Fausto Coppi: The Triumphs And The Tragedies

Fausto Coppi

Coppi’s life on and off the road was the stuff of Hollywood

If we focus solely on his cycling, the career of Fausto Coppi is in simple terms one of the most decorated of all time. The Italian dominated the sport either side of the Second World War, using his all-round skills as a climber, sprinter and time-trialist to build a palmares that rewrote the record books and raised the bar for those that followed him into professional road cycling. After the anniversary earlier this month of his death in January 1960, there would be enough mileage in his glittering achievements on the road alone to honour the great man in print – here, after all, is a man who in 1999 was voted the second greatest Italian sportsperson of the 20th century.

But Coppi’s story is more than just cycling. In addition to all the the glory there was a rivalry with a fellow Italian pro that divided the country; a spell in a prisoner of war camp; a marital scandal that rocked conservative Italian society to its core; and a premature death. Like his countryman, the great soccer player Valentino Mazzola, and the legendary American heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, it can be argued that the best years of his career were lost to the war and we may have not seen the best of him. So while Coppi is rightly celebrated as one of the all time greats, any analysis of his achievements or his life are unavoidably footnoted by the twin factors of tragedy and controversy. And rarely has a sportsman been exposed to such hysterical levels of both messianic adulation and deep-rooted vilification.

Coppi’s remarkable life began, fittingly, in the shadows of the Alps that he would conquer so often from the saddle. He was born in the Italian Alpine region of Piedmont in September 1919 and by 1940, at the age of 20, he had won the Giro d’Italia. A star had been born.

Coppi’s unexpected success in that race sparked a rivalry with Italian cycling’s established hero of the time, Gino Bartali, that defined both men’s careers and created an intrinsic link between the two men that neither could shake off. For Ali and Frazier in boxing, for Federer and Nadal in tennis and for Senna and Prost in Formula One, think Coppi and Bartali in cycling. At the time of Coppi’s breakthrough in 1940 Bartali was already a dual winner of the Giro and had also won the Tour de France in 1938. He was five years older than Coppi, was the undisputed number one in Italy and universally recognised as one of the best cyclists in the world.

Coppi had been hired to help Bartali to win the 1940 Giro, but ran away with the race himself by a wide margin. The world was astonished. So was Bartali, but his astonishment was supplemented by a sense of indignation that never faded. The stage had been set for a series of intense sporting duels that would last for the best part of a decade.

1949 Tour de France: Fausto Coppi

Coppi soaks up the adulation after winning the 1949 Tour de France

More often than not Coppi came out on top and, perhaps crucially for his legacy, travelled further and wider than Bartali in search of fame and glory. Bartali preferred to race mainly in Italy, eschewing the northern European Classic races. In 1950 Coppi secured the notable double of Paris-Roubaix and La Fleche Wallone, delighting first hand the northern European crowds who had waited patiently to see him win in the flesh and also proving his versatility. Coppi also won more Giros than Bartali (five wins to three) and matched his success in the Tour de France (two wins each).

Partly because of his more numerous international appearances and successes, contrasted to Bartali’s insularity, the Italian media were able to create two very different personas. In one corner you had Coppi: cosmopolitan, innovative in his methods, urbane and representative of the economically and industrially progressive north. In the other corner there was Bartali: deeply religious, conservative in attitude, relatively uninterested in life and competition outside Italy and a man who cherished his roots in the rural, traditionalist south of the country. The contrast between the two men polarised the masses.

Some may argue that Coppi needed Bartali. That his star wouldn’t shine so brightly all these years after his death if his great rival hadn’t been around to challenge him and inspire him to his greatest victories. That school of thought, however, does an enormous injustice to Coppi’s mercurial talent and his dedication. In addition to his successes in the grand tours and in northern Europe he also won the Road World Championship (1953), Milan-San Remo three times and, amongst other road successes, the Giro di Lomardia five times. He was the first rider to win the Giro/Tour double and achieved that feat in both 1949 and 1952. And he also broke the world hour record on the track in 1952.

On paper there is little doubt about his greatness. Coppi would have been a superstar in any era. To an extent his rivalry with Bartali simply increased his fame and notoriety, mainly amongst those observers with an untrained eye and only a passing interest in cycling. To the purist his qualities are obvious, with no need for added spice or sensationalism.

