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VN Archives: The day Gino died

May 5th, 2000 was a strange day. After Gino Bartali died of heart attack, three famous cyclists in three countries crashed — Lance Armstrong, Roberto Alcaide, and Kent Bostick. John Wilcockson reflects on it all — on the day that also happened to be his birthday.

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It was one of the stranger days this year. It also happened to be my birthday. May 5, 2000.

Early that morning I learned sadly, that all-time cycling great Gino Bartali had suffered a heart attack at his home near Florence, Italy. With his wife, daughter, two sons, and doctor at his bedside, the 84-year-old Bartali died just before noon, or 4 a.m. in my home state of Colorado.

I knew then that I’d be thinking about Gino all day — especially on the afternoon birthday ride I was planning. But, first, looking through my day-timer, I saw there was a mass of e-mails, phone calls, and meetings to get through. And, later, my wife and I were due to drive up into the mountains for dinner at a favorite restaurant. It was going to be a long day.

And not only for me…

Over breakfast, with the sun blazing into our sunroom, I heard that in the rain-starved Southwest, firefighters had been called in to combat an escalating “controlled burn” at Cera Grandee, New Mexico.

The weather was also hot and dry in France, where Lance Armstrong was setting out on a training ride in the Pyrénées, to reconnoiter the upcoming Tour stage between Dax and Lourdes-Hautacam. A few hundred miles to the south, a 22-year-old Spanish amateur Roberto Alcaide — due to turn pro in 2001 — was clicking in his cleats for another stage of the Tour of Extremadura. And back in New Mexico, U.S. racing legend Kent Bostick, 46, was preparing for a tough third day at the Tour of the Gila.

I’d rather have been in France, Spain, or New Mexico, but it was the office for me. And it was only after an over-busy morning and a hurried lunch that I finally set out on my 57-mile — “a-mile-for-every-year” — birthday ride. A ride for Gino.

Underscoring the day’s Italian theme, I’d just heard Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” playing on the radio; and the glorious strains of that Venetian concerto were flowing over me as I headed north out of town.

In Gino’s memory I’d put on a white racing jersey with a portrait of Fausto Coppi — Gino’s rival in their heyday. And before taking off, I reread some lines about the two champions battling in the Dolomites, lines from Dino Buzzati’s wonderful book on the 1949 Giro d’Italia: “[Bartali] rocked in his saddle, shot ahead a few meters, and at the switchback’s turn slowly looked back, showing his sly, suspicious face… Then, all of a sudden, he had the sensation that a shadow was sticking to his back… It was Coppi.”

I thought back to the day I first saw Gino, when he was in his early 70s, and remembered his deep, rasping voice as he spoke to an awe-struck tifosi.

The memories and music merged in my mind as I merrily thumped my pedals along the rolling highway. Then came another, less pleasant sound: thump, thump, thump. A flat — my first of the year.

In the shade of a solitary bush out on the edge of the high plains, I changed the tube and reconsidered my ride. Given the heat — the mercury was heading toward the 90s — and a rising wind, there was no way I was going to get home in time to keep our dinner reservation. So instead of the flatter, more exposed roads to the east, I decided to turn left into the mountains, and make my goal 57km instead of 57 miles.

Once I reached a road climbing a canyon, where it was cooler and more peaceful, my daydreams began again. Shifting in 39×13, I imagined myself climbing in the 48×16 that Gino probably used to ascend those dusty Dolomite passes a half-century ago. I felt strong, rising out of the saddle like Gino on the steeps, flying like Fausto on the flats. There was a long downhill to look forward to, speeding back home beside a fast-flowing creek. This was turning into a celebration.

The celebration continued when we dined that evening at 9000 feet, in a small European-run restaurant in the tiny town of Allenspark. But the day didn’t turn out so well for others…

I later learned that while I’d been riding, firefighters lost control of the New Mexico wildfire, which escalated into a conflagration that would consume 44,000 acres of forest and 400 Los Alamos homes. At the same time, hospitals in France, Spain, and New Mexico had taken in three emergency patients.

In the Tour of the Gila, while chasing an attack down a 1600-foot switchback descent, Bostick crashed heavily and broke his leg. He was flown to Albuquerque, where surgeons pinned a double fracture of the femur.

At Montehermoso, Spain, there was a dramatic pileup in the Extremadura race. Young Alcaide was thrown into a crash barrier and fell awkwardly. Surgeons were later forced to amputate his left foot.

Meanwhile, in France, Armstrong was racing down his last descent of the day when — kapow! — his front wheel hit a rock, exploding the tire. Out of control, the helmetless Texan smashed headfirst onto the pavement. He no doubt had visions of a similar crash on a nearby descent that took the life of his Motorola teammate Fabio Casartelli in the 1985 Tour. But Armstrong emerged with a concussion, multiple cuts and bruises and spent the night at a hospital in Lourdes. He could thank the city’s St. Bernadette, whose shrine is visited each year by millions of pilgrims seeking miracle cures.

As for Gino, his death seemed to have stirred up the gods of Greek mythology whom Buzzati evoked in describing the aging Bartali’s defeat at the 1949 Giro. Quoting Homer on the death of the Bartali-like Hector, Buzzati wrote: “And now death, grim death is looming up beside me… Well, let me die — but not without a struggle, not without glory, no. In some great clash of arms that even men to come will hear down all the years!