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The Doomed Champion: Ottavio Bottecchia

From issue 74 • Words by John Wilcockson with images from Horton Collection

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There is nothing remarkable about this image taken by Italian-based Japanese photographer Yuzuru Sunada on stage 10 of the 2013 Giro d’Italia. Four of the roadside spectators politely applaud; a cycling fan snaps a shot with his smart phone; a man in workman’s jeans scratches his chin; and a more prosperous looking gentleman rests his hands on his hips. Perhaps he is the one who has driven here in the flatbed micro-truck bedecked with the Italian tricolor, and maybe he also placed the national flag on the memorial stone that, translated, bears these words:

“OTTAVIO BOTTECCHIA, world famous racer, while training for more arduous events and coveted triumphs, hit by a deadly illness, fell on this stretch of road. Rescued by the people of Peónis. Died at the hospital in Gemona, 15 June 1927.”

(Given by the Sporting Association of Osoppo 1927; the Cycling Community of Colle Umberto 1974; the Commune of Trasághis 1953–1985.)

Yes, this is the place in northeast Italy where two-time Tour de France champion Ottavio Bottecchia hit the deck during a training ride on a scorching hot Friday morning, June 3, 1927, and died in the hospital 12 days later—just four days before he was due to shoot for a third victory at the Tour. When Bottecchia fell on that back road 90 years ago, it wasn’t smoothly paved as it is in this photo; and he wasn’t riding a featherweight carbon-fiber bike with all the trimmings like these modern-day Giro racers. On his heavy single-speed steel bicycle, he fitted two hand pumps and flint-catchers that skimmed the tires, and carried several spare tubular tires—such was the certitude of getting punctures on the gravel roads of the era. And this particular back road, alongside the Tagliamento River between the villages of Cornino and Peónis, was likely badly potholed and strewn with small rocks thrown up by the local farmers’ horse-drawn carts. This is where Bottecchia, one of Italian cycling’s greatest champions, made the final pedal strokes of a remarkable life. His sudden death at age 32 provoked multiple conspiracy theories and explanations, including the one listed on this memorial stone, while some of them didn’t emerge until decades later. His life may have had a complex ending…but it began very simply.

Italian peasants Francesco and Elena Bottecchia already had seven children when an eighth was born on August 1, 1894. Running out of names, they called the new baby Ottavio—Italian for “born eighth.” Their home was in the tiny hamlet of Borgo Minelle di San Martino, part of Colle Umberto, a village some 60 kilometers north of Venice. Ottavio Bottecchia later said, “My childhood was the same as that of many other children in the Italian countryside. I had to help my parents in the hard work on the land. I only went to school for two winters, because my father wanted to make me a worker.” Indeed, at 12 years old, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker; he then became a laborer; and when his dad started a small transportation business, he operated one of the horse carts.

In his teen-age years, Bottecchia never hinted he wanted to be a bike racer. Then came the Great War, which Italy entered in May 1915, joining with the British, French and Russian allies to fight the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany. Italy, which had been a unified nation for less than 60 years, was woefully under-equipped to wage war along its mountainous border with Austria—and even the Bottecchia family’s horses were requisitioned by the army.

Bottecchia and his older brother Giovanni had already joined the army’s bersaglieri (or “sharpshooters”) unit. And that’s where Ottavio found out he was a strong pedaler…albeit on foldable bikes (made in the Bianchi factory) that could be carried on a soldier’s back with his rifle and backpack. Bottecchia, who rose to corporal, often carried messages behind enemy lines. Twice he was captured by the enemy. And twice he managed to escape—using his foldable bike. He suffered with malarial fever at one point, due to the harsh conditions, toxic gases and poor nutrition.

At the height of the war in November 1917, when the Austrians were threatening to overwhelm the Italians, Bottecchia carried a heavy machine gun on his shoulder and pedaled his sharpshooter’s bicycle “furiously” to a strategic position in the village of Lestans. The citation on the bronze Military Valor medal he was later awarded read: “With calm and daring, under violent enemy fire, he made very effective shots with his machine gun, causing serious losses to the opponents and stopping their advance. Forced several times to retreat, and regardless of the danger, he returned with his weapon each time to open fire on the enemy.”

The Allies finally defeated the Austrians a year later at the Battle of Vittorio (renamed Vittorio Veneto), a few kilometers from Bottecchia’s home. The war was over, but more than a million Italians had died and much of northeast Italy was destroyed. After being demobilized, Bottecchia, then 24, struggled to find work. He found it as a bricklayer in France, which desperately needed workers to help rebuild.

