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Coppi, Coffee, The Past and The Present

Fausto Coppi

As races go Milan-Sanremo has created many legends and myths. Eugène Christophe’s win in 1910 came after 185 riders abandoned before the race had even started, so grim were the conditions. There’s the emergence of Eddy Merckx who won the race for the first time aged 20. Sean Kelly’s descent off the Poggio rates as a classic. There are far too many moments to list. So let’s take 1946 and the story of Fausto Coppi and his coffee break.

The 1946 edition of Milan-Sanremo is much like the others, a ride from Milan to Sanremo. Back then the organisers didn’t need to deviate the route to include extra climbs like the Poggio and Cipressa because the 290km route was hard enough. Life was hard too, this was post-War Italy in reconstruction mode but to re-build meant to unite and Italy wasn’t there yet. Elections loomed, the country was split between left and right, women were allowed to vote for the first time and the country decided to abandon monarchy.

Milan-Sanremo was a reconstruction project too. It resumed after two year interlude for war. Far from the story of national unity this was the story of one man: Fausto Coppi. Legend has it that once he escaped in a race he was never, ever seen again until the finish line. An exaggeration? Maybe but the 1946 Milan-Sanremo is instructive because Coppi took flight on the Turchino Pass and was never seen again by his rivals until they reached the finish. Coppi was 30 seconds ahead at the pass, he had five minutes by the time his chasers reached Volti and he doubled that by the time he reached Sanremo. It was classic Coppi, a long range solo effort saw him win the race with apparent ease.

Piccardo Oneglia

Make it an espresso

In fact he was so far ahead of his rivals he stopped for coffee along the way. The venue is the Caffè Pasticceria Piccardo in Oneglia, it’s still doing good business today. In 1946 it was a warm spring day and for reasons unknown as he spun along the Via Aurelia coastal road Coppi fancied a coffee. Remember this was in a day with no race radios, in fact even live radio coverage was primitive, information was scarce. Still Coppi knew he was so far ahead he could stop. Not that he kicked back and slowly sipped his cup. Accounts vary, some say he slowed and was handed a cup, others say he actually stopped for a moment. What is agreed is that he consumed a coffee from the Caffè Piccardo. Of he went to Sanremo and he crossed the line with such an advance on his rivals that the radio commentator for the race cheered Coppi’s triumph and then said “we’re going to play some dance music” and duly aired a ballroom dance record to fill the time until the others arrived 14 minutes later.

When Fausto won and you wanted to check the time gap to the man in second place, you didn’t need a Swiss stopwatch. The bell of the church clock tower would do the job just as well. Paris–Roubaix? Milan – San Remo? Lombardy? We’re talking 10 minutes to a quarter of an hour. That’s how Fausto Coppi was
– Raphaël Géminiani, CycleSport Magazine, 1996

Géminiani gives good quotes, prone to exaggeration, but the original Rapha makes the point that Coppi was so far ahead of the others. Today we venerate this, a utter triumph where the post-race podium was, figuratively, disproportionate with the winner towering above the rest, the mythos of the champion. It sounds great.

Or does it? Imagine if a rider was so far ahead come Sunday’s Milan-Sanremo: it would be boring, you’d know the result long before the finish. If the lone leader stopped for a coffee today corners of social media and forums would erupt with conspiracy theories about trying to mask or flush a secret potion.

It illustrates how the sport has changed. The race still goes from Milan to Sanremo albeit switching inland for two climbs but the big difference is the way we consume the sport. No longer is there a live radio coverage and newspaper reports, it’s all on TV and to a lesser extent, the web and social media. It’s instant and some complain if their feed has a 30 second delay in case Tweets appear in their time line announcing events that occur on their TV screen in ten seconds. Still for most of the audience the race is about the action on-screen and it explains why the race has used more and more climbs as a means to spice up the finish of the race and why RCS are planning to use the road to Pompeiana in future years in order to break things up even more.

This weekend’s Milan-Sanremo is so tantalising because it’s so open, it’s the longest race of the year but often decided by the smallest of margins. It’s race that builds in tension like no other. By the time the race reaches Oneglia even fans daren’t step to the kitchen for a coffee in case they miss something.

