Recently, I have been reading. A lot. This is not unusual for me – I read the internet all the time, but I am a darling of books, and I have a library that almost exceeds the amount of space I can work with in my exceptionally large room. I plowed through a 900 page book on the civil rights movement (‘Parting the Waters’, for anyone looking to be wowed by astounding research and impeccable writing style), and then decided American history was on time out for a little while. So I went back to basics, and poked around for good cycling books to sink my teeth into. Luckily, Peloton had a recommendation for me, in the form of Dino Buzzati’s ‘The Giro D’Italia: Coppi Vs. Bartali in the 1949 Tour of Italy’. The Peloton review itself left me wanting, but the excerpting from Buzzati’s book made me curious. It went directly into the Goodereads ‘to-read’ list. Shortly after that, I went riding with another bike obsessed friend, who recommended to me a book on Bartali, and his involvement in the Italian Resistance during World War II. Another added to the Goodreads que.
I am not one for names and dates, and the technicalities of sports writing (for any sport, not just cycling) often elude me. I get bored, wander off, and fail in my mission to understand. So, I have been gravitating towards books that offer me something more lyrical and romantic to keep my interest, allowing the names and dates to fill themselves into a larger context and picture that I can hold onto with more focus than just a list of people who, though amazing, are long dead.
Buzzati is not a sports journalist. He readily admits that he has never seen a road race, does not know much about cycling beyond the big names, and is a fan by virtue of his being Italian in the 1940s, but beyond that, does not have much to go on. But he is a playwright, and a poet, both of which are, in my opinion, beautiful things to lend to a sport so majestic, so powerful as cycling. Of course I would say that, being a cyclist myself. I am hugely biased. But the way Buzzati writes the Giro, is something of an articulation for me about where that bias comes from. He takes the race not simply at face value, but incorporates into it Italian history, legend, and myth. He brings into it the ghosts of certain areas, begging them to leave their gentle rest to watch life at its most profound, most spectacular. The mountains are living, breathing characters in this race, adversaries to be contended with. The weather is its own formidable demon, with intention and purpose. Little time is spent on who wore what jersey that day, or the order of the people on the finish line. And in that way, it becomes transcendent. Bartali and Coppi will be remembered forever in the narrative of this sport. But the men who crossed the line after them, maybe not so much. We are not weighted down with their names – Buzzati recognizes that other people will chronicle these events, these names. For us, Buzzati is creating something different, something more. He writes of the Black Jersey, given to the man to come in last place (while still under the time limit) and the battle that ensues among the lowly and humble, barely holding on, for that jersey at the conclusion of each stage – a different form of winning. He writes of those men, hypothetical though the story may be, coming in last, struggling with themselves, their expectations, and the culture of the race as they struggle to find the stadium, racing moments on a clock.
But my favorite moment of this book is on its last page. It strikes home for me, and establishes, in my mind, a sense of place and community in this lineage I now share. Though I am not, and will never be, a professional cyclist, this is my world, too, and my place here secures its existence for another generation. As the Giro comes to a close, Buzzati muses:
“And next year, in May, the starter will once more lower his flag, and again the year after that, and so on….Until the day (but will we still be alive?) when reasonable people will say it is absurd to continue; by then bicycles will have become rare, almost comical scrap metal, used by a few nostalgic maniacs….No, don’t give up, bicycle. By then we will probably be dead and buried….Do not yield, oh “divine bicycle”….If you were to surrender it would mean the end, not only of an era in sports, a chapter in civilization; but also put an even greater restriction on what is left of the realm of illusion, where simple souls find relief. At the risk of seeming ridiculous, take off again on a cool May morning, and travel the ancient roads of Italy. By then we will be traveling mostly by rocket trains…we will be extremely powerful and civilized. Pay no attention to us, bicycle. Just fly along, with your frail strength, by mountains and valleys, sweat, strive and suffer. From his isolated alpine hut, the woodcutter will still come down to shout hurrah, fishermen will climb up from the beach, accountants will abandon their ledgers, the blacksmith will let the fire die…the poets, the dreamers, the good, and the humble people, still sensitive to kindness, will still crowd the edges of the roads, forgetting poverty and hardship, thanks to you. And the young girls will cover you with flowers.”