He soon returned to Italy, working in construction. When Bottecchia joined the Internazionale Pordenone cycling club, he was encouraged to take up racing. His father was against him competing in the long, grueling Sunday races, believing they would tire him too much for the working week. But Bottecchia got his way. He made his debut in early 1920 at a small race in Conegliano, riding a Fiat bicycle that was “several years old, but in good condition.” He didn’t have a high finish, but in his next race, also at Conegliano, he placed second ahead of an 18-year-old, Alfonso Piccin, who lived in Bottecchia’s hometown of Colle Umberto and would go on to become his best friend and helper.

In his third race, at Treviso, Bottecchia was the strongest on the toughest section of the course and helped a teammate take the win. Then, in the 111-kilometer Giro del Piave, he scored his first victory. He won again at the Coppa della Vittoria on a completely flat course at Méolo, close to Venice. Having made a small name for himself, Bottecchia was invited to compete in a Madison track race with his more experienced teammate Giovanni Cimetta, but with 200 meters to go he crashed in the final sprint and broke his collarbone.

In his first race back, Bottecchia placed third behind teammates Piccin and Cimetta, a preamble to his toughest race yet, the Giro del Friuli, a 300-kilometer road race for amateurs. This marathon event—longer than some professional races—revealed untold qualities in Bottecchia, highlighting his muscular power and stamina from years of manual labor and fighting in the war. It also highlighted his climbing skills when he dropped everyone in the early hills before riding solo for 200 kilometers and only getting caught a few kilometers from the end.

That November, Bottecchia married a near neighbor, Caterina Zambon. Life seemed good. The couple’s first child, a daughter Elena, would arrive the following September; his bricklaying work was going well; and he was enjoying both training and racing. In 1921, Bottecchia won seven races, including the Giro del Friuli and Giro del Veneto. His successes resulted in an offer to turn professional for the monthly stipend of 150 lire (about $100 in today’s currency). And so, despite being relatively old at 27, he turned pro in 1922. His first experience was short lived, because his seven-month-old baby daughter died from diphtheria on March 7 and Bottecchia decided that staying with his family was more important than setting out on a pro bike racer’s itinerant life. The couple would have two more children in the next two years, but his close friend Piccin persuaded him to start training again—and Bottecchia resumed racing in late summer with the Ganna cycles team; it helped that the team boss, ex-pro Luigi Ganna, was a bricklayer before he turned pro and won the first Giro d’Italia in 1909.

Bottecchia did well in two events in the south of Italy, placing top 10 and winning the top rookie award at the Giro del Sannio e dell’Irpinia, a climbers’ race. He closed his brief 1922 season in November at the Giro di Lombardia, where he took eighth place in the hilly 245-kilometer classic, albeit more than eight minutes behind the winner, superstar Costante Girardengo. Those performances weren’t enough for Bottecchia to earn a contract for 1923 and he began the season in March at Milan–San Remo as an isolato (an “independent”).

Out to impress team managers, Bottecchia broke away on the main climb, the Turchino, halfway through the 287-kilometer classic, and continued his breakaway along the Mediterranean coast. He suffered with hunger knock toward the finish and was caught by a dozen others—but still managed to place ninth in the sprint, in the same time (10 hours 14 minutes) as winner Girardengo. Journalists were intrigued by the newcomer, describing him as a “slender and tall” rider who “excelled on the climbs.” They were also fascinated by his “thin, bony face, aquiline nose and wide mouth, set in a sad smile.”

After the finish, on the train back to Milan, Bottecchia’s “peculiar silhouette” and “thin Venetian accent” caught the notice of Bruno Roghi, a reporter for La Gazzetta dello Sport, who wrote: “Poor devil! You couldn’t but notice his tattered and threadbare clothes. He carried a small bag over his shoulder, with bread and cheese inside, which he would take back to the countryside—tidbits left from the feed zone that he’d take home intact so he could eat better than usual.”

Two months later, Bottecchia was on another start line in Milan, the Giro d’Italia, again riding without a team. This was by far the biggest challenge of his short career, with some stages as long as 380 kilometers and taking up to 17 hours. There’d be a rest day between each stage. The Giro began well for Bottecchia. He managed to join the winning eight-man break with the race favorites on the 328-kilometer opening day to Turin, placing seventh in the velodrome sprint finish behind Girardengo—who’d win eight of the 10 stages on his way to overall victory. Bottecchia’s best placing was sixth on the hardest climbing stage, from Naples to Chieti, a result that helped him place a remarkable fifth overall, the best independent, 45 minutes behind Girardengo.

