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dino buzzati’s giro d’italia

A deep cut for my cycling friends, this essay reviews Italian playwright Dino Buzzati’s account of the 1949 Giro d’Italia. It originally appeared as a front of the book piece in Paved Magazine, and it fit the offbeat vibe of the place. If you can by chance find a copy of Buzzati’s book, I highly recommend it. A lengthy review essay like this one is so thoroughly a print artefact, it feels out of place here on the internet. But why the hell not? Words, we can put them anywhere we want, really. Also, history is fun. Let’s make more of it.

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In 1949, Corriere della Sera sent Dino Buzzati to write about the Giro d’Italia. His daily reports are collected and translated in The Giro D’Italia: Coppi versus Bartali at the 1919 Tour of Italy. A novelist and playwright, Buzzati had never before followed the race. The editors plainly gave him a free hand, because Buzzati did not cover cycling in any normal sense of the word. Read Buzzati’s dispatches in vain for talk of time gaps and race leaders. The stage winner is rarely the lede: This is no straight-up story about a bike race.

Instead, Buzzati’s daily reports read as a series of dreamy, stream of consciousness essays. He is the master of overwriting with a style so wrong, it’s eventually beautifully right. And through the surface chaos, a consistent set of themes become clear over the course of his twenty dispatches from the Giro. Buzzati meditates on what it means to be Italian at that particular moment in history. He dreams in classical mythology and finds ghosts among the ruins. A bike race runs through it all.

Buzzati’s cycling vacation came at the height of one of the sport’s great rivalries. In 1949 Fausto Coppi had twice won the Giro d’Italia while Gino Bartali had three victories in Italy’s grand tour. Legend has portrayed the two riders as stark opposites, a perspective reinforced by the dramatic race reports of the time. Like a photographer peering through a pinhole, cycling’s writers of the 1940s could see only pieces of the whole, so they filled in the gaps with their own inventions.

Nicknamed il Pio, Bartali “the Pious” stood for traditional Italian culture. Portrayed as religious and ascetic, Bartali was associated with southern Italy, which at the time remained tied to the land. Coppi was by contrast depicted as the face of modernism, and contemporary accounts emphasized his scientific training plans and secular perspective.

The reality was more complicated, but certainly the two riders clashed on the road. In 1949 the Coppi and Bartali climbed off their bikes at the world championship road race rather than ride as teammates for Italy.

When the 1949 Giro began, the rivalry between Coppi and Bartali was the story and even Buzzati knew it. The race began that year in Palermo, which sits on the northern coast of Sicily. The modern Giro remains notorious for its lengthy transfers, but recent years’ races have nothing on the 1949 edition.

To get to the race start, the caravan departed from Genoa and two separate boat trips later, they arrived in Palermo. Buzzati noted that superchampions Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali took the train. He imagined the rest of the riders lying in their bunks, lulled to sleep by the waves.

“He dreams, the little soldier of the roads, who has never heard the crowd roar his name, nor been lifted on to the shoulders of the delirious throng after his victory,” wrote Buzzati. “He is dreaming of what all men at one time or another have an absolute need to imagine, otherwise life would become too hard to bear.”

Bike racing, life, and history all blur together in Buzzati’s mind, and in what becomes a familiar pattern in his stories, Buzzati chose to talk about history in his first dispatch from the Giro. “Should we now abstain in making such an instinctive comparison with the departure of the Mille Quarto?” he asked. “It is impossible that whoever invented this unprecedented start did so without remembering the Lion of Camprera.”

The Lion of Camprera has little to do with bike racing, and quite a lot to do with Italian history. The familiar map of Italy where we trace out today’s Giro d’Italia courses is a relatively recent invention. A series of military battles during the late nineteenth century forged a unified state out of the patchwork of kingdoms who ruled the Italian peninsula. Famed for his military successes, Guiseppe Garibaldi served as one of the architects of Italy’s unification. His long blonde hair, beard, and lethal military reputation earned him the “Lion of Camprera” nickname. In 1860 Garibaldi and his forces, “the Expedition of the Thousand,” sailed from Genoa to Sicily.

