Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Savona, Italy

Friends: There are so many tributes to cycling deity Fausto Coppi in the village he grew up in and the surrounding area, the region could easily be re-named Coppilandia. There are museums and monuments in his honor and streets and plazas bearing his name.

His home town, the tiny mountain village Castellania, built a full-fledged shrine to him on a rise above the town. It includes a chapel and a gallery of mementos from his career. Beside them are the graves of Coppi and his younger brother Serse, also an accomplished racer. Both died before their time, Serse in 1951 at the age of 27 in a racing accident and Fausto in 1960 after contracting malaria in a race in Africa. He was 41.

Coppi was known as the "Champion of Champions." He won the Giro d'Italia five times and the Tour de France twice, as well as the premier Italian one-day classics, Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy multiple times. Paris-Roubaix and the World Championship and the Hour Record were also among his palmares. He won the first L'Alpe d'Huez stage of the Tour de France in 1952 before the road was paved. His career was interrupted by WWII, otherwise he could have eclipsed the records of Eddie Merckx.

It was a five-mile climb from Villalvernia and the valley floor to Castellania up "Le Strade di Fausto e Serse Coppi." Upon reaching Castellania, one has the option of continuing the climb up to the chapel or to turn in to the village. One of the first houses in the village is the yellow, three-story"Casa Coppi," identified by a plaque and a poster of an adult Coppi kneeling before his stocky mother sprinkling grain to a handful of chickens.

Off on the lone side street a couple houses down is a garage-like porch with a gallery of Coppi posters and framed jerseys. When I returned to the main street, two old men in white sleeveless undershirts sitting on lawn chairs asked where I was from. To my response of Chicago, they asked, "Is that near California?"

Then they asked if I'd like to see the museum. I thought they meant the house, as there was some notice on the door implying it was possible to have a look. When I said yes, one man said he'd go get the key. Then he led me back to a gallery in a garage. There was an adjoining dark little room crammed with Coppi artifacts--bikes, photos, trophies, jerseys and so on.

It was a better collection of Coppi memorabilia than at the first-rate cycling museum in Novi Ligure, the largest town in the area, fourteen miles away. I stumbled upon the museum the night before by accident when I asked a couple of policeman if they could tell me the way to Coppi's grave site. They thought I meant the Novi Ligure museum. It was surprisingly open on a Sunday evening. I arrived at 6:30, an hour-and-a-half before it closed, barely enough time to do it justice. A group of school children there for a week-long cycling camp were being given a tour.

The museum opened five years ago and is dedicated to Coppi and Costante Girardengo, a cycling great from the early days of the sport who was born in Novi Ligure. Though the museum gives special emphasis to these two champions, it is a genuine bicycle museum, tracing the history of the bike and the sport. There is a long promenade through the middle of the museum on the second floor of close to one hundred bicycles from its early days to the present. Off to the side were rooms of jerseys and tributes to cycling champions. There were also two rooms that were galleries of art work, mostly paintings, along with a few sculptures, conveying the beauty and the majesty of the bicycle, its geometry and its motion, in clusters and individually.

Throughout the museum were television sets playing vintage tapes of racers in action and commentary from experts. I plopped down on the floor, resting my legs, and watched as much as I could of each, sipping a bottle of water the caretaker of the museum had given me. When I left she had left another bottle beside my bike. It was thrilling to watch Coppi's majesty on the bike and his fluid, poetic pedal motion. He was in a class of his own. He could have easily been known as "The Pedaler of Charm" if that nickname hadn't already been applied to the Swiss rider Ferdi Kubler, another Tour de France winner from the '50s.
The woman overseeing the museum only knew of one other significant bicycle museum in all of Italy, the recently opened museum by the Madonna de Ghisalla cycling chapel overlooking Lake Como that I visited five years ago. But she also mentioned a couple of lesser museums, one outside of Florence in the town of Ponte a Ema devoted to Gino Bartoli, Coppi's great rival, and another that was part of a museum devoted to motorcycling.

Coppi's home town is so small, that the tourist office in Novi Ligure didn't have a map showing it. The woman there could only tell me it was beyond the town of S. Agata Fossali. It was a mistake though for me to take the road through S. Agata Fossali, as it required an unnecessary steep climb and then descent meandering through tiny unmarked villages before I finally came to a sign to Castellania. If she had known better she would have directed me to Villalvernia. As I approached Castellania I passed a cemetery just beyond Carazano that I thought might contain Coppi's grave, as I didn't realize that he wasn't buried in an actual cemetery, but had his own private resting place.

The town of Serravalle before Novi Ligure had a bust of Coppi in a Coppi Plaza. I asked two old men on a park bench if they could direct me to the cimitero de Coppi. If I had understood them better I wouldn't have gone through Novi Ligure and might not have discovered the museum there. And if I had more time to explore or a translator along I doubtlessly would have discovered many more Coppi shrines in the surrounding area.

Paying homage to Coppi is a great final preparation for the Tour de France. The presentation of the racers is just two days away, with The Race commencing two days later on Saturday. Of all the sights I have seen this past month bicycling the length of Italy, the monuments to Coppi will probably come to mind over the years more frequently than any of the others.

Later, George

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