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Pedalare! Pedalare!
Pedalare! Pedalare!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pedalare, Pedalare: A History of Italian Cycling by John Foot, 11 Aug 2011
On any weekend from early Spring to late autumn, the busy strade statali leading out of any north Italian town are busy with groups of amateur cyclists - men mainly - heading up for a rigorous but sociable day's exercise in the foothills of the Alps. To read John Foot's latest book, `Pedalare, Pedalare: a history of Italian cycling' the Sunday cyclists are the last of a dying breed.
John Foot's last book was called `Calcio - a history of Italian football'. It came out in 2006 - just as the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the Italian game broke over Serie A - and months before the Azzuri bloody-mindedly, and against all odds, won the World Cup in Germany. Updated, it told a Boy's Own story of a bunch of unlikely heroes snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
His new book has a similar sub-title and tells the story of another sport dear to his heart. But there's a sadness about `Pedalare' that was absent from the earlier book. It reads like an elegy to an age of lost innocence, and a sport destroyed by changes in society - as well as its own addiction to performance-enhancing drugs. The only glimpse of a brighter future comes not from the shaven-legged stars of the Tour de France or the Giro d'Italia, but from a grass- roots bid by workaday cyclists to retake Italy's polluted city centres from the omnipotent motor car.
`Calcio' was thematic in its analysis of Italian football. `Pedalare' has much more of a narrative feel. It reads like the story of a sport in which the sport itself is one of the main characters. While the story of Italian football feels like a work in progress - reflecting the sense that for all its problems, it probably does still have a future-- there's an almost overwhelming completeness about cycling's fall from grace.
That's not to say that the story is dull or simply depressing. Far from it. Italian cycling isn't short on anecdotes and colourful characters. They include Enrico Toti, the one-legged cyclist who fought and died for his country during the First World War - in the process becoming an Italian nationalist icon; and the hilarious story of Luigi Malabrocca who made his name - and a small fortune -- by consistently winning the prize awarded for coming last in the Giro d'Italia in the 1940s.
But there are giants too. Partly, perhaps, because of what's happened since, the heroes - and the heroics - of the golden age are the stuff of legend. Football has long superseded cycling as Italians' sport of choice. But you don't see footballers biting hard on a piece of inner tube to overcome the pain of a broken collar bone - as Fiorenzo Magni did during the 1956 Giro. Few wear a grimace of pain etched indelibly into their face -- as did the early cycling hero, Ottavia Bottecchia. And few footballers die in the course of their day's work or its aftermath.
There are too many deaths to tell in this story: the young Italian rider, Fabio Casartelli, killed in an accident during the 1995 Tour de France (this year's death during the Giro of Belgium's Wouter Weylandt happened after the book went to press); Marco Pantani, dead from a massive cocaine overdose in 2004, less than six years after he'd won both the Giro and the Tour; and the unexpected, almost absurd death - from malaria -- of the man who stands unrivalled as the individual hero of John Foot's cycling world, the greatest Italian cyclist of them all, Fausto Coppi.
At the heart of `Pedalare' is the contest that Foot describes as the "the greatest individual sporting rivalry the world has ever seen" and "the rivalry to end all rivalries" - between Coppi and Gino Bartali. It is a jaw-droppingly bold claim.
Such was the competition between the two men for a brief period after the Second World War that their names became entwined in cycling folklore: for a while, says Foot, they were no longer two individuals; instead, they merged into a new word, a shared identity, "CoppieBartali", literally "Coppi-and-Bartali".
The rivalry is sanctified to this day in a photo from the 1952 Tour de France. It shows the two locked in combat on the classic climb up the Galibier, Coppi in front, Bartali just behind. One man is passing a bottle to the other. To this day, the discussion continues: who was passing the bottle to whom?
For all that, they had very different personalities. Bartali, a Tuscan, was a devout Catholic. He had a boxer's nose - the result of a riding accident - and he loved a cigarette, a drink, and a chat. During the war he used his bike to courier counterfeit identity papers across central Italy - helping to save the lives of hundreds of Jews.