In the flesh, according to those who saw him, there was even less of a doubt. In their 2006 book, the Story of the Tour de France, Bill and Carol McGann wrote: “Coppi won it all: the world hour record, the world championship, the grand tours, the classics and the time trials. The great French cycling journalist Pierre Chany says that between 1946 and 1954, once Coppi had broken away from the peloton, the peloton never saw him again. Can this be said of any other racer? Informed observers who saw both ride say that Coppi was the more elegant rider who won by dint of his physical gifts, as opposed to Merckx who drove himself and hammered his competition relentlessly by being the very embodiment of pure will.”

We will never know how many more titles Coppi would have added to his palmares if injury and war hadn’t intervened. As a result of malnutrition as a child, Coppi had very brittle bones. This led to numerous injuries and major breaks to his shoulder, pelvis, vertebrae and more, all of which kept him out of action for prolonged periods. During World World Two his cycling was put on hold as he joined up with the Italian army, eventually being captured by British forces in Africa and being held as a prisoner of war for over two years. He returned to cycling in the post-war years stronger than ever. Yet despite the drama and all of the achievements in his life up until that point, he will have been ill-prepared for what was to follow.

Fausto Coppi

Coppi’s achievements and dramatic personal life made him cycling’s first megastar

On the road in 1952 he clinched a second Giro/Tour double, sealing his place at that time as arguably the greatest cyclist in history. Off the road his personal life was about to cause headlines all across the world and transform him from hero to villain, from angel to devil, in Italy. His affair with a married woman, with Coppi also married himself, caused a huge scandal in Italy where adultery was still a criminal offence in the 1950s. Their affair began to heighten late in 1952 and in 1953 it became public when a French newspaper printed a photograph of Coppi and his mistress together after that year’s Road World Championships, which Coppi won.

The lady in question, Giulia Occhini, was also the mother to two young children and it is not an exaggeration to say that the photo caused shockwaves back home that rocked Italian society to its foundations. The Vatican got involved and eventually Coppi and Mrs Occhini were arrested and put on trial for adultery in 1955. Both received suspended jail sentences. The two eventually got married and had a child together, but neither the marriage nor their son were officially recognised by the Italian authorities.

Just five years after the trial, Coppi’s life – Hollywood-esque in both plot and execution – ended at the age of 40. He died of malaria in tragic circumstances after contracting the disease in Burkino Faso, Africa, following an exhibition race. The French rider Raphael Geminiani was also struck down with disease, but while he was correctly diagnosed Coppi was not. The Italian’s doctors instead treated him for a bronchial complaint and he never recovered.

So 52 years on from that fateful day when he passed away, how should Coppi be remembered? As a man who transcended the sport of cycling? Definitely. With regret for the years he lost? Yes. As cycling’s first superstar who brought it into the general consciousness for the first time? Probably. As the greatest rider of all time? We’ll never know.

This feature originally appeared on cyclingnews.com

© Future Publishing/Mark Robinson 2012


ARCHIVE: Armstrong Scandal Is Professional Sport’s Biggest Stain

Lance Armstrong

Villain: US cyclist Lance Armstrong’s record-breaking achievements on the road came about by cheating, according to the US Anti Doping Agency

It isn’t hard to remember where you were when you heard the news that a stanozolol-fuelled Ben Johnson had been stripped of his 100 metres gold medal at the 1988 Olympics. The world collectively stopped what it was doing and reached for its breath. With subsequent evidence revealing that a high proportion of Johnson’s contemporaries also cheated to boost their performances, it took almost 20 years and the emergence of Usain Bolt for sprinting to recover its reputation. Shockwaves were felt across the globe and at the time it was almost beyond comprehension that one day there would be a more widely felt stain on the ancient sporting values of fair play and competition. And then, 24 years later, on 10 October this year, the sky fell in on a scale that trumped that day in Seoul.

The fallout from the United States Anti Doping Agency’s (USADA) 1000-page report, which stated that seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong’s US Postal Team ‘ran the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen’, was still unfolding on a daily basis at the time of writing. Where it all ends will not be known for many months but the momentum it has built up and the collateral damage it’s leaving in its wake has all the devastation and destruction of an avalanche.

The Purging of a Pariah

USADA ’s evidence suggested that, rather than being a cog in the overall machinations of the disgraced US Postal team, Armstrong was the man turning the wheels. Allegations of the team coercing junior members into taking performance-enhancing drugs left a sinister aftertaste. That, and the aggressive lengths that Armstrong allegedly went to in covering it up, paints a picture of a man who employed fear as a weapon in his ultimately ill-fated battle to preserve a reputation built as much in a laboratory as it was on the road.

