Courtesty of le coq sportif dot com

Bartali passing a bottle to Coppi – or vice versa?

Cycling is a beautiful sport. There’s simply no denying the history and romance of it. Take the Tour of France, for instance, and the legends that raced it. Legends like Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali whose rivalry heralded the ‘golden years’ of cycling.

Coppi was an Italian POW from WWII who returned to cycling and won the ’49 and ’52 Tours de France . He changed cycling forever with his modern training techniques and a regime of diet and (I’m sorry to say) drugs.

Bartali was the pre-eminent cyclist of the pre-WWII years. He was the conservative, pious counterpoint to Coppi. Bartali represented Italy’s agrarian south. Coppi, the industrial and liberal north. Their rivalry captured the political, religious and cultural divide of Italy at the time – if there’s a modern day equivalent in the sporting West, then let me know!

Ottavio Bottecchia

There’s also the equally intriguing life and career of Ottavia Bottecchia. Born into a poor family as one of nine children, Bottecchia didn’t even take up cycling until after he had returned from the first World War. He later went on to become the first man to win two consecutive Tours de France (1924, 1925). His death in 1927 was sudden and mysterious. After heading out one day for a training ride, he was found on the side of the road unconscious with a cracked skull. His bike was some distance away. There were no skid marks or scratches on the bike’s handlebars to indicate he had been forced off the road by car or that he’d lost control and crashed. Officials claimed he had sunstroke and crashed. But not everyone is convinced – some have claimed that he was assassinated by Mussolini’s cronies. Others believe he had a fight with a local farmer.

The point of all this is to demonstrate some of the legendary and fascinating stories that abound in cycling’s history. The cycling world (especially the French and Italians) generally does a good job of reminding fans about its wonderful history. But I sometimes worry that the message is getting lost.

The good news is that there are events like L’Eroica that seek to preserve cycling history and encourage modern day cyclists to experience the sport’s romantic past.

L’Eroica is an old school bike event. It’s one-part historical bicycle fair, one part food festival and one part gentlemen’s bike race. It is held in Gaiole in Chianti, Tuscany each November (or late October). The race was created in 1997 to raise awareness of the classic Strade Bianche, or white rutted roads, that meander their way through the region – and prevent them from being asphalted over. It worked! The roads remain free from asphalt and now host a UCI Europe tour event.

The concept is simple and appealing. To participate, you must ride a bike that was made before 1987. Your bike must have its gear shifters on the down tube. Its brake cables must be the old ‘over the top’ style – ie, they can’t be integrated into the handlebars. Riders are also encouraged to kit themselves out with merino wool jerseys, traditional leather helmets and racing flats. And (of course!) bushy moustaches and long sideburns are de rigueur!

Here’s the real thing: Fiorenzo Magni in his glory days!

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