Note: that’s a generic photo of Fausto Coppi at the top and probably not from the 1946 Milan-Sanremo.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dan Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 3:01 pm

    So who is your tip for this year? (or is the a piece to come on this)?

    Michael Matthews is mine!

    • The Inner Ring Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 5:48 pm

      There should be a full preview on Friday or Saturday.

    • Kjetil Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 7:51 pm

      Kristoff by three bike lenghts. Again. And helmets worn like garrison caps/field service caps will be all the rage. 😉

  • Doug Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 3:41 pm

    Lovely piece.

  • Ron Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 3:42 pm

    Excellent story and has me even more excited for Sunday! Great writing. The reason I love cycling, which I only took up in my mid-20s, is because every race is exciting. I don’t really care who wins (I wish they weren’t doping, but in racing there is always cheating), I really don’t care what the race is, there is always beauty and excitement. Growing up I watched all sorts of American “ball sports.” If you’d have told me I’d go out and ride for 4-6 hours on a weekend and watch guys pedal for hours, I’d have said you’re crazy. But, here I am. I can’t stomach the NFL, NBA, MLB or college football/b-ball. However, I love cycling and I love following the PRO peloton.

    Breakaways aren’t exciting? Ahem, how about Boonen’s in P-R a few years back. That was 50km of thrilling viewing.

    One note: “Still Coppi new he was so far ahead he could stop.” You need a “k” in there.

    Oh, and Kristoff…ugh, I’d have to win again if I were him just so I could put a photo on my wall that showed me winning…with my helmet level.

    • Anon Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 4:55 pm

      The comment about the helmet just made me spit my coffee out with laughter. So true!

    • Andrew Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 7:23 pm

      I’m with you. In the US, we barely get a slice of cycling live or even taped, but tons of live basketball and other ball sports.

      I find Milan-San Remo particularly mesmerizing and a welcome addition to the end of winter/beginning of spring.

      • Garuda Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 9:18 pm

        He mentions that watching people pedal for hours seems boring, what he forgets to mention is that they pedal through an ever changing landscape, which is appealing on a different level. What should be boring to most human beings is that sport where they take a break after every f-ing 3 seconds of action, then spend the next minute figuring out what just happened, meanwhile their coaches are protesting and filing appeals in the supreme court, i mean, referee, about the call, who then goes on to review a video of what they were just looking at…. For 3 seconds of action. And americans say we hate lawyers, psshh, we love them so much we put them in sports.

        • Steppings Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 11:30 pm

          Cycling makes a lot of sports seem like complete bo**ox!

  • Larrick Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 4:00 pm

    Lovely piece. Put a smile on my face.

  • Mats Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 5:18 pm

    It’s a great story. True or not, who cares. Coppi was and still is a legend. I think that a rider needs a certain kind of personality to one day become a legend. It’s not just about the size his palmares. Think about it: Hinault and Merckx are true legends but Indurain is just a great rider.

    • ZigaK Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 6:42 pm

      Well, you’re certainly allowed to have your opinion, however misguided 🙂

      • The Inner Ring Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 6:45 pm

        Do try to explain yourself more if you want to criticise a fellow reader, saying “you’re wrong” isn’t very conversational.

    • The Inner Ring Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 6:44 pm

      Indurain just doesn’t have the list of results to compare. But the TV age is very different, it’s hard to have the myths of the past in today’s world.

      • Anonymous Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 7:18 pm

        The thing about Induráin is that he had every skill it takes to solo away to a victory in San Remo o Roubaix. But he never even tried.

    • GeorgeY Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 7:38 pm

      As the Italians themselves would say: Se non é vero é ben trovato!

  • Qwerty Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 7:23 pm

    Good piece. The next time I’m in the area I’ll stop by for a coffee. I wonder if the place commemorates Coppi?

  • bikecellar Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 7:26 pm

    Great piece, never seen the Kelly video before, he had some bottle to not go through and rely on Argentin keeping it going ? I will be viewing the event at a clubmates house along with fellow Newcastle Cheviots. Birra Morretti will contribute to the ambience. 🙂

  • Peter Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 7:43 pm

    Does anyone know if the race will be televised in the US? I checked NBS Sports, BeIN and Universal on Sunday morning, and couldn’t see it on the schedule.

