months by the Italian federation. Bartali would never wear the rainbow bands in his career, and the two never trusted each other again.
In 1949, Coppi pulled off his legendary solo attack between Cuneo and Pinerolo, beating his rival by more than 23 minutes to finish ahead of Bartali in the Giro. That result was replicated two months later in the Tour, as Coppi became the first rider to do the Giro-Tour double in the same season.
He repeated this feat in 1952, by which time Bartali was on the wane and had only two more seasons in him. Both Italian legends lost time to the war, but their head-to-head results – partly thanks, perhaps, to the five-year age gap – skew heavily in Coppi’s favour. In events they both started, Coppi won 69 to Bartali’s 27. When neither won, the Coppi finished ahead 171 times, to Bartali’s 159. Giordano Cottur went on to finish third in the Giro two more times. In total, he wore the maglia rosa on 15 occasions during his career despite never topping the overall standings.
Meanwhile Luigi Malabrocca went to great lengths to defend his black jersey in 1947. He reportedly did his best to lost time by hiding along the route, puncturing his own tyres, and taking long breaks in bars. Going for a third Maglia Nera title in 1949, Malabrocca became a victim of his own game: after waiting too long on the side of the road, by the time he crossed the line the impatient timekeepers had packed up. He was automatically given the same time as the gruppetto, which handed the race’s booby prize to his rival Sante Carollo.
The genesis of a huge rivalry
There’s no denying that Coppi and Bartali’s rivalry was very real. But that’s not to say the two riders didn’t ham things up when they could. Both were aware of the financial benefits such a rivalry could bring them, as was La Gazzetta dello Sport, which needed the pair to boost its circulation. This dripped down through the sport, with both Legnano and Bianchi thriving from the rivalry by selling more bikes, while the teammates of the two champions could earn far more money working for them, rather than racing for themselves.
As for the fans, deprived of racing for so many years during the war, Coppi and Bartali’s long-standing rivalry ensured that they made up for lost time. The competition between the two best riders of their generation – of, arguably, all generations – set Italy on fire and split the tifosi down the middle. If Bartali was always the more popular, he was also a bad loser who had few friends inside the peloton.
But the so-called Iron Man, or L’uomo di ferro, was 32 years old going into the 1946 Giro – and having lost the previous edition in 1940 to his then 20-year-old apprentice, here was a sore loser who’d had to wait six years for a chance to get the revenge he always promised. It took a lot of luck and a bad day on Coppi’s part, but Bartali ground out the overall win that helped cement his legacy.
“I think that Bartali’s legacy would have been secure even without the 1946 win, especially as he went on to take the Tour de France a couple of years later, which was a huge deal at the time,” says O’Brien. “And, more recently, we’ve learned about his work helping Jewish families to escape the Fascists during World War Two. So I think we’d still be talking about him even if he hadn’t won another big race after the War. It must have been great fuel for the journalists, though, because it showed the rivalry was there and that despite his age, Gino was still dangerous.”
While Bartali had another eight years as a pro in his legs – and Coppi over a dozen – their enthralling wrangling came to a head in what was otherwise a fairly low-level Giro, the small field reduced to just 78 Italians and one American, all of whom somewhat short of race fitness and forced to turn the pedals over roads potholed from years of conflict. But the most important thing was that the 1946 Giro happened; that it became a worthy chapter in the extraordinary tale of Bartali verses Coppi was a welcome bonus.
“Although the race was probably a bit utilitarian, the fact that they actually managed to make it happen was really significant,” says Sykes. “Bartali obviously won the Tour in 1948 but it was the genesis of the big, big, big rivalry during that Giro in 1946. Because, obviously, there hadn’t been any cycling for five years. And Coppi had smashed it at San Remo, where he embarrassed everyone.”
Trieste might have become the focal point of the ‘Giro of Rebirth’, but the result was a final psychological payday for a mentor over his unruly apprentice. Bartali had other, far bigger wins still on the horizon, but this would prove to be the first and last, time he beat Coppi in one of cycling’s major stage races. Six years after his embarrassment at the hands of a fresh-faced debutant, ‘Gino the Pious’ had his revenge. Amen.
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