Bolazno, the night of 3rd June, 1949. Dino Buzzati writes. . .
At this point in our story, it would have been a good opportunity to tell the story of the aging champion who quits the race and begins an irreversible decline. It would have been so moving, so true to our emotions, which first rejoice for the winner, then are moved by the drama of the defeated. The result would be even more effective because, in this case, the man is no longer young. We could not expect revenge in the future - the time left for him is very limited. His youth is a thing of the past. . . this last frontier, beyond which young hopes are forbidden, is no longer some vague myth lurking beyond the horizon, but is now imminent, clearly visible, and far too real.
For someone writing about the Giro d'Italia, it would be so easy to move the reader's emotions by insisting on such a bitter outcome, for no one in the world is more deserving of pity than a man slipping day-by-day from the heights of glory, for no fault of his own, until he finds himself back where he started, when no one pointed him out in the street - his name gradually loses the magic that gave him his fame, and he reverts to being just one of the countless names listed in the phone book.
It would have been so splendid to describe the champion who immediately after the finish shut himself in his hotel room and took a shower to remove the coating of mud, but then found that the warmth of the water, the clean smell of the soap, the fresh and immaculate bed awaiting him, the rest day to come, the crisp copies of today's newspapers, the huge complimentary Milanese cake with it's tricolor ribbon sent in homage. . . found that none of these things comforted him as they usually do.
On the contrary, all of those things only aggravate the wound, reminding him of other showers and other evenings of rest during the golden times when, anytime he wanted it, victory was his.
On the street, the fans who have remained faithful call to him, and for the first time this evening he listens to them with noticeable interest; and he peaks-out, between the slats of the white shutters. What faint voices, and what a miserably small crowd, compared to the roaring masses of the past. He hated them then with a sort of repugnance - dear, simple, generous friends, where are you now?
The scene at dinner: all the cyclists on the team are seated at one long table with the manager, the masseur, the mechanics, etc., but this evening the normal liveliness is absent. No one has the courage to be the first to speak - the way it must feel in the house of a condemned person, right after sentencing.
The champion himself is the one who finally breaks the ice, uttering something unimportant, with not the slightest reference to what happened a few hours before, as if it were just another evening - like during the first training camp each spring, when it's difficult to find a topic suitable for conversation at the table.
But his forced indifference only serves to increase the uneasiness. . .
No one answers his trite remarks, and in the painful silence, his teammates keep their eyes glued to their plates, pretending to be extremely busy de-boning the chicken.
One of them coughs.
Only the waiters, standing motionless a little to one side, stare anxiously at the defeated giant, with the same obsessive and indiscreet curiosity aroused by great physical deformities.
At night, the champion in decline is awakened by bad dreams. Bartali is one of the few racers who smoke - he lights a cigarette, then walks in circles around the room to ease his mind. Inside and outside the hotel, no one says a word, no one is thinking about him right now - they have all fallen into the black abyss of sleep, and take no heed of him.
Think of the overwhelming sadness of this man, surrounded by ghosts of the past - then consider his present fate. From the corridor, and from the nearby rooms, the sound of the rhythmic snores of his teammates touch him; for tonight they are still his devoted subjects, but tomorrow, right under his very own eyes, they will throw themselves into breakaways, and for the first time he will try in vain to keep up with their irresistible pace.
The young generation! They are snoring like animals, storing up more strength, like warriors secretly working at sharpening their weapons, while he smokes and paces and wastes his dwindling resources.
It would be easy, and to our advantage, to insist on this fascinating story line. . .
. . .but in order to do so, it would be necessary to turn the world upside-down, for it isn't really the truth at all - the champion of whom we speak is not someone defeated by life. He is no romantic hero, nor is he some pathetic figure betrayed by the inexorable march of Time.
Rather, we are dealing with a peculiar person; tough, obstinate, in a certain sense not very human, for he is quite unlike you and me. He doesn't experience despondency or the depressing influence of adversity. He grumbles and complains and protests continually, this is true, but he does so out of habit, even when things are going well for him. A rough, thorny stronghold in which there is no room for discouragement. He has been beaten - he knows that - but he does not look for excuses. Instead, he is exactly as he was before. The idea of giving-up doesn't even cross his mind, for he feels in top form, no more or less so than during the greatest days of his career. So he isn't sad, he doesn't have to play a part to show he's calm, he doesn't feel the least bit defeated.
The manager of the Italian national team, Alfredo Binda, who led Bartali to victory in last year's Tour de France, and who yesterday followed the stage through the Dolomites to size things up for the upcoming Tour, told us that Bartali was riding just as well as he had done last summer: but in France, in 1948, Coppi was not there - that's the whole story.
But the drama of physical decline is not for him, at least not yet. It is inevitable in the future, but there's no question of speaking of it today. Yesterday, Bartali was hounded by bad luck, so says his team manager Vittorio Colombo. The rotten luck, he tells us, began right after the feed zone at Predazzo when the racers were eating. Aware that his rear tire was slowly going flat, he mentioned it to his faithful lieutenant Jomaux, who then made the mistake of shouting the news to their team car at the top of his lungs. Coppi heard, and since he's the cleverest racer ever (or so says Colombo), Coppi took advantage of the opportunity by attacking.
Meanwhile, Bartali, always the malcontent, wasted precious time arguing with Colombo about whether or not to change the wheel right away, and then debated about the gear ratio of the wheel itself. And when he finally did launch himself in pursuit he forgot to eat, and when you are racing, food is like coal for a boiler. So, at a certain point, he found himself short on fuel, and his progress down the Gardena Pass was quite bad, at a frightfully slow pace for a normally very fast descender like him.
That is what Colombo said - explanations that could almost sound more like excuses. These were certainly not the words of Bartali who knows, when he loses, to take the punishment without accusations. Nor does Bartali torment himself with regret.
Where, then, is the figure who would have served us so well for the most moving chapter in our story? How can anyone feel pity for a loser who does not feel defeated, or a poor devil who's unfazed by misfortune, or a relatively old man who does not know the misery of old age?
Therefore, last night Bartali found the same consolation in the shower and at dinner as he would any other day. At the table he did not feel the need to feign false serenity, and he groused and grumbled as usual. He did not awaken in the middle of the night to mull things over; indeed, he slept right through until nine this morning.
So do not cry for this defeated champion, not quite yet. And do not feel sorry for him. Do not think of him as a hero in decline. Do not send sympathy cards.
He doesn't need them, and if any one of you suffering from the pains of old age thinks you can be consoled by comparison with Bartali, you are mistaken, for Mr. Gino Bartali is not old, nor is he discouraged or sad.
And he is far too sure of himself to offer excuses.
This morning, someone asked him "Did you really puncture two or three times?"
To which Bartali replied "Puncture? We never puncture."