On the Cima Coppi at the Giro d’Italia

Finding Fausto

Words & Photography Stuart Downie

Overhead, power lines crackle. The cuckoos calling in the valley have been left below. Approaching 2758m, the only birds are the raptors wheeling silently above. It is quiet here except for the steady sound of tyres on tarmac and laboured breathing. The occasional shout of encouragement from the roadside punctuates the silence as hundreds of amateur riders bend their backs to the task. Young, old, there is one goal – the pass.

The summit is a carnival of colour. There are voices of all nations here, jubilantly congratulating one another on reaching the top. If we as cyclists could be described as tribal, or religious, Passo dello Stelvio is surely one of our pilgrimage sites.

Stelvio stands as the highest pass in Italy, and it is especially significant today. In a few hours, the Giro d’Italia will ride over it. The pass was first introduced to the race in 1953, making it 64 years since Fausto Coppi launched an outrageous attack on its slopes. Leaving behind his younger rival, Hugo Koblet, Coppi’s ascent lead to victory, and his fifth and final maglia rosa. In memory, the highest peak at the Giro is called Cima Coppi – Coppi’s summit. To be the first over is one of the most prestigious prizes for any climber.

Coppi was a prolific rider and an Italian icon. Two maillot jaune, five maglie rosa, the rainbow stripes. The hour record. Five wins at Il Lombardia. Three at Milan-San Remo, as well as Flèche Wallonne and Paris-Roubaix. The man himself is a monument.

Ask any of the crowd gathered today who their favourite rider is, and their answer will depend on factors that are easy to predict. Italians will mostly say Vincenzo Nibali or Pippo Pozzato. Suggest Fausto Coppi’s name and some fall into quiet introspection. Think of when you find a shared musical interest with someone, the passion you share often cannot be explained – it is simply understood.

Others use words you’ve seen or heard before. Il Campionissimo – the champion of champions. They speak of class, style, panache. Some may not know much about the man but they’re aware of his legacy. On some occasions you find yourself explaining the significance of the day, stood together on Coppi’s summit. Others will mention his longtime rival, Gino Bartali.

While most will name current riders, the sport’s history is not simply observed but revered all around. Posters of Michele Scarponi have been laid out, chalk on the road proclaims that Marco Pantani lives – they live on in our hearts forever. There are bandanas and Mercatone Uno team kits all around. The past and the present are both alive here. With such a rich and storied history, it’s little wonder Italian fans are so passionate about the sport, nor why cycling continues to draw new fans across the world.

For some, today seems to be as much about watching the race as the attention they’ve paid to their kit. Smart, well fitted, coordinated – some riders have gone all in to emulate their favourite pro. For others, this is less important – it’s more about the act, undertaking the same physical challenge as the riders are about to.

There is something of Fausto in the attending police, whose uniforms are sharp. They are in good spirits, giving high fives to kids, chatting with fans at the roadside. Clearly they too are excited to be part of the day.

In the crowd there’s a fleeting glimpse of Coppi’s lines on a sleeve, “I must go to school and not ride my bike”. Fausto was taught by his aunt Albina, but after skipping school to ride his bike one day, he was made to write this out one hundred times. Born into a farming family, bicycles were his only means of escape. Speaking with a journalist in 1940 he said, “Do you understand now why I became a cyclist? What could I do other than go off on my bike?”

The thrum of helicopters can be heard in the distance. A sense of the race’s imminent arrival sends ripples of tense excitement through the crowd, like a lightning strike before the thunderclap.

The first cars and motorbikes appear. The race announcer loudspeakers news of the approaching race – a two minute break, and for some this is the first news they’ve heard of the race all day. It only adds to the excitement. Then come the motorcycle outriders and police, and the neutral service car. The race director drives through, waving. The intervals shorten. We’re on the precipice.

Then they arrive. They are unbelievably quick. Fans rush in from the roadside to meet them like breaking waves, roaring encouragement at their heroes. Being here is nothing like watching on the television. The sight of the riders up close is visceral, their efforts light the air around them. Here is the spirit of Scarponi, of Pantani. Here is Fausto. They are all with them now, flying up this mountain. It is beautiful.