Fausto Coppi's War: From Prisoner to Legend

Already a great champion in pre-War years, Coppi joined the Italian army in 1940 before flying to North Africa three years later, where he was captured and interned by Allied troops. Here's the story of those lost years in the life of Il Campionissimo.

Fausto Coppi looks out of the train window at the Italian scenery passing by. The gentle hills and delicate countryside contrast with the darkness of his thoughts. On a normal day, he would have cycled those roads, set a hard tempo and broken away from the peloton. This time, the young cyclist, later to be known as Il Campionissimo – the Champion of Champions – was not on his way to yet another bike race. It’s spring 1943 and Coppi is heading to the front line to fight for the Italian regime.

Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship is at war against the Allies and Coppi has to leave his military base in Tortona. He moves to the south of the Penisola, sent in rapid succession to Modena, then Rome, Naples and Sicily before eventually being flown to north Africa. The intention? To fight the British Eighth Army of Marshal Bernard Montgomery. 

As one of the most famous sportsmen in Italy, he could have found a way out of it. Many others had already picked loopholes in the system and turned their back on a potential death for Mussolini’s government. But not Coppi. He joined the 38th Infantry Regiment as a conscript in 1940. Despite the promise of a brilliant career as a cyclist ahead, the 23-year-old decides to honour his country and let fate decide his destiny.

That train ride towards the front line must have felt so different to the one that Coppi took only a few months earlier, on November 7, 1942. On that occasion Coppi left Tortona bound for Milan. Here, the young cyclist was set to target the Hour record – a gruelling challenge against the clock and his personal demons, one that he would later describe as the “hardest of his entire career”.

A gentle breeze is blowing and a timid afternoon sunlight is mixed up with fog. Almost perfect conditions for such an undertaking. The Vigorelli velodrome – which in those years doubled as an army warehouse and needed special permission to be opened for bike racing – is half-empty when Coppi arrives.Large holes are visible in its roof; just a few weeks earlier the city had been heavily bombed by the Allies. The population is scared of frequenting public places, particularly on days where something grand is taking place. Milan remains under blackouts and curfews: only a few employees from the nearby Alfa Romeo factory were allowed an hour’s break to enjoy the spectacle.

Fausto Coppi TourmaletFausto Coppi crests the Col du Tourmalet, Tour de France 1949 (Image credit: Offside / L’Equipe)

After the recent bombardments, the regime needed a proof of strength. That Saturday was the culmination of a “Week of Records” where several top cyclists had competed at the Vigorelli to write their names in the history books. Among them, Fiorenzo Magni, who established the 50 and 100 kilometre records. Despite the difficult war circumstances, the insistency of Coppi’s manager – a blind former professional rider and masseur named Biagio Cavanna – helped to make that attempt real. Cavanna was worried about Coppi’s future and was desperately trying to find a trick to save his pupil from the front lines. On top of that, setting the Hour record would give Coppi international attention once again and – not to be forgotten – the challenge was something his rival Gino Bartali had never tackled.

The distance to beat belonged to the French rider Maurice Archambaud, who rode a total of 45.840km at the Vigorelli back in 1937. Coppi started his attempt at 2.12pm, a time the Allies normally left off bombing. His preparation was limited. Before the challenge, he couldn’t perform his usual motor pacing training because of petrol rationing. Nevertheless, Cavanna was sure Coppi had it in his muscles. “You only need one metre [more than him to break the record],” he would repeat to his rider.

Coppi’s bike, a yellow Legnano now conserved at the Museo del Ghisallo, weighed only 7.5kg, had wooden Baruzzo wheels and a 52×15 gear ratio. It was a tight virtual duel between Coppi and the ghost of Archambaud. He caught him up, then lost precious metres again. 

“After the first 20 minutes, during which my splits were faster, I felt the pedal stroke getting heavier,” recalled the Campionissimo. “I was responding with sharp accelerations that gave me a temporary advantage but led to me slowing down to get my breath back. Then, a cold wind that was not forecast started to blow. Inexplicably, my strength came back and I started riding at a flying pace again.” 

In the final segment of the record, Coppi took three pills out of his pockets and swallowed them. They were enough to give him a final boost. The outcome was uncertain until the last lap. He finished 31 metres ahead of Archambaud, setting a new standard of 45.871km.

“I felt I could have continued for another hour and chased more records. It was a shame that the public, taken by enthusiasm, didn’t understand my intentions and stopped me from continuing,” said Coppi at the end after the track invasion.

