Book review: Fallen Angel

November 12, 2013 § 22 Comments

“Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi,” by William Fotheringham, suffers from that most terrible of flaws, a colon in the title. It’s as if the author is so afraid of the weak title that he has to further explain with more weakness, further weakening it. Imagine “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: The Things That Happened to a Young Boy and an Escaped Slave on Their Quest for Freedom.” Or what about “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: The Tragedy of Fate.”

What’s most damning about the colon-in-the-title is the fact that you can’t even think of publishing a book in academia without having at least one, if not two. “Global Warming Factors: The Isolation of Dependent Variables: An Analysis by Team Festersore.”

Once you leave the title, though, Fotheringham does solid work, as he’s wont to do. This book is well worth the read, and certainly a better investment of time than another book on Lance, or a dope-and-tell worst seller by some recently retired drug addict. It is not, however, a better investment than, say, a pint of Atticus IPA. But what is?

The book goes like this: Coppi was a stud. He stomped lots of dicks. He got married to a very nice country girl. He stomped more dicks. A Yoko Ono-type crazypants set her sights on him. They fell in lust. Coppi ditched the nice girl. Later, he died from malaria. In between the crazypants and the lust and the ditching and the malaria, he stomped even more dicks.

After he died everyone loved him.

A real book about cycling

Despite the trite and rather boring story line, “Fallen Angel” is a brilliant book about cycling. It’s not about what we call cycling, however, because what we call cycling Coppi would only dimly have recognized. What we do he might have called “froo-froo,” or “poseuring,” or “hopeless wankage.” He would never have called it cycling.

This is because the thing we do when we straddle our bikes is primarily an activity that involves pedaling the bicycle. For elite professionals like Chrissy Froome and the current (i.e. last forty years) of crop of roadsters, it really has been all about the bike.

When Fausto got up in the morning to go out and stomp some dicks, it was not all about the bike. In the beginning, it was mostly about finding a bike. The next time you look at some punk-ass 13-year-old with a $4k rig, think about Fausto and his first “bicycle.” It weighed forty pounds and didn’t work. Electronic shifting? It had one fucking gear. That didn’t work.

Once the bike finding had been accomplished, Fausto and his compatriots had to conquer something almost as formidable as obtaining a broken, single-geared bicycle. They had to ride it. This required roads, and in the pre-war years, Italian roads were unpaved donkey carts littered with rocks and chugholes, which meant flats. A shit ton of flats.

For us, the road is a thing we actively choose. “Hmmm … shall I pedal forth on the tarmac today, or perhaps saunter out onto the trails de mountain bike? Mayhap an admixture of the two, and a bit of ‘cross practice? That way I could practice my road and my off-road skills.”

Coppi’s rides were all ‘cross rides, as in, the flats and the rocks and the holes and the dirt and the donkeys and the rattling trucks made him cross as shit and want to stomp dicks, which he did. But there was no froo-froo choice of “where to ride” or “which bike shall I pedal today?” It was all gnarly as shit, and when it rained, which it also did a shit ton, Coppi got covered from head to toe in grime, muck, and cold. This would piss him off and make him stomp even harder on the dicks he’d just finished stomping.

After the war, it went from awful to Lubbock. The roads were a shadow of their former selves, which even in the best of times had been wraiths. Cycling was such an awful, painful, terrible proposition and so filled with danger, discomfort, and obstacles of every kind that the only reason people like Coppi persevered is because real life as a farming peasant was ten thousand times worse.

In addition to horrible equipment, horrible roads, training regimens that included cigarettes and powerful drugs that were chosen based on the color of the particular pill, “Fallen Angel” recounts the numerous bad spills that were a part of professional racing. Coppi was continually crashing horribly, breaking major bones, hitting his head, and of course losing his younger brother Serse to a fall that resulted in a subdural hematoma and death.

Unlike the smooth paving that now merely grinds away skin and flesh and breaks perhaps a bone or two, the jagged, cobbled, rough and awful roads of Coppi’s era were made more terrible by the fact that no one wore head protection of any kind save hair and skull. Clothing was lumpy, woolen, baggy, and rough on the nuts. Brakes worked badly at best, and gearing was so limited that riders had to tackle hors categorie climbs with nothing bigger than a 21-tooth cog.

The Velominati … really?

A small cult of foolish people sprang up a few years ago pretending, however tongue-in-cheek, to honor the principles of the “hard men” and the “golden age” of cycling. What began as a lark has now become its own form of cycling lore, as dolts in cycling caps bark out nonsense in Facebook battles like “Rule No. 5!”

The foolishness of the Velominati, of course, is that they are really nothing more than fat slow people on bicycles who would be ground under the very first mile of the very first stretch of the very first wet cobbles they hit at speed. Far from being the hard men they idolize, what “Fallen Angel” makes clear is that the horrendous conditions of post-war cycling were endured by necessity, not out of macho adherence to some silly notion of “harder is better.”

Riders like Coppi were driven over frozen mountain passes on endlessly inhuman stages to the very edge of human endurance. The Velominati are driven no further than the DVD replays of “A Sunday in Hell” or a sunny Sunday pedal followed by a double macchiato with whipped cream. Rather than appreciate cycling for what it is today — a lark for people with tons of free time and the luxury to buy costly toys — the real lessons of Coppi’s era are not so much forgotten as they are unlearned. Pain and suffering and misery to make a buck is only done when the alternative is something worse.

Coppi died in the twilight of his professional career, egged on by the need for money, the desire to avoid his shrewish second wife, and the inability of a human legend to come to terms with the waning of his power and the ascendancy of the new generation. What some call the golden age of cycling, Coppi would have called a back breaking job that he pursued because it was the only one he knew.

A good read. And it beats the Velominati any day.

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