Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi Hardcover – 4 Jun 2009
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A remarkable biography of 'the most popular Italian sportsman of the twentieth century' by the acclaimed author of Put Me Back on My BikeSee all Product description
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The reason for this is that, in this book, he avoids the usual formula of the racing and results and a potted history of the person. Insofar as the results are concerned, cycling is hamstrung by the palmares of Eddy Merckx, which is like like comparing the batting averages of Don Bradman against everyone else. There is no comparison: the gulf is too large. What he has done instead is weave a multi faceted story: the rags to riches story of the poor boy made good; the complex rivalry between himself and Gino Bartali; and of course his 'interesting' domestic life that polarised Italy. All this is interspersed against the historical, social and political upheaval of the war and after, and the social mores of Italy moving from the control of the church to a secular society. Ultimately, the story of the man is more interesting than the career.
Coppi and Bartali were two of Italy's greatest ever sports stars and the various photos that turn up in this book and elsewhere are iconic. They attained film star status with the media attention they attracted. And it makes me wonder what results they would have achieved but for the intervention of the War. Fotheringham also did a good thing in managing to get Raphael Geminiani onside as it's apparent he's good for a quote and very opinionated; and, quick to take umbrage like he did with Paul Howard's book on Jacques Anquetil.
I would recommend this book to any sports fan, not just to those interested in cycling because the sporting angle becomes subsumed in the life story, which makes it all the more worthy.
In March 1943 Coppi joined the Italian army and was captured in North Africa by the British the following month. He was repatriated to Italy in 1945 and in July that year won the Circuit of the Aces in Milan. Cycling was the centre of huge media interest with Coppi and Bartali its main stars. From the late nineteenth century drug use was widespread in many sports and none more so than cycling. The situation was so widespread that in 1930 the Tour de France rule book reminded competitors that the organisers would not provide them with drugs. Coppi was open about the use of amphetamines, although none were ever found on him.
The rivalry with Bartali started at the beginning of Coppi's career. He joined Bartali's team in 1940 winning the Giro d'Italia by a massive margin over his team leader. Barteli was not amused. Bartali was a southerner, a traditionalist, a conservative with a leaning towards Church inspired Christian Democracy. It was said that Bartali relied on praying while cycling Coppi relied only on his body. Unlike Coppi he did not serve in the army but was reputed to have ridden his bike carrying messages on behalf of the Italian Resistance knowing he would not be stopped because of his national fame. Coppi was the hero of the industrial north and more secular in outlook at a time when Italian society was undergoing substantial cultural change which created sharp and violent political divisions.
In the early 1950's Coppi's reputation was hit when he became involved with a married woman Giulia Locatelli. Coppi's wife was not interested in cycling and, as his interests grew, they grew apart. Locatelli was interested in the sport and, according to her husband, was a social climber. In the public recriminations which followed the public seem to have endorsed the lady in white as a scarlet woman. Coppi separated from his wife and Locatelli from her husband, reverting to her maiden name of Occhini. Their relationship was a national scandal - even the Pope expressed his disapproval by refusing to bless the peloton at the start of the 1955 Giro d'Italia because it included a "public sinner". The public trial created an hostile atmosphere which led to Occhini travelling to Argentina for the birth of her son where he could be registered as legitimate. They eventually married in Mexico although the marriage was never recognised in Italy. By contrast Coppi's birthplace is now a museum to his achievements.
It's been argued that Coppi's decline was accelerated by the death of his younger brother, Serse, who crashed in a race in 1951 and suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. By the mid 1950's it was evident his strength had gone and by the time of his death race organisers were supposedly shortening races by 10k to make sure Coppi could finish them. On a trip to Upper Volta in Africa (now known as Burkina Faso) he caught malaria and died. Occhini blamed incompetent medics who thought he had a bronchil complaint and treated him for influenza. Later suggestions that he died from an overdose of cocaine appear to be without foundation although years of taking amphetamines cannot have helped Coppi. If Tommy Simpson rode himself to death Fausto Coppi was death still riding. For both it was all about the bike.
According to Fotheringham, "The Coppi myth has a momentum of its own". He has not tried to debunk the myth but places it in context. I cannot praise him too highly for the way he has tackled the subject. As a biography it is superior to most and evocative of the times. The curse of drugs has still not been eliminated from cycling, or other sports, which is a sad reflection on sports people. Cycling too still seems to be dominated by politics. There's enough statistics in the book to satisfy the general reader and make the point that Coppi was a great cyclist if an imperfect personality. If I can't identify with the former I do understand the latter. Five stars.
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