pedalare! pedalare! a history of italian cycling by john foot. bloomsbury publishing. 372pp illus. paperback £14.99

pedalare! pedalare!

though not always referred to by its current name, the giro lombardia, or tour of lombardy, started life as milan-milan in 1905. the route has altered more often than i change my cycling socks, finishing in the aforementioned milan as well as sesto san giovanni, bergamo, varese, monza and cuneo. bizarrely, in 2004 the race started in mendrisio, switzerland and finished in como. it is also known as the ride of the falling leaves due to its position in the calendar of late october, giving rise to the more recently instigated ride of the falling rain on islay. difference is, we're not racing.

perhaps the most iconic part of the giro lombardia is the climb to the madonna del ghisallo, site of a chapel dedicated to the patron saint of cyclists, and containing a wealth of italian cycling history. the race was won by fausto coppi a total of five times.

in 1907, lucien petit breton won the inaugural milan-sanremo, a race that does exactly what it says on the tin. also known as la primavera or la classicisima, it is still the longest one-day race in the international cycling calendar at 298km. despite the infiltration of the poggio and the cipressa towards the culmination of the event, it's generally reckoned to be a race for pure sprinters.

john foot's pedalare! pedalare! is subtitled a history of italian cycling, yet the opening chapter declares in its heading the origins of the giro d'italia and the bicycle goes to war, 1909-19, and on the facing page is a route map of the giro from 1909. what happened to the previous four years and the advent of two of cycling's great monuments? surely this, in one fell swoop, has undermined foot's projected subject matter? should this hefty and copious volume have been subheaded a history of the giro d'italia which, in effect, it is, the cover would have been closer to the truth.

john foot is professor of modern italian history in the department of italian at university college, london, a title that would profess scholarly leanings; the main narrative of the subsequent 300+ pages would bear this out, for it would be a brave man who would argue against the degree of research that is evident across such a substantial number of pages. unfortunately, i fear professor foot undermines the subsequent solid display of serious writing by way of his introduction. while i will relent from successive quotes from this section, i will offer the final sentences from this introduction before commencing the true kernel of the book's content.

'the journey is about to begin. we are in the saddle, out in the open air. it is time to get our legs moving. time to set off. in a work of this depth and magnitude, i think this slightly patronising, and certainly unnecessary.

however, that is merely the introduction and hardly the principal reason for which one would purchase such a volume. it is hard to know whether professor foot's interest in italian cycling is as a long-time cycling aficionado, or perhaps more from an academic/historical point of view. from the writing i found it hard to tell, though a degree of detachment is not necessarily a bad thing in an historical work. (he has also published calcio: a history of italian football, though it would be a shame to hold that against him.) much later in the book's often non-sequential reading, he relates ...the most exciting rider of all, by far, was marco pantani. to watch pantani climb was like seeing someone fly uphill.. just a bit of a shame that he leaves such enthusiasm until page 266, but it's a welcome revelation nonetheless.

the book is deftly arranged in sections, beginning with the heroic age - the origins of the giro d'italia including the first world war, followed by an investigation into the mysterious death of oliver bottechia, a chapter perhaps a tad overdrawn, though making for quite fascinating reading. section two is entitled cycling as a mass sport, lending credence to the book's leaning more towards to the subject of italian cycling in sporting terms rather than much in the way of the social aspect. it would be unfair of me to suggest that the latter would necessarily be of major sociological and historical interest in any case. civilian cycling is not, however, omitted entirely, shoeing into the narrative when discussion of italy's social history enters the fray. commendably, every aspect of of sporting prowess (or otherwise) is framed with historical intent, often explaining why things were as they were at the time. for that alone, this book approaches indispensibility.

similar to my appreciation of expressionist painting, i think it important to understand the author's relationship to his/her subject matter, but occasionally, particularly in the early pages of a lengthy tome such as this, it prejudices subsequent reading. when discussing alfredo binda, one of italy's great riders from the mid to late 1920s and into the 1930s, professor foot regales us with the following; during the 1929 giro he won eight successive stages and this record run became known as the 'imperial' series. his total of forty one stage wins was only surpassed by sprinter mario cipollini in 2004, a sad reflection on what the sport of cycling had become by then.. i can see what he's getting at, but surely a rather damning indictment of the lion king and presaging, in hindsight, the attentions that would be paid to the more modern era of italian cycling.