For Buzzati, the Giro caravan resembled Garibaldi’s forces for unification, and not only in their maritime adventuring. The Giro caravan travelled the length of the peninsula and linked together Italy’s disparate parts. The word Giro, or “circle,” suggested a unifying idea. This symbolism remains alive and well and to this day, the road book for the Giro is called “il Garibaldi.” The idea of unification held an especially strong hold in Buzzati’s time, because during the Second World War, Italy endured division and occupation. At war’s end, no magic fairy appeared to wave her wand and disappear the wounds of war.

By 1949, four years had passed, but the marks of Europe’s immolation remained visible. On 27 May, the Giro raced from Napoli to Roma. The day’s stage passed Cassino, the site of a deadly four-month battle. Running between January and May 1944, the Battle of Monte Cassino led to 55,000 allied and 20,000 German casualties. Allied bombardment, meanwhile, smashed Cassino — and its Abby dating from 529 A.D. — to splinters.

Little wonder that Buzzati chose that day to write of ghosts. Though a rebuilt Cassino rose already by 1949 to the southeast of its original site, the deserted ruins of the old city seized hold of Buzzati’s imagination and refused to let go. “There were no lovely girls at the windows,” he wrote that night in Rome after the stage had finished. “Even the windows were missing, even the walls were missing where the windows should have opened.” A scar cut through the land where the old city stood. “Everything was leveled as it was at the beginning of the world.”

As he drove by the ruined city, Buzzati imagined that he saw the war’s ghosts reanimated and drawn from their graves by the commotion of the Giro’s passing. “Come wake up! Bartali is here. Coppi is here. Don’t you want to see them, if only out of curiosity?” When the ghosts, alarmed at the disturbance, declined to watch the Giro’s spectacle, Buzzati attempted to reassure them.

“It is life, that’s what it is, in its most ingenuous, sensational form, and for you somewhat irritating, I’m afraid,” he wrote. “The specters lay down again, rested their cheeks against the compassionate earth, and went back to sleep.”

The race continued on, the ghosts returned to their rest. An eight rider break survived to the finish in the Appio velodrome in Rome. Mario Ricci won the day, the Giro’s sixth stage. Buzzati had little to say about the bike race. Who wore the maglia rosa? You would not know it from reading Buzzati, but the race leader at the end of the day was Giordano Cottur of Trieste.

Four days later, Cottur rode into his home city of Trieste. In 1949, Trieste was not Italian territory. As a consequence of the postwar settlements, the city sat in a “free state,” administered by the newly created United Nations. The separation of Trieste from Italy led to much anguished hair-pulling, though in fact the city had only become part of Italy after the First World War. Buzzati had no doubt that Trieste was Italian, and that in passing through the city, the Giro visited a lost but not forgotten relative.

“At that point, the atmosphere of the Giro suddenly changed,” wrote Buzzati. “There was no longer any difference between the great champions and the vulgar nags, and not between the racers and the members of the caravan… we were truly equal. Because we all came from Italy.”

At the end of the day in Udine, Adolfo Leoni won the stage, and took the race lead by 4:43 over Mario Fazio. For Buzzati, the image of Trieste was what lingered from the events of the day. “All that the mind retains of the day’s events is the image of a jubilant city on the seashore, full of sun, flags, happiness, bitter anguish, tears and laughter, an entire city that roared ‘Hurrah for Bartali, Hurrah for Coppi,’ shouted almost with despair, ‘Hurrah for the Giro… and wanted to say something quite different.” Trieste returned to Italy in 1954 the year after Coppi won his fifth Giro and there was then no longer any need to say anything different.

Though Buzzati’s preoccupation was with the world around the bike race, the 1949 Giro had its share of suspense. As the race headed to the Dolomiti, the great champions Coppi and Bartali remained more than ten minutes out of the race lead. With the mountains to come, the time gap looked likely to melt away like gelato spilled on a summer sidewalk.

“The wise ones, the old foxes, the oracles, the professors, the astrologists, the chosen few who understand cycling esoterica, don’t grant any importance to what has happened. In their opinion, the route covered until today, all 2296 kilometers of hardship, tribulations, sweat, suffering, were nothing but a prologue.”

Buzzati did not count himself among the sport’s experts, and saw no reason to argue with their expectations. He acknowledged Leoni’s fleeting hold on the race lead ahead of the mountains. “Glory is fragile even in cycling: The merest trifle is enough to turn the trumpets in another direction.” The story of the mountains belonged to Coppi and Bartali.

