"A tunnel six years in length"


Results:

1st: Fausto Coppi, 293km in 8h 09' (35.950km/h)
2nd: Lucien Teisseire, @ 14' 00"
3rd: Mario Ricci, @ 18' 30"
4th: Gino Bartali
5th: Severino Canavesi
6th: Vito Ortelli
7th: Adolfo Leoni
8th=: Osvaldo Bailo
8th=: Salvatore Crippa
8th=: Emilio Croci-Torti
8th=: Nedo Logli
8th=: Valeriano Zanazzi, all same time
(115 starters, 63 finishers)

Milan - San Remo, 1946

St Joseph's day, March 19th, in 1946: the traditional opening of the International calendar with the great classic Milan - San Remo. 293 kilometres in length, La Primavera is still no easy proposition, at least without assiduous preparation, for to the great length is added a series of low hills, or capi over the closing miles. That St Joseph's day one rider showed his preparation to be above all the others: Fausto Coppi won his first victory in a classic. In doing so, the great rivalry of the era was well and truly started.

Coppi's preparation had indeed been serious, riding 7,000 kilometres between the beginning of the year and the classic - a huge total for the era. Yet at the start line he appeared nervous and pale, still marked by his years in captivity during the War. Almost from the gun, the Frenchman Lucien Teisseire attacked, and he was soon joined by a small group of riders. There was no serious intention of an epic here; instead, reasoning that they stood little chance of winning overall, they were chasing the primes offered by the towns across the Lombardy plain. Yet after just 50 kilometres Fausto himself was drawn into a counter-attack. "Sheer madness", specaulated the pundits, who had eyes only for Gino Bartali, said to be in great form and waiting for the Turchino Pass.

Meanwhile, Coppi continued with his attack. Soon he had caught the leading group; as the road started to rise towards the Turchino pass, he shed his rivals one by one. Eventually, only Tesseire remained; halfway to the summit he too succombed to the fluidity of Coppi's pedalling. Upwards Fausto climbed, stretching his lead with every turn of the pedals. At the summit, he entered the narrow, unlit tunnel that marked the pass. Claude Tillet, l'Equipe's man on the spot, captured the scene:

"The Turchino tunnel", he wrote, "was of modest dimensions, just 50 metres long, but on 19th March 1946 it assumed exceptional proportions in the eyes of the world. That day it was six years in length and lost in the gloom of the war...A rumbling was heard from the depths of those six years and suddenly there appeared in the light of day an olive-greenish car stirring up a cloud of dust"

" 'Arriva Coppi' , the messenger announced, a revelation only the initiated had forseen. Coppi arrived very quickly as it turned out."

Coppi never faltered, though there still remained 145 kilometres to ride to the finish on the Via Roma. By dint of a holding operation of considerable courage over more than four hours, Teisseire, who had started the move, arrived second, but 14 minutes behind. Several minutes after that, Mario Ricci sprinted in ahead of an apparently disinterested Gino Bartali. "Who won?" the old Tuscan champion shouted.

"Coppi, a quarter of an hour up on the Frenchman and twenty minutes ahead of the rest."

Gino preserved his cool, but after six years of circling in which the two champions had been kept largely apart by the dictates of history, this time there could be no doubt. Battle lines were drawn as Italy split down the centre: the conservative, catholic south supporting Bartali, "il pio", whilst the secular, more urbane north supported Coppi. Their rivalry was to shine with such brightness as to eclipse all other riders for half a decade more.