Part 9 - Entry to the Champion's Room is Forbidden

(Today is a rest day - no race recap. Amalfi, the night of Wednesday, 25th May 1949. Dino Buzzati writes...)

It is noon, and the champion is still asleep. Why is he so tired? Isn't he the one who only feels right when he's exhausted? The others are out riding around Salerno; luckily the sun came out today, and people are already seated at café tables beneath canopies of vines, while street players, out of respect for the Giro, are singing their classic old tunes free of charge. Perhaps yesterday's stage wore him out? "No, no," replies a small group of team personnel in the hotel lobby, "He's not actually sleeping . . . in fact, he's awake, but still in his bed . . . he doesn't feel like getting up, that's all. He'll have his lunch in bed, too."

Then perhaps he isn't feeling well? His wonderful body, which doctors have studied with cries of amazement, is perhaps showing some slight dysfunction, however minor? Is he feeling the after-effects of his fall at the Cosenza finish?

Outside, the sun is shining. Fausto Coppi, in a fashionable short-sleeved blue shirt and long trousers, is pedaling sluggishly at no more than seven kph around the neighborhoods of Amalfi, where he is staying; he's enjoying the marvelous views of those houses set at dizzying heights, those Wagnerian crags, that magnificent azure sea - worthy of Homer. Why is his great rival still in bed on a day like today?

"No, no, no, don't say that, not even in jest," his team personnel reply with slightly amused smiles, "In fact, he has never felt better. "In bed" is only an expression. In fact, he's not really in bed at all. He got dressed quite some time ago, and the doctor who gave him his daily check-up didn't find a hair out of place. There isn't the slightest hint of weakness. It's just that he prefers to stay in his room . . . he doesn't want to see anyone. "

" Is he in a bad mood, then? Discouraged? Bad news? Nerves?"

His guardians, custodians, lieutenants, and advisors shake their heads. "Nerves? For him, nerves don't exist. In his case, his strength and fortitude continue, confirming his total superiority over all the others. Uneasiness, anxiety, apprehension, fear - these words are meaningless to him."

On the ground floor of the hotel two teams of cheerful cyclists are seated at a table. Not him. A trusted waiter, or more likely his personal masseur, tentatively enters the room, bringing lunch on a tray. A particularly observant group of fans, looking in through the front door, glimpse the sparkling soup tureen and the dishes being carried across the lobby. Bartali's lunch! A shiver runs through the little crowd that has been waiting patiently since early morning, giving them new hope. The great news spread quickly.

Here's an interesting note! . . . The other racers who just dismounted their bikes and are seen at the restaurant, for example, or in the coffee shop, are difficult to recognize, they look so different - like actors who are no longer acting and have removed their make-up, rejoining the ranks of ordinary men like us.

But not Bartali.

Even after the race, he does not go back to being just any man. He remains a Champion, alien to our everyday world. And the strange thing is that we thought this myth-phenomenon was exclusively the realm of the naïve crowd. Within his own intimate circle of friends, we believe, he is considered to be a superior class cyclist, yes, but also a man like any other. Isn't it the same for great artists and powerful politicians who, when seen close up in their daily life, come down from their pedestals? Respect becomes blurred, we're on a first-name basis, and we can take the liberty of joking. Instead, in Coppi's and Bartali's case (especially Bartali) the myth persists even among those close to them. Not that they are considered to be geniuses, but no one dares to disagree with them.

We have a special regard for everything they do - even their team directors on whom the depend, even the patriarchs of cycling. Even the journalists (whose job almost always turns them into ruthless skeptics) have an uncommon respect for the two champions, perhaps without even realizing it. The journalists will deny it of course, and if they should happen to read these lines, they will probably laugh.

Yet it is true.

And a question comes to us: The spectators, even those in the front row, even the shrewdest and most irreverent, do they perceive in the extraordinary physical abilities of these two men the presence of something mysterious and sacred, a sort of grace, evincing a supernatural authority?
Perhaps this may explain the immense attraction of Sport. This might justify what otherwise seems so absurd: to wit, that reasonable, well-educated people can lose their heads and get upset and scream over a football player or a cyclist. But there are those who will say: But isn't it frightening that the modern world gives vent to it's secret urge for mysticism in the sports arena? Isn't it humiliating? It is a difficult question to answer. But it may be that sports fanaticism, with all its extravagance, is much less vulgar that it might seem at first glance.

The Champion remains shut in his room. He ate, received a massage, read his mail, skimmed through the newspapers, talked for quite some time with the few people allowed to enter, complained about the bump he took the day before yesterday, griped about all the noise the crowd was making down in the street as they continued to call for him, and grumbled about everything. He switched abruptly from one topic to another without ever getting tired. If there was ever a rider who doesn't get discouraged during a race, it is Bartali. Even when the day has gone badly for him and he loses several minutes, he still holds on. It almost seems as if he finds a sort of bitter comfort in suffering - perhaps his faith plays a part - and he seems to perceive in his misfortunes a sign that Heaven is speaking to him.

However, it is said that with the passage of time he is becoming less and less tolerant of superfluous visits, of overly-enthusiastic admirers, of the hundreds of annoyances which life inevitably inflicts upon him. Who knows - who can fathom the depths of his soul? Is fame itself beginning to frighten him, causing him to contemplate the future?

Meanwhile, the rest day has come to an end, and the usual race-eve rites have begun. In one of the hotel lounges, now deserted because everybody has gone to bed, Bartali's team director, Virginio Colombo, prepares race food for the members of his team. He has arranged seven slips of paper on the table, a racer's name on each one, and with the accuracy of a pharmacist he allots to each the prescribed foods.

"Do they all get the same portions?" I ask.

"Of course, identical portions for everyone."

"But why", I ask, "are there four portions of omelet roll-ups for Bartali, while Benso has only three?"

"No, that's impossible."

"What do you mean, impossible? Count them."

Columbo counts them, and is a bit disconcerted. "Well . . . you are right. I made a mistake." And he gives Benso an additional portion.

Was it an involuntary, almost instinctive, injustice? Sometimes it happens. But it is not only the portions of omelet . . . there are also more bananas for Bartali: four instead of three. And Colombo is worried . . . he realizes I have noticed, and he looks at us suspiciously.

"And the bananas?" we ask.

"What about the bananas?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing."

(To persist would be spiteful.)

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