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The War of the Gods

By Les Woodland
An excerpt from Tour de France: The Inside Story

Les Woodland has been kind enough to let me excerpt a chapter from his book "Tour de France: The Inside Story". You can learn more about this erudite, yet fun book (available in print, Kindle eBook and Audio Book versions) by clicking here.

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The year [Gino] Bartali first won the Tour was 1938, his second attempt. Bartali won by 18 minutes, 27 seconds over the runner-up, Félicien Vervaecke, and 29 minutes, 26 seconds over the third man, Victor Cossan. He had trouble sleeping after each stage for fans shouting for him in the street. Georges Briquet, the voice of French radio from 1930 to the 1950s, wrote: “These people had found a superman. Outside Bartali’s hotel at Aix-les-Bains an Italian general was holding back the crowd by shouting: ‘Don’t touch him—he’s a god!’”

Tour de France: The Inside StoryA pretty grumpy god, though, and far from saintly. He was boastful and miserable. Pierre Chany said the best that could be said of him is that he never contradicted his own stories. And since those stories usually concerned unwitnessed events high in the mountains, they couldn’t be checked. In 1950 Bartali brushed shoulders or touched wheels—which isn’t clear, like much of the story—in the Pyrenees. Bartali fell and Italian fans turned on Jean Robic, whom they took for the guilty man, punching him and waving a knife. And maybe French fans then went to his defense.

Bartali won the stage but an hour later said he wasn’t going to ride where fans waved knives. He was going home. If that was odd then what followed was cruel. Bartali insisted all his team must go as well and that the second Italian team, with which he had no formal connection, must go too. Telling his own riders was bad. In those days many professionals made their money from village races, events on round-the-houses courses for which they were contracted because they had finished the Tour. They rode for Bartali in the Tour because teams shared what they won and the winner gave everything to his domestiques. Now Bartali’s pride was depriving them of a living.

But telling the Cadetti they too must go was cruel. These second-string riders were on top of the world. Against all hopes, one of them—Fiorenzo Magni—was race leader. But Bartali was the most powerful man in Italian cycling. You crossed him at your peril. The Italians went home.

Bartali never changed his tale of the knifeman. Journalists were on the story straight away, of course. The most anyone could remember was a spectator who’d been slicing sausages for a sandwich when Robic fell in front of him. He got up from his chair to help, the knife and quite possibly the sausage still in his hands. Bartali had his reasons but nobody ever found out what.

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• • •

Bartali was never warm. He liked recognition but his favorite expression was gloomy: “Everything’s wrong; we’ll have to start again.” The sad thing is that both he and his younger rival ended their lives unhappily. Bartali lost his money, his waistline and eventually his mind. Jose-Miguel Echavarri used to warn the later Tour winner, Miguel Indurain: “Whatever you do, in later life don’t become like Gino Bartali.”

Fausto Coppi was the younger man. He died, broken in spirit, “a magnificent and grotesque washout”, in Chany’s words. His career was greater even than Bartali’s, winning not only three Tours but also the world championship, the world hour record, the Giro d’Italia and more classics than any man might wish. When Coppi escaped, Raphaël Géminiani said, the judges didn’t need stopwatches to measure his lead. The chimes of the village church would do just as well. “Paris–Roubaix? Milan–San Remo? Tour of Lombardy? We’re talking ten minutes to a quarter of an hour. That’s how Fausto Coppi was.”

Coppi won the 1952 Tour by not much less than half an hour and Goddet had to double other prizes to keep the rest interested. From 1946 to 1954, according to Chany, Coppi was never caught once he had broken away.

The only thing that he and Bartali had in common was what several observers described as “a permanent air of sadness, cynicism almost, that only close friends could break.” Whereas Bartali used his well-publicized religious belief and his connections with Pope Pius XII to avoid going to war, Coppi was captured by the British in the North African desert. Where Bartali ate with a crucifix on his table and visited shrines during races, Coppi was more neutral.

He never said he was an atheist but never denied it either. Which in an Italy both highly traditional and highly Roman Catholic was a striking position. The writer Curzio Malparte—his real name was Kurt Suckert; he chose Malparte, “bad start”, as a play on Napoleon Bonaparte—summed it up this way: “Bartali belongs to those who believe in tradition. He is a metaphysical man protected by the saints. Coppi has nobody in heaven to take care of him. His manager, his masseur, have no wings. He is alone, alone on a bicycle. Bartali prays when he is pedaling; the rational Cartesian and skeptical Coppi is filled with doubts, believes only in his body.”

