5/20/2009

Part 4 - A Hundred Racers Leave at Top Speed Along the Road Taken By Garibaldi


.

.

.

.
Palermo, the night of May 20, 1949.
Dino Buzzati writes...

Everything is ready.

In a few hours, reveille - it will be time to leave.

After the celebrations, the ringing bells, the music, the flags, the emotional cheers of the past two days, the city of Palermo is sleeping with one eye open.

The bicycles are ready, glistening like noble steeds on the eve of a great tournament.

The pink number plates have been fastened to the frames.

The bearings and chains and pivot points have all been lubricated.

The narrow tires are smooth and taut, like the skins of young snakes.

The bolts have been tightened.

The saddles have been adjusted to precisely the correct angle.

The handlebars have been positioned, their height calculated to the exact millimeter.

These bicycles have been good students; you could say they know all there is to know. By now they know it all by heart, after so many trials and tests. Is it possible for them to forget even one comma during the upcoming "exam"?

Ready, too, are the teams' secret battle plans, labored-over to the point of near-nervous breakdown. There is no setback, surprise, bad luck, or other occurrence that has not been foreseen;

whether it will rain, whether it will not rain

whether the aces will attack in force immediately, whether they will take it easy

whether or not a gregario will make an attack

whether or not it will be dusty

whether it will be hot, or cold

et cetera.

Entire volumes of racing experience are compressed into these mysterious strategies.

This year the battlefield has changed a bit - there are several new regulations, such as time bonuses awarded for intermediate sprints, and more time bonuses at the tops of mountains.

In order to adapt to these new rules, each team's "general staff" has needed to weigh the pros and cons, follow intuition, and carry out unprecedented research. The watchword has been passed discreetly from general to colonel, from colonel to private, but will the troops obey?

The soldiers are ready, one hundred and two racers, tomorrow's heroes, perhaps, or possibly defeated troops in humiliating retreat.

One more night, then no more daydreaming - beginning tomorrow their sleep will be deep, intense, and pitch black, without the tiniest crack through which the deceptive light of dreams might penetrate.

They are prepared:

Their muscles have been massaged to the necessary suppleness.

The hundreds of calories necessary have gone down their alimentary canals.

Their pulse rates are stable, the rhythm checked and confirmed by the doctors.

Each rider has received his cloth race number, with safety pins for attaching it to the back of his jersey.

Each rider has prepared his little secret weapons which the others are not to know about:

1. a locket containing pictures of his children
2. a medallion of his favorite Madonna
3. an ancient racing cap, stained with oil and sweat, but unbeatable as a good luck charm
4. a special pair of cycling shoes, with the leather soles formed a certain way - the same ones he wore three years ago to a resounding victory

Less poetic - one racer has slipped a vial of amphetamines into his jersey pocket. Another has an energy-booster, an infusion specially prepared for him by his town's pharmacist.

Food bags - the director of each team has prepared them with fatherly care, adjusting the type and amount of food to the taste and physique of each racer; one gets steak, another gets boiled chicken. Almost all of them get sugar cubes, butter-and-jam sandwiches, rice cakes, and stewed fruit.

The masseur's equipment is also ready: the bandages, ointments, liniments, irrigations, laxatives, and fast-acting tonics. And also the pep pills - powerful potions, capable of making a corpse leap from its casket like an acrobat.

Ready: small bottles of tea, coffee, mineral water.

Ready: spare bike parts.

Ready: the colorful Publicity Caravan, which will transform the army of racers into an exciting, carnivalesque parade.

Ready: the alarm clocks, set for five o'clock to wake the fans in Palermo on time tomorrow - at least, those not yet exhausted by today's activities - the screaming, the crowds, the uproar, the frenzy - in front of the railing of the Politeama Theater, where the riders received their race numbers.

Ready: in Catania, site of the first stage finish, the slogans painted on the road, in praise of Cerami (se-ra-ME!), captain of the Belgian team, who was born in Catania.

