The Giro d’Italia is one of the world’s great bicycling races. Like the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espagña, the Giro is a feat of human fortitude equally baffling, inspiring and painful to watch. The three-week tour of Italy, following a different route each year, passes through the Alps, the Dolomites and ends always in Milan. It’s held yearly in May or June; this year’s race has just finished. Each year’s hopefuls, in a science of training, strive to orchestrate a physical peak’s overlap with the early summer.
In 1949 two cycling legends, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, battled on the grueling path of the Giro, making it one of the most famous tours in racing history. This same year would mark the first for one man to win both a Tour de France and a Giro d’Italia. It was that year, only five years after the end of World War II, when the people of Italy were still reeling, that famed Italian journalist, Dino Buzzati was trailing behind the racers in a press car as he reported on the Giro for Italy’s premier evening paper. To Buzzati, who had never before seen a professional bike race in his life, the cyclists of the ’49 Giro were an analogy made manifest, a burst of life and color painting a trail across the country’s cultural landscape; spring blossoms breaking through a snow perpetuating the memory of a deep freeze.
The Cyclamen is a genus of flowering plants familiar to most North Americans as a typical housewarming or winter holiday gift. Native to much of Europe and the Mediterranean, several varieties of Cyclamen famously blossom amid snow and ice. The blooms of the over twenty species typically range from red to pink to an allusive albino white—a symbol of spring or rebirth that has inspired poets, painters and writers, and poets of painting. Wrote William Carlos Williams:
It might have been this shock of red on grey-white somewhere in the Dolomites of Italy, where riders of the Giro pushed in a slow rotation the pedals of rigid steel frames, that gave the Cyclamen flower its spotlight in the world of professional bicycling. But that’s probably just the fantasy of a romantic.
I am much more familiar with common houseplants than cycling legends, stage stats, gear ratios or bicycle races. It was the look of the bicycle, and the way I felt riding it, that hooked me on the sport when I was about twelve years old. In a wide-laned suburb of California I rode my rusty ten-speed, a ‘70s road frame with shifters on the down tube. It was given to me by a friend who, after finding that his own bike had been stolen out of his garage, noticed that the thief had left a ten-speed in its place. A sort of down payment on the karma incurred from the theft of my friend’s bicycle. Discarded by a thief or not, it was mine, and on it I learned the unexplainable thing that makes those of us who love a bicycle love it. A simple movement that propels a simple metal machine; of course there is the wind and sun, but really it’s that on a bicycle we are both the pilot and passenger. We become part of a colloquial history of transportation and a formal one about the human body’s potential, an international and local lore of long-haul trekking.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I started to take cycling seriously, and by seriously I mean I bought a bike and I used it to get places like work and school. Slowly I became a cyclist. That’s about the time someone showed me Dino Buzzati’s book, The Giro d’Italia: Coppi versus Bartali at the 1949 Tour of Italy, which I did not read because I assumed it was about bicycling history.
Though the Giro d’Italia has one overall winner as well as victors of each “general classification” (graduatoria generale) stage, specific feats are recognized throughout and the leading cyclist of each is labeled with a colored jersey—the “king of the mountains” wears green, the fastest cyclist under twenty-five wears white, and like the yellow winner’s jersey of the Tour de France, the Giro’s champion wears pink. The pink and most coveted jersey, a symbol for the race itself, is called the maglia rosa and is named for the paper color that La Gazzetta dello Sport is printed on, the founding sponsor of the race. The leader of the sprinters is the wearer of a mauve jersey. This jersey, called the maglia ciclamino is named for the tenacious alpine Cyclamen.
“It’s hope that makes us do it (you think that’s nothing?): mama waiting at home, sitting by the radio; grandma who is at the hospice; our wife’s shoes; cod liver oil for our children…”
Examined up close the stem of the Cyclamen flower stands high above the foliage, arching back before falling forward dramatically like some lovesick young thing, face down, arms on a vanity. Or maybe an analogy with more grace would be a ballerina, head down, arms cupped in a pirouette. The sway in the back of the Cyclamen stem is a perfect manifesto for the sentiment in Hector Guimard’s decadent metro entrances in Paris. Or maybe the Cyclamen stem to flower is best described in this case as resembling the dogged hunch of a cyclist.
In the 32nd Giro, in 1949, there was no maglia ciclamino, a jersey instated in 1970. There was only the pink and a now defunct black jersey for the last to finish the race without exceeding a maximum time. It was the varied team jerseys and frames and the crowds that Dino Buzzati documented as he trailed the racers, scribbling notes he would transform into his series of twenty-five articles published in the evening paper, the Corriere Della Sera. Throughout his pieces, the cyclists that Buzzati calls at times “monks,” “slaves,” “knights,” and “soldiers” share Buzzati’s page space equally with the landscape:
The children who play by the side of the road, the cyclists’ mothers’ tear-stained faces awaiting a glimpse of a son’s victory. Buzzati includes as much speculation on the thoughts filling the heads of the riders, those both great and doomed to failure (of an unsung cyclist, “He is dreaming of what all men at one time or another have an absolute need to imagine, otherwise life would be too hard to bear”), as commentary on the inexplicable force that propels a person to get up in the morning, as inexplicable as a desire to ride in a torturous bicycle race for nothing but the satisfaction of a finish-line. “It’s hope that makes us do it (you think that’s nothing?): mama waiting at home, sitting by the radio; grandma who is at the hospice; our wife’s shoes; cod liver oil for our children” // “…rebellious legs, hairy, miserable and tired that are on strike this morning and no longer want to drive this little piece of machinery called life…”
Though he writes with a grand view of the cyclist’s toil as metaphor for the human struggle, Buzzati’s background as a journalist anchors his pieces in reality.
