Racing bikes means getting to the finish line as fast as possible, and ahead of everyone else. But, on one occasion, a rider broke with custom to engage in a different tradition – the mid-ride coffee break.
March 1946 was unseasonably warm and dry, but despite the favourable weather, Italians needed something to lift the spirits after defeat in a war that tore at the threads of their national identity. The reinstatement of La Primavera, the 291km-long Milan–Sanremo road race, offered the ideal tonic.
Coppi struck out early that day – and by 170km held an eight-minute lead – the breakaway rider cheered along by passionate fans and commentators. By Imperia at the 250km mark, his lead was up to a remarkable 10 minutes.
From one of the few radios in the village the patrons of the Caffè Piccardo in Piazza Dante were following the race. “He’s here, Coppi is here!” shouted an excited observer. All eyes turned to the road.
The legend goes that Coppi approached but – to the surprise of observers – instead of shooting right by to victory he slowed. Leaning his bike against a railing, or perhaps a lamppost, he walked into the bar. After ordering an espresso, drinking up and paying, he soon remounted and left. He went on to win the race with 14 minutes between him and the chasers.
In his astonishment at the magnitude of Coppi’s victory it is said that the radio commentator announced: “First, Fausto Coppi. Whilst we wait for the second, we’re going to play some nice music”.
FIORENZO'S INNER TUBE
Fiorenzo Magni was one tough cookie.
Grizzled veteran of the peloton in the post-war years, Magni didn't let a broken shoulder – sustained in a crash the day before – stop him from taking the start of the stage 13 time trial at the 1956 Giro. His busted arm was too weak to control the bike, so he had his mechanic tie a bit of inner tube to the bars and then he pulled on that with his teeth to steer.
On a descent later in the race – and, presumably, because he couldn't use one arm – he crashed and broke his humerus too. Then, all he had to do was get over the Stelvio and some other Italian alps to make the finish line. Huge snowfalls caused mass abandonments, but not old Fiorenzo. He soldiered on, finished the race, eventually claiming second place.
Despite winning the pink jersey three times, Magni considered the second place in that 1956 Giro – his final one – to be his greatest victory.
Yup, definitely one tough cookie.
MARCO'S NOSE STUD
Marco, the greatest of them all. The pirate. He went up mountains with the raw explosive power of a charging bull. The man who still holds the records and who broke more hearts in Italy than any cyclist before or since.
To call Pantani a tortured genius is to indulge in cliché. There was something of the mystic about him. When on the climb to Montecampione in the 1998 Giro d’Italia, he attacked his closest rival, Pavel Tonkov, he changed the course of his story forever.
Just before an attack, Pantani would sometimes take off his bandana and throw it down on the ground. It was a removal of encumbrance, but equally a gesture to his rivals, ‘I am about to rip this race apart, follow me if you can’.
It is said that at Montecampione Marco went a step further, throwing away a diamond nose stud too. The nose stud is still there somewhere on the mountainside.
The Italian skipped clear of Tonkov and up the mountain to the finish line – effectively sealing victory in that Giro and paving the way for the last ever Giro-Tour double.
Pantani later told his family he had heard his grandfather’s voice that day, saying ‘Throw it all away, Marco’. And throw it away he did.
To Italians, cycling is life. Even the most obscure city-centre criterium garners great interest, with a smattering of gnarled old faces peering over their Limoncello at the new young bucks racing their gleaming carbon machines.
When one of their own breaks into the WorldTour, they grow into superstars. When that person already thinks of himself as a cross between James Hunt and James Bond, a legend is born. Meet il Re Leone, The Lion King, the great Mario Cipollini.
There were few riders like Cipo. There have been few since. There were none before. He was the sprinter of the nineties and early noughties. Even when he wasn’t winning – or even in the race – he was making the headlines.
The Cipo legend is one of mid-race, wine-soaked parties, glorious victories, fights with race directors and ludicrous race suits; he was as celebrated for his showmanship as his sprinting. Never one to shy away from a good time and a bit of self-publicity, but seemingly pathologically averse to French mountains, he is the man who smoked cigarettes while riding, who was papped having sex with a glamour model on a public beach, who would – allegedly – send photographs of himself from the beach to Tour rivals suffering on climbs, having accomplished his race mission with stage wins in the opening week.
But of course there is more to Mario than the myth. A phenomenally powerful sprinter, his career highlights include the road race in the 2002 World Championships, Milan-Sanremo, a frankly ludicrous 42 Giro, 12 Tour and three Vuelta stage victories, plus a good smattering of one-day races.