Ready: the flowers for Corrieri, the Pride of Sicilian Cycling.

Ready: the leaflets, issued by the Chief of Police, regarding public order along the route.

Ready: the banners at the finish line, the triumphal arches, the garlands, the brass bands with their instruments shining like a yellow-mirrored ocean.

Ready: the reporters' pencils, the cameras, the microphones.

Ready: the yellow bandanna which our correspondent, Di Francesco, will wave when the race caravan passes, so that we might recognize him at Cefalu, where we enter the town across from the gas station.

************************************

But the "enemy" is also ready - stronger and more intimidating than in any previous year.

"Beware, Giants of the road. Be on your guard! Yes, Palermo may have embraced you these past few days, as if you were her sons. You have been showered with applause and celebrations and smiles from pretty girls."

"After that, however, begins the bitterness. You will have to do battle with a proud and determined army, right from the first day, and then the day after that, and the following day, and always you will find it there, on the road."

"It will launch it's regiments against you, regiments with sinister names:

"Kilometers"

"Thunder"

"Storm clouds" (already a threatening mass gathers overhead)

"Dust"

"Climbs"

"Sirocco winds, hot and dry"

"Potholes"

"Fatigue"

"They will unload ice-cold rain on your back, wear you down with murderous climbs and descents, throw treacherous fine gravel beneath your wheels".

"And then there are the notorious flat tires, the collisions, the falls, the cramps, the boils, the thirst, the aching back, the discouragement, the loneliness."

Also among the enemy's forbidden weapons there is the Time Penalty, which dissolves hours and hours of heroic effort into nothingness.

"And so it shall continue, to the bitter end".

But who will hold out, Oh gallant Garibaldians without bayonets? Who will become your Garibaldi? You do not yet have any generals - up to now, you are all simple soldiers.

You will have to earn your stripes.

Tomorrow morning will be like a new beginning each you. Victory, with it's inscrutable visage, still smiles indiscriminately on everyone.

Among you there are formidable warriors. At the outset of a new endeavor, great hope can fill even the most humble of hearts. One never knows - those who in the past were covered with glory may be defeated in the opening skirmishes, while those who have remained unknown behind the lines will perhaps charge to the front like mighty eagles.

And there are the new recruits, the anonymous boys, to whom fate may already have given the nod.

Everything, really, will start over again. All the cards are still covered, and hope hovers like a golden halo, intense and impartial, over all starters.

Will this great endeavor become a duel between the sport's two giants, the two legendary aces? Or will a new name, destined for fame around the globe, emerge unexpectedly from the ranks of young riders?

Old Pavesi, the "Discoverer of Champions", diviner of future greatness, the "Nestor" of the Giro d'Italia, shows the tiniest smirk on his devilish but good-natured face. Has he glimpsed among the anonymous youngsters a talent marked by fate? Is the one destined to extinguish Bartali's and Coppi's flame here among us?

But old Pavesi only smiles, without saying yes or no. "We shall see," he replies. "Tomorrow, we shall see."


*************************************

And now this prologue has come to an end, and we must turn to the first page of the novel.

We see a long road stretched out before us, beneath a brilliant yellow sun, flanked on one side and then the other by long lines of delirious humanity, and in the background, barely visible, something small and dark is moving towards us.

"Goodness, how it is flying!"

It is a man on a bicycle, head down, alone, racing madly toward victory.

"Who is it? Who is it?"

A booming sound is coming closer, and the roar of the crowds is like thunder.

"Who is it?"

But we cannot answer.. he is still too far away.

3 comments:

  1. "May 20,1949"? Wasn't the 1949 Giro run in June?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nope, the Giro was sometimes run entirely in the month of May, but more commonly from mid (or late) May into June. AR

    ReplyDelete
  3. I based my question on this article in cycling news which had the decisive stage on June 10th. http://www.cyclingnews.com/road/2009/giro09/?id=/features/2009/giro09_coppi_bartali. I guess I'll have to stay tuned for Dino's upcoming reports.

    ReplyDelete