Genoa, the night of Monday, 6th June, 1949. Dino Buzzati writes. . .
Here are the most notable features of stage fourteen; two-hundred-twenty eight kilometers of bright sunshine, mountains, valleys, coastline - a succession of turns, not just on a road, but through an almost unbroken human corridor: another day on which the two giants would not commit themselves, so out of fourteen stages thus far, only the one in the Dolomites can truly be said to have been fought tooth-n-nail (certainly a distressing situation for those who naively wish the super champions to do battle every hour of the Giro, but nothing will change until some new rival emerges).
So here they are, two locals, brothers Vincenzo and Vittorio Rossello from Savona, racing for the Legnano team, finishing first and third in Genoa, with Silvio Pedroni (gs.Frejus) between them in second, the three of them finishing two minutes ahead of the peloton.
They say that racing in their "local air" can give riders extraordinary energy, an adage which is often confirmed. As soon as they approach their hometown and begin to hear hints of the local dialect so familiar to them, then even the "nags" - the lowest level of gregari relegated to the bottom of the overall classification - can transform into lions.
There is a Latin proverb which states that "No man can be a prophet in his own country," but this is not applicable to cycling. On the contrary - if you want to be loved by your neighbors, become a bike racer. Then, whatever your level of success, in your own neighborhood they will consider you another Costante Girardengo, another great champion. This affection is a source of great pride; even the most wretched will manage for a few minutes to vie with Coppi. At the very least, when a local rider cannot count on the strength of his legs, he will break away near his hometown. Posters singing his praises hang from telephone poles and balconies, his name is chalked in huge letters on the asphalt along with the names of the "great ones" and people recognize him immediately, without having to first check his race number.
It's like a reunion, happily anticipated for many days. Waiting for him there will be his mother, his fiancee holding a little basket of rose petals, his former schoolmaster who taught him his ABCs, today wearing a dark suit in honor of the occasion, the priest who baptized him, the young girl who gave him his first kiss, his childhood friends with whom he made his first bicycle rides on a rickety old heavy contraption so big that his feet never reached the bottom of the pedal stroke, his manager - the president of the local sports club - who bought him his first real racing bike, the policeman who fined him once for speeding, the town's beauty queen who never tired of teasing him, friends, strangers, old enemies, all lined up, all bad feelings forgotten, yelling his name.
What does it matter then if, ten kilometers up the road where no one knows him, the poor racer falls apart and is this evening having a difficult time just making it to the finish within the time limit? Isn't it all worthwhile? Isn't it wonderful to come through your hometown all alone, ahead of Leoni and Bartali, like some triumphant hero?
In the more fortunate cases, the rider hopes to win a cash prime, and in the best cases (but this takes some real expertise) he may have his heart set on actually winning the stage itself.
Down in Sicily we saw Mario Fazio drop everyone to win in his hometown of Catania. We saw Antonio Bevilacqua and Guido De Santi sprint ahead beneath the banners held aloft in their hometowns in the Veneto region. Oliviero Tonini did the same in Emilia. Renzo Soldani did the same yesterday in the hills around Pistoia. And today, it's the likable Rossello brothers, who are no second-raters, for their names always seem to be mentioned when anything exciting is happening.
They shot off with Pedroni on the descent of the Recco, then stepped on the gas hard to take two minutes out of the giants by the finish; never have we seen two such happy boys arriving at the finish.
But couldn't the giants have overtaken them? A more malicious person might suggest so. Weren't the giants being rather lenient? But even if that is so, does it matter? The Rossellos did a great race, and their compatriots, on seeing them, seemed to have gone crazy. What more can one ask?
Alfredo Pasotti, twenty-three years old, from Pavia, winner yesterday of the mountain prize on the Abetone and today on the Bracco - he is perhaps the most graceful racer in this Giro. Not movie-star handsome like Leoni, but well proportioned, slender, his face still that of an adolescent, courteous, and in the saddle he has a well-balanced style. If he wasn't so slim and delicate, he probably would already be a great champion.
Since the elimination of his teammate Luigi Casola (for being outside the time limit), Pasotti he has been leader of their Benotto team. Today on the slopes of the Pordoi he had been the last rider to be dropped by Coppi - all the others had already been left behind in the valley, but still Pasotti resisted.
We passed close by him at his moment of crisis, his face ashen, looking at us with the aggrieved expression of one who is being wronged, but he was resigned to it. Soon he was left behind, a classic case of the rider "blowing-up," he had perhaps expected too much of himself. Obsessed with the idea of keeping up with Coppi, he had forgotten to eat. He was second rider over the Pordoi summit, then he completely caved in.
And yesterday, too, we saw him in total crisis on the descent of the Abetone. But suddenly, and quite unexpectedly because we were flying along, a rider passed us at an insane speed. Number 86 - Pasotti. We looked behind us, but no one else was coming. Like a downhill racer concentrating entirely on his ski jump we saw him, light and delicate, disappear in front of us. To attempt to follow him closely would have been madness.
