20 lire and a salami sandwich! The start of a champion

Andrew Bannister

Feb / 1 / 2019

Born on 15 September 1919, some say it was a natural talent that drew Coppi to cycling, whilst some say he had grit, the single minded focus, will and determination to work hard at his dream and become a champion against all odds. We think it might have been the sheer joy of the winning prize at his first race, age 15, of 20 Lire and a Salami sandwich! But don’t quote us on that.

Like many of the world’s most famous athletes, the story of Fausto Coppi, the boy who was to become one of the most famous cyclists of all time, actually began with ill health, a lack of interest in education and a chance encounter with his soon to be life’s passion.

It was on one day in 1927 whilst bunking off school, when Coppi found a rusty old bicycle in the basement. Cycling around his home region of Castellania with no brake blocks is possibly where he found his love of racing ahead at break-neck speed with no signs of slowing down until the finish line. Something that was to become his trademark in the years to come as he became arguably the most successful cyclist of all time (alongside Eddy Merckx).

That trademark was to win him his first major title in 1940, where he became the youngest ever competitor to win the Giro d’Italia at the age of 20. He went on to set a world hour distance record of 45.798 km in 1942 (at the Velodromo Vigorelli in Milan) which stood for 14 years before it was broken by Jacques Anquetil in 1956. And when the Giro d’Italia resumed after the war in 1946 he went on to win it again in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953. In fact, in 1949 he became the first rider ever to win both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year. Then he did it again in 1952. Yep, we’re exhausted at the thought of it too! And that’s just the beginning ...

Whilst he represented a modern post war Italy, many conservative Italians were against him, preferring the more conservative Bartali as their champion. Not that that stopped him being the Italian poster boy of cycling. As a pioneering Bianchi rider, he excelled and dominated the world of road racing, climbing, time trialing and sprinting throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s.

In fact, taking a ride through the mountains of the Alps, his home region of Piemonte where you can find the Coppi museum and Lombardia, is a veritable history of his innumerable successes. Ride up the mountain pass of Alpe d’Huez where the first corner is named after Coppi for his victory on the climb in 1952 - the first time it was used in the Tour de France. Col du Galibier, where he famously passed a water bottle to his arch rival Bartali. Or was it the other way around? And as for the highest mountain pass in Europe, Col de l’Iseran, and the famous Col d’Izoard and Stelvio, they are all part of the mythical locations where he stamped his legendary status into cycling history.

As well as winning the Giro d’Italia five times and the Tour de France twice, he went on to win the GIro di Lombardia five times, Milan-San Remo three times, Paris-Roubaix, and the World Championships in 1953. It’s easy to see why he earned his coveted title Il Campionissimo; the Champion of Champions!

As if it wasn’t enough, he is also famous for having a scandalous affair with the “La Dama Bianca’ (The Lady in White) in the 1950s. When he went to trial in 1955 for the illegal act where they both got suspended sentences, even the Pope Pius XII entered the debate and requested for Coppi to return to his wife. In January 1960, after a visit to Burkina Faso to go cycling and hunting with other famous cyclists, Coppi contracted malaria and subsequently died from the disease ... at the age of 40!

On 15th September 2019, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth by taking an epic tour through the legends of his life. Why not join us to celebrate the memory of one of the greatest cyclists of all time!?