Bolzano, the night of 2 June, 1949. Dino Buzzati writes. . .
It was up there, where the line of fir trees begins to thin out. Higher up there are bare meadows with traces of purplish-blue scree, and the hotel which was visible from the Passo di Rolle; still further up lies the formidable pedestal of Cimon della Pala, immersed in black storm clouds. It was up there that Bartali, who was leading the group, tried to break away.
We saw him from above, rocking in his saddle as he shot ahead a few meters, and at the switchback slowly turned to look back, revealing his sly and suspicious face. Were the riders behind him weakening?
For several moments he saw out of the corner of his eye that the road immediately behind him remained empty. At the same moment he felt the burst of warmth as the sun appeared between two black clouds. Then, all of a sudden, he had a feeling that a shadow was sticking to his back, then two, three, four shadows following closely.
He looked - could there be the least bit of doubt? It was Coppi, and also Alfredo Pasotti and Giancarlo Astrua (both gs.Benotto), Aldo Ronconi (gs.Viscontea), Vittorio Rossello (gs.Legnano), and Giordano Cottur (gs.Wilier Triestina).
Perhaps he mused to himself: "He's holding on well in the mountains, that little one Pasotti! He's still a bit fragile, to be honest, and rather young, but could he end-up being my successor? And what to do now? Should I persist? It's unlikely that they will stay in line, wheel-to-wheel, after one thousand-eight hundred meters of climbing. But perhaps it's too soon? There's an awful lot of work left to do today. Thank goodness I feel in control. This morning I was so nervous; that never used to happen."
He estimated the distance - it wasn't very far to the summit, too late to try for an escape on the grand scale, so he didn't persist. Nonetheless, he continued to ride imperiously at the front, slowly accelerating. The peloton had collapsed - he hadn't been wrong. He saw it in tatters, scattering down the curving road.
An ominous and sinister red glow on the edges of the Colibricon.
The roar of the crowd waiting at Pallo di Rolle annoyed him - he could hear them shouting his name.
A "King of the Mountains" bonus sprint, with it's precious prize of one minute. . . he pounded savagely on the pedals.
He felt strong.
Someone else's front wheel appeared alongside of him, trying to pull ahead. Defiant, Bartali lifted himself out of the saddle three times, using all his weight to bear down on the pedals.
(God, what a tough climb!)
Something, perhaps a flower thrown from the crowd, struck him in the face.
The wheel beside him began to fall back. He crossed the line first and, carried by his own momentum, launched himself down into the valley, headed for Predazzo. Coppi followed, as did the others - they had regrouped except for Ronconi, who was fussing with his wheel at the foot of a fir tree - a blowout.
They found themselves still together, plummeting down a dizzying gravel descent through a forest. The clouds overhead were black in the extreme and frayed beneath, darkening the forest. Now and then they'd catch sight through the mist of massive, rugged rocks - the Dolomites.
Hail began to sting their faces and thighs - a storm in the mountains. The scenery and the struggle grew gradually more impressive. The austere fir trees along the roadside rushed away, bent by the speed.
Brakes squealing, like kittens calling their mother.
There was not a living soul up there - nothing but the sound of the bicycles, the violent click-clock of the hail, and the squeal of the brakes. Consequently, nothing could be decided - there were still too many riders in contention at the feed zone in Predazzo.
Down there, at the bottom of the valley, the sun reappeared. . . no more hail or wind. The racers were able to catch their breath. Soon the ordeal would begin again, but for now, on an almost flat road, a large group reformed in an informal truce. The riders could eat, drink, wipe the mud from their faces. Nerves relaxed a bit - some of them were joking.
So, will the decisive attack come on the Pordoi?
Bartali peals a banana with his teeth, focusing on the fruit for only perhaps two seconds, but when he looks up again, he sees three racers bursting clear. "They're breaking away!" he hears someone shout. He flings the banana away, leans over his handlebars, stretching his back in that distinctive way of his, flattening himself on the bicycle, and speeds after them.
He doesn't need to ask who they are - Coppi's silhouette, seen from any perspective, is well planted in Bartali's mind. Then there's the pink jersey of race leader, Leoni, and little Pasotti. They are moving away at top speed, but luckily for Bartali, he has one of his lieutenants with him - the excellent Jomaux. The others in the group - Astrua, Pasquale Fornara and Rossello (both gs.Legnano), Serafino Biagioni (gs.Viscontea), and Ezio Cecchi (gs.Cimatti) - certainly won't give him any help.
So it's on this nearly flat section, where it seemed the least likely, that the great oft-delayed duel began.
Bartali: The devil with that damned banana! How is it possible that I let myself be taken by surprise like some child? What a stupid blunder - and here, on the flat, where they fear me the least! "Come on, Jomaux! Faster!"
But Jomaux can only do so much, and Coppi pulls away.
