Part 3 - To Do the Race? It Is Wonderful!

Palermo, the night of May 19, 1949.

Dino Buzzati writes...

Due to circumstance and the whims of Fate (about which it is too late now to complain), he who today writes this article as a reporter assigned to follow the Giro d'Italia has never before seen a bicycle race.

This writer HAS seen races of course, on water or on land, of one kind or another.

He has never, though, seen the greats of bike racing competing in the bright sunlight, racing numbers pinned to the backs of their dusty jerseys, spare tires slung over their shoulders, their faces caked with sweat and soot and dust.

He HAS seen, for instance, children running to school when they were late,

lightning dancing across the sky during a gray-black storm,

people rushing toward air raid shelters in the blare of sirens,

Once he even saw a thief running - practically flying - being chased down Via Andrea del Sarto in Milano. When they caught him I think they beat him; but I couldn't be certain, because it all happened at the end of the street and there was a lot of confusion.

I have seen ostriches in the African desert, running with the speed of a gunshot.

I have seen explosive shells fired from enemy ships, racing across the night, trailing a faint red glow, etching gentle arcs in the indigo sky. Some of them actually bounced off the water like skipping stones, splashing wildly into the far distance.

I have seen fast trains at twilight, their small square windows illuminated. I have seen the dreams and fantasies they aroused as they hurtled across the empty, darkening landscape. They were magnificent.

Many years ago I saw a jersey-clad racer training on Via Aurelia, and someone told me it was the great racer Costante Girardengo, but I don't think so, because it didn't look like him.

I have even seen Charles The Bold's messenger bursting through the forest, bringing a last-minute pardon to his faithful squire, who was falsely accused of treason, and whose blonde head the executioner was about to chop off, but that was in a movie, and perhaps it wasn't true at all.

I have seen with my own eyes, in the pinkish-yellow glow just before dawn, a pair of flying saucers hovering over the rooftops of Milano; they were red and seemed quite unthreatening...

...however, nobody wanted to believe me.

I have seen time fly - alas, so many years, months and days - playing havoc on us humans, changing our faces little by little, racing at a frightening pace, ever since the beginning of time itself, much faster than any speed achievable by racing cyclist or driver or aviator or astronaut.

And me, too, for once upon a time, when I was a boy, I raced astride a bicycle whose mudguards I had removed (so it would look a little more like the bikes the champions rode), and I remember how one evening I stuck close to Miss Alfonsina Strada's wheel for two whole laps around the park - Honest! - after which I exploded, leaving me humiliated, especially when, after Alfonsina shot-off like an arrow, a policeman nabbed me and fined me twenty lire for speeding - an enormous sum of money in those days.

Thus I have seen quite a number of things racing. However, I have never seen the giants of the road facing each other in an annual event sanctioned by cycling's top organizations. This is, beyond any doubt, a drawback for a reporter who is getting ready to cover an historic event like the Giro d'Italia.

It is this deficiency that my fellow travelers, veterans of the Giro, take advantage of, either in humor or malice. And since the Giro, in a sense, already began the day before yesterday in Genoa...

(An odd news item: yesterday evening, off the coast of Capri, Serse Coppi suddenly started to feel seasick, and had to go lie down in his berth, and even his brother, Fausto, did not look completely at ease, even though our ship, the "Citta di Tunisi", seemed to me as stable as a massive basalt cliff.)

...there was plenty of time for these old hands, these "fountains of knowledge", to educate me, constantly trading old stories, humiliating me.

Thus: "Do you remember??? Camusso punctured on the Ghisallo, and Pelissier started an all-out brawl with Antonin Magne at the finish line."

(?? What? ??)

There were veterans who browbeat me, and others who gave me a glimpse of the coming nineteen stages as a series of restful sanctuaries. They told me so many stories that, whatever the case may be, whether the Giro turns out to be just a fancy exhibition race or a torture or a gigantic affair or a lyric poem or a comedy or a savage battle, at least one of them, these veterans who lectured me, will be right!

One of them says that the Giro is a wonderful physical tonic, a joyous outing in the countryside, a pilgrimage from one trattoria to another through gastronomic Italy. He says that he used to go every year to Montecatini, but now instead he follows the Giro and gets much more out of it. When he returns home his wife is amazed (or so he tells us) at how much younger he looks.

Another one, with equal experience and seniority, maintains instead that the Giro is an hellish machine, designed to destroy men, racers, helpers, officials, journalists, photographers, everything. He says that for three weeks you fast, or nearly so, eating at most a heavy sandwich at breakfast, and choking down a meal in the evening because you are so hurried and exhausted. As for sleep, he adds - that's even worse! Last year, for example, he managed at most only four hours of sleep between stages, and only after the final stage did he get a whole night's sleep!

(But can that be true?)

One fellow tells me it's all a set-up. The cyclists finish first, second, third, and so on, based on predetermined agreements, plots, corruption, obscure higher interests. He probably believes in Dialectical Materialism, Karl Marx's philosophy which attempts to explain everything based on alleged "economic factors", even the boils the racer Luigi Malabrocca is suffering! Nonetheless, it is stimulating. The crowds are merely naïve, he says, and the tifosi, who rant and rave and loose sleep if their favorite has lost a couple of minutes, are insane. The favorite had his own reasons, they can be sure.

But there is another fellow, just as clever and intelligent as the others, who swears to the majestic and absolute purity of the Giro. He sees it as one of the last great examples of individual and collective mysticism. Even if they have loads of money, the racers knock themselves out, just for the Spirit, the Ideal. And it is this Spirit, this Ideal, nothing else, that draws crowds to the side of the road. He dismisses everything else: money, fame, special interests, even physical ability. It is the Spirit, he says, only the power of this Ideal, which turns the wheels, climbs the mountains, breaks the records. In his opinion, the champions are Chosen Heroes, the organizers represent Priestly Celebrants, and the anonymous tifosi amass as a Flaming Tide of Faith.

There is one other, one who complains all day long, cursing his decision to accept assignment to the Giro again. He already predicts dreadful strains, downpours, discomfort, bedbugs in uncomfortable hotels, and colds. He swears that, since a certain racer is absent, the race doesn't have the least interest for him, and it might as well not have been held at all, and that no one gives a darn! In his worst moments, he proclaims that bicycle racing is dead! Dead and buried! The champion breed has vanished. In the atomic age the pedal crank is scrap metal belonging in a museum. To stubbornly keep running this shoddy affair is absurd!

But I look at him - he is about forty-five, sturdy, and always seems ready to fend off a surprise attack. His face is a bit rough, his expression a little stern, but at the same time he's somehow likable.

I have been observing him closely for a day. I haven't yet figured out if he is a team manager, a sports director, a head mechanic, or a masseur. He grumbles and sneers, looks on the dark side of everything, and rushes around breathlessly, as if disaster was impending. I imagine he will be like this until the end of the Giro - a misfit, one might imagine at first glance - one who's obligation is to labor against his will, in an atmosphere that is repugnant to him.

So it seemed on first meeting him.... but then I changed my mind. I observe him now as he moans and groans and rushes around, acting like an irritable old bulldog. I watch him with great pleasure and ask myself: How long has it been since I have seen anyone so happy?

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