Today’s stage starts in Castellania, the birthplace of Il Campionissimo (Champion of Champions) Fausto Coppi. He was born in September 1919 just a few months after Costante Girardengo, known as Campionissimo no.1, won his first Giro d’Italia. The fact that Girardengo comes from Novi Ligure only a few kilometers away makes this area highly significant in the history of Italian and world cycling. But perhaps both riders wouldn’t have been able to reach the heights they without a third character from this otherwise unassuming little area on the Piedmont and Liguria border.
Biagio Cavanna, born in Novi Ligure in 1893 was a boxer and track cyclist turned trainer and masseuse whose reputation reached legendary and even mythical status. Based in Novi Ligure throughout his life he built up stable of riders, champions and gregari alike mentoring them in all things from training to sleeping. Cavanna was a guru much like the Maharishi but instead of rich hippies going on a pilgrimage to seek his blessing and find themselves it was poor young men travelling from all over Italy, wanting to escape the drudgery of a lifetime working in the fields or factories, hoping Cavanna would accept them as cyclists of merit. And just like the yogi claimed transcendental power it seemed like ‘The Wizard of Novi’ held magic in his hands as he got to work at his massage table.
Cavanna’s relationship with his riders was similar to the master-disciple relationship in a religious sect. He was an all or nothing type of trainer who demanded strict discipline and obedience. The riders would be woken up before five every morning for coffee and bread and then get sent off on a 200 km ride, partly timed and partly riding as a group. This happened no matter the weather, Cavanna’s philosophy was: ride each and every day. After the riders came back he would check their muscles to see if they had ridden all the way and hard enough, which they usually did as he was prone to fly into terrible fits of rage. Each evening all the riders and their master would sit together at a large table to eat and inevitably the conversation turned to cycling. They all literally lived and ate cycling. After the meal everyone was expected to have an early night and it would be a rare occurrence for a young rider to sneak out late at night to have some fun as Cavanna would have found about it from one of his spies in the small town and he was even known to knock on doors late in the evening to make sure everyone was tucked up in bed. He was so strict that even the focused Costante Girardengo, Cavanna’s first star pupil, who abstained from sex around races found his creeping around town checking up on what he was doing to be too much at times.
It is said that Cavanna ‘discovered’ Girardengo but as he is a few months younger than him and Girardengo won his first Giro stage aged twenty this is unlikely, the two even raced together a few times. What is probably true though is that Cavanna, as Girardengo’s trainer, ensured his pupil a long and successful career.
‘The Novi Runt’ as the small Girardengo was known was the first superstar of Italian cycling. Huge numbers of fans would have gone to the roadsides of the the country just to try and catch a glimpse of him. He ‘only’ won two Giri, in 1919 and 1923, but the reasons for this was part of his appeal. Apart from the First World War interrupting his career he suffered regularly from bad crashes. Defending his title in 1920 he crashed badly in the first stage and eventually had to abandon. In 1921 and in the form of his life he won the first four stages before again crashing out and the year later while in second overall his team withdrew in protest about a lenient penalty given to one of his rivals. His story read like the script of a film, early promise and happiness followed by years of tragedy and heartache before eventual triumph, it is easy to see why he was so loved. ‘Gira’s ‘eventual triumph’ came in 1923 where he won his second Giro and eight of ten stages. Another reason for his popularity was the way he rode, from the front and on long breakaways. His first of six Milan-San Remo titles was won after a 180 km solo break which added to his legend. Girardengo was meant to retire after the 1925 Giro d’Italia which he was confident of winning but after a young Alfredo Binda usurped him he stuck around for another 10 years and eventually called it a day aged 43.
Not much is written about the exact involvement of Biagio Cavanna’s in Girardengo’s career. We know that he also worked with Alfredo Binda and Learco Guerra during the 20’s and early 30’s but to list all the riders that he helped is impossible. It is the time he was together with his star pupil that we know most about, a time by which Cavanna was completely blind.
In his decades at the centre of the cycling capital of the world there were two events within a relatively short period of time which had the biggest effect on Cavanna’s life. Towards the end of 1936 he had started losing his sight, a result of getting dust in his eyes at a six day race in Dortmund. After initially taking it badly he managed to turn his blindness to his advantage and improved his skills as the ‘Muscle Magician’. Shortly after, while wearing his now trademark black glasses, hat and white cane, he met the talented amateur Fausto Coppi who had come to let the master work his magic with his hands. The eighteen year old Coppi was nervous to be in the presence of such a legend but when Cavanna had finished his work he too was filled with excitement. “Listen to me,” he demanded. “My hands see more than my eyes. My ears hear what can’t be heard. Your lung capacity, heart strength and muscles indicate you can become a great champion. Believe me, I am not mistaken. Will you do as I say?” Coppi agreed at once and for almost twenty years the two were rarely far from each others sides.
