Part 23 - Bartali and Coppi Finally Do Battle In The Alps

First, a quick bit of classical literature:
"Summary of the plot of The lliad" from "The Homer Web Page" (no longer on-line)
The plot of Homer's ILIAD centers around the Trojan War 4, which rages for ten years between the Greeks (or Achaeans) and the Trojans. The war is caused by the irresponsible actions of Paris, son of Priam, who is called upon to judge a beauty contest among the goddesses Aphrodite, Hera and Athena. All three of the goddesses offer bribes in order to tilt Paris' decision in their favor, but Paris declares the winner to be Aphrodite, who has promised him the hand of the beautiful Helen. Helen, as it turns out, is the wife of Menelaus, an Achaean chieftain, and the Achaean expedition to recover her escalates into a full-fledged war against the city of Troy.
However, there are conflicts within the Achaean ranks. A fight breaks out between King Agamemnon and star warrior Achilles when Agamemnon endangers the Achaean forces by disrespecting the priest of Apollo. The priest, Chryses, offers a healthy ransom to Agamemnon in exchange for the return of his daughter, Chryseis, who Agamemnon has taken as a prize. Agamemnon stubbornly refuses, and asks Apollo to cut down the Achaeans with a plague.
Achilles is appalled by Agamemnon's selfish behavior and demands that the girl returned to her father or he will not participate in Agamemnon and Menelaus' war. Agamemnon agrees to return Chryseis, but takes Achilles' wife Briseis in her place. Heartbroken, Achilles calls upon his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, and begs her to intercede on his behalf, calling up an old debt owed her by Zeus and asking him to impede the Achaeans' progress in order to punish Agamemnon.
Thetis approaches Zeus and fulfills her son's request. Zeus agrees, though he is cautious of provoking the wrath of his wife Hera, who is sympathetic to the Achaean cause.
As Achilles sulks at home, the war continues. Even without his talents, the Achaeans are able to bear down so hard upon the Trojans that Trojan leader Hector has to return home to request special prayers and sacrifices to the gods in order to shift their luck. While he is in the city he visits his family and his brother Paris, who is also sulking at home. Soon after this the tide turns in the Trojans favor, and the Achaeans are left with no recourse but to ask Achilles to return to the battle. Achilles refuses, but grants his dear friend Patroclus permission to lead in his stead, garbed in his own personal armor.
Patroclus fights gallantly and turns the tide of battle in the Achaeans' favor once again, but through the intervention of Apollo, he is killed by Hector. After an intense struggle, the Achaeans gain possession of Patroclus' body and flee back to their camp. Achilles is distraught when he learns of his friend's demise and decides to return to the battle in order to wreak vengeance upon Hector. However, he has no gear to fight in as Hector has stripped his armor from Patroclus' corpse. This problem is solved by the intervention of Thetis, who begs the smith of the gods, Hephaestus to forge new armor and a mighty shield for Achilles.
Achilles returns to the battle, slaying a great number of Trojans in his pursuit of Hector. Finally, the two arch-foes come face-to-face in a head on charge and Hector's throat is impaled by Achilles' spear. With his dying breath, Hector begs Achilles not to defile his corpse. Achilles nonetheless drags the body from the back of his chariot, much to the dismay of Apollo. Zeus recommends that a ransom be given to Achilles in exchange for the body, and Achilles reluctantly surrenders the body to Priam, Hector's father.
Hector's body is taken back to Troy and given a grand cremation worthy of a man of his stature.
And now, the article.
Part 23 - Bartali and Coppi Finally Do Battle In The Alps

Pinerolo, the night of Friday, 10 June 1949. Dino Buzzati writes. . .
Quando oggi, su per le terribili strade dell'Izoard, vedemmo Bartali che da solo inseguiva a rabbiose pedalate, tutto lordo di fango, gli angoli della bocca piegati in giu per la sofferenza dell'anima e del corpo. . .
Today, on the terribly steep climb of the Izoard, when we saw Bartali set off in lone pursuit of Coppi, pedaling furiously, spattered in mud, the corners of his mouth turned down in a grimace expressing all the suffering of his body and soul - Coppi had passed by quite a while before, and by now was climbing the final slopes of the pass - when we saw Bartali, something was reborn in us, after thirty years, a feeling that we had never forgotten since our days at school.
