The lack of a good biography of Coppi is one of those omissions in the field of English-language cycling books that seems barely credible. But having read Fotheringham’s book and looked around on Amazon, it does seem fair to say that this is the first book that qualifies as a good English-language biography of Coppi as opposed to a translation.
Coppi is the defining figure of modern cycling, in essence the man who invented the template for everything that has followed in the post-war period: training, diet, celebrity, team structure and much more. I realised as I read the book how little I actually knew about his career, life and legend.
As with Fotheringham’s previous biography – Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson – what this book does well is to situate the story within the context of the era in which it takes place. In this case it is Italy either side of World War 2 as it moves towards modernity and away from rural poverty.
The quality of the testimony and the sources used by Fotheringham are of a remarkable breadth and depth, including many of those close to Fausto as team mates and friends. He links those interviews together with contemporary news reported and well selected citations from other works on “Il Campionissimo”.
You get a real sense of the despairing poverty from which Coppi raced to escape and the surreal level of fame that he enjoyed at a time when cycling was the dominant sport in mainland Europe, yet also the ridiculous distances covered in the pursuit of race contracts. One passage describes how Coppi and his brother Serse crossed North Africa by car in pursuit of race contracts and earnings at a time when Fausto was probably one of the most famous men in Europe.
There is also much to be learnt about the men around Fausto – such as his domestique Sandrino Carrea (who it seems is also known as Andrea Carrea according to Wikipedia) who we discover survived time in the death camp of Buchenwald during the war – and their relationship with the man who remained both their icon and their leader even after his untimely death.
The only element of the book which I found unsatisfying was its exploration of Coppi’s relationships, in particular his affair with “The White Lady”, as his lover Giulia Occhini became known. Where the rest of the book feels clear and precise, the passages reflecting on Coppi’s personal life seem far more equivocal and unsure of themselves.
Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the nature of the discourse around Coppi’s separation from his wife Bruna and the furore which surrounded him and followed him to the grave and beyond. Certainly this seems like the most complicated knot to untangle and somewhat removed from the story of Fausto Coppi, the cyclist.
This minor quibble aside, this is an excellent book which is gives a very complete overview of both Coppi’s racing record and his exalted position in Italy’s social fabric which still resonates loudly today.
You can buy Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi from amazon.co.uk