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.
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.
The Tour de France is winding through France’s flat farmlands, as it does every year around this time. Want some reasons it’s cool? I contributed to a list thingy for Bicycling.
I also wrote a story about sprinter Mark Cavendish, which was pretty ruthlessly overtaken by events. Thanks to some quick work with my editor, we managed to salvage it, but it was a close run thing. Honestly, I just needed the guy to finish a safe fourth. I feel like that should not have been too much to ask. But it’s the Tour, so you know, you rarely get what you ask for.
The ghostbike dedicated to Salvador Barragan leans locked to a palm tree in Oxnard, California. Unbroken lines of cars stream down the four-lane road past the stripped-down, white-painted bike. A faded tag on the wall recalls a turf war, likely long forgotten by now. The wall, built of pale pink cinder blocks, is a typical sight in California, dividing backyards from roadways, preserving the illusion of tranquility against the rush of suburban life. Barragan died after he was hit by a driver making a u-turn.
Ghostbikes are fleeting, ephemeral memorials to cyclists killed by cars while riding their bikes. The bikes, their parts removed, are painted white and placed on the roadside. Most ghostbikes are removed very soon after they’re placed. Maybe it’s easier that way. On rare occasions, a ghostbike may stand for many months, a stark reminder of a last ride and a life cut short.
A while back, I did a photo essay for Bicycling on ghostbikes and it’s now live. The first ghostbikes were placed in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003 and they’ve since become a near-universal symbol for a downed cyclist. I interviewed a pair of activists in Southern California and photographed a series of memorials for the project. Head to Bicycling.com to see the story.
Of course, there were way more photos than we eventually ran, because that’s how it always works out. If you’d like to see the rest of the images, I put a ghostbikes gallery over on my photo site.
We like bikes. Especially blue ones. Obviously.
That’s one of the rad new bikes I saw at the Sea Otter thing. Maybe you’d like to see more?
Go over to Men’s Journal and have a look.