there are many, many books that, at least in part, concern themselves with aspects of italian cycling through the years, particularly those surrounding the second world war and its immediate aftermath. in particular, the events surrounding the first race to be held after the war's end in 1946 and the stage from rovigo to trieste, the latter being still in the hands of the allies. originally permission for the stage to finish in trieste had been witheld, but pressure from the italian government forced them to relent. one of the teams intent on that stage finish was that of wilier triestina, and foot's narrative unmasks a hitherto unknown fact (by me at least), about the naming of the team, a name that continues through to the bicycle frames currently ridden by the lampre team in the 2011 giro d'italia.

the letter 'w' was often used as an abbreviation for the word viva in the manner w l'italia or w coppi. this led to the patriotic expression 'w l'italia, liberata e redenta' translated as 'long live italy, liberated and redeemed' and giving birth to the word wilier, and thence wilier triestina. i didn't know that.

in 1948, so common knowledge would have it, gino bartali was requested by prime minister alcide de gasperi to win the tour de france. this was as an antidote to the shooting of italian communist party leader, palmero togliatti, an event that brought italy close to civil war, a state of affairs less than welcome after several years of international war. it is said that gasperi hoped that if bartali could win in france, such was the importance of cycling and of bartali, such an act could pull the country together and prevent escalation of the civil unrest. at the time of the supposed request, bartali was more than 21 minutes behind yellow jersey wearer, louison bobet. if this had been a film script, you'd have said it was far-fetched, but bartali did indeed win the 1948 tour by a margin of 26 minutes.

it's one of the great myths of cycling's past; the golden age according to professor foot, an age encompassing the careers of both bartali and coppi. most of us are happy to accept ths myth, because who can resist a good story, even if it perhaps does not bear close scrutiny. foot, however, is not content to let sleeping myths lie, and may be on a royalty payment for every time he uses the word myth in one chapter (41 times by my counting). for me, this was the most confusing part of the book.

i can perfectly understand the author's need to recount the story as part of italian cycling history; that one rider could overcome a deficit of 21 minutes to win the tour by more than 26 is enough of a story in itself, a feat very unlikely to ever be repeated in modern times. but i find it hard to condone an almost obsessive need to examine every aspect of the legend. in his opening paragraphs, foot explains 'it is not my intention here to prove the bartali myth 'wrong' though the subsequent pages would seem intent on proving the contrary. this cannot ultimately be describe as a failing, for in context, the attention to detail and the reflection on italy's political situation after the second world war is intriguing and absorbingly fascinating. personally i'd have liked the myth to rest in peace.

no book on italian cycling could ever be even close to complete without recounting the enmity between bartali and coppi. it was a conflict that divided the whole of italy in much the same way that support of two proximitous soccer teams creates division in modern times. there seems to have been no middle ground; you either supported one or the other. yet again, this is one of the great legendary periods of cycling, the 1950s and though an intrinsic part of italian cycling history, the experience is spread far wider. however, in much the way that software companies invented intercaps, with a seeming need to join two words together, retaining the capital letter of both, foot has turned the bartali and coppi era into an alias for marketable product, resulting in the somewhat overuse of the phrase coppiandbartali, inserted as one word throughout. we're all grown-ups here, and i think we should be treated as such.

though the rivalry between the two men is convincingly portrayed, this imposition seems just a bit trite, undermining foot's considerable command of his subject matter.

however, it is interesting to read professor foot's attention paid to the brief period of the black shirt, a jersey of similar intent to the lanterne rouge in the tour de france. though the jersey was abolished in 1951 due to competition amongst its potential wearers delaying the timekeepers at the end of each stage, foot avers that its introduction was surely an ignominious irony. 'for twenty years, those wearing black shirts - the fascist uniform - ...had commanded respect (through violence). the black shirt was now out of fashion.' the implication is that the choice of a black jersey for the last placed rider was a not so subtle dig at mussolini's acolytes. i didn't know that either.

