Angelo Fausto Coppi was cycling’s first superstar and his successes earned him the title Il Campionissimo ("Champion of Champions”). He won the Giro d'Italia five times (1940, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953) the Tour de France twice (1949 and 1952) and the World Championships in 1953. Other notable results include winning the Giro di Lombardia five times, the Milan–San Remo three times, as well as wins at Paris–Roubaix and La Flèche Wallonne. He also set the hour record (45.798 km) in 1942.
He was the first one to win the Tour de France and Giro in the same year (1949 and 1952). He didn’t just win; he dominated. His achievements remain legendary and part of the cycling culture to this day.
He suffered severe injuries and he was a prisoner of war for two years (at the peak of his physical abilities). How many more races could he have won, if not for these adversities?
A CLIMBER LIKE NO OTHER
1953 Giro d'Italia: Fausto Coppi soars on the Passo dello Stelvio
Coppi was an unbeatable climber. Each year the The Cima Coppi (Coppi’s summit) is declared and represents the highest peak in each edition of the Giro d’Italia.
The Cima Coppi has been a part of the Giro since 1965.
Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali sharing a bottle
His career was magnified by a rivalry with a fellow Italian Gino Bartali that divided the country. Coppi’s early career success sparked a competition with Bartali, the outspoken sports hero from Tuscany and the most popular rider up to that point. This intense rivalry defined both men’s lives beyond their control. The contrast between the two men polarized the fans, media and everyone else.
Coppi was cosmopolitan, innovative in his diet and training, and hero of the industrially progressive north. On the other side Bartali was deeply religious, conservative in attitude, and a man who cherished his roots in rural Italy.
Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali smoking cigars
At the time of Coppi’s breakthrough in 1940 Bartali was the undisputed number one in Italy and universally recognised as one of the best cyclists in the world.
Coppi had been hired to help Bartali to win the 1940 Giro but blew the race away himself by a huge margin. The cycling world was astonished as was Bartali. The stage had been set for a series of intense sporting duels that would last for the best part of a decade, and resemble the likes of Federer and Nadal in tennis, Senna and Prost in Formula One, Ali and Frazier in boxing.
More often than not Coppi came out on top. On the road in 1952 he clinched a second Giro/Tour double, sealing his place at that time as arguably the greatest cyclist in history.
Giulia Occhini, the so-called “dama Bianca” (lady in white)
Off the bike, Coppi’s personal life caused scandals that became headlines all across the world and transformed him from hero to villain in the 1950’s. His affair with a married woman (Coppi was married himself) was still a criminal offence at the time and divorce was unlawful.
In 1955 Coppi and his lover Giulia Occhini were put on trial for adultery and got suspended sentences. Fausto moved Giulia Occhini to Argentina with the newly born Faustino (little Fausto) to stay out of legal trouble and away from gossip. Their love story was tumultuous and many blamed Mrs Occhini for having ruined Coppi’s career. Neither their marriage which they celebrated abroad, nor their son were officially recognized by the Italian authorities. The scandal rocked conservative ultra-Catholic Italy and Coppi was disgraced.
Coppi was often said to have introduced "modern" methods to cycling, particularly his diet.
Gino Bartali established that some of those methods included taking drugs, which were not then against the rules.
Gino Bartali took to raiding Coppi's room before races:
"The first thing was to make sure I always stayed at the same hotel for a race, and to have the room next to his so I could mount a surveillance. I would watch him leave with his mates, then I would tiptoe into the room which ten seconds earlier had been his headquarters. I would rush to the waste bin and the bedside table, go through the bottles, flasks, phials, tubes, cartons, boxes, suppositories – I swept up everything.
I became so expert in interpreting all these pharmaceuticals that I could predict how Fausto would behave during the course of the stage. I would work out, according to the traces of the product I found, how and when he would attack me".
Gino Bartali, Miroir des Sports, 1946
Coppi spoke of the subject in a television interview:
Question: Do cyclists take la bomba (amphetamine)?
Answer: Yes, and those who claim otherwise, it's not worth talking to them about cycling.
Question: And you, did you take la bomba?
Answer: Yes. Whenever it was necessary.
Question: And when was it necessary?
Answer: Almost all the time!
THE FALL OF A LEGEND
1955 Giro d'Italia: Coppi suffers in the heat
Coppi's career declined after the adultery scandal. He was already shaken by the death of his younger brother, Serse Coppi in 1951, who crashed in a sprint in the Giro del Piemonte. Coppi was never able to maintain his previous successes. It was said he was first to be dropped each day in the Vuelta a España in 1959. Criterium organisers frequently cut their races to 45 km to be certain that Coppi could finish. In 1959, he wasn't a racing cyclist any more. He was just clinging on.
Fausto Coppi's bust at the gravesite of he and his brother
Coppi died at the age of 40 on January 2nd, 1960, due to misdiagnosed malaria contracted during an exhibition race followed by a hunting trip in Africa. His teammate, Raphael Geminiani of France, also contracted the disease, but he was correctly diagnosed and treated with quinine. The Italian’s doctors instead treated Coppi for a bronchial complaint and he never recovered.
Each year Coppi is honoured with a mass gathering in tiny Castellania that cycling fans, family, friends, journalists – including his few domestiques still alive, attend.
Sports journalists agree that no other Italian sports figure receives so much love and affection after so many years.
COPPI AND THE 2019 GIRO D'ITALIA
The 2019 Giro will mark what would have been the 100th birthday of Fausto Coppi. The 11th stage will start in Carpi and travel 200-kilometres to the finish line in Novi Ligure where “Il Campionissimo” lived.
The following day, the Giro pays tribute to one of Coppi’s greatest feats where, at the 1949 Giro, Coppi attacked solo on the road from Cuneo to Pinerolo and won the stage nearly 12 minutes clear of second-place finisher Gino Bartali. The stage was a brutal as it tackled the Maddalena Pass, the Col de Vars, the Col d’Izoard, the Col de Montgenèvre and the Sestriere Pass. While stage 12 of the 2019 Giro will travel from Cuneo to Pinerolo, the route will be much shorter and include fewer climbs.
Angelo Fausto Coppi will always be remembered as a man who transcended the sport of cycling.
Will he be remembered as the greatest cyclist of all time? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.