Friday, February 6, 2009
In brief: the Fausto Coppi-Gino Bartali rivalry of the pre- and post-WWII years was defining for a generation of Italians, probably for a generation of Europeans, and certainly for a generation of racing bicyclists. You were a coppiano or a bartaliano, and it was as much an urban/rural or class division as a sporting one. The fact that those two were so often so much better than others, and so often only challenged by each other, reflected and provided an opportunity to sublimate serious social differences.
Jeff MacGregor said it well: "So in a time when the very words have been debased by overuse, a truly great sporting rivalry -- an "epic rivalry" -- is a rare and precious thing. One made possible only by athletes or teams who define and then expand not just each others' limits, but the limits of the age in which they compete. Opponents at the very peak of their powers, equals, who transform one another. Always at great cost. Which is why "Ali/Frazier" remains the standard measure of a modern American epic, and speaks to the needs of our culture as fully as "Gilgamesh" or "Beowulf" spoke to the needs of theirs." (Hat tip to LC for the quote.)
Coppi didn't stop cycling until his death at the age of 41; Bartali, the conservative and (relatively) clean-living of the duo, lived to be 85. But, and here is my service to you, readers (are there any librettists and composers amongst you?), shortly after Coppi's death, Bartali wrote a brief memoir, "Coppi and me," for the French Magazine Le Miroir des sports. Belgium Knee Warmers has now published the article in four parts: Here is a link to the first.
It's heartbreaking to read, and so easy to translate Bartali into a mirror of Peter Shaffer's Salieri, knowing greatness--and trying so hard to best it, to destroy it, even. And to be sentenced to live long enough to see greatness achieve immortality, and one's own near-greatness forgotten.