But just after the next turn we saw him again. . . he was off his bike, and tearing-away at the front wheel - this was his second flat, and he looked around desperately, searching for his team car to provide him with a change of wheel. But the car wasn't there, and tears were running down his face, tracing tiny, thin, crooked grooves through the mud encrusting his cheek.
Twenty-five years old Serse Coppi, Fausto's brother and teammate, took third place in the intermediate sprint at Chiavari. It's the first time in this Giro that his name has been mentioned in the newspapers, however modestly. We certainly cannot claim to have "discovered" him, for many have spoken and written about him before. Who among us is not familiar with this unique counterpoint to the great champion, a "fratello gemello", a "doppelganger", a younger "twin" brother who shares the same face, same blood, same last name, but is in a way pitiable because he does not share of his brother's athletic abilities - almost an ironic imitation.
But who does not know already of the exemplary affection between these two brothers, not at all compromised by the enormous difference in abilities? Not only does Serse feel no envy, but he rejoices in Fausto's victories, even more-so than Fausto himself.
Fausto cannot do without Serse, and feels lost if he doesn't know that somewhere behind him, amongst the backmarkers, Serse is slogging away faithfully. The experts say that Serse, though not lacking in talent, is the only cyclist in the world who doesn't know how to ride a bicycle, and even laymen will agree. His style is embarrassing - some compare it to a duck, others to a giraffe, still others an accordion. They say that, if he didn't sway his hips at each pedal stroke, he could do a lot better, but it seems there is no remedy.
His face is just like his brother's (minus the crafty expression) but with the addition of a pair of very kind and extremely gentle eyes. He is often mistaken for Fausto, and this increases the emotional tension created by the situation. At the end on one stage we saw for ourselves an austere gentleman of about fifty approach Serse and offer him a huge bouquet of roses, stammering confused words of congratulations.
"But, you know. . . " began Serse, very embarrassed.
"Oh but please, allow me!" the admirer begged.
And Serse, with a sad, cherub-like smile, answered "But, you know. . . Me, I'm his brother!"
Does it not seem like a sentimental play, the life shared by two such different brothers, one indifferent to glory, the other heedless of mediocrity and misfortune? Serse's terrible crash near Terontola in the Giro two years ago was surely misfortune, as was the annulment of his victory in the last Paris-Roubaix race. In the world of Italian cycling this is perhaps the most talked-about topic when the object is to arouse the public's sympathy.
But is all this true, after all? Does Serse deserve so much compassion? We have become somewhat doubtful - that is, we mean to say that the roles ought to be reversed. On the basis of many small signs, we believe we have discovered the newest truth about the Giro. . . a very surprising truth.
Here's the fascinating hypothesis - That Serse is Fausto's lucky charm, his guardian spirit, a sort of living talisman, a little like the magic lamp without which Aladdin would have remained a beggar. Who knows - perhaps the secret of his champion brother lies within Serse? If Serse were to give up cycling, perhaps the magic would disappear, and Fausto would suddenly find himself without strength, like a limp rag.
Partners, then - they are so close that neither is capable of living without the other. It is really Serse who wins, for without him Fausto would have fallen to pieces a hundred times. Serse is the deserving one, and that's enough reward for him - it helps him to withstand the terrible efforts (knowing he'll finish among the last riders), to endure the humiliating comparisons, to not get angry when he is mistaken for Fausto and is offered flowers which are not meant for him. But, of course, Serse is worthy of all this generosity, even if you think this hypothesis is a mere fairytale. Just look at him with that nice-guy face, those two big gentle eyes - so sympathetic they seem to be hiding something.
There is one other person who figured in the stage, mentioned last only as a matter of chronology. An officer in Genoa's police department, whose actions turned one of the Giro's finest day's into one of it's most regrettable scenes. This officer, a tall fellow of about thirty with a sharp, bird-like face and thin Mongol-style mustache, was assigned to maintain order at the finish line at Lido d'Albaro. For no apparent reason he charged his jeep into a group of journalists, team managers, and race judges, who had just gotten out of their cars and had gathered at the finish line, as they have always done and always do without causing the slightest inconvenience. We were there, too, and stood flabbergasted as the officer, yelling and twirling his black rubber truncheon, rained down blows on the nearest heads. The race director, Giuseppe Ambrosini, was standing right below the jury rostrum, and the officer dealt him a fierce blow to the forehead, lacerating the skin. As his jeep inched forward he went after several others, and many of our colleagues were beaten this way, among them Ciro Verratti and Guido Giardini, who lost his watch during the incident. Was this just the senseless excess of individual zeal, or did the officer really suffer a mental breakdown? The local police chief, who came rushing to the scene, understood fully the anger it aroused throughout the Giro's entourage, and shortly afterwards the mayor sent Emilio De Martino, director of the sponsoring sports newspaper "La Gazzetta dello Sport" a letter stating how very sorry Genoa's citizens were about the incident.
In Genoa, an immense and festive crowd had turned-out to welcome the Giro. It had been a day of sunshine amid stupendous countryside and magnificent crowds, but it all ended so stupidly.