5/17/2009

Part 1 - A Night Aboard an Oceanliner for the Hardmen of the Road













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(above: Italian Passenger Ship SMS Saturnia)

(Onboard the passenger liner "Saturnia", the night of May 17th, 1949.Dino Buzzati writes...)

We open the door to cabin number 223. Darkness, and the musical whisper of an electric fan. In here are Lucienne Buysse, Roger Missine, Jef Van der Helst, and Giuseppe Cerami, racing cyclists. They are asleep.


We open the door to cabin number 234. Darkness here, too. This room is assigned to Albert Dubuisson and Jean Lesage. They, too, are asleep.

And here and there, behind the bright white doors which line the deserted corridor, are others: Ferdi Kubler, Nedo Logli, Monari, Valenta, Conte, Crippa, and on and on, borne through the Mediterranean night, lulled into slumber by the quiet purr of the ship, whose stupendous lights can be seen (even at such a great distance) by fishermen in their small boats, as if they were seeing a mirage. And though they know what it is, they point and call out to one another, hardly able to believe their eyes.

Bysse, Missine, Van der Helst, Cerami. names - some famous, some not. Tomorrow morning we land at Napoli. In the evening we set sail on another ship. And the day after that, the landing at Palermo.One more day after that, and then everyone will climb into their saddle, position their feet on the pedals and, teeth clenched, off they will gallop, ready for this great adventure.

But tonight, in this brilliantly illuminated ship, how relaxed their dreams must be.

Thus this morning in Genoa the 32nd Giro d'Italia began with this strange maritime debut - actually, only a small number of the Giro's protagonists are here on board the passenger liner Saturnia: team managers, technical directors, mechanics, masseurs, etc.

As for actual cyclists, there are only 23. Fausto Coppi, for example, is not here. Nor is Gino Bartali. Many of the cyclists, having never sailed before (especially those from rural areas) blindly believed the terrible tales of seasickness, and instead are currently traveling down the Italian peninsula in old, worn-out trains.

Many will join the sea travelers in Napoli for the short trip across the Mare Tirreno to Palermo. But, for the record, the story of the 1949 Giro d'Italia began this morning, when the gangplank was removed and the mooring lines were cast-off.

Can we compare this with the departure of Garibaldi's "Mille di Quarto", which left from Liguria on May 6th, 1860? It would be wrong for us not to do so, for it is impossible that whoever devised this unprecedented start did so without remembering the "Leone (Lion) di Caprera".

And even if the organizers didn't do so consciously, they have copied, for cycling rather than literary purposes, the same reasoning which Garibaldi's used 90 years ago.

Is there perhaps a sort of "peninsular strategy", a recurring, obligatory solution for whomsoever decides to conquer Italy? A strategy which does not allow any deviation from the traditional path, even when the invasion is launched by bicycle?

Tonight, however, the heroes of tomorrow's adventure are not "keeping watch" as Garibaldi's sentries did on the maintops of the ships "Piemonte" and "Lombardo." These heroes are sleeping, savoring the sweetness of this comfortable, elegant night, lulled by the hundred voices of the ship, voices which in the wee hours tell wonderful stories about oceans, whales, skyscrapers, exotic lovers, and distant cities with names too difficult to pronounce.

Tomorrow, at breakneck speed, they will tackle the road, straight and long - the great enemy that ends in nothingness on the horizon, or snakes it's way through a steep crag, the very sight of which takes one's breath away. A road covered with stones or dust or mud or tarmac, or ruined by potholes. An endless ribbon that must be consumed, little by little.

But tonight there is only the immense, broad avenue of the sea, which has no potholes, nor ditches, nor climbs. A soft carpet that the ship's prow cuts with startling ease, as if it were made of silk. No need for leg muscles to push it with turns of the pedals.

Tomorrow there will be sweat, cramps, aching knees, hearts in the throat, muscle fatigue, thirst, curses, flat tires, collapses of body and soul. That bitter taste in the mouth when the others, the good ones, break away, disappearing in a whirlwind of cheers.

