Author John Foot talks about writing Pedalare! Pedalare!, a history of Italian cycling, launched at Look Mum No Hands!, along with It Ends In A, a play about Alfonsina Strada, the only woman to ride in the Giro, on the 3rd of May.
On the 3 May at 7pm at Look Mum No Hands there will be a presentation of the paperback edition of Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling by John Foot.
During the evening the actor Marco Gambino (Star of Words of Honour, 2009 and numerous other plays and films) will read selections of material about Italian cycling.
The event also publicises the London transfer of hit Italian, one-woman play, It Ends In A, written by Eugenio Sideri, starring Patrizia Bollini, about the extraordinary life of the cyclist Alfonsina Strada, the only woman to ride in the Giro d’Italia (in 1924).
Pedalare. Writing a history of Italian cycling.
In the three years it took me to write my book, Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling, I came across an astonishing range of people, both from the past and the present. The cycling journalists Marco Pastonesi and Claudio Gregori were my first introduction to the great Italian sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, which has always organised the Giro d’Italia and is printed in pink, like the pink jersey given to the leader of that race. Pastonesi introduced me to Renzo Zanazzi, an extraordinary character with a unique bar in the centre of Milan.
Renzo Zanazzi winning
Zanazzi told me a series of fascinating stories about his time as a professional in the 1940s, when he rode with all the greats and led the Giro. His bar was like a memory time machine into cycling’s past, with photos all round the walls and cups piled up on shelves. In the end, I built my book about Zanazzi’s life story, to which I kept coming back. Around the same time, I visited the capital of Italy’s cycling history and its past: Novi Ligure, a nondescript market town about an hour from Milan. This was the town of two great ‘super-champions’, Costante Girardengo and Fausto Coppi, and it is still a place which lives and breathes cycling.
Girardengo versus Binda
The Coppi story dominates everything else in Italian cycling history, and in writing my book, I knew I had to get the ‘Coppi chapter’ right. Fausto Coppi was the mountain I needed to climb in order to understand the tight relationship between history, society, culture and politics in the story of Italian cycling. In the end, I decided to concentrate on the Coppi myth. After all, more than an hundred books have been written about Coppi himself, many of them masterpieces. By looking at what had been said about Coppi, I could say something new (or try to). But there was not getting away from the ascendancy of ‘The Heron’. Time and again, I watched a beautiful, lyrical French documentary about Coppi’s life, with its poetic footage of a winning climb up the twisting hairpins of the Stelvio pass. I also met Marina Coppi, Fausto’s daughter, who has lived her whole life in her father’s shadow, a father she hardly knew. Coppi’s death in 1960 was a turning point for Italy, and for cycling.
But there were also so many less well-known stories which were a gift for any historian. What could be more perfect for a historian of cycling than the tales of Enrico Toti, the one-legged cyclist who became a war hero, or Ottavio Bottecchia, another war hero who won the Tour de France twice through sheer bloody-minded persistance, or the story of the ‘black shirt’ after 1945, where prizes were awarded at the Giro for coming last, leading to intense competition to be the worst of all?
The most powerful story of all was that linked to Gino Bartali, the great Tuscan rider who won the Tour de France at the age of 34, in 1948, from a seemingly impossible position. The ‘Bartali myth’ which has developed since argues that this sporting victory saved Italy from revolution, as the workers who took to the streets after an assasination attempt on a political leader were ‘distracted’ by events at the Tour. In historical terms, there is no link between a failed revolution and a cycling race. But this myth is extremely powerful, and shows just how important cycling was in post-war Italy. I also came across a scoop while writing Pedalare, when I unearthed previously unseen documents which called into question prevailing versions about the life and times of another great Tuscan cyclist of the 1940s and 1950s, Fiorenzo Magni. Magni had been accused after the war of taking part in a fascist massacre of partisans. My documents did not clear up the issue of whether he was guilty or not, but they did add another layer to a story of politics, betrayal and violence.
This book was a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, and made more complicated by doping scandals which exploded with more and more power after 1969 (the first scandal was in that year, with Eddy Merckx being thrown off the Giro) and threatened to destroy the sport altogether in the 1990s and 2000s. Marco Pantani, the most spectacular rider of the 1990s (and my favourite rider had his career and his whole life ruined by the scourge of doping. Once again, sport was the battleground where justice, conspiracy theories and the rule of law were tested to the full, and continue to be so. In the end, I had to dedicate a whole chapter to doping. This battle has not been won yet. Only last week, a whole team was charged with ‘collective doping’ in Italy.
Marco Pantani on the Galibier
And who could forget Alfonsina Strada, the first and only woman to ride a major stage race (the Giro itself) in 1924? Her story was an epic and tragic one, both before and after that famous and unrepeatable ride. A powerful play has now been written about Alfonsina and it will be staged in English for the first time in London, hopefully this summer. Go and see it.