It was thirty years ago when we learned that Hector had been slain by Achilles.
Is such a comparison too solemn, too glorious? No. What use would our classes in "classical studies" have been if fragments didn't remain with us, becoming an integral part of our humble existence?
True, Fausto Coppi certainly does not have Achilles' icy cruelty. On the contrary, of the two great champions, he is without a doubt the more cordial and likable. But Bartali, even if he is more aloof and impolite (without realizing it, perhaps) lives the same drama as Hector, the drama of a man destroyed by the gods. The Trojan hero finds he is fighting against the goddess Athena herself, and he was destined to fail. And it's against a superhuman power that Bartali fought, and he could do nothing but lose: victim of the destructive power of aging.
His heart is still formidable, his muscles are in perfect condition, and his spirit has retained the toughness of his better days. But, without him noticing, time has wreaked havoc on him, as little by little it undermined his marvelous collection of internal organs - not by much, as neither the doctors nor their instruments could find the slightest change, and yet the man is no longer the same.
And today, for the second time, he has lost.
Today's stage, which devoured cyclists - "we've never seen such a dreadfully hard bicycle race," the most experienced technicians were saying this evening - began in a gloomy valley in the rain, beneath enormous clouds, with a mist floating just above the ground, in a climate of uneasiness, an atmosphere of depression.
Bundled up in their waterproof jackets, the racers kept close to one another, almost as if seeking shelter from the hostile weather, dragging themselves up from the Valle Stura like big lethargic snails. It seemed as if autumn had arrived unusually early, the road was deserted - perhaps we would not come across any more towns or people, perhaps the caravan would find itself later this evening in a wasteland of crags and ice, having used up all its strength, and would never again hear the dear voices of their loved ones.. That was the overall mood.
Only occasionally did the drapes of mist open, allowing a glimpse of distant black peaks. But shafts of white light, filtering through beneath the massive clouds, reminded us that somewhere on earth the sun was shining.
This dispirited troop of fat, mistreated snails finally emerged from the darkness and rain above Argentera. We were already quite high up, and the valley was spreading out wider.
We drove ahead and then looked down from the bastions of the Colle della Maddelena toward the slippery road, whose zigzags disappeared into the bottom of the valley.
The sun!
And by a stroke of good luck, we were present at the decisive moment, at the war's most important engagement, which erased any and all doubts and put an end to the discussions and debates that had gripped the entire country.
It was from that very brief moment, taking place in the majestic solitude of the mountains, that the rest of the race was written: the triumph of one young man and the inevitable twilight of another, who was no longer young.
Hundreds of thousands of Italians would have paid who-knows-how-much to be up there where we were, and to see what we were seeing. For years and years, we realized, there would be endless talk about this brief moment which by itself did not seem to be of special importance: merely a man on a bicycle, who was pulling away from his traveling companions. And yet in that instant on this stretch of road came to pass what the Ancients used to call "Destiny."
The Iliad, book 22, line 249:
Then Father Zeus held out his sacred golden scales: in them he placed two fates of death that lays men low - one for Achilles, one for Hector, breaker of horses, and gripping the beam mid-haft the Father raised it high and down went Hector's day of doom, dragging him down to the strong House of Death.
We looked down so steeply at the racers that the perspective, almost vertical, transformed them into slender, colorful insects slowly sliding along. This column quivered lightly here and there - are they waking-up at last?
Suddenly one of them, just a tiny orange spec, broke away from the others and rapidly outdistanced them. We realized immediately from his colors that he was not one of the giants - it was Primo Volpi of the Arbos team.
(Buzzati's text is a little confusing there, since the Arbos jersey is blue, not orange. AR)
However, another of those little shapes, this one colored white and blue, immediately sprang out from the side of the group, arching its back. It darted ahead, and in a few moments had reached the orange jersey. They were still at least five hundred meters away from us (as the crow flies).
"But it's Coppi! It's Coppi! You can see very clearly it's his riding style," they shouted.
In fact it really was him, and with impressive speed, if you consider the steepness of the climb, he literally flew toward the summit, dragging the little orange spot with him for three or four switchbacks. But very soon Coppi was alone.
