Part 5 - Mario Fazio Keeps His Appointment With Mamma
Catania, the night of May 21st, 1949. Dino Buzzati writes...
A breakaway! A prank, which started as soon as we left Palermo.
The crowd was still there on the roadside, roaring.
The small houses.
Young women peering from behind curtains: confused looks and tousled hair still permeated by recent slumber.
"Was that the race already?"
(No, more like a parade, a show, a triumphal procession, such as might accompany a departing army.)
Amid the roars, the one hundred and two bicycles passed in an unbroken metallic rumble. When the sound reached them, the tifosi trembled.
The sun, still hanging low in the sky, stretched and distorted the racers' shadows:
There was Fausto Coppi's profile, and Adolfo Leoni's.
There was Gino Bartali's Michelangelo-esque nose reflected on the white plaster walls.
Looks like a splendid day! (But what are those three dark bagpipe-shaped clouds up to, skulking over Monte Pellegrino?)
On such occasions, there is always someone fooling-around, hinting at what could happen in the race, at the right place and time, once things get serious, like a child threatening with his little toy gun and shouting "BANG!".
(Sometimes, though, - and we don't know how - sometimes those inoffensive little guns really do go off.)
With 4068 kilometers left to go (out of 4070 kilometers to race!) four riders broke away: Bartolomeo Bof (Atala), Glauco Servadei (Viscontea), Adriano Lugatti (Bottecchia), and Gildo Monari (Fiorelli).
Oh, certainly nothing to worry about - they'd be the first to admit that, especially Servadei, who's tired old knees have become stiff with the passing years. In fact, they're ready to be caught at any moment, "swallowed up by the main group" as they say.
And, just in case the Giants look at them with "knives shooting from their eyes", they smiled as if to say "You're not angry, are you? If we can't have a bit of harmless fun, what would we have left?"
It was then that Mario Fazio (g.s. Bottecchia) gave in to temptation. Mario Fazio - thirty years old, born in Catania and now living in Brescia, dark complexion, full lips, thin face - a classic Sicilian face.
Perhaps he hadn't given it any thought, or if he had, perhaps he preferred not to dwell on it, but this first stage finished in Catania, his birthplace, and so this would mean a lot to him.
(He asked himself "Is it possible? Then let's risk it!")
So he took the risk, shooting out of the group, which didn't pay any attention to him. Perhaps he was hidden by the infernal line of cars and motorbikes which try to keep an eye on everything, creating a frenzied merry-go-round of horns and sirens and klaxons and whistles, until the entire race becomes one big maniacal free-for-all. Perhaps that was how he escaped, and Serafino Biagioni (Viscontea) slipped out behind him, sticking to Fazio like glue.
(Come on, let's catch the four who took off as a prank. There they are, rounding the curve way down there!)
A few minutes later two others took up the chase: Antonio Bevilacqua (Atala) and Andrea Carrea (Bianchi). Now there were eight of them doggedly continuing this folly.
Ahead of them lay mountains... nothing but mountains, hills and valleys, all the way to the finish.
And behind them - the great Champions, whose pulse rates are 40 beats per minute even at the top of the Passo Stelvio, as if they'd just awakened from a long nap.
(It's wonderful to feel young and invigorated on a Sicilian morning (You, too - right, old Servadei?), surrounded by green countryside, with the sea below, deserted, without even the tiniest boat, and rugged cliffs plunging into the sea like ancient battlements.)
:::Forty-two, forty-three kilometers per hour. How long will they be able to maintain this pace?:::
Their faces, which just a few minutes ago in Palermo seemed so boyish and smooth, without a wrinkle, gradually became distorted masks; you could almost believe they were made of wax, melting in the heat, forming flaccid folds.
This is man locked in a dreadful struggle, as if it were a prison: the world no longer exists to him.
Houses become a blur.
The tifosi become an illusion.
Like a rock climber hanging onto a vertical wall, who sees below him the small hotel, the red cars, the tennis courts with their tiny white moving figures, all that carefree, serene life, but to him it no longer seems real, so absorbed is he by the abyss.
So it is in the race, as little by little, everything around Fazio becomes shadow; vague, shapeless images flowing past on either side.
Shadows of carts, olive trees, carabinieri with machine guns.
Shadows of black-clothed seminarians, running down down down, panting, in search of Gino Bartali ("Gino The Pious" they call him). But Bartali is not here.
(So it's these eight who are here - isn't that good enough?)
Perhaps it's because their names don't sound as nice: "Bartali! Bartali!" the seminarians scream, their voices blaring.
(Don't these morons have anything else to say?)
