The First to Pass
Fausto Coppi’s career is one of the greatest in cycling history. Without weakness – he was a strong climber, sprinter and time-trialist – the Italian boasts a palmarès that, despite being accumulated either side of the Second World War, is second to none.
Five wins at the Tour of Italy, two at the Tour de France, three Milan-Sanremo titles, an Hour record that stood for 14 years, and a World Championship Road Race title are just some of the achievements of Il Campionissimo, the ‘champion of champions’. He was also the first, in 1949, to win both the Tour of Italy and the Tour de France in the same year, a feat completed by only seven riders since.
It was in the 1949 ‘race for pink’ that Coppi staged an early escape on the 254km Stage 17, going on to win by almost 12 minutes. An astonishing feat, it came on a stage that saw him climb solo over five major ascents; the Maddalena Pass, Col de Vars, Col d’Izoard, Col de Montgenèvre, and the Sestriere Pass. French journalist Pierre Chany noted that, between 1946 and 1954, once Coppi had broken away from the peloton they never saw him again. But it was in the 1953 edition, the year of his final victory in the race, that he displayed his prowess with gusto. His performance on stage 20, from Bolzano to Bormio, lead to the Italian press crowning him una scalata superba – a ‘superb climber’, though his brio that day seems diminished by the translation.
Coppi was behind the current race leader, Swiss rider Hugo Koblet, by two minutes in the general classification. In an effort to wear him down, Nino Defilippis, one of Il Campionissimo’s young contemporaries, was asked to attack on a newly introduced Dolomite climb, the Stelvio Pass. Taking the bait, Koblet gave chase and buried himself to catch the young rider. Seeing his opportunity, Coppi soared from the pack. Speaking later, Defilippis said:
“I’d never seen anything like it. He disappeared into the distance like a motorbike.”
Riding through recently cleared snow, he built a lead of more than four minutes to take a solo victory in the stage, on what remains the highest climb in Corsa Rosa history.
In honour of this heroic ascent, as well as his myriad other achievements, the organisers of the Tour of Italy chose to recognise him, in 1965, with the creation of the ‘Cima Coppi’. The honorific has been bestowed upon the highest point of the race in every year since, and brings 21 mountains-classification points to the first rider to pass over it – more points than on any other categorised mountain in the race.
Il Campionissimo’s legend is synonymous with the history of the ‘race for pink’. In his first appearance, in 1940, he won the race and his record as the youngest winner – he was 20 – stands to this day. Four subsequent victories brought him level with his trainer and fellow countryman, Alfredo Binda, who notched his own five victories between 1925 and 1933. The only other cyclist to claim five maglie rosa in their career is Eddy Merckx.
Today, no cycling retrospective is complete without mention of the champion of champions. His inimitable style, both on and off the bike, won him the admiration not just of the Italian tifosi but of cycling fans across the world and down the ages.
The rocky, unmade roads battled by war-era pelotons may have given way to the smooth asphalt of the modern day Tour of Italy, yet the drama and theatre of the mountains remain. In this, the 100th edition of the race, Rapha is honouring the style and panache with which Coppi raced through an exclusive collection – a range of limited edition garments made using luxury materials and period-specific construction techniques for use on and off the bike.
*From Maglia Rosa: Triumph and tragedy at the Giro d’Italia, by Herbie Sykes.