Review: Coppi - Inside the Legend of the Campionissimo

REVIEW: Coppi - Inside the Legend of the Campionissimo

by Herbie Sykes

Published in hardback by Rouleur Books (an imprint of Bloomsbury). RRP: £30.00. Also available from Amazon

Review by Dave Nash

As the author Herbie Sykes acknowledges in his introduction to his richly illustrated new book, Coppi - Inside the Legend of the Campionissimo, there is little more than can be said or written about the Italian legend that has not been told before.  Fausto Coppi was idolised by his adoring fans and, to put it mildly, he was one of the very first sporting superstars. His private life was as much a focus of the rampant post-war talian media as his performances on the bike. Worshipped by the tifosi, the fascination and love affair has continued long after his  premature death in 1960.

It was this scrutiny of his every move that is all too apparent in the wonderful photographs lavishly reproduced in Coppi. Photographs that represent a testament to a career and life lived in the full glare of the flashing camera bulbs of the photographers.  It is not surprising therefore, that an expression of weariness hangs over his gawkish features in several of the photos and his body language is often that of a man who appears stifled by the crowds and their attention. 

Fausto Coppi photographed with his great rival, Gino Bartali (right). The latter is described by Renzo Zanazzi in Coppi: Behind the Legend as a 'despicable, loathsome individual'. (Photo: Offside/L'Equipe).

Given the unending fascination with Coppi, you can understand why Sykes, who wrote the magnificent history of the Giro d'Italia, Maglia Rosa, had reservations about adding his own contribution to the many biographies that have already been written - books that are little more of a retelling of the same old stories, often based on inaccuracy, and only adding to the myths that have clouded Coppi's memory.

An enthusiastic historian of Italian cycling, Sykes was increasingly aware that the generation that had witnessed  the extravagant talent of Coppi first hand was disappearing and, sadly, at an increasingly fast rate every year.  In that, this book demonstrates the tenacity of Sykes in tracking down those who knew Coppi best - his team mates, his gregarios, his rivals:  'those who were actually three. Those who actually know.'  

Sykes, it is clear, is keen to put a few of the myths to bed before their voices fall quiet forever. Take Aldo Ronconi, for example, whose memories of the 1940 Giro open the book. It was apparent to everyone, Ronconi recalls, that the young Fausto Coppi, who was contesting his first Giro as a gregario to the man that would become his fiercest rival, Gino Bartali, was a phenomenal talent -  something special.  His memory remains sharp and his comments illuminate, but sadly Ronconi, born in 1918, died in June of this year. His death adds a pathos and a poignancy to his words and serves to underline the fact that Sykes was literally racing against time to record them.

Italian Style. No wonder the tifosi adored him. (Photo: Foto Agenzia Omega Fotocronache)

Taking inteviews with former cyclists as a starting point is where Coppi deviates from the many distended biographies of arguably the most iconic cyclist ever.  This unique concept is one of its strengths but also one of its weaknesses, as some of the recollections are a little weak and some offer very little insight into Coppi the cyclist and Coppi the man.  The entries devoted to the gregario, Giovanni Corrieri, and Vito Ortelli (the third man of Italian cycling in the late 1940's) tell us more about Bartali than Coppi. For this reason alone, you would need to have good background knowledge of the career and life of Coppi to extract the anecdotal nuggets sprinkled throughout the book.

That is a minor criticism, however,  as Coppiworks brilliantly on many levels.  The images and words, presented in a roughly chronological order, offer a vivid portrait of the Golden Age of cycling that Coppi's career spanned.  Likewise, the unique concept of the book -  basing the text solely on interviews with his contemporaries in the pro peloton - provides a refreshing insight into the talent and character of Fausto - observations that are not always complimentary.

But let's be clear on one aspect of Coppi:  it is as much a collection of photographs illustrating the life of Il Campionissimo as a tribute to his fellow professional cyclists who did not possess the obscene talent of the master, but who devoted their youth to cycling - often unrecognised and, in comparison to the champions at least, financially under rewarded. These are men still adored in their native towns, but anonymous in the annals of the history of the sport.

Coppi with his blind soigneur, Biagio Cavanna (Photo: Olympya/Olycom)

Sykes is not afraid to dwell on the lives of these men - the peculiarities of their respective careers and their lives before and after their endeavours in the professional peloton. In doing so, he makes them individuals - elevating them from mere bit players in the main production to a more substantial supporting role. Without them, Fausto Coppi would not have been able to fly.

Sergio Maggini tells the story of how his talented younger  brother, Luciano,  came fourth in the World Championships in 1948 and laments:  'Nobody took a blind bit of notice though. As usual they were too busy focusing on Coppi and Bartali. Everybody spent so much time discussing what they hadn't done that they barely noticed what he had . .  .'

Sykes has helped to redress this imbalance and Coppi is a tribute not only to the elderly men whose words he records, but  for the many cyclists who have toiled endlessly, but who never achieved the fame, the wealth and the notoriety of the Coppis of this World. Cycling literature is all the richer for the telling of their story.

No hiding place. (Photo: Foto Agenzia Omega Fotocronache)


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Comment by Mark Burgoyne on January 24, 2013 at 19:40

I was lucky enough to win this book and from this very website!

It is a beautiful book and deals with the greatest cyclist of his age and possibly the second greatest of all time - statistics put Mercx at the very top. Beautiful but in truth a coffee-table book. Bit a very good coffee-table book, packed full of wonderful photographs and short interviews that make the book one for dipping into rather than sitting down to read. 

It gives limited insight in to Coppi but a glimpse into a very different cycling world that is now passing from memory into legend. Herbie Sykes has performed a great task by preserving the memories of some of the now very old contemporaries of Coppi but if you want a fuller understanding of the man and of the time, read Fotheringham's book,

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