But it's clearly Fausto Coppi that's won John Foot's heart. If Bartali was pious (he was even known as "Bartali the pious"), Coppi's decision to leave his wife for a married woman - the White Woman - scandalised the country. While Bartali was adopted as the poster boy of the centre-right and Catholic Christian Democrats, Coppi was identified with the Left. One of Italy's greatest-ever sports writers, Giorgio Bocca - a fan - described him as reflective, shy and modest... but at times cold and vengeful". He was also physically vulnerable - suffering a succession of accidents and injuries. He was, says Foot, made to cycle - as graceful on the saddle as he was ungainly off it. His early death confirmed the legend his life had already created.
The real challenge for John Foot was to sustain his story after his twin heroes have left the stage following Coppi's death in 1960 and Bartali's retirement.
He does so by holding a cyclist's mirror up to Italian society. In the early 20th century, he argues, cycling helped create modern Italy. The Giro even helped reinforce Italian unity - controversially when the 1946 race visited Trieste in the wake of the Second World War.
Cycling also reflected changes in society. Early on, bikes were affordable; they provided cheap transport for the newly-urbanised working class, especially in the north and centre of Italy. Spectators could identify with their heroes: both used bicycles - to earn a living, to travel to work, or both.
The arrival of the internal combustion engine changed all that. Italians fell in love with the car. And that love affair changed everything. Cities became dominated by the car; roads were designed with drivers in mind, not cyclists - quite the reverse: today's leisure cyclists take their lives in their hands every time they set off for that Sunday ride up into the hills.
TV, too, changed Italians' view of cycling. Technically, it revolutionised the way fans could follow the progress of the Giro, the Tour or Spain's Vuelta - with cameras feeding live footage from helicopters and motorbikes, combined with instant analysis from roadside pundits. But it also broke the immediacy of the bond between cyclist and spectator.

It is, though, the curse of doping that turns John Foot's story from heroic adventure to tragedy. There's nothing new to doping. Fausto Coppi was - writes Foot - open about his use of drugs, with detractors (there were a few) claiming that he was "bombato" - high on amphetamine-based concoctions - for much of his career. Coppi's coach Biagio Cavanna -- "the guru" of Italian cycling in its heyday - was as well-known for his preparation of miraculous potions as he was for his merciless training regime. And cycling is undeniably brutal in what it demands of the human body. As the five-time winner of the Tour de France, Jacques Anquetil, famously put it: "You cannot compete in the Tour on mineral water alone."
The Giro had been hit by scandal before - most notably when "The Cannibal" - Eddie Merckx -failed a drugs test in 1969 - a moment which Foot describes as marking the end of cycling's age of innocence. But there seems to have been a step change in the 1980s, with the introduction of new bike technology and medical know-how to break records and push men past their natural limits. It allowed an Italian cyclist, Francesco Moser, to smash the world one-hour record. What the millions watching on TV didn't know was that Moser had changed his blood in order to achieve his goal.
The die was cast. By the end of the next decade, cycling was well on the road to ruin, Marco Pantani the most high profile victim of the sport's demand for ever higher sporting standards, while it lost its grip on any ethical yardstick. Pantani - the most exhilarating mountain climber of his generation -- failed a drugs test as he looked sure to win the 1999 Giro. He always protested his innocence - but was destroyed as a cyclist and as a man. There was a dramatic inevitability about his lonely death in Rimini just five years later.
But Pantani wasn't alone. He was, rather, a symbol of what had gone wrong. John Foot lists the top cyclists who've been exposed as drugs cheats. It makes sobering reading.
At the end of `Pedalare, Pedalare', John Foot returns to the site of some of Italian cycling's greatest moments - the old Vigorelli velodrome in Milan. Crumbling, unloved and unused (except for a brief spell as a temporary place of prayer for the city's burgeoning Muslim population), it becomes a symbol for a lost age of (relative) innocence, where what you saw was what you got - and it didn't take a holy fool to believe in dreams and heroes.

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