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The Italian, of course, is the cyclist for whom style is everything. His training cannot start until his gear is immaculate (and he has had his first espresso). With the tifosi urging him on, when the Giro caravan rolls into town he occasionally shrugs off his habitual cool. Italian riders have often been a bellwether for the conflicting passions and social upheaval that regularly assail their homeland.
The post-war period boasted a surfeit of Italian talent led, of course, by the incomparable Fausto Coppi.
The former bicycle delivery boy from Castellania, he won the first of five Giro titles in 1940, his dominance of the sport thereafter and his battles with arch-rival Gino Bartali providing relief from the national humiliation brought on Italy by Mussolini. Coppi celebrated his greatest year in 1949, becoming the first man to notch up the Giro and Tour in the same year, including KOM jerseys in both. Coppi’s rivalry with Bartali divided the nation and Bartali’s own palmares were illustrious enough. But it was Coppi who typified the Italian stereotype of the volatile, emotional rider, one who shouldered the expectations of a nation but was ultimately at the mercy of his personal passions. His public affair with the Giulia Occhini would ultimately lead to his excommunication, and he died in 1960, after contracting malaria on a hunting trip to Africa. But Coppi will always occupy the top the podium in the affections of the tifosi. Il Campionissimo is dead, long live Il Campionissimo.
Felice Gimondi, appropriately nicknamed The Phoenix, was born during the war and who rose not once but twice. First, to the top of his sport, stringing together an impressive run of victories in the late Sixties: the Tour in 1965, his first year as a pro; the Giro two years later. When he won the Vuelta a year after that, in 1968, he became only the second man after Jacques Anquetil to claim all three of Europe’s Grand Tours. While a second Giro came in 1969, it was the best part of a decade before he rose again, claiming his third Giro in 1976.
In the modern era, the likes of Mario Cipollini reasserted the Italian rider’s position as the most flamboyant rider in the pro peloton, effortlessly stylish both on the bike and off it (allegedly the owner of countless designer suits he has never worn). But it also witnessed another dominant force, a rider who was the heir to Coppi, not simply because he possessed a rare genius but because he, too, became a conduit for national expectations and paid the highest price for doing so.
Marco Pantani’s premature death, in a Rimini hotel room at the age of 34, was a tragic end for a rider acknowledged as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced. Victory in both the Tour and Giro of 1998 should have been the start of a long and illustrious career but it was promise never fully realised.