Coppi’s first big race after signing a professional contract with Legnano was the 1940 Giro d’Italia. He was meant to be riding as a gregario for Gino Bartali but after his leader suffered badly in an early crash he was eventually handed the reigns by the team manager and after taking over the race lead in the eleventh stage he held on all the way to the finish to become the youngest ever winner of the Giro, a record which still stands.
The day after his Giro victory Mussolini declared war on France and Great Britain meaning Coppi, who was already doing his national service and needed special leave to compete in the Giro he had just won, was confined to barracks within days. In November 1942 Cavanna persuaded Coppi to go for the world hour record in the Milan Vigorelli velodrome. Part of the reason was to stave off getting sent to the front line but Coppi ended up setting a new record which stood till 1956 when Jacques Anquetil set a new mark. Coppi spent the second half of the war in North Africa and POW camps and had been deprived the opportunity to compete in five Giri, which would have drastically changed all record books.
After the war finished Cavanna started to build up a fine team of gregari who would be dedicated to Coppi. From their base in Novi Ligure they lived, trained and raced together. The dynamic amongst the group was almost cult like and Coppi knew he had a bunch of riders he could count on 100%.
In the 1946 Giro Coppi and Bartali who had now formed a fierce rivalry were 1st and 2nd respectively before trading places the next year. The 1948 edition saw Coppi and his team withdraw while he sat in 3rd position with two stages to go. This was in protest to the race leader Fiorenzo Magni apparently getting pushed up a mountain on the 17th stage. Returning the next year and with a point to prove Coppi produced his most Coppiesque display ever while firmly thrashing Bartali. There were two facets to Coppi’s riding which made him so successful, tactical genius and the ability to disappear off the front on his own for massive distances, and he used these both to great effect in ’49.
In the 11th stage to Bolzano which went over the Rolle, Pordoi and Gardena Coppi pounced during a moment of inattention from Bartali. Bartali suspected he had a slow puncture on the flats between the Rolle and the Pordoi but tried to keep things hush-hush and continue on for a while to give his team time to prepare for a quick wheel change. Word about this got to Coppi and as Bartali was taking some food he was off. Bartali tried chasing but needed to stop for his inevitable wheel change and panicking forgot to finish eating. The hunger knock which happened as a result of this limited his ability to pursue Coppi and by the stage finish he had lost almost 7 minutes.
Stage 17 was another mountain stage, 254 km with five climbs. Bartali’s fans were confident it was perfect terrain for their man to nullify Coppi’s advantage in the GC. In miserable wet conditions Coppi chased down an attack on the first climb, the Maddelena. By the top he was on his own and being pursued by Bartali who was chasing on his own. But Coppi still had 190 km and four more Alpine monsters to climb. He kept increasing his advantage as he crested the Vars and the Izoard, at the top of the Montgenèvre he had almost seven minutes on Bartali then eight through Sestriere. He flew over the finish line in Pinerolo 11 minutes 52 seconds before Bartali and more than doubled his lead over him in the overall. His margin over his great rival, if he could still be considered that, as the race finished was 23 minutes 47 seconds.
Coppi won a further two Giri in 1952 and 1953 to equal the record of five titles set by Alfredo Binda. He has 22 stage wins to his name after competing in thirteen editions. His last visit to the Giro was in 1958 where he finished a lowly 32nd, retirement was on the horizon. Biagio Cavanna now in his mid sixty’s was also beginning to wrap things up with his career, the demand for the two legends wasn’t as great as it used to be.
In December 1959 Coppi along with a host of top riders including Jacques Anquetil and Louison Bobet accepted an invitation from the President of Burkina Faso to go to the country, ride an exhibition race and shoot some game. Coppi contracted malaria which flared up after returning to Italy. Doctors were unable to bring it under control and Il Campionissimo died on the 2nd of January 1960 aged only 40. Biagio Cavanna was said to be heartbroken and passed away nearly two years later. Two legends of Italian cycling had gone and with it the legend of Novi Ligure.
I got most of the information for this article from John Foot’s brilliant book Pedalare! Pedalare!