While the 1923 Giro was happening, the era’s greatest French rider, Henri Pélissier—the winner of nine major classics (but not the Tour de France)—was weighing his options. He’d been let down by his team, J.B. Louvet, and was negotiating with another outfit, Automoto, a bike and motorcycle manufacturer that was keen to expand its brand outside of France. After Pélissier agreed terms, he urged his new sponsor to hire some Italians for the Tour to help him combat the powerful Belgian racers who’d won the previous seven editions. Letters were mailed to four Italians—including the little-known Bottecchia, who’d impressed Pélissier with his top-10 finishes at Lombardia and San Remo.

The Giro didn’t finish until June 10, so the Italians had less than two weeks before the Tour was due to start. In the end, only Bottecchia, carrying a small suitcase and his handlebars, showed up at the Automoto headquarters in Paris after an arduous train journey. The company boss thought it wasn’t worth their while having just one rider from Italy start the Tour, but directeur sportif Pierre Pierrard said, “Because this courageous boy has taken the time to travel all the way to Paris, we may as well use him.” But no one expected him to last more than a few stages.

Bottecchia, completely unknown to the French public, used his fitness from the Giro to make an unprecedented start for a Tour rookie. He made it into the winning breakaway on the 381-kilometer opening stage to Le Havre, and though he didn’t win, he out-kicked three others for second place, with the peloton more than eight minutes back. Next up was a 371-kilometer haul across Normandy to Cherbourg, and this time Bottecchia broke clear near the end with six others and made a long surge in the final kilometer to win the stage. What’s more, he now had the yellow jersey!

On the third stage, both Pélissier and Bottecchia flatted and fell several minutes behind the leaders. Then, using his new Italian teammate as his domestique (even though he was the race leader), Pélissier caught the front group and, wanting to show his authority after two undistinguished stages, immediately attacked. Only his brother Francis could go with him and they finished the day in Brest first and second. But Bottecchia (who the French called “Bottesshia”) stuck with four chasers, out-sped them for third place and kept his overall lead. He would lose the yellow jersey on the following flatter stages, regained it in the Pyrénées, and by the time the Tour reached Nice—just prior to the hardest stages through the Alps—Bottecchia had an impressive 14-minute margin over second-place Jean Alavoine, with team leader Pélissier in third, a half-hour back.

Automoto, not wild about an “unknown” Italian winning the Tour, put pressure on Pélissier to make a move on the 275-kilometer stage 10 from Nice to Briançon. The decisive moment came at the foot of the day’s first climb, the Col d’Allos. One reporter wrote: “Bottecchia, feverish, his features creased by fatigue, dismounted to refresh himself in a flowing creek,” while race director Henri Desgrange said that Bottecchia stopped too late to switch his wheel around to the larger sprocket—there were no derailleurs back then; riders had single sprockets on each side of their rear wheels. Desgrange wrote about Pélissier: “Once he had the gear he needed…he wisely regained the lost ground. He first caught Buysse and Alancourt, and took with him Alavoine and Bottecchia, and then without hesitating went on the attack…and Bottecchia [still on a smaller sprocket] soon lost several meters. That’s when the Italian stopped to change gear…and one could say that Bottecchia lost his yellow jersey with his blunder.”

As Bottecchia struggled, suffering in the heat, Pélissier went ahead with his Belgian teammate Lucien Buysse, before dropping him on the Col d’Izoard, and won the stage solo ahead of a scattered peloton, with Bottecchia losing 40 minutes and his yellow jersey. At the finish in Paris, the French were thrilled that a Frenchman had finally won the Tour. After finishing a half hour ahead of runner-up Bottecchia, Pélissier, then 34, said, “Bottecchia will succeed me next year.”

Bottecchia’s unprecedented performance earned him a longterm contract with Automoto; and Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper was so thrilled that it asked its readers to contribute one lire to a Bottecchia fund and received 60,000 responses (prime minister Benito Mussolini was said to be the first to contribute). Relieved of financial concerns, Bottecchia could now focus entirely on his racing career. He ended the 1923 season with fourth place at Lombardia and opened 1924 with fifth place at San Remo. A recognition of his newly won fame was his being teamed with super-champion Girardengo in the Giro della Provincia Milano—a two-man road time trial and a track race—which they won ahead of Belgian and Swiss duos.

