The Giro d’Italia as epic

This blog has commented previously on the epic, myth-making stories in writing on cycling (see here, for example). In his essay, The Tour de France as Epic, French philosopher Roland Barthes critiqued this style of writing but also added his own level of somewhat over-blown analysis.

“The Tour [de France] is the best example we have ever encountered of a total, hence ambiguous myth; the Tour is at once a myth of expression and a myth of projection, realistic and utopian at the same time… the utopian image of a world which stubbornly seeks reconciliation by the spectacle of a total clarity of relations between man, men, and Nature.”


When Barthes also critiqued the use of Homer’s ancient heroes as analogous to professional riders, he may have had the Italian author Dino Buzzati in mind. Buzzati was a celebrated author, poet and playwright in Italy (compared in the introduction to his book to Tom Wolfe, although one finds few parallels – perhaps Tom Stoppard would have been a better comparison. To decide for yourself, read some early ‘new journalism’ from Tom Wolfe right here).

New to cycle racing, Buzzati followed the 1949 Giro d’Italia, and his book – now out of print – The Giro d’Italia: Coppi versus Bartali at the 1949 Tour of Italy was translated into English and released by VeloPress in 1999. The Italian version brought together the original articles Buzzati wrote for the Corriere della Sera at the Giro and was published in 1981.

Buzzati very much saw cycle racing in epic terms and the stars like Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali were not mere professional racers, parlaying their physical talents and hard work into a rewarding career (and Twittering about it as they went along), but heroes in the tradition of Achilles and Hector – much more than just exceptional riders.

“Does something as crazy and preposterous as the Giro d’Italia by bicycle serve a purpose, then? Of course it does: it’s one of the last meccas of the imagination, a stronghold of romanticism, besieged by the gloomy forces of progress, and it refuses to surrender.”

By all accounts, the 1949 was a mostly lacklustre affair. Coppi and Bartali were the stars, their placings all but guaranteed, and it was on only two stages – one in the Dolomites and the other through the alps over the Col d’Izoard – that Coppi really raised the pace, and these efforts were more than sufficient to win the race.

Cop 1
Coppi wrote his own mythology in the mountains.

But Buzzati was not deterred from seeing the race as an epic struggle: “What use would the so-called classical studies be if the fragments that remained with us did not become an integral part of our humble existence. Fausto Coppi certainly does not have Achilles’s icy cruelty; on the contrary, of the two champions he is without a doubt the more cordial and likable. But Bartali, even if he is more aloof and gruff, however unknowingly, lives the same drama as Hector, the drama of a man destroyed by the gods. The Trojan hero finds that he is fighting against Athena herself and he was destined to succumb. It’s against a superhuman power that Bartali fought, and he could do nothing but lose: the evil power of age.”

This may not be the same style we should expect in Paris at the end of July this year when Lance Armstrong loses to Alberto Contador and journalists look for an appropriate way to describe the burden of age on Armstrong’s performance.

There is plenty more epic writing in the book from Buzzati. The riders transferred by ship from Genoa to Sicily, prompting the author to compare their arrival to the army of Garibaldi in 1859, which led to the eventual unification of Italy. Writing in 1949, Buzzati made no mention of recent landings in the region, by Allied forces during World War II, and the subject of the war is covered only briefly, despite the privations that would have still existed at the time. Clearly, Buzzati’s myth-making was to hark back to earlier glories, and to project them forward to a more confident future for Italy, shaking off the dark years of fascism.

Still, Buzzati had an adept observational eye for the racing and for the plight of the riders. Many of his more evocative passages beautifully capture the challenges and the hardships endured by all, and the metaphor that cycling has for the wider world. In the following, he is writing from the perspective of the riders themselves.

“The bicycle has two wheels, one that guides, the other that runs; one obeys the brain when it comes to deciding whether to go left or right, the other obeys the legs, our professionals’ legs: When you touch them, they shout out, ‘But this is wood!’ And for each leg there’s a pedal.

“The pedals! This is the cross we have to bear. Never, never will the be satisfied: When one is up, its twin is down and each one always wants to do what the other is doing; they continue to run after one another and never, never catch up. Yet who can say no to them? …And the pedals drive the chainwheels, the chainwheels pull the chain, the chain pulls the cog, the cog turns the wheel, and the wheel carries us forward, forward.

“The legs! That’s the problem. Some people’s are hard and knotty, others’ long and tapered like a ballerina’s; one has thighs like a hog, another those of a wading bird, but they are all magnificent, strong courageous, obedient. Our poor legs! Miserable, enslaved, bruised, over-sensitive and tired, they carry us along, carry this little piece of machinery coarsely called life.”

Bart 2
Bartali was by no means overshadowed by Coppi.

Buzzati seemed determined to capture much of the glamour and excitement of the race, and the dedication of the fans following their heroes across the country. But he also wanted to show how fleeting the glory could be – not just for an aging Bartali, but also for the other racers as well. This following poignant conclusion seems to perfectly encapsulate the fleeting nature of glory, but glory nonetheless.

“We do not manufacture or cultivate anything. We move our legs, see, and nothing else. Absolutely nothing else. For this reason, we have been given an oddly coloured jersey and a number has been put on our back. Then they print our names in newspapers. They give us money, too, but for how long? Until the day, good people, that our legs say no.

“And without a number and jersey we, too, will sit on our doorstep, on these days in May and June, to watch other legs turning; no longer ours, though. And we will say: For us (thank heavens!), no more backbreaking exertion, dust, torment, oh, oh, and no more dysentery. We’ve had enough of that hellish life of a convict! God, though, how wonderful is was!”

Dino 1
A classic book, well worth seeking out.

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