The drowsy swaying of the group stopped as two other riders kicked away sharply in Coppi's wake, detaching themselves from the peloton.
Then two more.
And Bartali?. . . was our great one not going to react? Yes! We saw him extricate himself with great difficulty from the middle of the peloton, move to the right, and give some sharp heaves on the pedals in pursuit.
But strangely, it seemed as if he was performing without conviction, that he didn't believe in what he was doing, that he assumed all that activity off the front was just a harmless ruse.
We climbed back into the car and, amid the thick and intimidating clouds alternating with shafts of sunlight, we reached the Passo della Maddelena, losing sight of the racers.
From here on, these two were the only racers we would see all the way to Pinerolo; the fugitive and his pursuer, the two great heroes fighting tooth-and-nail for a kingdom.
The others remained behind, farther and farther behind, separated by high valleys and steep precipices, battling energetically among themselves; but from this moment on they were no longer racing for victory.
Everything came down to this, a battle between two solitary riders, and all hearts were gripped with emotion.
When we had descended the tricky Maddelena road (at breakneck speed, it should be noted) into a dark valley, we were met by blue-uniformed French gendarmes, stationed at every intersection as if they were our welcoming committee. We heard voices different from ours echoing along the extremely steep road, still encircled by crags, rising mercilessly toward the Col de Vars. Other mountains appeared in the distance, wild and gloomy-looking, and behind us, for a few moments, we could see an immense turret of rock with massive and imposing pilasters of purple ice, and we began to understand why people said the stage in the Dolomites was a joke compared to today's battle. The Colle della Maddelena would already have broken the back of an ox, and we had still just barely begun.
From the very first moments of the duel Victory took her place at Coppi's side - anyone who saw him no longer had any doubt. His pace up those accursed climbs had an irresistible power. Who could have stopped him?
Every so often, to relieve the discomfort, he raised himself up out of the saddle, and he pedaled so easily it looked as though he merely wanted to stretch to rid himself of excess energy, as an athlete does on awakening from deep sleep. The muscles were visible beneath the skin - they resembled baby snakes about to emerge from their rubbery eggs. As in the Dolomites, he advanced with absolute calm, almost as if he were unaware of the wolf following close at his heels. From his team car, always at his side, Zambrini watched him and smiled, now certain of the victory.
The Iliad, book 22, line 255:
Athena rushed to Achilles, her bright eyes gleaming, standing should-to-shoulder, winging orders now: "at last our hopes run high, my brilliant Achilles - Father Zeus must love you - we'll sweep great glory back to Achaea's fleet, we'll kill this Hector, mad as he is for battle!".
At the French border near the Colle della Maddelena, Coppi had an advantage of more than two minutes.
At the summit of the Colle de Vars he had four minutes and twenty-nine seconds.
Then, from the bottom of a long and frightful gorge, appeared the terrible wall of the Izoard.
As for Bartali, was this the final collapse? Had not the inclement weather, which was once his faithful ally, given him any advantage? Has his legendary endurance suddenly failed him?
No, Bartali remained always himself: stubborn, tough, relentless. But how can anyone resist someone favored by the gods?
He was filthy with mud, but his face, though gray with dirt, remained unmoved by the effort. He kept on pedaling as if a hideous beast were chasing after him, and he knew that if he were caught all hope would be lost.
It was time, irreversible time, that was running after him, and it was an inspiring sight to see this man alone in the wild gorge, engaged in his desperate battle with the advance of the years.
The Iliad, book 22, line 354:
"And now death, grim death is looming up beside me, no longer far away. No way to escape it now. This, this was their pleasure after all, sealed long ago - Zeus and the son of Zeus, the distant deadly Archer - though often before now they rushed to my defense. So now I meet my doom. Well, let me die - but not without a struggle, not without glory, no, in some great clash of arms that even men to come will hear of down all the years!".
They were unable to see each other - every minute the barrier of gorges, crags, and forests widened between them, and the adversaries fought to the very end.
Now came the fantastic terraces of the Izoard, which would take even an eagle's breath away, terraces which end in a bleak amphitheater of huge, precipitous crags, with towers of yellow rock that almost appear human. Then comes the dizzying climb above Briançon, a rise of a thousand meters.