Because of the war, the record was only validated years later as the French federation tried to nullify it. In 1948 the Vigorelli was re-measured and all the records set there amended. The substance didn’t change: Coppi’s mark was ratified to 45.798km but that 31-metre margin remained.

Fausto CoppiJoined by stage-winning Bianchi team-mate Adolfo Leoni (left) after winning his second Giro d’Italia, 1947 (Image credit: Offside / Farabola)

Racing on the Warpath

Benito Mussolini declared war on Great Britain and France on June 10, 1940. It was no accident that this was a day after the end of the 28th Giro d’Italia. That edition transpired to be the last for six years, and the man who won it – at the age of just twenty – was Coppi. He sealed the overall victory in style: during the mid-race stage between Florence and Modena through the Apennines, he flew away from the group 150km from the finish.

“It was raining heavily. I stopped thinking, moved on my pedals and took off,” remembered Coppi. “I started [my effort] and I was not at my limit yet, I felt very smooth and I was breathing with full lungs the air of the fir tree forest. I was happy I was alone and never thought I had the whole Giro d’Italia behind me.” The attack resulted in his first maglia rosa.

Shortly after his success, Coppi was back in Tortona, where he was primarily training as a soldier. Cycle racing in Italy during the war continued in a different format and the races that remained in the calendar were one-day and track events.

The cycling teams and calendar were considerably reduced; amateurs were called in to take the place of the missing pros. The 1941 Milan-Sanremo was followed and protected by an armed train along the Riviera. In April of that year, Coppi won the 267-kilometre Giro della Toscana in style, with one of his famous long-distance attacks through the mud and gravel of the Colle Saltino. He said his rivalry with Bartali was born that day.

“I rode up the Mur de Grammont in Belgium, on the Iseran in the Tour, on the Stelvio in the Giro, but I will never forget those frightening 15 uphill kilometres towards the top of the Saltino. I had to fight the bike through the mud every centimetre of the way,” Coppi recalled later. “I faced that climb alone and I finished it. I dreamed about it many times and still see it as a nightmare: without any fans on the road, the water roaring at the side of the road, the pouring rain and the wind slapping my face. On the last metres, my only goal was to finish that task. At walking pace, fighting, suffering, crying, I reached the summit.”

In June he was crowned Italian pursuit champion; that summer, he also won the Giro dell’Emilia and the Tre Valli Varesine by ten minutes. In only 18 months as a professional, Coppi showed he had the talent to win anything he set his eyes on: a Grand Tour, Classics and even track events.

The beginning of 1942 was harder. His father Domenico had recently died and his first win of the season was only sealed in June. Early in the 245km Italian National Championship in Rome, Coppi punctured and was obliged to launch a long and lone chase. After losing one and a half minutes, he struggled to get back into the peloton, but refound his sharpness and went on to win the title.

The following week, Coppi was set to defend his national pursuit title, but crashed ahead of the final and broke his collarbone. Cino Cinelli – the founder of the famous bicycle manufacturer – was supposed to face Coppi but refused to accept the title without a proper fight. He decided he would wait until the champion was back. That only happened in October and in the race, Cinelli was caught after ten laps of the Vigorelli.

Quite differently from his sporting career, where Coppi always left his own mark on events, in his personal life, he sometimes let external factors decide his destiny. And by refusing all the support he could have received to escape from the front line, Coppi stayed with the army after that winter’s Hour record and chose to face the unknown.

Much of what was previously known about Coppi’s war years has been (and still is) shrouded in mystery, mostly because the Italian champion was often tight-lipped when asked about that period. Recent studies conducted by LazioWiki, a project to research the history of the Lazio football team and the famous sportsmen who lived in the region post-war, cycling historian Giampiero Petrucci and journalist Auro Bulbarelli have finally given some certitudes where there was only speculation before.

I was also able to double check and bring more evidence by examining documents from the International Red Cross’ historical archives that have never been published before.

On March 7th 1943, Coppi boarded a military plane (the first time he ever took one) and flew to North Africa, where he would fight the British troops for the Italian regime. 

Fausto Coppi PapersCoppi’s hand-signed Identification Paper. The date of completion is written as May 19th, 1944 which seems erroneous considering it was more than a year after his capture

From then, news about Coppi in Africa becomes scarce. Many thought he was captured in April 1943, but according to his Identification Paper – hand-signed by Coppi and published here for the first time – he declared that he was actually captured on May 13th, 1943 in Enfidaville, a city 100 kilometres south of Tunis. The paper also reports the camp in which he was detained, POW Camp n. 205 of the Central Mediterranean Area, (also known as Ksar Saïd), on the city’s outskirts, as a Red Cross spokesperson confirmed. 

