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In praise of the Tifosi

Trevor Ward
17 May 2018

Italy’s cycling fans have a passion and pride that makes them stand out from the crowd

Stephen Roche’s experience of the tifosi was wildly different from my own. Around the same time as he was being punched, abused and spat at by fans as he raced to victory in the 1987 Giro, I was being blown kisses by a bikini-clad beauty riding pillion on a Vespa as it overtook me on a coast road near La Spezia.

Roche’s crime was to take the pink jersey from his Carrera teammate, national hero and defending champion Roberto Visentini. I’d been merely riding my pannier-laden touring bike at a sedate pace in the direction of Sicily.

A few weeks later, as I toiled up a climb in the Apennines in the heat of the midday sun, a clapped-out Fiat pulled up alongside me and the grubby-vested farm labourer in the passenger seat handed me a brick-sized sandwich through the window.

With cheery shouts of ‘Ciao, Coppi!’ the van lurched forwards, leaving me at the roadside to enjoy the best salami panini of my life.

The tifosi mirror everything that is scary and wonderful about Italy, from the chaos and clamour of its politics to the peace and serenity of its landscapes via the pomp and ceremony of its Catholicism.

They reflect the traits of a nation that only became unified in 1861 and that has been ruled by a succession of monarchs, dictators, socialists, liberals and dysfunctional coalitions ever since.

To some, the Flandrians or Basques will always be the most passionate fans. Others may argue the title belongs to the Dutch and Irish who colonise their respective corners on Alpe d’Huez during the Tour.

They all share common characteristics, whether it be the strength of their beer, the conviction of their identity or the power of their grievances (usually against political oppressors or a rival footballing nation).

But this heady mix of nationalism, sporting pride and historical hurt reaches nuclear level when it comes to an Italian cycling fan weaned on Coppi, Pantani and Cipollini, pampered with Campagnolo, Colnago and Bianchi and sustained by Chianti, cappuccino and cannoli.

You can almost forgive them their innate superiority complex.

During the Giro, they don’t merely line the road to watch a sporting event, they pay homage to the heroes of the past – and stick two fingers up at the authorities that once crushed such public displays of expression.

‘The Giro is a land of memory,’ wrote Italian author and playwright Gian Luca Favetto.

A sequence of post-war events consolidated Italy’s love affair with the bicycle. The first was the 1946 Giro, the Giro della Rinascita – ‘Giro of Rebirth’ – which, declared sponsoring newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport, would ‘unite in 20 days what the war had taken five years to destroy’. (The Tour de France, incidentally, didn’t resume until the following year.)

‘The symbolism of the Giro was impossible to overstate, emblematic as it was of the Rinascimento,’ writes Herbie Sykes in his colourful history of the Giro, Maglia Rosa.

‘In years past, the race had brought days of joy, a celebration of community and of the Bel Paese [‘Beautiful Country’], but this was something altogether more – the Giro as a metaphor for a better tomorrow.’

The race was won by Gino Bartali, who arrived in Milan just 47 seconds ahead of Fausto Coppi. Their rivalry would become one of the great sporting duels, dividing the tifosi’s loyalties so fiercely that each rider needed bodyguards at the 1947 Giro.

In 1948 came Vittorio de Sica’s film, Bicycle Thieves, in which a young father’s livelihood as a bill-poster is threatened when his bike is stolen.

It’s a simple tale recounted in an unadorned style that perfectly captures the reality of life for millions in post-war, post-fascist Italy where bikes weren’t just a distraction, they were a lifeline – even for a legend like Coppi.

After disembarking in Naples following his release from a British POW camp in North Africa, Coppi had ridden a borrowed bike all the way to his home in Piedmont, 700km to the north. His experience was echoed by millions of his fellow countrymen who emerged blinking into a post-war wasteland in search of jobs, relying
on the bicycle for transport.

This life-or-death, eat-or-starve relationship between man and machine is the striking emblem of Bicycle Thieves. It also echoed the personal stories of many Italian professional riders from the pre-war era.

‘Most came from grinding poverty, and many had learned to ride delivering bread, groceries or letters, or riding hundreds of kilometres to and from building sites or factories,’ writes John Foot in Pedalare! Pedalare!, his history of Italian cycling. ‘Cycling and work were inextricably linked. The bike was an everyday object. Everyone understood what it meant to ride uphill, and downhill.’

It is this empathy with cyclists – professional, recreational or utilitarian – that continues to make the tifosi stand out among cycling fans.

While something as simple as a beep of encouragement from a driver is a rarity on British roads, in Italy I was handed a veritable feast from a car passenger who instinctively knew I was under-geared for that steep climb in the Apennines.

I was blown kisses by a bikini-clad signorina who clearly appreciated my Cinelli casquette.

The effect of both gestures was similar to that experienced by Andy Hampsten when he won the Giro in 1988. He recalls the tifosi providing ‘a compelling reason for the rider to dig deeper, to look for an opportunity to attack, to make a hero of himself’.

I didn’t break any records during my time in Italy, but thanks to the tifosi, I often felt like a hero.

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