Can we speak just for a moment not of the things that we like to repeat about cyclists and cycling, but of the things that are impossible to say? Like the things that inspire a man to reach deep into and go beyond himself, and turn himself into a symbol. And, how do we place the stars in the sky?
The scene is, I imagine, somewhere in a dusty French town in the Midi. Somewhere unfashionable and unimproved and stuck out in the vineyards, probably, or among rolling fields of sunflowers between the Rhône and the Pyrenees. The day’s stage has finished and the crowds have left the roadside, and across the square beneath the plane trees, opposite where Fausto Coppi and Federico Bahamontes (although it was just Bahamontes, always just Bahamontes short and sweet) are relaxing, against the church wall, the townsfolk are preparing for a party. Coloured lights have been strung up between the plane trees, and trestle tables laid the length of the square. At the far end, a fire is being made from old vine roots and later huge rounds of sausage and a whole lamb will be cooked under the night sky as the town holds a bal in honour of the Tour and its stars. The sun is going down.
Suddenly, the wine is being poured and there is an accordion leading a band on a stage and you have a glass of wine in your hand, and another, and the wine keeps flowing from the barrel as you sit at one of the long wooden tables and drink and laugh with shirtless old men in the dense warmth of the night. And it is dark, very dark, when she takes you by the hand and spins you around so you cannot tell where the music is coming from anymore. You whisper and shout in her ear as she pulls you around, and you can’t be sure your feet will keep carrying you in these circles, because the square is pitching and rolling like a ship in a storm, and everything, everything outside of her is a flash of colour, a blur, a smear of noise trailing from your heels through the dark, like phosphorescence in the water and the stars in the sky, and the two of you are everything and you are nothing, you are comets, and this moment is all that matters, all that is or ever will be. And somewhere far away the bal is still going on. The world, dancing, under coloured bulbs suspended from the plane trees between trestle tables in a village square, each bulb a sun or a moon and each couple swirling through the solid heat of a Mediterranean midsummer night in orbit, separated from the rest by infinite dark space.
This is what the Tour does to a town, this is the magic it brings. But that is all to come. For the moment, Fausto Coppi is talking to his star cyclist about the stage that has just finished, and they will not see the party — soon they will be in bed, because Bahamontes is dedicated to winning the race. He is disciplining himself, sacrificing for the great Fausto Coppi.
Bahamontes, cycling’s greatest ever climber, or so he says without hesitation when I meet him — aged 88 (him, not me) — in Toledo. For 50 years no other rider crossed more of the Tour’s highest-category passes in first place. Bahamontes, known for once being so far ahead of the chasing Tour peloton that he stopped to eat an ice cream at the top of a col. Behaviour that helped forge the idea that he didn’t care about winning, and that the climber’s art is somehow gratuitous and that climbers are awkward, quixotic people. The ice cream myth places him up among the stars in the firmament above us.
Bahamontes followed his own path. His excessive individualism and obstinacy isolated him; most years he raced for more than one team, he changed at the end of every season from 1953 to 1960 and when he decided to get off his bike nothing could convince him to get back on again. But his discipline was legendary, and he has little respect for modern riders, barring a very few. “They just sweat and get fat,” he tells me in Toledo. “They eat like kings and get massages and showers after every stage. They’re like girls. They don’t know how to suffer.”
Bahamontes followed his own path. His excessive individualism isolated him, but his path led him up into the sky. He didn’t care, he says, about anything other than the polka dot jersey. “Always, always the mountains,” he tells me, smiling. “I never thought about the general classification.” Only Coppi could have convinced him otherwise. “Coppi said to me, ‘Why do you always ride for the mountains? You should go for the GC!’ I said, ‘GC? I’m not made for the flats, but I climb well in the mountains and that’s what I’ll do.’ Always I targeted the GPM. All the cols in Spain, Italy, France, I won. Every day I rode for the GPM, it was mine.”
The conversation with Coppi happened in the winter of 1958, and Coppi made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“We were eating before going hunting,” Bahamontes says. “And he said to me, ‘If you want to come to my team, you must go for the GC.’ I said, ‘With Coppi, yes!’ If somebody says to you, come play football for Real Madrid, you sign immediately. Coppi was my Madrid.”