The newly rich Bottecchia was able to buy a big house near Pordenone for his expanding family, and he became only the second person in town to own an automobile. Celebrity didn’t overwhelm him. He remained the hard worker he’d always been and prepared assiduously for the 1924 Tour at his French base in Clermont-Ferrand, where he’d train on the Puy-de-Dôme mountain climb most days. His hard work paid off handsomely at the Tour.

In theory, Bottecchia was again due to ride as a domestique, along with the Belgian Lucien Buysse, for defending champ Henri Pélissier. But the French veteran wasn’t set on a repeat victory and was a reluctant starter. Bottecchia easily won the 381-kilometer opening stage from Paris to Le Havre, out-speeding a lead group of 20 riders. He retained the yellow jersey the next stage; and then, on stage 3 across Brittany from Cherbourg to Brest, Pélissier and his brother Francis dramatically quit the Tour after only 80 kilometers. They complained about an arcane race rule, not being able to remove one of the two jerseys they started the stage with, and then told a famed reporter, Albert Londres, about the terrible conditions Tour riders had to endure—their story appeared in the next day’s newspaper under the heading Les Forçats de la Route (“Slaves of the Road”).

The Tour riders’ often-inhumane conditions didn’t bother Bottecchia, who’d faced far worse in the Great War. He was still in the race lead at the foot of the Pyrénées, where he would obliterate the opposition on the monster 326-kilometer stage from Bayonne to Luchon via the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde mountain passes. From a front-row seat in his race director’s car, Desgrange described Bottecchia’s progress: “From the first slopes of the Aubisque, Bottecchia went away like the chosen one. Omer Huyse, who foolishly tried to follow him, gave up after 3 kilometers on the severe gradient…. So Bottecchia, all alone, covered the Aubisque climb in 37:40, the best time ever recorded…. At the top, he had 2:30 on his immediate followers. Atop the Tourmalet, he had 10:52. On the Aspin, 16 minutes. Atop the Peyresourde, he had 18:27. And at Luchon he won by 25:58.” His teammate Buysse was second, while another prerace favorite, Nicolas Frantz of Luxembourg, was the fourth rider into Luchon another 16 minutes back.

In praise of Bottecchia’s massive solo breakaway, Desgrange wrote: “You had to see the ease of his progress, the unity of his style, the perfection of his destruction. I didn’t see him a single time get out of the saddle. He went away like a stallion…and he held on right to the end because his muscular reserves were unlimited.” When he also won the second Pyrenean stage, with his overall lead on runner-up Frantz standing at 49 minutes, Bottecchia’s Tour victory was virtually assured with eight stages still to go. His winning margin in Paris—where he won the final stage—was 35:36 over Frantz, with Buysse in third.

The first Italian to win the Tour, Bottecchia repeated his success in 1925. He again won the first stage, this time in a solo break, won two more flat stages before the Pyrénées, where he wasn’t quite so dominant, but still emerged with a 13-minute overall lead on Frantz. By the finish in Paris, which saw him take a fourth stage win, Bottecchia won his second Tour by a 54-minute margin over teammate Buysse, followed by fellow Italian Bartolomo Aimo and Frantz.

It seemed that Bottecchia would continue his successful run in 1926, which opened with his winning a stage and taking second overall (behind Frantz) at Spain’s Tour of the Basque Country before he headed to Clermont-Ferrand for his usual Tour preparations. But he wasn’t riding with the same élan as the previous three years, and on the first nine stages of the Tour he scored no top fives and just three top 10s. He was still in position to challenge the best going into stage 10, the familiar one from Bayonne to Luchon that he had dominated the two previous years. One difference was the horrendous weather: torrential rain turned the roads into morasses and the cold in the mountains forced more than 20 riders to quit that day.

While his teammate Buysse reveled in the conditions (and established an insurmountable overall lead), Bottecchia suffered as never before. When Buysse broke clear on the Aubisque, the Italian couldn’t muster his usual force. He was more than seven minutes back at the summit, where a watching reporter, C.A. Gonnet, later wrote: “By the abrupt rock wall, a haggard silhouette appeared. Dismounted, a man placed his machine to the side. Dejection was on his face: “I abandon!” It was Bottecchia, the hero of the Tour, who cried like a child….”

It was a bitter blow, but Bottecchia came back later in the season, and fourth place at the Giro di Lombardia rebuilt his confidence for 1927. A bad crash in Milan–San Remo delayed his season, and his sponsor Automoto entered him in the 587-kilometer Bordeaux–Paris classic in mid-May. He didn’t finish the race, again abandoning in tears, but he remained in France to begin training for the Tour de France. Then, a week after the Bordeaux race, on the night of May 22–23, his brother and close confidant, Giovanni Bottecchia, while riding his bike home, was hit by a car and died.