The climactic scene of the 1949 Giro took place in the French Alps during the race’s final week. The now-famous stage ran 254 kilometers from Pinerolo to Cuneo and crossed five mountain passes: Colle delle Maddalena, Col de Vars, Col de l’Izoard, il Monginevro, and Sestrière. Leoni had a slim 43 second lead over Coppi, while Bartali trailed by ten minutes. In that era, time gaps of ten and even twenty minutes frequently reversed in a single stage. The weather cooperated to add to the drama.

“This stage, which devours men… began in gloomy valley, in the rain, under enormous clouds, in a mist floating just above the ground, in a climate of uneasiness, in an atmosphere of depression,” wrote Buzzati later in his stage report. Plainly, the man had no fear of adjectives.

After around 60 kilometers of racing, the riders faced the Colle Della Maddelena (Col de Larche in French), and as they hit the climb, Arbos’ Primo Volpi made the first move. “I saw Volpi attack first on the Maddalena, the others were riding behind him, I passed him without forcing it,” recounted Coppi later. No one came across to join him, and at first, Coppi was not sure it was the right move. “But then, I realized that in this terrain, a companion would not do very much. And I drove onward,” Coppi said.

By the end of the day, Coppi had won the Giro after racing 192 kilometers alone through the high mountains. Radio commentator Mario Ferretti announced the solitary arrival of Coppi in Cuneo: “Un uomo solo è al commando, La sua maglia è biancoceleste, il suo nome è Fausto Coppi.” A man is alone at the front, his jersey is white and celeste, his name is Fausto Coppi. It was legendary stuff. Coppi won the stage by nearly twelve minutes over Bartali, and took over the race lead by over 23 minutes.

Cycling tightly entwined with mythology in Buzzati’s mind, so much so that they may well have been the same thing to him. As a novelist, poet, and dramatist, he had read deeply in Italian and ancient literature. Homer’s Illiad came easily to mind and in his report from Cuneo, Buzzati summoned up the climactic moment when Achilles defeated Hector in Homer’s epic.

“Is such a comparison too solemn, too glorious?” Not for Buzzati. “Bartali…, however unknowingly, lives the same drama as Hector, the drama of a man destroyed by the gods… It’s against a superhuman power that Bartali fought, and he could do nothing but lose: the evil power of age.”

You don’t really read Buzzati for the facts, but he is not far off in his assessment of Bartali’s career. At the start of the 1949 Giro, Bartali was already 35 years old. Born in 1914, Bartali began racing in 1933 at age 19. He lost some of his best years to the Second World War, which began when he was 26. Coppi, by contrast, was 26 when the war ended. For Coppi, the postwar years were his golden era. He achieved four of his five Giro victories, he won the Tour de France twice, and he wore the rainbow jersey of world champion.

Buzzati then did not entirely exaggerate the case when he wrote that Bartali had lost the battle with age. Bartali lost the 1949 Giro, and he never won another grand tour in his career. “Time has wreaked havoc on him, without him noticing… Neither the doctors nor their instruments registered the slightest change,” wrote Buzzati. “And yet, the man is no longer the same.”

Cycling is a playground for a writer. Its human dramas unfold against a constantly changing landscape. There is bravery and trickery, celebration and disappointment. A riders’ placing can change in an instant in a way that invites meditations on the fates and their mysterious ways.

Buzzati felt cycling’s pull and intuited its significance in the Italy of his time. His account of the 1949 Giro stands for its understanding of the interplay between sport and culture and for the ways in which cycling’s stories can resonate beyond the details of a day’s race results. The writing is beautiful for its glorious lack of inhibition. There is no too much for Buzzati.

The golden years of Coppi and Bartali proved fleeting. Already in the 1940’s, car culture had begun to grab hold in Italy, and men riding bikes the length and width of Italy felt anachronistic even then. And yet the Giro retained its hold on the imagination, as it does even still.

“Does something as crazy and preposterous as the Giro d’Italia by bicycle serve a purpose, then?” wrote Buzzati. “Of course it does: It’s one of the last meccas of the imagination, a stronghold of romanticism, besieged by the gloomy forces of progress, and it refuses to surrender.”

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