Fazio's foot begins to hurt. (I tightened the toe strap too much, but if I pause to loosen it, I'll be done for. It's hot. Couldn't these accursed cars stop passing? What are they honking about?)
Descending into the valley at breakneck speed, you can make a good run for it.
"Careful, there's a bit of gravel on the road." (Now I can take a breather) "Your turn, Lugatti - keep it steady!" (Is this climb very long? No, thank God.)
Two hundred meters ahead the reflection from the sun is already visible. (Damn, now the saddle is beginning to hurt. It's new - I should have known it would hurt.)
(But will mamma be at the stadium in Catania???)
The breakaways are dancing on their pedals, surprised by another climb - they arch their backs and loosen their bodies, like giraffes stretching in the morning mists.
They swing their heads comically from side to side; seen from behind it looks as if they're saying "No, no, no" in a sort of desperate rage, aimed at some invisible heckler who keeps moving in front of them and never lets them catch-up.
Now, the climb up the infamous Rock of Cefalu.
Now, the famous cathedral, "magnificent Norman-style temple, begun by King Ruggero in 1131, etc.".
But what do they matter today, the cathedrals, the sea, the landscape, even if they are among the most impressive in the world?
Only the road is real. Nothing else.
And the road continues to climb, steep and rough and unyielding.
We're beginning the best part now - we are below the Colle del Contrasto, eleven hundred meters of climbing, with its King of the Mountains sprint at the top, and a one minute time bonus.
(What are the tifosi throwing now? Rose petals, that's what. To hell with rose petals; how far back are the great champions? That's what's important now. Have they finally decided to join the battle?)
The sun has suddenly disappeared into clouds. The festive atmosphere that permeated the landscape has also gone.
Clouds, wind, chilly mountain air.
(And Bartali, where is he? Seven minutes back, the motorcyclist yelled, but can we believe it?)
"Servadei? Where have you gone, Servadei?" Looking back down the climb, he's nowhere to be seen. (He's exploded.)
Bof gives up too.
It's cold. Right now they are alone, alone on the sinister mountain. After passing through Mistretta, there's nothing along the sides of the road except grass. Grass, and in the distance, small flocks of sheep, and the occasional shepherd, like something out of a fable, laughing aloud like a child, without even knowing why.
(Biagioni? Bevilacqua? - are you struggling, too?)
They have been dropped, and on Contrasto's final steep slopes, it's Monari's turn to set the pace.
(Is that the line up there, over that hump? Yes, God willing!)
A large red banner, whipping in the wind, marks the "King of the Mountains" sprint. Two young shepherds, standing on boulders, hold it suspended over the road.
Fazio sprints ahead furiously. Monari, who thought he already had it won, sees him sprint past at an angle to his right, like a charging buffalo.
Monari tries to strike Fazio. (What's going on between those two? Was that a dirty move?)
They cross the summit in single file, Fazio, Monari, and Carrea, and immediately dive down the other side, while right behind them the cars pour over the crest like a mad horde, tires howling, screeching through the curves, right on the precipitous edge.
Cold air, a black sky, the first drops of rain from a passing storm leave round spots in the dust.
And the Giants? The Giants arrive. The road is still long - the remaining climbs are smaller but so numerous, one wearies of counting them.
(No doubt they'll get tired, the little finches, long before reaching Catania.)
The Giants take their work seriously, and the great strength of the large peloton increases their firepower. They inspire fear when they hurtle through the hairpins, faster than skiers racing down a wide, white slalom.
(Doesn't that kind of abuse burn-out the hubs? Won't the tires catch fire?)
The earth's dizzying gravity is not enough by itself, and the racers attack with all their strength, whistling past at over 80 kilometers per hour.
(Mountains, when will you end?)
Fazio and Carrea are still alone, but now they are tackling the plains. In this low country everything has to be earned, and even the solitary defiance of two men against a hundred has it's cruel price. Thighs become leaden, burning sand has penetrated the knees, pedals are bogged down in thick mud, they are so stiff.
(Will mamma come to the station? She said she would, and my brothers, too - what will they say if they miss my arrival? Where are they right now? Have they finished eating? Are they already on their way?)
Alas, looking behind him, across the other side of the valley, Fazio can see the long glittering line of chrome snaking its way down the mountain. Still far away, it's true. . .
(My God, they're moving fast! Coppi's over there. Ronconi's over there. Bartali's over there, with the visor of his cycling cap turned up, leading the group, pedaling with authority, stern and vengeful, coming to inflict the punishment.)
Sweat is pouring down Carrea's Dante-esque face; he, too, feels like his legs have turned to stone.