the golden age section is followed, logically enough, by after the golden age throughout which professor foot's examination and relating of events and aspects of the periods' cycling and cyclists continues to be slightly eclectic but no less interesting for that. italian cycling brims over with detail, excitement, character and much on which an appreciation for modern cycling is based. to relate every worthy aspect of this would result in a book considerably larger than that currently sitting by my side. for this reason alone, i find myself happy to accept john foot's thinning out of the material available, even though portions of the narrative overlap or fail to read in strict chronological order.

so far, so good, and had the book ended with after the golden age, i would have gone to bed a happy man and satisfied reader. unfortunately, part five is entitled the age of doping, a doomsday heading further compounded by the first chapter title a slow death, doping and italian cycling, 1968-99. i have generally shied from comment on cycling's intrinsic doping problem in these pixels because i do not feel sufficiently qualified to do so. i have no real idea whether professor foot is any better qualified than i, but it has not stopped him giving vent at great length in the latter chapters of pedalare! pedalare!.

my misgivings here concern a seeming damnation of thirty three years of italian cycling, and the implication that if the author has designated this period as the age of doping, the preceding years patently weren't. something that we all know to be an untruth. there is little doubt that the doping resorted to nowadays carries far more serious health implications than was the case in the so-called golden age, but it is naive to think that the heroes of yesterday would not have succumbed to the same pressures/temptations had the likes of epo and hgh been available then. each is a product of its time.

incidentally, while reading the above section, it was a disappointment to find that the eagle of the canavese, franco balmamion has his surname mis-spelt as balmanion. it is not uncommon to come across the odd spelling error, but every mention of his name, including that in the comprehensive index at the back of the book, is spelt in this manner. a shame in such a well researched book.

doping is the enemy of far more than just italian cycling, and it seems unfortunate and perhaps unnecessary to lump so many years under such a despondent heading. i find it hard to believe that there were no performances worthy of the author's optimistic attention throughout the thirty plus years. things do not look any brighter once foot has had his (considerable) say on doping; chapter 21: the post modern age: sprinters and cowboys.

the one glaring omission from the book, though one that didn't occur to me until well through its chapters, is that of the bicycle itself. i'm afraid that i would expect a book claiming to be a history of italian cycling to have dealt, at least summarily, with the major italian cycle brands. surely they are just as much a part of that history as the riders themselves? the only token gesture in this direction arrives in association with 'beppe' saronni's unexpected win in the 1982 world's held at goodwood race circuit in england. saronni's victory on a colnago ...sold a lot of bikes on the back of his popularity... gianni brera apparently wrote 'leonardo da vinci invented the bicycle (subsequently debunked) and now, 500 years later, colnago perfected it.'

the image of coppi is almost inseparable from the celeste blue of bianchi, a cycle also ridden by marco pantani during his winning years, but what of bottechia, pinarello, milani, de rosa and even wilier triestina? i cannot pretend that it is possible for any author, especially one with such considerable knowledge of italian history, to fill in all the blanks, and there will surely always be more room for criticism than one would consider ideal, but...

so, bearing all the above very much in mind, did i enjoy pedalare! pedalare!. contradictorily, yes i did. i don't agree with the author giving over so much space to damning several generations of cyclists with the doping hammer, but offering a contrary point of view to my own, or that of any reader is often to be commended. and even throughout those darkened days, foot's research and subsequent relating of sport and legalities bears the mark of a man well in command of his subject. do not misunderstand; i do not believe that the subject of doping should have been glossed over, i just believe that its treatment here begins to overshadow all else.

you do need to read this book, even if only to disagree with my perhaps over critical assessment, but most of all to gain a more intrinsic insight into the mores of italian cycling history. it may not even have been the author's decision to subtitle this a history of italian cycling; it isn't really, but it is a damn good history of the giro d'italia.

posted saturday 14 may 2011


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