The final nail in the coffin for Armstrong came on 22 October, when cycling’s governing body the UCI upheld USADA’s findings. UCI president Pat McQuaid agreed that Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles should be removed from the history books with immediate effect and stated that USADA ’s lifetime ban for the Texan was fully endorsed by the UCI. Armstrong “has no place in cycling” said McQuaid. When asked how the American should be remembered, McQuaid simply stated that Armstrong should be forgotten by the sport and by its followers.

The language used could hardly have been more unequivocal, and McQuaid’s tone of voice contained all the finality of an executioner. It was a stunning change of tack for a governing body that for the past couple of decades has been accused of indecisiveness, temerity and, in some quarters, downright complicity with those who have engaged in sport’s darkest arts by illegally pumping their bodies full of banned performance-enhancing drugs in order to gain an unfair advantage over their rivals.

“It’s not a surprise that an outside body like USADA took the initiative in this,” says cycling journalist Daniel Friebe, author of a recent biography of Eddy Merckx, The Cannibal. “For years people have made vague allegations that the UCI is corrupt. The least you can say is that they weren’t particularly attentive when Armstrong was at the top.

“In the last couple of decades they have shown little interest in investigating the past. It’s been a book or a police investigation that has been the catalyst.”

Armstrong has never failed a dope test and the results of USADA’s far-reaching investigation could not prove that he had. Yet the sophisticated doping programme undertaken by him and his US Postal team was designed to mask their crimes from the testers. Eleven of his former teammates testified that they had doped alongside Armstrong over a long period of time. Of those already retired it is Tyler Hamilton who has been the most vocal in his condemnation of his own actions and those of Armstrong.

His recently released book, The Secret Race, is one of the most jaw-dropping sporting exposés of recent years. One of its passages tells the story of Hamilton borrowing some EPO from a fridge in Armstrong’s home as if it was simply a pint of milk.

Armstrong’s dwindling band of supporters have labelled Hamilton as an opportunist. His book has rocketed to the top of numerous best-seller lists across the world but the bare facts show that Hamilton testified against Armstrong under oath. The notion that Hamilton and the other cyclists cited by USADA would be prepared to commit perjury – and in the process ruin their own reputations – solely out of hatred for Armstrong is preposterous.

Loss of Faith

In the aftermath of the USADA report, new revelations and ramifications surfaced on an almost daily basis: receipts were printed that showed over $1 million being paid by Armstrong into the bank account of the disgraced doctor Michele Ferrari, a man who once talked about EPO and orange juice in the same breath; Armstrong’s $125,000 donation to the UCI has been looked upon with fresh suspicion; all of Armstrong’s major long-term sponsors, such as Nike, Oakley and Trek, dropped him; Armstrong stepped down from his role as chairman of Livestrong, the charitable cancer foundation that he set up after defeating the disease; and Rabobank – the longest standing headline sponsor of a ProTour team – announced it was withdrawing from cycling because of the damage that a continued association with the sport could do to its brand.

Pat McQuaid

Under fire: Cycling’s governing body the UCI, led by Pat McQuaid, has been accused of policing the sport too leniently

So aside from dragging cycling onto the front pages for the wrong reasons and diminishing its reputation, what does all of this mean for the future of the sport? Can we still have faith in cycling? And if the answer is no, how can it rebuild our trust in these darkest of times?

The general consensus has been that the UCI has been culpable in failing to police the sport and not flushing out the cheats over a number of years. One startling figure, once you include Armstrong into the equation, is that 17 of the 33 winners of the Tour de France since 1980 have either tested positive or admitted to doping. The weight of that statistic suggests that the sport is rotten to its core. So will it now use this mess to get its house in order?

Taken at face value, McQuaid’s public utterances as he confirmed the UCI sanctions did appear to be intended as an ushering in of a period of healing. When he spoke of cycling having to tackle “the biggest crisis it’s ever faced”, he predicted that the scandal could be a landmark in the future of the sport. “I like to look at this crisis as an opportunity for our sport and everyone involved in it to realise it is in danger and to work together to go forward,” he said.

But amid his passionate defence of the sport, the hyperbolic vehemence of his finger pointing and the promises of a new dawn, there were holes. Aside from the lack of responsibility taken, McQuaid floundered on the question of Armstrong’s $125,000 donation. He said that the UCI should have handled those donations differently and implied that accepting them was a mistake. But he later said that the UCI would not rule out accepting rider donations in the future.

“In terms of the image of the sport itself, [convicted doper] Floyd Landis famously said to [journalist and former cyclist] Paul Kimmage that if he’d had any confidence in the UCI one day cleaning up the cycling he’d have never taken drugs,” says Friebe.

