“It’s not true, it’s not true,” Annalisa Casartelli said when the phone call came through from Motorola team doctor Massimo Testa. Her husband was dead. Little more than two hours earlier, during stage 15 of the 1995 Tour de France, Fabio crashed while descending the Col de Portet d’Aspet. He hit his head on a roadside concrete block and could not be resuscitated after suffering four cardiac arrests.
Followers of professional cycling often laud suffering with the unspoken knowledge that it’s all temporary. The lactic acid burn of a race-winning move, the heartbreak of narrow defeat, the agony of a broken femur: sooner or later, the pain goes away and the athlete returns home. Sport is not a matter of life and death. When the latter occurs, nobody knows quite what to do. It’s not true. That evening, riders wept in shock at the loss of a friend and the stark reminder of their own mortality.
At the funeral, two days later, 200 red roses adorn the coffin in the little Lombardy town of Albese. Hundreds of eyes are trained in sadness and sympathy on a young, black-haired woman. There are white flowers on her dress and she is holding a baby.
This is Annalisa Casartelli and Marco, their two-month-old who was supposed to be baptised days after his father had finished the Tour. She feels like she cannot join the funeral procession, but she goes through with it. July 18 will always be a poignant date for her. “One year, five years, ten, it’s all the same. For me, everything ended that day [he died],” she says, years later. But thankfully, that’s not quite true either.
The leaves crunch underfoot as we walk down a long tree-lined avenue in Forli to a crossroads. On this winter afternoon, all the warmth seems to have been sucked out of this north-eastern Italian town. Our meeting place is the café-pasticceria where Annalisa works. Over the phone, her voice was emotionless, surprised, probably suspicious to be talking with an English journalist.
In person, she is bubbly and her laugh resounds round the room. Her partner Daniele sits next to her in a sweatshirt bearing the Union Jack. There is one proviso: no photographs of her face please as “we’re here to talk about Fabio.”
But really, this story is about them – and her. Annalisa and Fabio met by chance during the August summer holidays of 1990 at the resort of Marina Romea on the nearby Adriatic coast. She was there with her aunt, while her future husband was seeing a friend while recovering from broken vertebrae. Without that injury, he would probably have been racing nearer his home in Como, 400 kilometres away.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “He seemed very shy. I was too, what a pair we were,” she says. However, they saw each other every day for weeks in the same group of friends and talked a lot. “In the end, I changed my mind,” she said. Their first date was at the cinema, watching Tango & Cash, a mediocre good cop, bad cop thriller starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell. By the end of the summer, they went their separate ways as boyfriend and girlfriend.
Living four hours drive apart, they saw each other every three weeks, going to see more movies or mushroom picking in the Como foothills. Though he was an only child, Fabio had a large family and Annalisa felt nervous on her occasional visits. “Everyone would be looking because the Romagnola had arrived … I was always meeting someone new, it was endless. I’d forget their names.”
When they weren’t together, they were talking on the phone. “The bills must have been crazy,” she says. Sometimes Annalisa’s parents would take her south to Tuscany or Le Marche to watch Fabio compete on the Italian amateur scene. Before Monte Carlo-Alassio, a prestigious early-season race close to Valentine’s Day, Fabio asked her to attend, promising: “I’ll win and give you the flowers.” He was as good as his word.
When the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona approached, he was just happy to be included in the road race team, alongside more-fancied team-mates Davide Rebellin and Mirco Gualdi. Taking time off from her job at a textile factory, Annalisa went too. It took a while to get there: Giacomo, a charismatic fifty-something figurehead in Fabio’s fan club, had laid on a coach to take supporters from Como to Catalonia. Little sleep was snatched on the 1,000-kilometre journey.
With three-rider teams, it was a difficult race to control. After a flurry of attacks on a sweltering day, Casartelli made the decisive move, accompanied by Latvian Dainis Ozols and Dutchman Erik Dekker.
Annalisa was stood just before the finish line with a tiny portable TV in hand, craning her neck to spot him every time the leaders passed. On the last lap, as they stopped sprinting before the line, there was the unusual sight of three riders all raising their arms in the air, but the man in baby blue was several bike lengths in front.