The location of capture also confirms previous information about Coppi directly fighting Montgomery’s forces in North Africa. The Battle of Enfidaville was in fact fought by Montgomery’s Eight Army from the 19th to the 21st of April, 1943, but the British troops reached the outskirts of Enfidaville on April 13th, with the capture of Coppi happening quite possibly on the same day and without physical violence.

What happened between the day Coppi was captured and the day he officially returned to Italy over 18 months later will always be, to some extent, a mystery. La Gazzetta dello Sport even reported that the Hour record holder was detained in America and that he raced his bike there. It was Coppi’s family itself who gave them the bad news: they believed Coppi was captured and then sent to the US.

But there are other elements of Coppi’s period in captivity that we know with more certainty. The life in these camps (Coppi is also said to have been detained in the camps of Medjez-el-Bab in Tunisia and Blida in Algeria) was relatively easy compared to other detention centres. Here, Coppi even met former riders like Silvio Pedroni, who had given Coppi a tubular during a race in 1939 after a flat, future Bianchi team-mate Ilio Simoni and fellow Piemontesi from his region like Eteocle Ventura, who insisted that Coppi take a driving course and become a truck driver for the British Army. Coppi himself stated in his Service Record Form that that was his main profession, not cyclist.

In the period he spent in Africa, Coppi also worked as a barber. On one occasion during that work, British soldier Len Levesley – a London bike shop mechanic – recognised him. Levesley tried to have a conversation with the champion, but because he didn’t speak any Italian, nor could Coppi understand English, the exchange was limited. It ended with Levesley giving a bar of chocolate to his sporting hero.

In April 1944, Coppi first contracted malaria, the disease that would take his life 16 years later on a trip to Africa. However, on this occasion, Coppi was quickly diagnosed and treated by the British troops.

Coppi climbs the Passo StelvioOn the Stelvio’s Giro debut, Coppi broke away to set up a dramatic victory, 1953 (Image credit: Offside / Farabolafoto)

Coppi’s life imprisoned in the camps was also made easier by the fact that he formally disowned the Fascist regime. Not everyone denounced the incumbent rulers and the difference in treatment between them and those who did decide to scorn the Italian dictatorship was enormous. If Coppi let destiny decide his fate by staying loyal to the regime before the war, when he fought in Africa and saw the inevitable loss the Italian army was facing with his own eyes, he took his future into his own hands by denying his loyalty to Mussolini’s falling regime.

Finally, the right opportunity arose for Coppi to fly home. The RAF needed 19 drivers and he was sent back to Naples. Coppi’s Service Record Paper has brought clarity to his return: the day was November 11th, 1944. Three days later, Coppi wrote a letter to the Corriere dello Sport in Rome, stating that he intended to get back on his bike and training as soon as the situation would allow.

Coppi spent the first period in Naples between POW Camp n. 208 (Naples) and the RAF camp of Caserta, set up inside the historic Royal Palace there [which is the world’s largest – Ed]. Not only did he work as a truck driver, but Coppi ended up as a personal assistant and oddjob man for Lieutenant Ronald Smith Towell.

Both Coppi and Towell benefited to some extent from this situation: Coppi was known and celebrated everywhere and his fame helped Towell to succeed in his regional administrative tasks. At the same time, and through his endeavours, Coppi got in touch with the Napoli footballer Umberto Busani, who later put him in touch with local journalist Gino Palumbo, future Editor in Chief of the Gazzetta dello Sport.

Coppi lap of honour

A lap of honour after winning the Giro d'Italia, 1952 (Image credit: Offside / Farabolafoto)

Coppi wrote a note to Palumbo: “I would like to cycle again, but I only have an army bike with heavy tyres that are giving me continuous pain. Could your newspaper help me?” It was Palumbo who subsequently published in the pages of the Voce – the newspaper he was working for – the famous announcement: “Date una bicicletta a Fausto Coppi!” (“Somebody lend a bicycle to Fausto Coppi!”)

A carpenter from Somma Vesuviana, Giuseppe D’Avino, responded to the request and on January 6, 1945, Coppi had his first postwar racing bike. It was a Legnano – the same brand he had ridden to the Hour record nearly two years earlier.

The universe was on his side again and Coppi was back in position to leave his mark on the sport. He decided to do so the best way he knew: one pedal stroke at a time. After a few races, he rode his bicycle 500 kilometres back to Castellania on the broken roads of an ailing country. The promising athlete who survived the war was on his way to becoming a legend.

Cover image: Offside / Farabolafoto