But tonight, lying in the soft berth, with muscles soothed and relaxed, they are young, resilient, extraordinary, irresistible, buoyed by the promise of victories.

Tomorrow, there will be merciless orders from team manager's to dutifully drag the team captain, who is not feeling up to it, to haul him up the slopes like a sack, fruitlessly throwing away one's own best strength in the process, on the very day when this mere gregario was hoping to attack!

But tonight there are no orders from the team manager, no differences in status. Tonight even the lowliest trainee is like a Napoleon.

And he dreams...

He dreams, this little soldier who has never heard the crowd roar his name, nor been lifted victoriously onto the shoulders of the delirious throng. He dreams of what all men have an absolute need to imagine, at one time or another, for otherwise life would be too difficult to bear.

He is dreaming of HIS Giro d'Italia, an awe-inspiring revenge, and right from the very start of course!

One hundred six kilometers from Palermo, where the road begins the difficult climb toward the Colle del Contrasto, more than 3000 feet above sea level, out of the thundering pack of racers, still as compact as a herd of buffalo, who leaps out? None other than he, the gregario, the unknown one, whose name children have never chalked on suburban walls, as encouragement or as scorn.

Alone, he hurls himself like a madman up the steep climb, while the others ignore him."What an idiot," says one know-it-all, "That's the best way to do yourself in! In five minutes at most he'll explode."

But he continues to fly, as if carried by a supernatural force. He devours switchback after switchback as if, instead of climbing, he was hurtling down the Stelvio, or some other mountain pass.

Behind him the others are no longer visible. People along the road shout "Bravo, Bartali!", but he shakes his head, trying to make them understand that he is someone else."Who is he, then?" No one recognizes him. In order to identify him they must look for his number on the list printed in the newspaper.

And panic runs through Sicily..."When will this little wretch give up?" This "joke" is annoying everyone. "Now THIS is TOO MUCH! Let's teach that madcap a lesson."

The aces arch their backs. Yes!, it is Coppi himself who will inflict the punishment!. Bartali, of course, is stuck to Coppi's side. What had earlier seemed to be so amusing now turns into a gigantic battle.

But he, the anonymous one, the last of the last, has donned wings. A twenty-minute lead, twenty-five, thirty. Compared with him, who are these campionissimi? What are Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali? Poor little grubs plodding in his wake far, far behind, losing minute after minute.

Here, finally, is the city of Catania, and the finish. The rumor of a "miracle" has arrived before him, unleashing a frenzy of crowds, flags, applause, flowers, kisses, and brass bands.

The time-keepers, with staring eyes, scan the road. He arrives unexpectedly, like an arrow, on a road that is clear, totally deserted, incredibly empty.

The hands of the stopwatch run on, and still no one else appears. Forty-seven minutes, forty eight, fifty-five, sixty! One hour and five minutes go by before the pursuers are seen emerging in the distance. The crowd has remained, watching them in silence.

How easy it is to dream this night, on board the great illuminated ship. But why be satisfied with one stage? Why not increase the lead to a couple of hours? Why not continue the miracle all the way to the finish of the very last stage? "The average for the Giro: 46 kilometers per hour!" "A day-an-a-half's lead over second!" "Coppi out of his mind!" "Bartali confined in an asylum!"

After all, what does it cost, this dream? Lying back in his berth, he who will never finish in front, this mere "pencil pusher" of the road, this faithful servant, this most humble of the humble, smiles, victorious, vindicated.

But perhaps it's not like that. Maybe even these fantasies are denied him, and even in his sleep he remains a poor gregario.

Perhaps he is simply sleeping, relaxed like a beast of burden, weary after the long road raced, exhausted by the distance yet to be covered, because he knows he has no hope.

So then, it is better to just sleep.

Sleep and nothing else.

And he dreams of nothing.
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