Annalisa managed to find a way past the barriers to the podium, shouting, “I’m his girlfriend, I’m his girlfriend”. Fabio’s broad smile did not leave his face that evening; he went to sleep wearing his gold medal. Staying on longer to conduct interviews, he asked Annalisa to prolong her trip too. His team-mate Rebellin generously gave her his plane ticket, opting to go home with his fan club’s coach. “It had his name on it, but the controls weren’t strict like they are now,” she says.
Winter was a baptism of fire to life as the champion’s plus-one and a succession of galas and cycling club dinners. “It was hard for me. I was detached, bored. There are hundreds of people and he has to talk with everyone. And I’m there, barely knowing anyone. But hey, the sacrifices you make,” she says and smiles. Both laidback people, they would rarely have arguments. To her, Fabio was sweet and cheerful, albeit lazy, always putting things off.
Cycling had been Fabio’s passion, now it became his job. He turned pro with Ariostea for 1993. A fast finisher who could get over a few hills, he got round his debut Giro that year and was on the podium in three Tour de Suisse stages, beaten by the likes of Johan Museeuw and Giorgio Furlan in bunch sprints. The highlight of his year was marriage to Annalisa in September 1993, months after moving in together in Como. They honeymooned in the Maldives, and then it was back to the grindstone.
Tendinitis affected his progress. Moving to Gianni Savio’s ZG Mobili team then Motorola, he underwent an operation to fix his knee problems. Annalisa recalls that Fabio wanted to get to the age of 30 and earn some money. “He said he’ll make these sacrifices for four or five more years and then see [about his career].”
The birth of Marco in 1995 gave him a new motivation. He would race home from training to see his newborn son. But when everyone told him “your boy will be a cyclist”, he would reply, “I hope not”. That summer, he sprinted to top-five placings on stages of the Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse, gaining selection for his second Tour de France. Having abandoned after a week the previous year, he set out to finish.
He was mid-pack and a week away from the Champs-Élysées after an attritional opening fortnight that saw 60 abandons. Two days before that fateful fifteenth stage between Saint-Girons and Cauterets, his mother Rosa phoned him, telling him to be careful and to wear his helmet.
On the Portet d’Aspet, the first climb of a pitiless Pyrenean day, the 24-year-old was caught up in a big crash. His uncovered head hit a concrete block on the side of the road, positioned to stop vehicles from tumbling into the stream below. A monument now stands where he fell to commemorate the last competitor to die during the Tour de France.
French television carelessly replayed the crash footage repeatedly. “Please don’t use the photo,” Annalisa asks, referring to the post-crash image of his body curled up in the foetal position, blood streaming from his head. The Tour de France’s communication of the accident was slapdash: some riders in the gruppetto found out from a commissaire and wept on their bikes, while still racing. Meanwhile, Richard Virenque celebrated as he won the stage and sprayed champagne on the podium; later, he said he hadn’t been aware of what had happened. The Tour de France never accepted responsibility for the crash.
One of the few things that binds split agendas and bitter rivals is the loss of a peer. The next day, the grief-stricken Tour peloton agreed to go slow in honour of Fabio over the 149 kilometres between Tarbes and Pau. Approaching the finish, his remaining Motorola team-mates fanned out in front and Andrea Peron, Fabio’s closest friend there, crossed the line first. “He will always ride alongside me,” the Italian said afterwards. The stage’s prize money was sent to the Casartelli family.
Then it was back to business for the sport’s biggest race. As racing resumed, Annalisa’s battle was just beginning. In the months that followed, she was exhausted by grief and intrusion. “At the start, a lot weren’t respectful. Journalists and regular people didn’t know limits,” she says. “When it happened, I was 25, I didn’t understand, all these people. It tired me out to say no.”
In the following year, she would sometimes wear some of Fabio’s clothes or sleep next to his racing mitts. His death changed her. Torn between their memories in Como and her home region, protecting Marco from a perpetual association to tragedy became a big concern.
“We couldn’t stay there. It’s a small town and I would always have been ‘the widow of Fabio Casartelli’; Marco would always have been ‘the son of Fabio Casartelli’. We returned to Forli, where not even my neighbours know what happened to me.”
