The Church at San Biagio: the story of Coppi, Magni and la Dama Bianca

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Paul Maunder imagines the funeral of Il Campionissimo, as seen through the eyes of his rival, Fiorenzo Magni

Photographs: Tom Jay
Fausto Coppi Magni



Ah Campionissimo, you’ve made it now. You have your splendid isolation. No one is going to drag you back this time.

Fiorenzo’s face creased into a half-smile, just enough for the crowd around him to see those famous white teeth. A woman opposite muttered and shook her head, then returned her eyes to the gravel road.

When he’d arrived, sliding through the throng to get to the front, Fiorenzo had felt the usual crackle of electricity that his presence created. Hushed, excited discussions, hands pressed into his, old ladies’ lips brushing his cheek. Of course there were always those who would turn their back on him.

Memories fade, rumours get confused, and those who have made up their mind will never change it. If this were a bike race these would be the ones shouting “Collaboratore!” No matter. Fiorenzo’s conscience was clean, and today was not a bike race.

Strange to be looking down the road with the tifosi. Fiorenzo had trudged up the hill with the rest of them, through the thick Piedmont mud, all the way up to the cemetery gates. Below him the crowds stretched down to the valley. A dark subdued sea.

Beyond, the weak January sun draped itself over the hills which little Fausto used to climb on his butcher’s bike. He would fly past amateur racers with sausages swinging from his handlebars. So they said. Just a scrawny boy with his nose pointed at the clouds and his feet at the dust.

Fiorenzo pulled his camel overcoat tighter into his neck. Since retiring he’d put on some weight, but he still found that the cold got to his bones. He felt weaker, his joints got stiff and sometimes at night all his scars would ache. As if his body was telling him to get back on the bike, for that was all it knew. A hush blew across the mourners. The procession was visible, Fausto’s coffin bobbing slowly across the sea of people.

Underneath it, Fiorenzo knew, were eight friends and team-mates. The final act of the gregarios. They had not asked for Fiorenzo’s shoulder, and he was glad. It was a long climb and coffins are heavy, even with a racing cyclist inside.

The people near Fiorenzo – who by now had forgotten all about him – pointed. Behind the coffin was a vision both incongruous and utterly fitting. The Bianchi team car, chrome sparkling, headlights blazing, its empty bike and wheel racks making it look like some kind of green porcupine. How many times had Fiorenzo ridden on that bumper, or thrown a jokey insult into the open window?

An old man, standing next to Fiorenzo, nudged him.

“She’ll be down there, eh?”

Fiorenzo turned to look the man in the eye. “I care only for Bruna,” he said, giving the words enough volume that those around might hear. “She is in the church already and that is her rightful place as his wife.”

The old man nodded. His leathery face broke into a toothy smile, and he leaned in close to Fiorenzo’s ear. “Of course, Magni, of course. You have proven your contempt for the White Lady. I remember Lombardy. Your behaviour that day says a great deal about you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The old man’s smile collapsed as he gazed down the hill. “A beautiful woman will provoke a man, always. No man can remain indifferent to a woman like that. Whether it’s love he thinks he feels, or hate, the effect is the same.”

“Ooh, he’s got a nice bum,” shouted the man pushing him.

“Just shut up and push,” Magni shouted over his shoulder, grinning.

This was the joy and the chaos he was going to miss. The endless sound of clapping from the sides of the road, the diesel fumes in his nostrils, the half-heard shouts from other riders and the sun on the back of his neck.

This was his last major race. He was happy to be retiring, and happy to finish his season here. He’d always considered this one of the most beautiful races. And there was a great little seafood restaurant not far from the finish in Milan; he had a table booked for his family and the team. To say thank you.

Magni laughed again. He wasn’t actually pedalling, and the group around him were dying on their bikes. This was the Madonna del Ghisallo, after all, the climb where Fausto always did his disappearing act. Today was no different – he was away somewhere in the distance.

Magni wasn’t worried. He wasn’t particularly interested in racing today. The crowd was laughing too. Magni considered waving in a regal manner to them, but he’d found in the past that the commissaires could be a bit tetchy about that sort of thing.

Still freewheeling, Magni nudged past Darrigade. The sweat was falling off the Frenchman, who was hanging on to the end of the group. Feeling a little guilty, Magni turned the pedals a few times, but then another burly chap stepped off the verge and propelled him forward.

“I’ve earned it, I’m an old man,” Magni yelled back at Darrigade, to more laughter from the crowd. A hundred metres later, when Magni cast a backwards glance, Darrigade was gone.

But ten kilometres later he was back. A little pale, with the anguished look of a man whose pride had driven him to a pace his legs didn’t agree with, but he was back. Magni swung out of the line and surveyed the group. Bobet, Bouvet, De Bruyne, Fornara, and now Darrigade the sprinter. His presence changed everything.

Coppi had a healthy lead, but his breakaway partner was Diego Ronchini of Bianchi, formerly his gregario but now a rival since Coppi had joined Carpano. Darrigade was riding for Bianchi on a guest contract and now that he’d made it over the Ghisallo, he was a certainty for the sprint.

So the Bianchi manager, Pinella de Grandi, would tell Ronchini to stop working. Let Coppi wear himself out on the front. If you stay away, take him in the sprint. If you don’t, Darrigade is there for insurance. That would be the message.

Poor old Fausto. After all those years of mutual benefit, Bianchi were going to work him over. Well, there’s no charity in professional cycling.

