Part 22 - Supreme Judgment Tomorrow on the Izoard
Cuneo, the night of Thursday, 9th June 1949. Dino Buzzati writes..
Imagine a provincial theater bursting at the seams with people - Arturo Toscanini is conducting! One hour before it is to begin, and there isn't an empty seat. Society ladies and gentlemen from all over the region have arrived for the occasion. Trepidation, anxiety, pulses are racing. As far back as anyone can recall, the town has never seen such an event, and people have talked about nothing else for the last month.
The entire orchestra is already assembled on stage. There's a hum of voices and discordant notes as the musicians tune their instruments.
At precisely nine o'clock the lights are dimmed, and the audience holds its breath.
There he is!
A figure in white tie and tails enters from a side door and strides to the dais. A tremendous burst of applause is unleashed.
There he is! Toscanini!
But why does he have black hair?
Why, it isn't him, it's someone else! The news spreads quickly throughout the hall. An unfortunate incident has prevented Toscanini from coming. Replacing him is this young maestro, whom everybody says is a very capable conductor. For a moment the thunderous applause is suspended, while the audience members look at each other, perplexed. But then, to show they are up to the standards of good manners, and in order to avoid humiliating this excellent young man who is, after all, not to blame, the applause resumes. But everybody is deeply disappointed.
The mood was similar this afternoon in Cuneo among the crowd that poured out along the roads coming into town, and onto the long home stretch to the finish line. A powerful roar welcomed the first group of riders to appear, and within this roar it was easy to discern the usual two names shouted by thousands of fans: "Bartali! Coppi!" But Gino Bartali was not there. Nor was Fausto Coppi. Fausto's brother Serse was there among the twelve breakaways, all of them talented and experienced young men, and the winner of the sprint, Oreste Conte of the Bianchi team, certainly earned the applause he received.
Nevertheless, it wasn't Toscanini.
Why should we newspaper columnists remain silent about the public's disappointment, which has been repeated with depressing regularity ever since the Giro began, but for the exception of three stages? There was certainly no disappointment in Catania, happy to see its very own Mario Fazio in first place. Nor was there any disappointment in Salerno when Coppi won in a sprint. And there was none in Bolzano, where Coppi won the battle of the Dolomites.
But in the other thirteen cities, even though they were too polite to let on, the fans were very upset. As we all know, emotions are not subject to logic, and the enthusiasts' spirits remain impervious to the cold logic that points-out the absurdity of their demands. What's important to the great champions is to be among the leaders in the overall classification, and one can lose all the skirmishes without need for concern, provided victory is achieved in the war overall. There are two decisive battles. One was in the Dolomites, which did, in fact, turn the overall classification upside down, and gave big gains to the two "great ones." The other is tomorrow's conflict in the Alps. But try to explain this to the fans. What long faces they pull, seeing their two favorites arrive amid the big battalion of latecomers, without disgrace, but also and without glory,. Their blind love does not waver, but they have a hard time understanding, and feel they've been betrayed.
In Sicily, during the first stage, while the racers were panting up the steep slopes of the Colle del Contrasto, the "old ones" told us with a superior smile: "These hills are mere trifles. Wait until you see what happens in the stage from Villa San Giovanni to Cosenza - yes, that one is definitely an ordeal. At least a third of them will quit."
We left Villa San Giovanni, began the murderous climbs and descents of the Calabrian mountains, and the very wise "old ones" conceded: "Yes, an exhausting stage, but it is of relative unimportance" That's what they said. "In the Dolomites, ah, yes, in the Dolomites, these boys will sweat blood. Everything will be decided up there. For some, it will be their Waterloo."
We went up the entire Italian peninsula, arrived in the Dolomites, climbed the Rolle, and then the Pordoi, and then the Passo di Campolongo and the Gardena, and the "old ones" looked at us with their little Mephistophelian smiles: "Fine stage, no denying, but it will take more than that. A mere stroll, this, when compared to the French Alps. You'll see. You'll see the Izoard, and then you will truly understand!"
Thus from stage to stage, the wait for the next day's race became a bit of a nightmare.
Today's stage went by as smoothly as an intermezzo - an indispensable stage, yes, because it was necessary for us to reach the foot of the mountains, but in the end it was meaningless. In fact, if the racers had traveled from San Remo to Cuneo by train or motorcoach instead of on their bicycles, the result (from a sporting perspective) would have been identical. Neither the Colle di San Bartolomeo, nor the Colle di Nava were enough to shake the champions, and a kind of perfect harmony reigned in their little family as far as the gates of Cuneo, where (so as not to lose face ) came the rebel's usual breakaway.
Tomorrow, then, on the Giro's most difficult stage, the appeals trial in the Bartali case will take place. As strange as it may seem, the enthusiasm for the campionissimo after his defeat in the Dolomites has increased enormously,. The comparison with a trial is justified. A guilty sentence, rather than an acquittal, swells the popularity of the accused, and the loser is much more poignant than the winner.
If Bartali wins back his lost crown tomorrow, an explosion of celebration the likes if which was never seen before will shake the peninsula. However, this is his last chance. Although he is a man of extraordinary reserves of energy, and he does not let adversity dishearten him, it is widely believed that tomorrow he will undergo the ultimate test. Millions of Italians continue to believe, with touching naiveté, that Bartali is unbeatable. After the Dolomites they said to themselves: "Of course, Bartali needs to warm up! On the Pordoi he wasn't yet in top form. You will see, in the Alps!"
We will see an endless flood of well wishes and prayers go with him. But watch out! If he were to yield again tomorrow, it could be an irreparable blow.
How fickle is the crowd's love. After so many disappointments, even the most stubborn faith is destroyed.
The public is already lining up at the court's entrance. The most famous lawyers have donned their solemn robes, and their most compelling arguments are ready, down to the last comma.
The judges, that is to say, the mountains, sit enigmatically, their very appearance quite intimidating.
Final appeal: On the profile of the race, the Dolomites look like a frightening series of peaks, similar to the temperature chart of malarial fever - a total of 3900 meters uphill and 3800 meters downhill, with four passes to climb over. However, the profile of tomorrow's stage is even more impressive and quite worrisome: Five passes, the Colle della Maddelena, Col de Vars, Izoard, Montgenevre, and Sestreire - 4700 meters uphill, 5000 meters downhill. It is natural to make a comparison with mountaineering: the Civetta wall is frightening, a classic grade six, but the Eiger, encrusted with green ice, is even more terrifying.
Today on the Col di Nava, after the racers had gone by, a Bartali fan lost patience with an opposing fan: "But did you see him? Do you want to add another ten thousand lire to the bet for tomorrow? You see. . . you're not willing to bet! But did you see how he was catching Coppi? He covered the last three hundred meters looking behind him, as if he were playing around, and when Coppi took off, what did he do? He wasn't even bothered, I swear. Two, three thrusts of the pedals and he charged ahead again. And he kept on looking behind him.. Like a cat, absolutely! Like a cat that amuses himself by killing a mouse! Another twenty thousand lire, look, I bet another twenty thousand lire that tomorrow your Coppi will fall apart!"
at 8:00 PM