In drab rags, shirtless, old men and women, children, they lift their arms. They raise invisible glasses of wine to toast us. If we were not moving they would kiss us, their undead sons, the few not lost in Anzio or to disease in Africa, the survivors of both fascism and partisani. Bartali himself, Senso said, the lynch mobs nearly hung, a case of mistaken identity. Before the war, who would not not know the owner of that nose?
|Bartali and Coppi|
Dai, Faustino! Dai!
Among the unending cries of the coppiani comes a familiar voice from the dust of the war-wrecked street. Faustino! How many times had the butcher of Novi Ligure threatened me with this name? An echo of the past, of my little Castallania. I steered toward my name, even as the direction of the road put my home at my back, on our way up and east toward the Turchino and the unlit tunnel, the spine of the Apennines, and then downhill to the blessed sea and the warm hundred and fifty kilos to San Remo and the thousands waiting.
Cousin Giorgio held two apples, so shocked to see me away so early, here with the sprinters and track rabbits fresh from the Winter indoor circuit, off the front, that he dropped one. Had he saved them from the war for me? Ah, the poor, surprised man. Merda! Even for an apple I could not stop and wait for him to pick it up and hand it to me.
I take the front now, driving the pace uphill, and am the first to hear the downshifting engine on an oncoming American jeep with its single white star, the driver and officer smiling in wonder. A living pig, god knows where found, lies hogtied in the rear. The tifosi now shout for slaughter, begging to roast, cure, fry, and eat the poor beast. Big Tessiere, the Frenchman, wags his tongue and steers as if to turn around--gasping, his cadence slowing into the switchback, and then his wheel recedes from view.
La Primavera of Rebirth, they called this, the first Milan San-Remo in five years. Organizers produced no fuel for chase vehicles, provided few chase vehicles, in fact. Rubble and shelling on the roads in Milan pushed the start to outside the city. Seven paved sections were held up as hope--glorified as the cobbles glorify Paris-Roubaix. Winners receive chickens, win, tubular tires, kisses waited, things to be traded, since our currency has no value.
At the front, I ride this river bed of a road gingerly. I see the craters, the glass, the jagged rocks, and place my wheel. Poor Bartali must now be at the mercy of the peleton's dust.
Six hours lie ahead, and the shirtless, shoeless, hungry tifosi still keep up the cheers, never a gap of silence. Italy, despite war, still has enough Italians to line the 320 kilometers of Milan-San Remo. There are even young men, smiling and respectful, trotting on my flanks, no question in their voice as they shout: "Arriva Coppi!" They grin and seem to awake, urge me on long after they cannot keep up.
Alone I enter the tunnel. I bore through the unlit darkness and silence. Will three tires be enough? Newspapers for the descent. The apple, still crisp and cool, cracks as I find the time to eat it. Four gubeletti remain. A shame my bidons cannot pour espresso! How Bartali used to stuff me with food! All good intentions, but mine is no horse's stomach as his is.
Faces in the light of the tunnel's opening peer to see who will be first, voices from behind crying out to be informed: "Who is it? Who is first?"
It goes up, a single voice broadcast from the director's car ahead, and the crowd take it up before I come into sight.
As they see me they take it up full-throated, even the bartaliani, who clap each other on the back and assure themselves with the tale of the tortoise and the hare. All of Italy, even my rival and his fans, asks me to pour myself out now, to win or to be the rabbit for the hounds.
Bicycles lie in neat rows against the cliffs, their tires patched with glue and rags, the war shortages making a peleton of the nation. Some day, we may all ride motorcycles, but not now. The three million bicycles of Italy sit idle as all followed the race on the radio.
Coppi won the 1946 Milan-San Remo by such a large margin that he had time to stop for an espresso.