30 December 2021 By Elien Kaes History

Gino Bartali

Bartali will forever be an Italian cycling hero, not only because of his impressive victories, but also because of his wonderful riding style. He could win sprints when necessary, but what his fans really admired was how he could beat his opponents by attacking in the mountains. This enabled him to win the Giro d'Italia three times, but he was also successful in the Tour de France. In 1938 he finished with the yellow jersey around his shoulders in Paris and exactly ten years later, in '48, he succeeded again. Also very impressive are the stage victories of Gino during his career: 12 stages in the Tour and 17 in the Giro.

Gino Bartali wins the Giro d'Italia in 1946

Fausto Coppi

Fausto Angelo Coppi was one of the best and most elegant cyclists in cycling history. He could win almost anything: from one-day races, stage races, time trials to track races. Fausto was also able to win many magnificent races, including five victories in the Giro d'Italia and two victories in the Tour de France. He also won the Tour of Lombardy five times, Milan-San Remo three times and Paris-Roubaix once. In addition, he won the world title in 1953 and set a new world time record in 1942!

Fausto Coppi

The rivalry between the two Italian riders

In 1939, the team leaders of the Legano cycling team, where Gino Bartali was the front man, saw a new talent emerging, called Fausto Coppi. From the beginning, Coppi was very assertive and self-confident, which most 'servants' would not dare to show. Bartali and Coppi were opposites in all aspects. Bartali came from the countryside, was strongly built and could enjoy a glass of wine with his pasta. Coppi, on the other hand, was the symbol for a modern cyclist, who kept a strict diet and training schedule. Soon the two were cycling against each other instead of with each other. The hostile relationship between the two became legendary, winning was no longer important, but beating each other was.

The war between Fausto and Gino started during the Giro d'Italia, when Bartali got injured, but didn't give up and kept on riding on pure willpower. Bartali was the head of the team at that time, but Fausto kept on attacking, which put Pavesi (the team leader) in a difficult situation. He wanted to support Gino, but he also wanted to win. Therefore, he signalled to Fausto that he could attack. That was all he needed and he went on to attack fully. That day he became second in the general classification and later he also won the highly coveted "Maglia Rosa". From that moment on it was undeniable, Italy no longer had one "Campionissimo" (champion of champions), but two.

Bartali followed by Coppi at the Giro in 1940

After this there was a long period of peace between Fausto and Gino. However, this changed again in the Tour of Emilia the following season. In the meantime the war had broken out and this national classic was the only thing the Italians had left, so everyone strongly supported this cycling race. In 1940 Gino was able to take the first place and he wanted to do it again in '41. It looked like he would, because at the tactics meeting the night before the race Fausto said he would help. He was sick and not in top form, so he proposed to attack from the start and help Bartali. He would make sure he could escape and then he would stop. Fausto was indeed able to escape, but he did so until he crossed the finish line as the first rider. After this Gino confronted Fausto, upon which Fausto declared that he suddenly felt better and thus decided to abandon the plan.

After this race they did not see each other for a long time, because Bartali had to go into hiding for the war in 1943 and Coppi was a POW in North Africa. The races didn't start until after the war in 1946. By this time Coppi had changed cycling teams, so he was no longer obliged to take Bartali into account and could now give himself completely to win.

By now Bartali knew that Fausto was a strong cyclist. Beating him would be a difficult task. Gino was always looking for Fausto's weak points. This paid off during the Giro d'Italia, when Gino realised that Fausto suffered from a swollen vein in the back of his knee. From the moment this swelled up, Gino knew that Fausto was weaker and he attacked. That year Bartali was able to win from Coppi.

Moreover, Bartali was always convinced that Coppi had to take something in order to be that good. That's why he was always looking for doping in Coppi's surroundings. It even went so far that Gino always booked a hotel room as close to Fausto as possible, so that he could check his room for doping before a race. However, Gino never managed to prove it.

The rivalry reached a high point during the 1948 World Championship. Due to their one-sided focus on their personal rivalry, they both had to quit. The Italian Cycling Federation claimed that they had failed to honour their Italian prestige and disappointed all the supporters. Therefore, they were both suspended for three months.

The feud between the two talented riders continued for a while. However, it diminished towards the end of Gino's career: his fierce desire to win could not overcome ageing. Their rivalry finally came to an end. At the end of the 1959 season, Gino was the manager of his own team. He signed Fausto at the age of 40 to be his team captain in the next season. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. Fausto Coppi suffered from malaria in 1959 in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). His Italian doctors did not recognise the symptoms and gave him medication for pneumonia, which even accelerated his disease process and Fausto lost the battle. After this, Bartali's team didn't last long either, they needed the fierce Fausto Coppi.

Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi at the Tour de France in 1949


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