  • Larry T. Wednesday, 18 March 2015, 10:24 pm

    Nice piece! We love this race. Not sure the current situation is so superior to the radio or newspaper reports of the bygone daze when (without video) the correspondents had to be much more creative in their description of the action, the heroes and the villains. I think far-too-many would-be spectators find it much-too-easy to sit on the couch and watch on TV rather than venture out there and see things live. I constantly explain to people that video (even when it’s live coverage) is just that…video…on a screen and anyone anywhere (well, maybe not so often in the USA) can watch…and then watch replays over and over while one can only be there live, in-person once. Miss the chance and it’s gone. I learned this the hard way while working for a decade on tours following the Tour and Giro – too concerned about what was happening in the race to go out into the street and SEE things live, even though I was there. I look back at too many moments that were missed with no way to recapture them. Watching replays of video is just not the same.
    And to head off any claims I’m posting this to drive up our business, please note that we do NOT generally offer live, race-viewing packages, as our clients prefer riding their own bikes to watching others ride theirs. I’ll be heading up to see L-B-L (the last of the 5 monuments for me) next month courtesy of a colleague who produces a few race-chasing tours and encourage anyone reading this to consider skipping that next $10K bike purchase and spending that money coming to Europe and seeing a big race live, in-person. It’ll be money well-spent.

  • MD Thursday, 19 March 2015, 1:31 am

    Superb piece. There is just something about this race. It plays on your mind, all the possibility, all the riders who have the potential and the history. The hype and tension are certainly well merited.

  • Gargatouf Thursday, 19 March 2015, 10:55 am

    Great piece.

    Can you imagine the outrage today if someone finished a race 15mns before anyone, having stopped for a coffee during a race???

    • noel Thursday, 19 March 2015, 12:08 pm

      ha! too true. And if he was a Sky rider the internet would actually explode

    • gabriele Thursday, 19 March 2015, 12:23 pm

      Maybe that’s also because there’s no Coppi around 😉

  • Anonymous Thursday, 19 March 2015, 11:47 am

    Nice write.
    I don’t think it’s not great to see a Coppi-style victory. I’d love to admire such a display, witness the one-man effort, his courage, the increasing gap, the impotence of the followers, in almost slow motion. It’s something to palate. It’s also good to have suspense, but it’s not the most important thing.

    • gabriele Thursday, 19 March 2015, 12:12 pm

      Not even by far a true “Coppi-style” victory (the comparison would be outright blasphemous), but think about Boonen’s Roubaix in 2012… No real suspense in the last, don’t know, hour of racing? Nevertheless, it was great to watch. For me, at least.

      • MD Friday, 20 March 2015, 3:33 am

        …Not quite the same, but Tony Martin is perhaps a rider who has the performed such a feet? Stage 9 of the 2014 tour………. and almost that stage to the Vuelta?

  • Anonymous Thursday, 19 March 2015, 1:05 pm

    Those were the days, not even a bike computer on the bars, great! I decided last week that my new build will be sans dashboard, just me and the road ahead. Simple pleasure.

  • Mike Thursday, 19 March 2015, 1:22 pm

    He may not have won by 15 minutes but Tony Martin’s solo raid in last years TDF was something to behold.

    The Panzer Waggen could have grabbed an espresso but probably didn’t need it!

    • gabriele Thursday, 19 March 2015, 2:20 pm

      French coffee isn’t worth a stop! :-O

  • UHJ Thursday, 19 March 2015, 2:02 pm

    Wow, I saw that Kelly descent as it happened (on the telly). Unbelievable how fast he went down and how cool he played Agentin.
    I have often wondered if this wasn’t the last time a classic was won using toe clips?

  • The GCW Thursday, 19 March 2015, 4:29 pm

    It’s all about the espresso.

    I’ll have 3 doubles. Please.

  • CoppiGo Thursday, 19 March 2015, 7:40 pm

    This may be the way Wiggins wins PR !

  • betabug Friday, 20 March 2015, 10:18 am

    Personally I always enjoyed cycling races much more reading in a good newpaper report instead of on TV. Before the Festina scandal, Swiss newspapers used to have a full page each day of the Tour de France. To me, all the suspense was there in a well written description.
    Maybe this is why I enjoy so much this most excellent blog 🙂