Was that the finale of this massacre? No, it still wasn't finished. There was a fifth torturous wall to scale, the Sestreire, destined to chastise these men for their sins: another half-kilometer of climb to grind out on the pedals.
What do the details of a report matter in so great a battle? In the final reckoning, how much importance can be attributed to Coppi's five flat tires today, and Bartali's three?
Coppi flies on toward the summit, no longer worried by the same apprehension he knew during the first hours, now certain of finishing alone.
And Bartali continues to resist, but little by little the minutes between them accumulate.
Six minutes and forty-six seconds at Montgenèvre.
Seven minutes and seventeen seconds at Cesana.
Almost eight minutes at Sestriere.
Nearly twelve minutes at the stadium in Pinerolo.
Today, for the first time, Bartali has lost. It fills us with bitterness, because it reminds us so intensely of our common fate. Today, for the first time, Bartali understood that he has reached his twilight years.
And for the first time he smiled.
We witnessed this phenomenon with our very own eyes - a spectator at the side of the road waved at him, and Bartali, turning his head slightly in that direction, smiled.
That cantankerous, dismissive, disagreeable man, that unmanageable bear with the eternally sullen grimace of unhappiness, him?
Yes, him. . . he actually smiled.
But Bartali, why did you do that? Didn't you realize that by doing so you have destroyed the thorny aura, the spell which protected you?
Are you beginning finally to appreciate the applause, the hurrahs of the fans who don't even know you?
So, is it the weight of your years?
You have accepted it, at last.
Stage Results - 17° tappa - venerdì 10 giugno
CUNEO - PINEROLO 254 chilometri
1° Fausto COPPI (Bianchi Ursus) in 9 ore 19' e 55" media: 27,218
2° Gino BARTALI (Bartali Gardiol), a 11' e 52"
3° Alfredo MARTINI (Wilier Triestina), a 19' e 14"
4° Giordano COTTUR (Wilier Triestina), st
5° Giulio BRESCI (Wilier Triestina), st
6° Giancarlo ASTRUA (Benotto), st
7° Serafino BIAGIONI (Viscontea), a 23' e 37"
8° Adolfo LEONI (Legnano Pirelli), st
9° Umberto DREI (Benotto), st
10° Dino ROSSI (Cimatti), st
Col de Vars:
1° Fausto COPPI (Bianchi Ursus), 1' bonus
2° Gino BARTALI (Bartali Gardiol), a 4' e 29", 30" bonus
3° Primo VOLPI (Arbos), a 4' e 31", 15" bonus
4° Léon JOMAUX (Bartali Gardiol)
5° Giancarlo ASTRUA (Benotto)
Col d'Izoard:
1° Fausto COPPI (Bianchi Ursus), 1' bonus
2° Gino BARTALI (Bartali Gardiol), a 6' e 54", 30" bonus
3° Léon JOMAUX (Bartali Gardiol), a 10' e 41", 15" bonus
4° Giancarlo ASTRUA (Benotto)
5° Bruno PASQUINI (Bianchi Ursus)
Col du Montgenèvre:
1° Fausto COPPI (Bianchi Ursus), 1' bonus
2° Gino BARTALI (Bartali Gardiol), a 6' e 46", 30" bonus
3° Alfredo MARTINI (Wilier Triestina), a 17' e 40", 15" bonus
4° Giancarlo ASTRUA (Benotto)
5° Giulio BRESCI (Wilier Triestina)
1° Fausto COPPI (Bianchi Ursus), maglia Rosa
2° Gino BARTALI (Bartali Gardiol), a 23' e 20"
3° Adolfo LEONI (Legnano Pirelli), a 26' e 54"
4° Giordano COTTUR (Wilier Triestina), a 37' e 33"
5° Giancarlo ASTRUA (Benotto), a 39' e 22"
6° Alfredo MARTINI (Wilier Triestina), a 42' e 27"
7° Giulio BRESCI (Wilier Triestina), a 45' e 38"
8° Serafino BIAGIONI (Viscontea), a 50' e 21"
9° Nedo LOGLI (Arbos), a 54' e 24"
10° Mario FAZIO (Bottecchia), a 58' e 55"
Maglia Bianca: Giancarlo ASTRUA (Benotto)

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