Magazine article The Spectator

Wheels of Fortune

Magazine article The Spectator

Wheels of Fortune

Article excerpt

Pedalare! Pedalare!: A History of Italian Cycling

by John Foot

Bloomsbury, £14.99, pp. 316,

ISBN 9780747595212

The Bicycle Book

by Bella Bathurst

Harper Press, £16.99, pp. 306,

ISBN 9780007305889x

There are among us a churlish few who consider the term 'sports personality' to be an oxymoron. John Foot's sparkling study of Italian cycling is a welcome corrective, alive with terrific characters: Toti, a heroic onelegged cyclist who was killed in the trenches; Coppi, a barrel-chested adulterer who became the nation's darling; a blind coach who could divine victory or defeat in the feel of a cyclist's muscles; and, more recently, a champion who died of a cocaine overdose in a seaside hotel. Many of the greats follow a satisfying rags-to-riches trajectory, starting off as impoverished delivery boys from peasant families.

Foot's contention is that the history of cycling is a lens through which the political and social history of Italy itself can be viewed. Thus he cites the red cyclists, whose first national congress took place in 1913, for whom bikes were a new weapon in the class struggle. Cycling came to be thought of as so subversive that, at one point, priests were forbidden to ride bikes. Later there were cyclists with links to the fascist party, but it is evidently a grave disappointment that Mussolini himself had absolutely no interest in the sport. Foot revisits the fact again and again, as if repetition will make it otherwise, like a hungry teenager who keeps going back to an empty bread bin.

With still 100 pages to go, the author announces:

This history should end at some point in the 1980s and 1990s for one simple reason: from here on, this will no longer be a book about cycling . . . Rather, we enter a shadowy world of blood transfusions, hormones, testosterone, cocaine, arrests, protests, masking agents, police swoops and sacks of blood in Spanish fridges.

The sporting authorities seem oddly clawless where doping is concerned, perhaps because, like prison officers, it is not in their best interests to clean things up. Every now and again there is a flurry of dope testing and punishment, but such regulation seems inconsistent and half-hearted.

John Foot, who is Professor of Modern Italian History at University College London, is erudite and spry: to succeed in making this book appealing to the non-enthusiast is quite a feat. …

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