Pedalare! Pedalare!: A History of Italian Cycling, By John Foot

The politics of Italy, seen from the saddle
Click to follow

Traditionally, cycling histories are written by cyclists who empathise directly with their subjects.

Pedalare! Pedalare!, however, the first general account in English of the second great biking culture, is written by an academic who specialises in deconstructing Italian national myths. John Foot, who is also the author of Calcio, a brilliant explanation of modern Italy through football, tears apart several legends in his new book.

Foot reproduces the fearsome training schedule of the great Fausto Coppi and his loyal gregari (the support riders known as domestiques in France and everywhere else). Hundreds of miles each week, every week, and "no walking, ever" were still preferable to the equally tiring but less rewarding agricultural work they were otherwise born to. Coppi, harassed by priests and police for then-illegal adultery, became an unwitting martyr for modernity while his great rival, the pious Gino Bartali, supposedly sided with the reactionists. Yet in fact, both were respectable Christian Democrats, unlike their contemporary Fiorenzo Magni, who was allegedly involved in a notorious wartime Fascist massacre.

Political symbolism is inescapable. Wilier Triestina, which to this day makes lovely kit, take its company name from the phrase W [viva] l'Italia, liberata e redenta: "Long live Italy, liberated and redeemed". Wittily, for a few postwar years, the slowest rider in the Giro d'Italia, the nation's Grand Tour, sported the black jersey in mockery of former fascist mores.

Like many, the author distrusts the modern sport. The late Marco Pantani, given to extreme feats of solo endurance, once seemed like a throwback to a purer time, but ultimately proved only that if a performance seems unbelievable, then it is.

Purists won't be keen. The word Campagnolo does not appear, and Foot is rather dismissive of the Italy-based Belgian Eddy Merckx, maybe the last truly dominant all-rounder. Foot's suggestion that pro-cycling effectively sanctioned drug abuse to keep the gravy train rolling overstates the sport's wealth. The budgets of today's teams are puny next to even quite humble football clubs; their sponsors notoriously unglamorous. And the reader never does meet Renzo Zanazzi, an oft-mentioned elderly acquaintance of Foot who once raced with top names. But today, as this year's Giro d'Italia hopefuls head out over a dramatic parcours that its bloated French counterpart can no longer accommodate, the ghosts Foot evokes will stir once more.