Napoli, the night of Thursday, 26th May. Dino Buzzati writes...
Bartali is dropped.
On the Pratola hill, fifty kilometers out of Salerno, Fausto Coppi pedals with all his might. He is at the head of a group of a dozen racers, but none of them are from his team, so he is working alone.
"And Bartali?" people ask.
Bartali is not there.
"Is Bartali in the second group?"
Sunshine. . .
Green hills. . .
A monk. . .
Pine trees. . .
Vineyards. . .
Three more monks standing beneath a poplar tree. . .
A tiny girl clapping her hands. . .
Sudden puffs of dust where the road is being repaired. . .
Children of every age imaginable. . .
A cripple in a wheelchair. . .
Clouds billowing in from the east. . .
And under a little white cycling cap, Coppi's angular face, burnt red by the
sun and the exertion.
He looks back - is anyone coming to help him?
He has already gained four hundred meters. . .
Now five hundred . . .
Driving ahead of the race, we are met by the "questioning" hand gesture so characteristic of the southern Italian - hands stretched out waving, with fingers joined and pointing upward. It is an urgent, almost indignant plea. They have been waiting there for an hour, and cannot wait any longer - they must know . . . Who is leading? Who is winning?
"What are you doing here" their demeanor seems to say to us "if not to bring us news? Who is leading?"
"Bravo!" the boys yell, jumping up and down and punching each other in joy. At that moment they could have hugged us . . .they would have done anything for us.
However, other faces clouded over so quickly it was almost comical;
Bartali is back there.
"Bartali left behind?" they shouted at us, begging us to say is isn't true.
We do not deny it - that's just how it is.
But there is no time to argue - we hurry along through the countryside at a dizzying pace, passing ever more new faces, lined up by their thousands on both sides - an endless tunnel of humanity at its highest pitch of excitement. They have forgotten everything else: who they are, the work they left behind, illnesses, luxuries, unpaid bills, headaches, love, everything except one monumental fact: Fausto Coppi is in the lead, and Bartali, lagging behind, continues to lose ground.
San Giorgio - it is siesta time, when midday drowsiness reigns over the fields, when the city streets are deserted, when cattle herds nap in the shade of a huge beech tree, when in the silence of a kitchen we can hear the flies buzzing, and outside, the cicadas. . .
But today everyone is on the street - not even the dogs are napping, and they dart madly to-and-fro, trying to avoid the mad ballet of cars rushing past.
Coppi's lead group of ten have gone past.
On the clock, the second hand turns, turns, turns, and still the chasers fail to appear. . .
There they are at last - Bartali is in the lead. He throws us an irritated glance. His face looks swollen from the effort, but the facial muscles aren't contracted in pain. He, too, is alone in his group; no one comes forward to help him.
The surrounding countryside is stupendous, a perfect picture of the serenity of high summer. And yet, it may be right here that an important drama is unfolding. Perhaps amid these joyful fields the Giro is taking a decisive turn, and a heart will be broken.
Bartali, old lion . . . is this the day that had to come, sooner of later? Is this your supreme hour, after which the final collapse of youth begins? Has the spell been broken here, on a miserable little hill only 585 meters high? Is the faithful genie that, until now, has accompanied you to glory, no longer answering your call? Have you become a mortal like all the others?
Suddenly you'll know - the mysterious talent will leave you. In the middle of a race, all at once, you will feel strangely alone: like a king at the height of battle who, on turning to issue orders, finds that his army dissolved by magic into nothingness.
This terrible moment will come.
You don't know, and it could be this very day, during one of the Giro's easiest stages, because fate is cruel and amuses itself by doing the unexpected.
At this point, the time gap is almost a minute-and-a-half. That's still not too much . . . tires frequently go flat.
It could well be today, Bartali's famous "fatal hour", and twenty years from now we journalists, grown old and out of date, will recount it, as if it were a fairy tale, to our younger colleagues who come to see us in the editorial office late at night.
It really looked then as if an important moment in cycling history were about to occur; the twilight of an era, the decisive passing of the crown from one head to the other. An atmosphere of anxiety hangs over the endless procession speeding past, over the crowds in the towns, over the sports fans in distant cities where the radio had already broadcast the news.
But his faithful genie had not betrayed him. Invisible, it was still at theChampion's side.
Bartali changes the wheel in ten seconds.
Bartali hurtles off in pursuit, angrier and more obstinate than ever.
Does he get any encouragement from the large inscriptions written on the road in his honor?
Is he comforted by all the voices chanting his name?
Probably not, judging from his apparent indifference.
He is still at the front of his group, and he doesn't tire.
Now the gap decreases.
Bartali catches sight of the colorful team cars ahead at the far end of the road, spare wheels sparkling on the racks: a sign that the lead group is not far away. It's a welcome sign.
A delirious crowd packs the balconies to bursting point, and it looks as though they are about to collapse under all the weight.
(Come on, Bartali - six more kilometers and the lead group will be caught!)
Perhaps Coppi got tired of doing all the work himself, and it wasn't to his advantage to wear himself out to help Cottur, wearing the maglia rosa of race leader, who was also in this group.
The drama fades away, the tension dissipates, and everything returns to the daily routine.
The two great Champions do not react when Biagioni, continuing to sprint after the King of the Mountains line at Monte Sarchio, bounds ahead alone. The Giants are not alarmed. Biagioni is among the last riders on general classification. Thus, the young Tuscan has the pleasure of passing alone through the two unbroken walls of swaying black humanity flooding the final forty kilometers, down the hill toward Caserta's majestic boulevards, which seem to have been built specially for triumphant arrivals.
Whether or not the towns' centers are inhabited, an indescribable mass of people has materialized along the roadsides. As we pass at full speed, and as Biagioni gradually moves ahead, we hear the roar behind us, breaking like a wave, then crashing madly.
But is it possible that there are so many human beings in the world? Have the experts and the census takers perhaps made a tremendous mistake? There would have to be far more than forty-five millions inhabitants if all of Italy were like this!
Sucked-up by this vortex of a crowd, which little by little swelled to dreamlike proportions, Biagioni hurtled into Napoli. Is there any need to repeat what the congestion was like in the Arenaccia stadium, and the thunder that welcomed the arrival of that little bicycle, all alone, and Leoni's very elegant sprint four minutes later, stealing second place from Luciano Maggini and Fausto Coppi?
And the cheers, the flowers, the gaiety, the hugs for the champions?
And the golden cloud of dust that turned Napoli into a mirage?