Pedalare! Pedalare!, John Foot (2011)

A history of Italian cycling that is best enjoyed as a collection of essays

Bloomsbury, 9780747595212, paperback 359pp, £14.99

Given the weight of French cycling histories to be found in British bookshops, it is surprising how little has been written about the sport on the other side of the Alps – not least because of the glamour that attaches to all things Italian. Foot’s book, therefore, has the advantage of being an idea so good that it is odd that no one has thought of it before.

He is also unusual among cycling authors in that he is a professional historian – by day he is professor of modern Italian history at University College London. There is nothing dry about his treatment of the two-wheeled sport, however – this is a history of great sporting achievement, intense rivalries and questionable tactics.

He is strongest at contextualising the sport of cycling, particularly given the unusually fractured nature of Italian society. The importance of the Giro reaching Trieste in 1946 when it was unclear which side of the Iron Curtain the city would end up on is fascinating, for example, as is the extraordinary and contested story of how Gino Bartali ‘saved’ Italy from civil war in 1948 after the shooting of Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti.

In the early parts of the book, particularly, Foot is compelling on the broader, non-sporting importance of cycling in Italy. Enrico Toti’s story is particularly intriguing. One-legged after an accident on the railways, Toti earned his living riding his bicycle as a kind of circus freak in the days before the Great War. So determined was he to join those hostilities that he repeatedly sneaked up to the front line, against the orders of the army that he was not allowed to join. When eventually he died, possibly while engaging with the enemy, he quickly became a national legend – albeit one that polarised left and right. Three people died in clashes at his funeral, and statues to him were erected up and down the country and Toti was adopted by the Fascists as a national icon.

As Foot’s narrative reaches the post-1945 golden age of Italian cycling, it is racing alone that dominates his story. And his story is wrapped around a strongly argued case. The sport reached its zenith at the time of the Coppi/Bartali rivalry, and it has declined ever since. Since the 1980s, so drug addled has competitive cycling become that it is little better than a freak show whose hold on the public imagination has long since been displaced by the glamour sports of the late twentieth century.

Foot’s determination to demonstrate this point, however, detracts somewhat from the book’s promise of being a general history. Indeed, so enthusiastic is he to pinpoint when Italian cycling was ‘over’, that he nominates several competing dates for this demise – Merckx’ positive dope test during the 1969 Giro, Moser’s medically assisted hour record, and Pantani’s entire career.

Only in the final couple of pages does Foot return to cycling as a means of transport. Of this he detects a renaissance as cities struggle to cope with congestion, but there is no space to discuss whether renewed interest in pedal power is any different from that experienced in other metropolitan areas.

Perhaps the book’s badging as ‘a history’ was the publishers doing. Read as a collection of essays on Italian cycling, rather than a comprehensive account, and it is clearly a useful and overdue contribution to understanding this subject.

PS Aug 11

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