Two things were extraordinary about Coppi: the first is that he was a cyclist and the second is that he was just a cyclist. His record as “a cyclist” speaks for itself. A director of La Gazzetta dello Sport wrote after his death: “I pray that the good God will one day soon send us another Coppi.”His record as “just a cyclist” is even more extraordinary because his private life not only split the nation and involved the police, but also brought the condemnation of God’s spokesman on earth. Because he left his wife for a girlfriend. Coppi sweated and grimaced and got covered in grime. He didn’t play in clothes just as suited to martinis in the bar. Nobody expected he was a saint. But there was outrage when he wasn’t.

Coppi had a wife, Bruna. But he was pursued by what we’d now call a groupie, although a high-class one. Giulia Locatelli was, said Jean-Paul Ollivier in his biography of Coppi, “strikingly beautiful with thick chestnut hair divided into enormous plaits.” She was pictured at Coppi’s side, unidentified but wearing a white raincoat. Picture desks went through earlier shots and found she was there too. She was Coppi’s lover: “the woman in white.”

Coppi left his wife and Giulia moved in. Police raided them at midnight to check they weren’t sharing a bed. Pope Pius XII refused to bless the Giro while Coppi was in it and sent a note saying Coppi’s adultery had “caused him great pain.” That a Pope who refused to condemn the slaughter of Jews in the second world war should worry whether a cyclist was having it away with his girlfriend is breathtaking. But it shows the position a man can have in life and in the affairs of a church with a billion adherents just because he does well in bicycle races.

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• • •

On April 15, 1966, the magazine Time coined the name “Swinging London.” It confirmed the decade as hip, carefree and the antithesis of the Fifties, dominated by the generation which took the world to war. It was a “bewitching” era, wrote the journalist Christopher Booker, even if in retrospect it was “odd and shallow and egocentric and even rather horrible.” But it was also hip. Hip enough for Mick Jagger, miniskirts, the Pill, the British Invasion and Twiggy. Too hip, surely, to repeat the Bartali-Coppi story?

Well, no. The parallels are almost identical. For Bartali, the solid peasant who stood for traditional values, the smell of the earth and the honesty of small-scale farming, there was Raymond Poulidor. “He reassured people who found themselves overtaken by progress,” said Jean-Luc Boeuf and Yves Léonard. For the new France of industrialization, modernization and the Space Age, there was Jacques Anquetil. “People who recognized themselves in Anquetil liked his emphasis on style and the elegance of the way he raced,” said Boeuf and Léonard. “Behind this fluidity and appearance of ease was the image of a France that succeeded and it was people who took risks who identified with him.”

The two men had only two years between them but Poulidor could have been a generation earlier. He spoke slowly, as people from Limoges do, and he spoke with the accent of the rural south. His face was lined and he grimaced with effort. He spent his first prizes on cows for the family farm. He had never traveled in a train until the army called him for compulsory service. By then Anquetil, high-cheeked, smooth-faced, blond hair swept upwards, had traveled to Finland and won an Olympic medal.

The links between Coppi and Anquetil, both supposedly city slickers although neither was, would have been all the stronger had the world known about Anquetil’s sexual shenanigans. He too made off with a married woman. But he went further. While still married to Janine, he had an affair with her daughter by her first marriage, which led to a further daughter. He then had an affair with the wife of Janine’s son.

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Poulidor, on the other hand, is still married to Gisèle and still lives in St-Léonard-de-Noblat, near where he was born. He doesn’t hold the record for second places in the Tour but he’s remembered for it because he could never outflank Anquetil. Except in time-trials, Poulidor was the better. He was stronger on the flat and he was the better climber. But Anquetil repeatedly outwitted him. Anquetil won without making an effort he didn’t have to make, and became rich and lived in a château; Poulidor worked hard, made a fight of it, always came second. Like Vietto, he was the self-image of men who believed they toiled while others profited. And because that mental divide couldn’t be closed, it split France.

Pierre Chany wrote, perhaps without expecting to be believed: “The Tour de France has the major fault of dividing the country, right down to the smallest hamlet, even families, into two rival camps. I know a man who grabbed his wife and held her on the grill of a heated stove, seated and with her skirt held up, for favoring Jacques Anquetil when he preferred Raymond Poulidor. The following year, the woman became a Poulidor-iste. But it was too late. The husband had switched his allegiance to Gimondi. The last I heard, they were digging their heels in and the neighbors were complaining.”

Poulidor hasn’t raced for decades. He makes a living from being Raymond Poulidor, a living he concedes would be nowhere near as good had he ever worn the maillot jaune. He is as much amused as distressed that his name has become a synonym for someone destined to fail, someone unlucky or even someone who doesn’t try hard enough and gets the consequences. Anquetil, on the other hand—not least for what now looks misguided honesty in saying he took drugs and he could see no reason not to—is dead and a faint national embarrassment.

We hope you enjoyed this story. There is lots more in Tour de France: The Inside Story