Her parents lived in the apartment next door, helping her to cope. Four years after Fabio’s death, another blow: Annalisa’s mother suffered a brain aneurysm, which left her paralysed.
Annalisa took a tiring job in Polli Amadori, Romagna’s regional chicken-producing giant. Then she moved to Blockbusters in Ravenna, and it ended up being much more than something to pay the bills. “I spent so much time there. When I knew I was having dark days, I’d put myself to work; there were always so many people there that I didn’t have time to think of other things. The bosses at Blockbuster don’t know, but that job – staying busy – helped me a lot.”
The fatal crash of her partner – who always raced with a crucifix – has caused Annalisa to question her faith more. “There’s a part of me that remains enormously angry – not with Fabio, with God. I don’t understand [why it happened]. But I know there are worse things in the world, people die every day. Each to their own.”
When Marco was old enough to wonder about his father, Annalisa turned reality into a fairytale. “I told him that his daddy raced bikes, that he won. Then one day in a race, he crashed. But before he could feel pain, an angel arrived and took him to Paradise.” She worried about how Marco would cope with his absence, but the anxiety dissipated over time. His death was never a taboo, with photographs of Fabio dotted around Annalisa’s house. Marco grew into a young man who resembles his father, both physically and in his gentle character.
Meanwhile, in the sport Fabio loved, little changed for the better. There was wrangling over whether wearing a helmet would have saved his life. “We have indicated the risk to the riders, but I believe that if you can’t apply certain rules on people, it is better to drop them,” UCI president Hein Verbruggen said in late 1995. It took the death of another professional cyclist, Andrei Kivilev during the 2003 Paris-Nice, for the sport’s governing body to introduce a rule on the compulsory wearing of helmets.
Annalisa is still in touch with a few of Fabio’s peers: Olympic team-mate Mirco Gualdi, Andrea Peron and former Motorola directeur sportifs Jim Ochowicz and Hennie Kuiper. Yet understandably, her relationship with the sport has been darkened by her experience. She doesn’t watch cycling on TV anymore. “Still when I see the peloton, I habitually look for Fabio in the bunch. I’m still looking for him.”
She says she won’t go to the Tour commemoration services anymore, which occur whenever the race passes the Col de Portet d’Aspet, as it regularly does and will do again in 2018. “Logically, the Tour de France is an ugly and distant thing for me… I don’t know anyone anymore, what am I going to do? Give a trophy? I don’t like to do that, to play the role of ‘the widow of Fabio Casartelli’.
“It’s still painful. You turn everything over in your mind. People look at you, see if you cry, if you smile, whatever you do. I’m proud of what Fabio Casartelli was, but it’s not my role [to be his widow]. My role is to raise Marco and be behind him.”
Besides, she cannot choose how he is remembered. “If you say Fabio Casartelli, most people will remember him as the cyclist who died on the Tour de France. It shouldn’t be like that. Instead, if you say Casartelli, the first thing that should come to mind is the winner of the 1992 Olympic road race … but people remember calamity more than good things.”
Invariably, the majority of requests from journalists crop up around July 18. After Wouter Weylandt’s fatal crash at the 2011 Giro d’Italia, hacks tried to call her to talk about her ordeal. “I turned my mobile off and unplugged the house phone. I don’t like to be associated with death,” she says, laughing uneasily. “I don’t like to make people cry.”
When she talks about Fabio now, how does she feel? “A bit of fatigue. However, there’s a part that is nice because it was a beautiful thing that I lived.” She pauses and begins to cry. “But as for a response, there isn’t one. I know so many years have passed.”
Out of her control, a chapter of her life ended on July 18, 1995, but new ones have started and flourished. Marco is grown up and studying graphic design. For nearly two hours, Daniele has been quietly listening, holding her hand when the tears fall. A builder by trade, they were friends at middle school who were reunited by chance 25 years later. “I used to copy answers over her shoulder,” he says. Early in 2015, they were married.
Annalisa has wrestled out of the tentacles of tragedy and come through more adversity to happiness. And as importantly, to what she has craved for most of the last two decades: a normal life.
This article was first published in Rouleur 18.4