The sun has disappeared, but at the top of the valley, the snow-streaked walls of Sassolungo are glistening like a fantastic cathedral at Christmas. Bartali is preparing to take the lead again when his rear tire suddenly goes flat. "A wheel, quickly!" His team car is close by and ready - five, six, seven . . . ten seconds. "Is it ready? Let's go!"
Working with Jomaux, he catches the other pursuers, and takes command once again. It will take more than a flat tire to scare him off!
Now the climb begins - that's Bartali's cup of tea, and he feels a fine kettle, with not the least of concerns. But how is it that Coppi and the two others have vanished up ahead, invisible for as far as the eye can see? Damn that momentary distraction!
But is it all the fault of that small distraction? Is it really, or is there something else as well? Look at Fausto Coppi - is he climbing? No, he is not climbing. He is simply riding, as if the road were as flat as a pool table. From a distance you could almost think he was taking a pleasant spin.
>From a distance, that is. . .
But up close we can see his face becoming more and more wrinkled, his upper lip drawn back, giving him an expression like a rat caught in a trap.
And his two breakaway companions? Leoni is outdistanced, momentarily overcome with pain, while Pasotti somehow manages to hang on. Perhaps this is Pasotti's first great day? Could he be the next new star? But alas; one look at him is enough, for there's a quiet, resigned suffering, tightening his child-like face. His eyes are lackluster, it looks almost as though he is blind. Ten more meters, and Pasotti falls apart.
And Coppi is alone.
We followed his terrible undertaking for quite awhile, up to the Pordoi summit, down into Arabba, up through the Passo di Campolongo (another gain of two hundred fifty meters up a very steep climb), then down again to the Plan Gardena crossroads. He proceeded calmly, standing occasionally out of the saddle, rising up above the handlebars, rhythmically moving those long tapering legs, so solid at the thighs, but so slender at the calves.
He doesn't turn to look behind. He asks no advice from his team manager, Tregella, following in the team's light blue car a few meters back.
He keeps pedaling, pedaling, beneath the fantastic Boe peaks, so livid and gloomy in the stormy atmosphere, then climbing among the thin pastures, always profoundly alone.
A racer on a bicycle.
We in the car are not truly passionate fans, and yet, there is something stirring about this slender young man riding in the mountains, day after day, with nothing more than the beating of his heart.
Downhill he does not force the pace, but instead matches the increasing speed with casual thrusts of the pedals; he tenses on a curve, relaxing again as the road straightens; methodically, always true to himself, his physical pain hidden within himself.
And always more alone.
No people in the fields.
No roaring motorcycles.
No headlong avalanche of cars.
Verratti drives past him, shouting "Bravo, Coppi! You're five minutes ahead!"
Coppi lifts his head and opens his lips to say something, but not a sound comes forth.
Yes, Bartali crossed the Pordoi five-and-a-half minutes after him, behind Leoni and Pasotti.
And now we have reached the final torture - the Gardena Pass: another six hundred meters to climb. Dismal crags loom ahead, ominous, as are the wild gorges from which wintry blasts descend. Coppi slows a bit - they are saying he has reached his limit - then he lifts himself from the saddle and after three or four turns of the pedal, he has regained his former rhythm. His triumphant flight in the storm comes to a pause . . . strange rumors arrive with the motorcyclist who left Bartali a short while ago - Bartali had dropped the others, and was pressing on alone. Bartali had gained two minutes on the descent. Bartali is only now beginning to work full-force. If Coppi weakens for even a moment, Bartali will be right on his heels before the final summit.
Just by chance, Coppi catches sight of his rival on a curve. . . far away and very far below, still on the first slopes of the climb. But he is making progress.
And how he stands-out in the dreary landscape, in his yellow "Cicli Bartali" jersey, with his yellow team car following close behind. We stop to observe him, this man who is striving with all of his might. He is actually writhing on his saddle, like a salamander surprised by a hiker in the middle of a trail. But it isn't a sign of exhaustion - this is his style on difficult climbs. And he alone, among all the racers, keeps the exact same facial expression he had at the start this morning in Bassano - cunning, sad, and displeased, like certain ancient masks of the Medusa.
A feeling swept over the valleys, hard to describe - a kind of spiritual tension, pity, astonishment in the presence of this desperate duel. Would the old champion be able to save himself? Or had his moment of destiny finally come knocking? The blast of a horn echoed off the peaks, reverberating - the horn of a motorcycle messenger, but it seemed more like some solitary mountain god giving a signal.
Then Coppi stopped swaying above his saddle - he'd found a second wind from some unknown source, the invisible hand of victory pulling him to the top, then pushing him down the other side of the Val Gardena. He was flying now, and extremely happy, although his face spoke only of pain.
He entered Bolzano stadium, did a final lap, and finished in triumph. The empty minutes went by.
Seven. a resounding roar announced Bartali's arrival. He wasn't alone, for the intrepid Leoni and the young Astrua had managed to catch up with him in the final stretch. Bartali battled to the very last for second place, like a soldier fighting to the end although he knows he has lost.
Long intervals separated the other as they arrived. . .
They looked as if they'd been crucified.