Part 21 - The Old Racers Refrain

(Here's one of the favorites)
San Remo, the night of Wednesday, 8th June, 1949. Dino Buzzati writes. . .
The bicycle has two wheels - one which guides and one which runs; one obeys the brain when deciding whether to go left of right, the other obeys the legs, our professionals' legs. When you touch them, they shout "But this is wood!" And for each leg there's a pedal.
The pedals! This is the cross we have to bear. Never, never will they be satisfied: when one is up, its twin is down, and each one always wants to do what the other is doing; they continue to run after one-another and never, ever catch up.
And yet, who can say no to them?
When one is up, we push it down, then it's the other one's turn, otherwise an injustice would be done.
And the pedals drive the chainring, the chainring pulls the chain, the chain pulls the cog, the cog turns the wheel, and the wheel carries us forward, forward.
The legs! Therein lies the big problem. Some people's legs are hard and knotty. Others are long and tapered like a ballerina's. One has thighs like a hog, another those of a wading bird. But they are all magnificent, strong, courageous, obedient.
But our poor legs! Miserable, enslaved, bruised, overused and tired, they carry along, carry along this little piece of machinery cruelly called life.
There are those who study, others who cultivate fields, or make clothing or pots, those who manufacture trains or pumps; there are those who care for the sick or bury the dead; there are those who teach children, and others who say Mass.
But we do none of this. We do not manufacture or cultivate anything. We move our legs, see, and nothing else.
Absolutely nothing else.
And for this we have been given a brightly colored jersey, and a number has been put on our back. Then they print our names in the newspaper. They give us money, too.
But for how long?
They throw flowers at us, adore us, kiss us, ask for our autograph.
But for how long?
Until the day, good people, when our legs say "No". They will say "Enough going around and around, pushing pedals up and down".
And without a number or a jersey, we, too, will sit on our doorstep on these days in May and June, watching other legs turning.
No longer ours, though.
Ours will rest firmly on the ground, like the legs of landowners, like those of pharmacists, teachers, hat makers, plumbers - in sum, like all those who still have all their faculties. And we will say "Thank heavens! No more backbreaking work for us. No more dust and torment. Oh, oh. . . and no more dysentery! We've had enough of that hellish life, the life of a convict!
(God, though, how wonderful it was!)
Do you remember? At 8:30 on the dot, the starter lowered his little white flag, and off we went together; it was cool, the day was magnificent. They said good-bye to us, but it wasn't a farewell. And very soon the Venetian rider Guido De Santi broke-away, and we pedaled with all our might, and the pace was crazy in a gear of 51x15, and we no longer saw mountains or villas, woods or taverns, nor the ruddy mouths laughing and shouting our poor names - all we saw was the backside of the rider in front of us, his red jersey bursting with supplies of food, and as we sped along the loose chips on the asphalt became long, dizzying streaks. During this time we relayed each other at the front. And then, who knows how, we found ourselves all alone - remember? For us were reserved the roars and the applause, as well as the banner at the center of town, with a 25,000 lire prize. It was around noon, it was hot, there were no trees to give us a little shade. The good old days, right?
Nineteen hundred forty-nine! Nineteen days of slaving away - at the time it seemed as though we were falling to pieces.
But on that day there will be no more flat tires, no more feeling completely shattered, no more team discipline, nor getting up at the crack of dawn, nor falls into the gutter, nor fines, nor disqualifications, nor injustices from the esteemed panel of judges, but instead, a comfortable chair on the doorstep in which to sit like a gentleman and watch the others sweat blood, finally. All the same, how gratifying! Don't you think?
But is it really?
Did you really think we were serious and wanted that loathsome chair outside our front door so we could die in it, little by little? The road is our agony, but also our daily bread, and at night the ridiculous dreams of racers like us roll up and down. And if the Giro is penal servitude, it is also a great adventure, a game of kings; it is also war, an outing in the country, an exam, madness, all those things that greatly remind us of our youth.
And so I ask you - you, the racers, if someone gave you a purse full of millions, saying to you, "forget it, here is the money, just give up and stay safely at home, no mud, no cramps," what would you reply? You'd reply, "What, give up everything and start rotting in an armchair?" Would you accept, my wretched friends, old convicts, simple-hearted ones, who talk about contracts and salaries, and yet you'd sell your souls, your ugly unfocused souls, for a fine sprint, wouldn't you wheel ahead of all the others, watched by a huge crowd that paid to see you? Come on, if you have the courage, answer. Wouldn't it be a dreadful thing to sell the best of what you have for a scrap of paper?
On the mountains, the real mountains, those with ice at their peaks, those mountains that make us cry and think of home, it was three o'clock in the afternoon. When we were just below the crags, the battle signal was given; Coppi opened fire with an artillery barrage along the entire front, and one by one we fell into the pit of our own sweat. Twirling his huge saber, however, Gino Bartali was seen getting up, shakily, to defend his long-standing crown. And people were telling him "You are great!"
All around us, girls were looking at us. They were shouting, applauding, waving their arms about. Now we hate to tell you this, but to be honest, in everyday life you are nothing very special, but today, yes, while you greeted us, you were lovely, very beautiful, so many darlings - you seemed to be offering yourselves, body and soul. But heaven help you if we were to stop! Then you wouldn't laugh any more, would you? Your faces would harden..
In fact, wherever we go, it is always a holiday: a carnival, playtime, a life of pleasure. There they are! There they are! Who's leading? Hurrah for Gino! Hurrah for Fausto! Hurrah for everybody! It's always Sunday: triumph, prizes, tournament, parade, procession to honor the saints; and everybody is happy, joyful, and well fed. And Italy is our velodrome: in the middle of it, we go around and around, with the brave people all around us, 45 million of them, and ever increasing.
And just as we caught our breath and everyone was chatting together, Mario Vicini took a bad fall and landed on the edge of the road. But it was impossible for us to stop. Then came the lightening, claps of thunder, hail, rain, shivers began, but we never stopped. When the bottle of tea was empty, when the food was gone, when we had taken the pep pills, when not even a cube of sugar was left - it was right then came the famous breakaway by numbers 36 (Coppi), 15 (Leoni), and 86 (Pasotti).
And we asked: Why do we do it?
It is 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 collection of shoes; cod liver oil for our children; keep us going, going.
But for how long?
Dear Esteemed Race Director,
With your permission, we respectfully lodge a complaint. Subject: the distress that, during the race, is unfairly inflicted upon us by mountains too difficult to climb with our rebellious legs, miserable and tired, that are on strike this morning and no longer want to drive this little piece of machinery called life.
This is why we request a twelve-month extension.
One more Giro. Please tell us you understand.
The starter will lower his little flag. Clean and fresh, we will be on our way, young and old in one single group, our colorful jerseys will look like a bouquet of flowers.
At least let's take the first steps together, as if we were all the same age.
And then whatever happens, happens.

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