Less commentary is given to the cyclists’ diet (one frail cyclist falls behind on a stage of the race because in his excitement he forgets to eat) as to the idea that the bicycle represents the progress of future (“the chrome on the bicycles sparkled with all their brilliance”), past (35-year-old Bartali pitted against his age and his young opponent, Coppi) and the rebirth of the nation: “These boys pedal,” writes Buzzati, through the hills of Italy where so recently, he notes, the bodies of fallen soldiers rested, “And why? For nothing. For the pleasure of finishing first, for the satisfaction of those who are there to watch them because if man isn’t fighting in one way or another he becomes unhappy.”
The cyclists passing through the country are a long, colorful banner uniting the old and the new, inviting the country to start again, which it must, inevitable as spring: “With those flashy jerseys we will look like small bouquets of flowers.”
Buzzati is best known for his novel The Tartar Steppe (1940), about a man stationed in a fort and left to wait for an enemy that may never arrive. A contemporary American audience might be more familiar with his recently rereleased graphic novel, Poem Strip (2009), or his children’s book, The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily (1945/2003), introduced in reprinted edition by Lemony Snicket. Buzzati’s writing is often likened to that of Franz Kafka. Buzzati, a novelist, painter, playwright and poet, has been called a surrealist, a magical realist, and the Tom Wolfe of Italy. Tim Parks, in a piece for Three Penny Review (Issue 84, 2001) titled “Throwing Down a Gauntlet” wrote that the most apt comparison to Buzzati however is probably the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi:
Buzzati was ten years old when Italy entered World War I and it has been written that the mountains of the country, particularly the Dolomites, feature prominently in his work due to their significance as the wartime line of demarcation between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian forces. While professional bicycle racing was new to Buzzati, his preoccupation with the terrain brings to his reporting a depth that transforms coverage of the Giro into an epic. And though he writes with a grand view of the cyclist’s toil as metaphor for the human struggle, Buzzati’s background as a journalist anchors his pieces in reality. We do eventually understand who has won a stage, the relationship between the “giants” as he calls Coppi and Bartali, and the various surprises the daily grind of the race produces.
Though cited as a textbook for anyone interested in sports writing, a must-read for journalists as well as the cycling enthusiast, it is now out of print.
The 32nd Giro is considered one of cycling history’s great races not only because these two racers were pitted against one another—Coppi at the height of his career and Bartali on the brink of his end—but also for a definitive moment when Coppi, seeing his opponent fumbling with his brake cables, bore down and overtook the lead. As another great Italian cyclist, Alfredo Martini, would later recount, “Coppi generally didn’t attack Bartali in the mountains, but while riding at the back of the peloton as the Maddalena climb began, he noticed that Bartali was having trouble with his brake cables near the levers and was distracted. Coppi used that moment of inattention to attack. Coppi was meticulous about his bike while Bartali was somewhat careless about his machine and as a result suffered numerous mechanical difficulties (far more than Coppi) throughout his career.”
Almost twelve minutes ahead of his rival, Coppi became the winner of the 32nd Giro’s pink jersey. Buzzati likened the victory to a battle between Homer’s Achilles (Coppi) and Hector (Bartali), while a radio commentator, Mario Ferretti, spoke the simple sentence that would be marked in the history books:
“There’s only one man in the lead: his jersey is celeste and white; his name is Fausto Coppi.”
Buzzati’s Al Giro d’Italia was published after his death and is supplemented by three articles on the same Giro by a second reporter, Ciro Verratti (accounting for missing days in Buzzati’s reporting). Though cited as a textbook for anyone interested in sports writing, a must-read for journalists as well as the cycling enthusiast, it is now out of print.
When I am dedicated to reading a book for one reason or another I will take the New York City subway, rather than ride my bike, so that I can use the travel time to read. I like the opportunity to see my book judged by its cover in the close quarters of the subway cars. Buzzati, a name not registered by the handful of very literate friends I unofficially polled, would probably not have appreciated the cover of the edition I read. Though originally printed in Italian with one of Buzzati’s surrealist paintings on its cover, the English version printed by VeloPress in 1999 features a collage of sepia cycling photos; there’s Coppi and Bartali, there’s Buzzati’s name and book title in red and green set on white. Maybe it’s too easy to speculate that, given a different cover, the book would have persisted, known as a beautiful account of a great bike race and a window opened onto an era’s uncertainty for the future, a reflection of a people at odds with its past.
1. “The Crimson Cyclamen” was written as eulogy for Williams’s close friend, the painter Charles Demuth.