There is the final climb, the one leading to Adrano. The two racers appear to have stopped suddenly, they are climbing so slowly, while behind them, like a pack of wolves, the Giro's greats surge in one solid mass.
It is over.
It is over to such an extent that one of their pursuers reaches them. It is Cottur, in his flame-red Wilier-Triestina jersey, driven onward by stubborn and wonderful youth.
"Fazio!" yells the good-natured lad who looks like Dante, as if he were passing along a bit of gossip, "Go!, Go, Fazio! Go on!" Carrea touches Fazio on the shoulder.
Then suddenly - a miracle.
The fiery agony which was burning him, marking the maximum limit beyond which his heart would explode, suddenly disappears. A fresh flood of energy seeps into his muscles, loosening the iron knots gripping his legs, freeing the wheels from their shackles.
Just when the rumbling motors had closed in, announcing the arrival of the army, a few quick thrusts of the pedals, and the two take off again, as they did at the gates of Palermo.
Their faces have become dehumanized, swollen, dripping sweat, yet here they are, charging like a locomotive.
Catania is down there - at last the clouds have parted, and now its rays of sunlight rain down on the countryside and onto the lava flows, casting a radiance upon the garlands, the motorcyclist's blue coveralls, and the innocent female laughter along the roadside.
(Come on, you're beaten, Coppi! You cannot catch me now!)
black-clad seminarians unfurl once more, searching for Bartali,
but now these are festive images.
As he enters the stadium for the finish, the cheers of the crowd pouring over him, Fazio's eyes search for just one thing...
...and there she is - right there, at the finish line, behind the wire fencing: Mamma's face, plump and soothing, full of kindness, tranquillity and laughter.
It lasted only an instant, for there was one more lap around the track and the final sprint to be completed.
And yet, somehow, he'd caught sight of her.
Even if the crowd had been a hundred times larger, he would have spotted her just the same.
Never before had he seen her look like that, laughing and crying at the same.
* * * * *
Race summary: 21 May 1949
PALERMO - CATANIA 261 km.
The first stage of the 32=B0 Giro started fast. The first attack of the race came from Serafino Biagioni, Glauco Servadei (both from the Viscontea team), Adriano Lugatti, Mario Fazio (both Bottecchia), Bartolomeo Bof (Atala), Gildo Monari (Fiorelli). They remained together through Pontisso, where Antonio Bevilacqua (Atala) and Andrea Carrea (Bianchi) were the first to catch them. At kilometer 34 the eight riders had an advantage 2'35".
At kilometer 50 old Servadei was dropped, the pace too fast for the stocky rider from Romano. The group's lead climbed to 4'20", an average of 41 kph. At the crossroad of St.Stefano the piemontese Carrea attacks, and only Fazio, Lugatti and Monari can follow. After 115 kilometers the peloton trails by 9 minutes. On the difficult climb to Mistretta, 900 meters altitude, Lugatti loses contact. The Mountain Grand Prix Montagna on the Colle del Contrasto (1120 meters) goes to Fazio, earning him a bonus of 1 minute, followed by Monari, with a 30 seconds bonus, then Carrea with 15 seconds bonus.
Monari has a puncture, and slowly loses contact. At 180 km the lead is 6'50"; Fazio and Carrea of still strong and increasing their advantage. Monari tries to regain contact with the leading pair, but suffers another puncture 60 km from Catania, and the 31-year-old from Emilia gives-up the chase.
While the fans all cheered for Fazio, the main field has fallen to pieces, and Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali lead the chase. Giordano Cottur (Wilier Triestina) chases the leaders. He quickly gains time on the two leaders, but fails to catch them.
Fazio drops Carrea, and rides on alone into Catania. Carrea is second, Cottur third, and Fausto Coppi leads in a small group to take fourth ahead of Corriere and Bartali.
1 - Mario Fazio, in 7h47'55" (time bonus 2:00)
2 - Andrea Carrea, at six bike lengths (time bonus 0:45)
3 - Giordano Cottur =E0 36"
4 - Fausto Coppi =E0 2'21"
5 - Giovani Corrieri (same time)
6 - Gino Bartali (same time)
7 - Adolfo Leoni (same time)
8 - Fritz Schaer (same time)
9 - Luciano Maggini (same time)
10 - Nedo Logli (same time)
1 - Mario FAZIO g.s. Bottecchia
2 - Andrea Carrea g.s. Bianchi at 1'15"
3 - Giordano Cottur g.s. Wilier Triestina at 3'02"
4 - Fausto Coppi g.s. Bianchi at 4'21"
5 - Giovanni Corrieri g.s. Bartali at 4'21"
Pink leader's jersey - Fazio
White "Best Young Rider" jersey - Fazio
at 8:00 PM