“Nobody has any real confidence that the sport will ever totally rid itself of doping. Though it’s true that the culture nowadays is far healthier than it was a decade ago.”

McQuaid has stated that the drug testing procedures the UCI has at its disposal are far more advanced than they were 10 years ago. Despite the high profile cases in 2012 involving Alberto Contador and Frank Schleck, there do seem to be winds of change blowing through the sport.

But whether or not a new start can be achieved while some of those who oversaw and took part in the sport’s nadir are still in positions of authority is a key question. Should the UCI start again from scratch in terms of its key employees? Should there be lifetime bans for everyone – riders, coaches, staff, doctors, administrators – involved in those lost years? There is clearly much to ponder.

“As soon as doping is mentioned there’s a moral threshold that people cross,” says Friebe. “It becomes a deeply moralistic issue. Other forms of cheating in sport don’t have the same stigma attached to them, such as diving in football. The same goes for holding on to cars in road racing. That’s rife, and arguably has a bigger effect on the results of stage races if a rider holds onto a car and then wins a sprint the next day.

“You can’t even explain it away by arguing that people’s health is at stake. It’s their choice, their body. So there’s a wider issue – why do we feel the way we do about doping? If the punishment for a first offence was a three-month ban rather than two years would people feel as strongly about it? Are the lawmakers imposing their own views on us?”

Perhaps it’s time that those lawmakers take into account the views of the fans – intelligent, passionate people who are the lifeblood of the sport and have been for a century. They have loyally suffered through many doping scandals and have been consistently ignored. It’s time for their opinions to be listened to.

This feature originally appeared in Cycling Plus Magazine

© Future Publishing/Mark Robinson 2013

ARCHIVE: Confessions Of A Crook

Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey

Talking at last: but Lance Armstrong’s emotionless interview with Oprah Winfrey arguably worsened the cyclist’s reputation instead of restoring it

He had been referred to by the influential French newspaper L’Equipe as a ‘Fallen Godfather’, and as Lance Armstrong followed in the footsteps of dozens of disgraced public figures by agreeing to be interviewed on television by Oprah Winfrey last week, the lack of remorse and emotion he  displayed on screen had all the hallmarks of a hoodlum’s courtroom confession.

Despite the limits that legal constraints obviously placed on the detail of some of the answers that Winfrey’s critics had hoped she could extract, Armstrong’s stony-eyed taciturnity over the minutiae of his crimes and the perfunctory acknowledgement of his victims was a lesson to any budding actor with aspirations of landing a starring role in HBO’s next drama series about organised crime. To the rest of the world, and in particular to those he trampled all over to perpetuate and mask his wrongdoings, it left the bitterest of tastes and removed all doubt surrounding his ignominious claim as professional sport’s biggest ever villain.

It was an interview that revealed more about the man than his methods and on reflection it was neither the time nor the place for the 41-year-old Texan to name the exact times and places where he indulged in the heinous practice of repeatedly pumping himself full of the performance-enhancing drugs that would see him win the Tour de France in 1999 and successfully defend the title six times. Armstrong’s legal team were clearly watching and he had clearly and understandably been briefed as to what he could and couldn’t say with the inevitable rash of court cases looming large on the horizon.

That Winfrey got Armstrong to admit to systematic and prolonged doping on camera and coaxed words like ‘cheat’, ‘liar’ and ‘bully’ out of his own mouth wasn’t enough for some, despite the admissions offering overdue vindication for some members of the media and finally laying to rest levels of speculation and debate that had taken up enough column inches to decorate the Great Wall of China over the last few years.

Winfrey’s reputation as America’s most influential interviewer hardly needed enhancing yet careful reflection brings about the conclusion that it probably has been, despite her not really having to work for it. While the two-part interview may have been short on detail, few will forget that it was in a hotel room at her prompting where Armstrong – wittingly or not – revealed the monstrousness of his personality to the world.

His apologies to two of the women that he hounded and defamed for daring to speak out against him were thin on both conviction and sincerity and those, alongside his revelation that he needed to look the word ‘cheating’ up in the dictionary to see if it applied to him, were particular low points.

But were we misguided to expect anything else? Tears from one of sport’s toughest and most defiant men – cheat or not – were always a remote possibility, and his brave survival of cancer will have acted as unwanted training for any crisis that life could subsequently throw at him. Indeed it was only when talking about the effect that this whole scandal has had on his family that his bottom lip started to quiver. But even the most hardened of crime bosses are sentimental about their own flesh and blood…

This column originally appeared in Cycling Plus Magazine

© Future Publishing/Mark Robinson 2013