A left-hander, tyres dancing on gravel. On the pedals again, slotting into the line behind Bobet, those knees like pistons. The mud on his rear stays. Bang! A pothole, a bottle flew from its cage and rolled past his wheel. Magni caught his breath. It’s moments like that…

Darrigade slid past him and said something incomprehensible in French.

The road now opened up and a group of buzzing motorbikes took the opportunity to accelerate past. A car followed, then another.

A third car drew up to the group but did not pass. Magni shot a look sideways. Giulia Occhini, wearing white of course, was in the passenger seat. With her sunglasses and her hair blowing in the wind she looked quite the Hollywood temptress. She called his name, then raised one hand in a fist and smacked the other hand onto her clenched bicep.

The car sped up, throwing dust into Magni’s face. For a moment he was so incensed that he could barely hold the bike steady. That fucking bitch. How could she do that to him? It was incredible!

Magni went to the front of the group and put his head down. You’re going to pay for your woman, Fausto, he repeated over and over in his head as he drove the group forward. Cursing, sweating, lunging through corners. The pain ran in torrents through his legs, his lungs were like furnaces.

The group clung to his back wheel. They were inside the final thirty kilometres and he could sense that the gap was closing. Motorbikes with chalkboards hovered in front of him, but Magni only had eyes for the road. There! The bikes on top of the Bianchi team car, glittering in the October sunshine. Magni bent his head almost to the bars and wished he had something to bite on, for the pain.

He caught Coppi on the outskirts of Milan. Ronchini looked rather surprised, even more so to see his team-mate Darrigade there.

Everyone began to freewheel, looking at each other, trying to pretend they weren’t as exhausted as they appeared. More sprinters latched on to the back of the group, including Van Looy. A few attacks, but nothing unstoppable. This was coming down to a sprint. Magni was empty, but he had an outside chance sprinting from this group. Enough of a chance to give it a go, anyway. What a way to retire that would be!

They rattled across tramlines. Dozens of motorbikes surrounded them, photographers using their flashes in the fading afternoon light. Magni muscled himself into a decent position on the approach to the Vigorelli. Van Looy and Coppi were near the front, Darrigade looked to have missed out. Into the roar.

As soon as they hit the track Van Looy opened up his sprint. Magni jumped after him and for a while was holding the Belgian’s wheel. Then Coppi came up on the outside, his beak thrust up in the air. With nothing left to respond, Magni’s shoulders slumped in defeat. He watched Coppi powering towards the line. But then, on the outside, came a mint green flash. Darrigade – that son of a bitch was so fast. By a tyre, by a winning tyre.

Afterwards, having escaped the melee of photographers and soigneurs, Magni found Fausto hiding just inside the tunnel. Bent against the wall, he was weeping for his beloved Tour of Lombardy.

“If your woman hadn’t offended me, I would never have come back on you, and Il Francese would never have beaten you,” Magni said, and as he walked off down the tunnel he banged the soles of his racing shoes against the wall to express his fury.

Fausto’s coffin was laden with pink roses. Now that it was nearing the small stone arch that marked the entrance to the cemetery, the whole procession was on foot, cars abandoned, and the crowd pressed tighter in, because they wanted to see the flowers and the casket, because she was there moaning into a black handkerchief, and because all the riders were there – Gino, Jacques, Andre, Ettore and the rest.

The priest in his white and crimson robes continued his steady pace, guiding the grimacing pallbearers towards the arch, where six Carabinieri were holding position.

Fiorenzo crossed himself and squeezed through to the front, taking the opportunity to dig his elbow into the ribs of the old boy who’d been winding him up about that Tour of Lombardy.

Today was not the day to rake up such memories. Only he, Fiorenzo, knew how deeply he’d loved Fausto. Only bike racers understand the heat of emotion that one can feel during a race. A single gesture can provoke fury.

In the long run it means nothing. And as for the implication that he was affected by that woman’s beauty – how ridiculous! He, Magni, the Lion of Flanders, was not as weak in that regard as the Campionissimo.

At the archway the Carabinieri linked arms to hold back the crowd while the priest led the procession through. On the other side, in the tiny courtyard, it was no calmer. Photographers rested their cameras on gravestones, children were lowered from the perimeter wall by their fathers. And above it all, the plaintive sound of Giulia Occhini, groaning at the loss of her Fausto.

At the church door Fiorenzo stepped aside, sensing it would be improper of him to enter without an invitation from the family. Occhini was close to him now, though she had eyes only for the coffin bearing her love.

Her pain-wracked face was barely recognisable. She was intent on going into the church. This was the moment all of Italy wanted to see. The wife and the mistress together at the funeral. It could not be allowed to happen!

As Magni realised this, so did half a dozen others. Occhini was steered away from the church door, and as she understood what was happening, she collapsed sobbing to the ground.

Later, as he walked down the hill with Gino, Pinella and the others, Fiorenzo remembered what he had in the breast pocket of his overcoat. A Bianchi casquette from his days on the team during the war. He’d meant to lay it on the coffin but there hadn’t been an opportunity.

No matter. He could always come back another day when the hills were empty. He’d come by bike. Yes, that was it. By bike, in a black jersey. No fuss, no cameras. I’ll come to pay my respects to you, Fausto the great escapee. And we’ll have a little chat about your taste in women too.

Originally published in Rouleur 54



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