Riding for Tricofilina-Coppi, he arrived at the Tour in 1959 in good shape. “First stage, I went on the attack on the flat. I rode à bloc and I seem to remember I arrived two or three minutes ahead of the peloton,” he says. “That was the moment I thought, I’ll do the general and not the mountain.” He pauses for a second then adds, “Then in the mountains I always went to the front, and I won the mountains as well as the Tour.” And he smiles.
Some say he got away with it because the other riders thought it was business as usual, and he would do his usual trick of flopping on the GC. But I get the feeling that when he put his mind to something he was unstoppable.
Bahamontes grew up in Fascist Spain, in a family so poor they used sometimes to eat stray cats, which his mother gutted and stuffed and called ‘baby goats’, and his first exploits on a bike were as a black-market salesman of grain and vegetables, riding in the middle of the day when Franco’s police were having their siesta. One day, aged fifteen, he stopped to drink some water from a river and contracted typhoid fever. He was sick for three months, his weight dropped below 50 kilograms and all his hair fell out. Before, his hair had been straight, but when it grew back it came out curly. Tricofilina made hair products, by the way. Hair doping.
Paul Fournel tells another story about Fausto Coppi in his book Anquetil Alone. A few weeks after his first professional victory, in 1953, Jacques Anquetil goes to visit Coppi; the visit is, writes Fournel, “loaded with intention”. Anquetil takes with him a photographer who records everything: meeting the Campionissimo and being sized up by Cavanna, Coppi’s blind soigneur, the witch doctor and the kingmaker, in Coppi’s marble mansion. At the end, Coppi offers to look after Anquetil’s training, diet, technique, finances and make him a champion. Which proposition Anquetil declines. He has fixed it in his head that he will beat Coppi’s famous hour record, but he will do it his way; two-and-a-half years later, he goes to the famous Vigorelli velodrome in Milan and rides a lap further than Coppi. “A victory lap,” Fournel calls it.
What better way to pay homage to your hero than visiting him to announce you will replace him?
It is generally believed Coppi died of malaria contracted during a hunting safari in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), with other cyclists including Raphaël Géminiani and Jacques Anquetil, at the end of 1959.
(As an aside, à propos of hunting, it is generally not a good activity for Tour de France-winning cyclists, almost doing for Greg LeMond too. On 20 April 1987, LeMond was taken to hospital by helicopter having been shot. “All I know is Greg and his brother-in-law and his uncle were hunting on some property we own in Lincoln and Pat shot what he thought was a turkey through some bush. Greg had walked around in front of it and just took some buckshot in the back,” Greg LeMond’s father said. “He was not real close to the gun. I say that because the pellets were scattered,” added Dr Sandy Beal, the trauma surgeon who treated him.)
Bahamontes was also invited on that African hunting trip, but he did not go. There were five criteriums that were being held in Upper Volta, he explained in an interview, for which the organisers paid riders with several days of safari and as much big game as they could shoot. But no money. And Bahamontes wasn’t tempted, because he had all the hunting he needed in Spain, at a friends farm. “I wasn’t bothered about going to Africa to do what I already could do 15 kilometres from my house,” he said.
In 2002 an Italian newspaper, the Corriere dello Sport, published a story claiming that Coppi had in fact been poisoned, in an act of revenge by the family of a Sierra Leonean cyclist named Canga, who tumbled down a gorge in strange circumstances in a race held in Africa that also involved other Europeans. Which seems to me to be the sort of story that Italian papers like to circulate sometimes. Certainly Bahamontes didn’t give it any credence.
One final thing. Were there ever really colours like this, or do they only exist in old photos and dreams and memories of childhood? Or has the yellow jersey, after Hinault and Fignon, or LeMond, say, lost its lustre? Was it tarnished in the ‘90s and will it ever shine as brightly again?
Blot out the moon,
Pull down the stars.
Love in the dark, for we’re for the dark.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 18 where it was first printed.