Fallen Angel, by William Fotheringham

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The Independent Culture

Who is Italy's most popular sportsman of the 20th century? Not motor-racing maestro Enzo Ferrari (third) or skiing supremo Alberto Tomba (second) but the cyclist they call "il campionissimo", the champion of champions, Fausto Coppi, who died aged 40 in 1960.

He was certainly a tremendous athlete, as multiple wins in the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, plus countless other races, indicate. He was the first to achieve a Tour-Giro double, which he did twice. But his feats held a larger significance; the peasant who got on his bike offered a beacon of hope to a nation struggling in the post-war era.

Later, when he left his family for his mistress at a time when adultery was still a criminal offence in Italy, he divided the country. The ramifications still rumbled on when he died suddenly of malaria. But his early death only fed the legend, and race spectators still hold up signs proclaiming "Coppi il mito" – "Coppi the myth".

This sympathetic, perceptive biography sets him against a backdrop of tumultuous social upheaval. Times have changed, but the myth lives on.

Published in hardback by Yellow Jersey, £16.99