In recent years there has been a large increase of high-quality books about the sport of cycling.
Writers like William Fotheringham and Matt Rendell have produced fascinating biographies of some of the sport’s greats while also addressing broader social and political issues. Similarly the cultural historian Christopher Thompson has written an excellent history of the Tour de France that considers the development of the bike within industrial capitalism.
To this list we can now add John Foot’s excellent history of Italian cycling.
Foot has looked at many of the personalities and myths of Italian cycling to explore broader issues about Italian society throughout the 20th century. The popularity of cycling in Italy led to it generating several “discourses”.
Some reflect national myths where the Giro d’Italia (the Italian three-week tour) has been promoted as a national unifier and, especially in the North East as an assertion of the region’s “Italianness” in the face of threats from Austria and Slovenia.
Others portray the sport as one of Homeric individuals cycling thousands of kilometres over the vast mountains and against the elements. This perspective tends to assert man’s dominance over nature and in Italy these myths were exploited by fascists.
Foot considers the histories of some notable cyclists – like Fiorenzo Magni, banned from the 1946 and 1947 Giri but allowed to participate in the 1948 event as a result of the post-war amnesty, which he went on to win in controversial circumstances.
But cycling was also embedded in collective organisations. Cycling clubs grew up in working class districts and many cyclists were active anti-fascists, socialists and communists. Foot discusses the story of Ottavio Bottecchia, outspoken critic of fascism and the first Italian to win the Tour de France,who mysteriously died while out on a training ride in 1927.
In Italy today there is still debate over Bottecchia’s death. Was it an accident? Was he killed by fascists? Was he murdered by an enraged peasant because he had “stolen” some food? Foot looks at the evidence and suggests the most likely outcome was an accident, though this doesn’t explain how his bike ended up some distance from his body in an upright position, against a wall!
In other chapters Foot looks at the great rivalry between the two greatest Italian cyclists, Bartelli and Coppi. Their rivalry was about cycling, about regionalism and about developments in post-war Italy, with Catholic, conservative Italy normally rooting for Bartelli and modernising, left-leaning Italy favouring Coppi.
Foot’s book is an excellent history of Italian cycling embedded within the context of Italy in the 20th century. Anyone who is interested in cycling, sport or Italian history would benefit from this enjoyable read.
Pedalare Pedalare is published by Bloomsbury and is £14.99.
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