Bottecchia returned from France for the funeral, wanting to know the details of his brother’s death. He discovered that the car was owned by a businessman, Franco Marinotti, a friend of Mussolini and a fascist official in Vittorio Veneto. It was reported that the industrialist offered to settle the incident with a payment of 100,000 lire (equivalent to $70,000 today), but Bottecchia was allegedly insulted by the offer. A few days after the funeral, on June 2, the two-time Tour champion visited the Giro d’Italia in nearby Treviso, where stage 13 to Trieste was starting. He had the chance to chat with fellow racers, including race leader Alfredo Binda and runner-up Giovanni Brunero. That was the last time they would see Bottecchia.

The very next morning, knowing he had to put in some long training rides for the upcoming Tour (where stages typically lasted 10 to 15 hours), Bottecchia left home at 4:30 a.m., just before dawn, and told his wife Caterina that he’d be back around 3 in the afternoon and to have the water heated for his post-ride bath. He wanted some company, but his close friend Piccin told him the night before that he was planning to visit his girlfriend on a new motorcycle. So he went to the house of another colleague, Riccardo Zille, but he was busy filling out his workers’ paychecks. He then tried a third friend, Luigi Maniago, but he was whitewashing the front of his house that warm Friday morning.

So Bottecchia set out solo on his long ride. He headed north and east toward the mountains of Carnia. On the way, he passed the village of Lestans—where he’d earned his war hero’s medal a decade earlier. Toward midday, feeling somewhat dizzy in the burning sunshine, he stopped for a cold beer in Cornino, then continued north on the roughly surfaced back road, the wide waters of the Tagliamento to his right and wooded mountains to his left. Less than a kilometer before Peónis—where the photo on this feature story’s opening spread was taken—something happened. The official story (summarized on his memorial stone) is that, ill with a malarial fever, Bottecchia reached down to loosen a toe strap, perhaps hit a pothole when unbalanced and fell heavily, hitting the side of his head, sustaining a fracture at the base of his skull, breaking his right clavicle and ending up with multiple cuts and bruises on his right side.

When the fallen rider, blood oozing from his nose and ears, was discovered by a couple of locals, it was said his bike was standing undamaged at the roadside—which seemed to rule out the crash theory. The peasants carried Bottecchia to Peónis and laid him on a table at the inn, where the local priest, Dante Nigris, gave him the last rites. He was transported by wagon to the hospital in Gemona del Friuli. In the 12 days he remained there, semi-comatose, his wife said Bottecchia whispered the word “illness” a few times, which seemed to confirm the theory that her husband, prone to dizziness and sunstroke, had crashed. And a half-million-lire life insurance payment could only be paid to his widow in the event of accidental death—and that was the coroner’s official verdict.

A counter-theory quickly circulated: A gang of fascists had attacked Bottecchia and cracked his skull, either for his outspoken views on socialism or because his brother’s death, only 10 days earlier, was being connected to a fascist official. That would explain, it was said, why the bike was not damaged. Sometime later, a farmer “confessed” on his deathbed that he’d seen a man stealing fruit from his orchard and thrown stones at him, knocking him unconscious; and seeing it was the famous cyclist he’d dragged him to the road. Then, several years later, a Sardinian stevedore, dying from stab wounds on a dockside in New York City, confessed to being hired by the mafia to kill the two Bottecchia brothers in connection with a betting racket.

Bottecchia’s funeral at the hilltop cemetery in San Martino di Colle Umberto was attended by the Pélissier brothers and some of his Belgian teammates. His oldest friend, Piccin, was said to be devastated by his friend’s death and blamed himself for not going training with the champion that fateful day. Four years later, at age 31, Piccin was killed when he crashed his motorcycle into a wall—perhaps a suicide because of his remorse? As for the Bottecchia conspiracy theories, when the Péonis priest Dante Nigris died in 1973, he confided to his successor: “Those rather insipid rumors are all groundless; the wounds of Bottecchia were due to a fight for his anti-fascism.”

Numerous books on Bottecchia have been published in Italy, including a 540-page tome that came out last year, “Il Corno di Orlando: Vita, Morte e Misteri di Ottavio Bottecchia,” authored by Claudio Gregori. In the book’s introduction, he writes: “Bottecchia does not only belong to the history of sport or the history of Italy but to an epic poem, the song of deeds. The mystery that surrounds him gives to his memory the halo of legend. This book is a slice of life. It belongs to that wonderful and cruel adventure that is life.”