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.


A Nazi Funeral in London

The extraordinary photo above captured in April 1936, showed the funeral of the German Ambassador Leopold Von Hoesch, with the people clearly giving the Nazi salute on the balcony of the Germany Embassy on Carlton House Terrace, overlooking The Mall. This photo was unearthed for the Discovery Channel programme: ‘Wartime London with Harry Harris’, a London cab driver and historian who has driven a taxi for two decades.

The Grenadier Guards and Nazi soldiers march together down The Pall Mall carrying a swastika-draped coffin; well-liked by most British statesmen, von Hoesch was considered as the best hope for enhancing the Anglo-German relations during the early 1930s. He was a career diplomat but no Nazi; he would even be disturbed by this display of Nazi pageantry at his funeral — he frequently feuded with Hitler over disarmament and vocally denounced Hitler’s invasion of Rhineland. If it were not for this untimely death, it was most likely that he would have been recalled.

Von Hoesch was replaced by his nemesis, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who lasting legacy in London was to transform the German Embassy into a grandiose building that would convey some of the portentous glamour of the Third Reich. The 6-9 Carlton House Terrance, the then embassy within the sight of the Buckingham Palace and the Foreign Office, was renovated with Albert Speer himself flying in from Berlin and designing staircase inside made from Italian marble donated by Mussolini. No. 7 was used as a base to house German military attachés and the headquarters of the Nazi espoinage machine in London.

The Germans were kicked out at the outbreak of war, and the building was stripped of its Nazi fixtures before it was rented to the Royal Society in 1967. There are still signs that this was once a Nazi residence, including the border designs of swastikas on the floor of one public room. A memorial to Giro, von Hoesch’s dog which died in 1934 when he made a fatal connection with an exposed electricity wire, was also buried here. Its grave on the front garden to No 9, with the epitaph “Giro: Ein treuer Begleiter” (“Giro: A true companion”), remains Great Britain’s sole Nazi memorial, situated somewhat inappropriately in an area filled with monuments to heroes of the British Empire.