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.