Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi

The Giro d’Italia — more famously known as the Giro — is a long distance bicycle race in May or June. Inspired by the Tour de France, the race was started in 1909; to copy’s the Tour de France’s victorious yellow jersey, the winner of the Giro always gets a pink jersey (maglia rosa) – pink being the color of the event’s main sponsor, the newspaper La Gazella dello Sport.

The Giro is the sporting event for bikers, and the race has seen a fair share of intense rivalries. The most famous rivalry was perhaps between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, arguably the greatest feud in cycling history. Gino Bartali was the undisputed champion of Italian cycling until Fausto came along. The latter beat his older rival time and again, winning the race five times and le Tour de France twice. (Gino won the Giro thrice and Tour de France once). Italy took sides between the religious, rural Gino and the self-professed atheist from Italian north, Fausto. Even the Vatican took sides: Pope Pius XII naturally supported religious Gino Bartali and refused to bless one race because Coppi was riding in it.

Their personal rivalry was more acidic. In an era when performance-enhancing drugs were not yet forbidden, Coppi admitted to using them almost all the time. Doping infuriated his older rival, who would often keep spies, ransack Coppi’s room or picked up Coppi’s bottles to figure out what special drug Coppi was using. In 1949 at the world championships, both quit the race rather than help each other win. They apparently reconciled for 1952 Tour de France, but unfortunately the above picture was taken which would alienate two again.

On the surface, it seemed like a simple symbol of brotherhood and sportsmanship, and it is. In Italy, it became an iconic image. It showed Coppi (right) holding a water bottle and reaching back to Bartali during the climb of the Col de l’Iseran. Or did it? There followed an extensive debate over who was giving the bottle to whom. Coppi said he was giving it to Bartali. Bartali insisted, “I did. He never gave me anything.” They argued about it for years until Coppi’s premature death from malaria in 1959.

So this week, I went to my dad’s place and played squash with him. Midgame, he brought up the blog I was writing (i.e., this one) and how he had been checking it recently. It is always flattering to hear something like this from one’s own dad and also more surprising to know that one’s dad can use internet! (jk dad). Anyhow, he said he was quite sad that I don’t cover that many photos from sports — although a lot of iconic stuff happens there. So I came back, sat down and wrote this. This one is for you, dad.

25 thoughts on “Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi”

  1. Your dad is right. While there are iconic images from every part of life, there are a great many from sports. For example, when I read this, I thought of one that is famous to Canadians/hockey lovers everyone: this one of Bobby Orr flying through the air as he scores the winning goal to capture the Stanley Cup.

    It is truly iconic. I hope you cover it sometime in the future.

    For more on it, see:

    This is a fantastic blog. One of my favourites. Keep up the great work.

  2. The bottle might be passed forwards or backwards, but the bottle looks to me to be Coppi’s bottle. Both of his bottle holders are empty, and Bartali’s are both occupied.

  3. Bartali (who also won the TdF twice not once as stated) has taken the bottle from his jersey pocket and is handing it to Coppi who had discarded his bottles as is common practice when they are empty.

  4. It is arguably the greatest feud in cycling history as they were both poles apart the religious Gino and the self-professed atheist, Fausto. There was no common ground on any matter even on tactics ……

  5. I had just started road racing as member of BLRC when this took place. Opinion at that time was of Coppi gifting Gino.

      1. ha! just watched the clip (please excuse my previous comment) so we can see who provided the bottle first…but it isn’t the same moment as captured in the photo. In the clip, Fausto’s bottle cage is occupied, whereas the photo shows him with empty cage and bottle in left I’m now thinking that the photo shows Coppi returning the bottle to Gino..

  6. I think you are right …. we will never now. Whilst ‘rivals’ the were also friends so I guess it is possible that they exchanged bottles on many occasions. Two great great riders ……

  7. The World Championship where Coppi and Bartali quit the race was in 1948 in Valkenburg in Holland. In 1949, Fausto Coppi finished 3rd behind Rick Van Steenbergen and Ferdi Kubler in a sprint finish in Copenhagen, Denmark. Coppi did drop everyone except Rick and Ferdi. He tried to drop the 2 wheel suckers but was enabled to do it because of the mainly flat circuit!

      1. I agree, Kubler and Van Steenbergen were not wheel suckers. I apologize for my comment. I still think that the circuit was too flat for a world championship!
        In 1953, Fausto Coppi won the title in Lugano, Switzerland, where he won the race by more than 6 minutes on the second finisher, and more than 8 minutes on the stars of the time, Louis Bobet and Raphael Geminiani of France, and others. Kubler was there too…

      1. “…but now it’s in the public domain for fair use”…what does that mean? That anybody can use them for free? (I’m interested because I’m witing a book and need some free pictures). How do you gain access to that public domain?

        Help please!!

  8. hi,two great riders with the same thing on there minds,get to the finish and keep hydrated, the riders then did not through bottles away,they were alloy,riders kept bottles for the hole of there racing lives.Coppi’s bottles can still be veiwed

  9. I read the William Fotheringham book “Fallen Angel” about Coppi, I know popular culture might say Coppi was an atheist but I’m not sure that is true. Good book.

  10. What a dive into my childhood.Coppi & Bartali were legends while I was still in Tuscany from 1950 to 1964.
    However it was great to find out why they were so popular.Thank you for this very interesting article.

  11. The bottle was handed by a spectator to a rider on Bartali’s right side, he drank from it and handed it to Bartail on his left. Because they were on a right hand corner, the bottle had to be handed forwards, after Bartali drank from the bottle it was then handed forwards to Coppi. Your text says Col l’Izoard, maybe, but I always believed it to be the Galibier. I have shot at this spot and the barriers were there until recent years

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