By Gabe Mirkin, M.D.
Fausto Coppi was the best international cyclist in the years before and after World War II because he was the best climber, time trialer and sprinter. He won the Giro d’Italia five times (1940, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953), the Tour de France twice (1949 and 1952), and the World Championship in 1953. He was officially reported to have died from malaria, but many people believe that he was murdered in revenge for forcing an African rider off a cliff during a race.
Coppi was a lousy student and left school at age 13 to work in a butcher shop. He loved to ride his bike to and from work and entered and won his first race when he was just 15, in 1935. At age 18 he got his racing license and won his first organized race. That same year he won a race at Varzi by more than seven minutes and the next race by more than six minutes. When he was 20, he won the Giro d’Italia and at age 22, he set a world hour record of 45.798 km at the Velodrome in Milan, with an average cadence of 103.3 pedal strokes per minute.
The Great Coppi-Bartali Rivalry
While still a relatively unknown novice, Coppi was recruited to the Legnano team to help their star, Gino Bartali, win races. World War II had already started across northern Europe, but Italians were more interested in the fact that the two best bicycle racers in the world were Italian. At the 1940 Giro d’Italia, Bartali fell early in the race and hurt himself and had great difficulty keeping up.
That night, the team gathered in Bartali’s room to discuss plans for the next day’s race. Coppi said that he would like to attack and lead at the start. “I don’t have good form and feel sick. After a short escape, I plan to quit.” Bartali agreed. On the next day, Coppi escaped, but nobody caught him and he won by a huge margin. After the race, Bartali was furious and asked Coppi; “Why didn’t you quit?” Coppi replied; “No one chased me. I wasn’t sick anymore.”
All races after that became a personal combat between the world’s two best racers, so much so that each cared less about winning races than beating each other. Italian cycling fans rooted either for Coppi or Bartali. Bartali was conservative and religious, followed all the rules and prayed while he pedaled, so people in southern Italy who were mainly rural farmers rooted for Bartali; while Coppi, with his new ideas about training, diet, drugs, sex and divorce, was loved by the urban industrial north.
Soon World War II stopped bicycle racing altogether. Coppi joined the Italian army and in March 1943 was sent to North Africa. He was captured by the British on April 13, 1943 and spent the rest of the war cutting hair and doing other menial jobs. Bartali became a great patriot and saved many Italian Jews from almost certain death by carrying fake citizenship papers for them in his bicycle handlebars.
After four years of no training or racing, Coppi resumed training and won a race on July 8, 1945. Coppi was 26 while Bartali was 31 and they raced on different teams. From 1946 to 1954 Coppi was so dominant as a racer that once he broke away from the peloton, he was never caught. Bartali was convinced that Coppi was taking drugs that allowed him to race so fast.
In the 1946 Giro, Bartali saw Coppi drink from a small bottle and throw it by the side of the road. Bartali retrieved the bottle and asked his doctor to try to find out what was in it. His doctor told him that it was mineral water. Bartali was convinced that Coppi was taking drugs, so he would get a hotel room close to Coppi’s and search his room for glasses, bottles, tubes, cartons, suppositories, wrappers or other signs of drug use.
Both were so obsessed with beating each other that they cared little about others in the race. At the 1948 World Road Championships, a group of riders broke away from Coppi and Bartali. However Bartali just stuck on Coppi’s rear wheel and did not try to go by him. Riders often “suck on the wheel” of the rider in front of them to decrease wind resistance and ride faster.
Coppi ignored the breakaway of the other riders and slowed down so Bartali would have to slow down also. Because each tried to spite the other, both finished way behind the leaders. The Italian Cycling Federation suspended them both for three months for such spiteful behavior. They wrote: “In the World Championships they have forgotten to honor the Italian prestige that they represent. Thinking only of their personal rivalry, they abandoned the race, to the approbation of all sportsmen.”
After years of fighting with Coppi, Bartali retired in 1954. In 1959, he formed his own team and signed Coppi at age 40 to be his team captain, but Coppi died before he could compete on the team.
Death at Age 40
In December 1959, the president of the Burkina Faso cycling team, Maurice Yaméogo, invited Coppi and some other famous bicycle racers to visit Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, to ride with a local group of cyclists and then go hunting. He was bitten by mosquitos and a week later when he arrived back in Italy he was very sick, with a fever of 107 degrees F. His doctors diagnosed hepatitis and then yellow fever and when his condition worsened, said that he had typhoid fever.
They missed the probable diagnoses of malaria and pneumonia and failed to treat him for these conditions, and he died. Later Coppi’s son told reporters that his father had been wrongly treated with cortisone for pneumonia. Cortisone weakens a person’s immunity, so if Coppi had an infectious pneumonia, cortisone could have spread the infection and killed him.
Was He Poisoned?
In 2002 the Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport reported that 75-year-old Brother Adrian, a French Benedictine priest working in Burkina Faso, learned the truth of Coppi’s death while hearing confession and passed on the details to Mino Caudillo, an Italian National Olympic Committee director. The confessor claimed that Coppi was killed by a mysterious herbal mixture in revenge for the death of Ivory Coast rider Canga, who had fallen to his death after being forced off the road by Coppi during a race in Burkina Faso in 1958 or 1959. Bicycle racers often lean on their opponents to unnerve them and try to force them off the road.
Brother Adrian stated that, “A lot of deaths attributed to malaria and AIDs are really tribal poisonings.” Sixty years after Coppi’s death, Corriere dello Sport printed an interview with a man named Giovanni who stated that Coppi was poisoned at a reception organized by the head of the village. Requests to exhume his body and check for poisons were not followed, so We will never know whether he died during the treatment of his malaria and pneumonia or by poisoning in revenge for causing the death of another racer.