Fallen Angel – The Passion Of Fausto Coppi, William Fotheringham (2009)

A riveting biography that paints an engaging picture of post-war Italy and of the man considered by many to be the greatest racing cyclist of all time

Yellow Jersey 978022407476 Octo 283pp £16.99

Against the backdrop of today’s media saturation, it is almost impossible to comprehend the experience of participating in or spectating sport in the 1940s. Much less to understand why Fausto Coppi is still so revered in Italy.

But revered he is. Several museums are dedicated to his memory. There is an annual gathering on the anniversary of his death when team mates, family and tifosi come together – despite it being nearly half a century since his demise. And a steady stream of plays, novels, films and television programmes about or inspired by Coppi continue to appear.

Fotheringham has unearthed an extraordinary range of sources – from private family letters, to contemporaneous newspaper and magazine articles and interviews with an impressive roster of contemporaries. From these he stitches together a perceptive and enormously enjoyable portrait of the champion.

Inevitably, not all of the story takes place on the saddle. Coppi’s decision to leave his wife, at a time when adultery was a criminal offence in Italy, scandalised the country. Indeed, his reputation was mixed at the time of his death at the age of 41. Perhaps the cult of Coppi is in part because of a feeling of guilt about how such an extraordinary rider had been treated in the years before his tragic demise.

Along the way, there are well-drawn portraits of many of the supporting cast – Biagio Cavanna the messianic blind soigneur who guided Coppi’s career, Giulia Locatelli – the ‘White Lady’ who won his heart and, of course, Gino Bartali whose rivalry on the bike made stars of them both.

The author is a more than capable wordsmith – but he would not pretend that he holds a candle to Dino Buzzati, the journalist who lifted sport writing to an unprecedented lyricism. Here he is on Coppi’s ride in the 1949 Tour – his victory in which is often said to have saved the Italian republic. “Look at Coppi, is he climbing? No. He is just forging onwards as if the road were as flat as a pool table. From a distance, you might say he is out for a blissful stroll. Close-to, you can see his face becoming more and more lined, his upper lip contracting like a rat caught in a trap… [he is] hermetically sealed in his own suffering.”

Fotheringham’s reputation as a biographer is already considerable – this book can only add to the accolades that he attracts. Deck chair domestiques could not hope for a better summer escape.

PS July 09

Published as a paperback by Yellow Jersey in 2010, priced at £8.99

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