6/01/2009

Part 15 - Tomorrow, a Great Battle on the Climbs and Descents of the Dolomites

Bassano del Grappa, the night of Wednesday, 1 June, 1949. Dino Buzzati writes...

Portentous weather.

This evening, in the hotels and small inns - while big, ominous clouds continue to pile up to the north, toward the wall of the Dolomites - no one is talking about today's stage which brought us one hundred and fifty kilometers from Udine to the base of Monte Grappe. They talk only about tomorrow.

Thursday, June 2, 1949. . . the holy day of Sant'Erasmo Vescovo, will be the day of decision, the time of the bogeyman, the most difficult test, where the advice of one's companions, the easy answers on crib sheets, the formulas copied on fingernails and shirt-cuffs, will not be worth a damn. These mountains will not permit themselves to be misled - they stand solemn and impenetrable, wrapped in an immense blanket of thick clouds, hiding destiny within.

Big words, these, normally reserved for describing wars, revolutions, natural disasters, and other major tragedies, not a minor detail of life such as the Giro d'Italia. But this evening, here in Bassano, the race is anything but a minor detail; it's by far the most important thing in life in the small world of the Giro, in which we resemble wandering gypsies. And the thought of tomorrow's climb into the Dolomites keeps our senses on tenterhooks, almost like the anxious wait for the Allied landings in France during the last war.

Today's stage, while short and mostly flat, was nothing to be sneezed at, for it was hard-fought (but not by the great Champions, of course, who continued to avoid conflict). Even though it was pouring down rain - no more pleasant views of fields in the sunshine, no more bare-armed girls, no more fights for the buckets of cold water set out on the roadsides, but instead an endless array of shiny umbrellas, slick asphalt, and the ridiculous transformation of the cyclists, whose little waterproof rain jackets billow in the wind, transforming the riders into monstrous hunchbacks - it was a continuous series of attacks.

It began as soon as we left the gates of Udine: Guido De Santi (gs.Atala) took off alone, his intentions not exactly clear, followed by Renzo Soldani and Luciano Frosini (both from gs.Legnano) and Franco Franchi (gs.Frejus), but the three of them couldn't keep up with De Santi. Frosini went again, this time with Mario Ricci (gs.Viscontea), Luigi Casola (gs.Benotto) and three others; and this time they made it across. They caught De Santi at Pordenone, but not before he had pocketed the cash prime.

Entering Treviso everyone was back together, but in the town there was another escape - Giuseppe Doni (gs.Frejus), leading under the intermediate sprint banner, took advantage of the opportunity to step hard on the gas. After him went Giovanni Corrieri (gs.Bartali), Fritz Schaer (gs.Ganna), and Pasquale Fornara (gs.Legnano). Schaer missed a curve, ending up in the crowd, so then three were left, and in the gusting wind and rain the trio pedaled for all they were worth, between two solid lines of raincoats, oilskin capes, and umbrellas. . . a line which remained almost unbroken even in the open countryside.

After Montebelluna there was no more asphalt, and the wheels started to throw up streams of mud.

Corrieri accelerated.

He looked back.

He saw that the other two were weakening, so there he was, dashing off toward the finish line in Bassano, without the annoyance of escorts.

"Bartali, Bartali!" people shouted on seeing his team's yellow jersey.

"Bartali!" they continued to yell, even when the fugitive was upon them. . .

Who could have guessed that it was actually Corrieri?

The mud covered his face like a mask, bringing to mind one of those African witch doctors whose face is all tattooed in white.

True recognition came only from behind, when people could read his number through the mud.

And that is how Corrieri won today's stage, with more than a minute's lead (no change, however, in the overall classification).

It was a splendid stage, despite the rain and mud, and yet it has already been filed away in the archives, and it appears that the preceding stages have been relegated to the archives as well, because those wise men, the old foxes, the oracles, the professors, the astrologists, the chosen few who understand cycling lore, grant no importance to what has happened so far.

In their opinions, the road covered thus far, all 2296 kilometers of hardship, tribulation, sweat and suffering, were little more than a mere prologue, and the two great tenors have yet to test their scales (they haven't even cleared their throats. . . not even a little trill, as a test).

Up until now, they have only been fencing with very slender foils, but tomorrow at last the warriors will take their broadswords with both hands and bring them down full-force.

What does it matter if, in the first onslaught, the Knight received a few superficial nicks in his armor? Tomorrow, in a single forceful thrust, he will slash his enemy to pieces.

What does it matter if Coppi and Bartali currently have a handicap of ten minutes?

It is true that Leoni is in surprisingly good form and dominates the sprints, but how will he perform in the mountains?

"Yes, in the Dolomites, on the climbs, tomorrow," the experts snicker, "a ten-minute gap will mean nothing."

"Up there" they say, "only the powerful voices of the Titans will reign supreme in the silence of the sheer valleys."

Glory is a fragile thing, even in cycling. The merest trifle is enough to turn the praiseful trumpets in another direction. We saw a little of that last evening in Udine when, contrary to expectations, the cheers for the two champions were less sustained, and the crowds in front of their hotels were rather sparse. Instead, the biggest cheers and the thickest crowd were concentrated beneath Leoni's window.

But the myth of Bartali and Coppi remains intact - it is touching (speaking as a heretic) what blind faith these sports enthusiasts have in those two.

But what will happen tomorrow, on the Rolle, Pordoi, and Gardena passes?

That is all they talk about in secret discussions taking place within the teams, at the dinner table, at the bar, from one bed to another in the dark before sleep takes over.

Rita Hayworth's wedding?

Obstructionism in the United Nations?

The situation in Italy's African colonies?

The congress of Christian Democrats?

The day laborers' strike?

You never hear anyone speak of them. . . rather, it is "What will Bartali and Coppi do on the Pallidi peaks?"

In response to this question, a sly smile lights up the face of Pavesi, that wise old Silenus (faithful confidant of the wine god Dionysus), who tutored both riders and knows more about cycling than Einstein knows about physics and relativity. He excludes only one possibility from the list: that the two will break away together, taking turns at pulling. "No", he says, "that would require that both Coppi and Bartali change into different men overnight."

But excluding this, anything is possible: that Coppi attacks, beating his rival; that the contrary happens; that the two, obsessed with watching one another, miss the attack.

It is also possible, and we hope it will happen, that some young unknown will shake off the great aces, in the manner of a Great Champion, that roaring cheers will greet the "revelation of this year's Giro d'Italia" and that, beginning tomorrow, a new name will echo throughout the world.

But the professors shake their heads. "It is absurd" they say. "Bartali or Coppi - there can be no one else in the Dolomites."

Tonight those peaks, so arrogant and threatening, loom over the sleeping racers: visions of terrible precipices, roads that make the blood turn cold, without guardrails, carved out of solid rock, a monster following them as they struggle up the slopes above the abyss, while Salvation waits for them at the top, where there is a passage between the cliffs, where one never seems to arrives.

Even Fausto Coppi.

Even Gino Bartali.

It's absolutely certain - They awake with a start, gasping.

They turn on the light.

They look at the clock.

They sigh - it is time to leave.

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