Saturday March 21, 2020 will definitely go down as a dark day in the annals of bicycle racing. Milano-Sanremo, cycling’s first annual Monument, did not start for the first time since World War II, as the world struggles with another kind of war in the coronavirus crisis. But for many cycling aficionados, March 21 will also be remember as the day when Gianni Mura, one of cycling’s greatest writers, passed.
It is perhaps fitting that Mura, who wrote for the Italian daily La Repubblica, left us on the day reserved for La Primavera. Sanremo, after all, derives its moniker from Igor Stravinsky’s modern symphonic masterpiece, while Mura was respected as the sport’s most literary chronicler. In both Mura and Sanremo, art and sport are one.
“Gianni Mura wasn’t great, but very great.” Vincenzo Nibali wrote on a social media post this weekend. “A rare person and a unique journalist. I remember our long discussions during the Tour. I am really very sorry. My thoughts to his family. Rest in peace Gianni, we are going to miss you.”
Mura was nothing short of a giant of a man as well as journalist. But his imposing stature, beset by his sober, even melancholic face, was home to a writer who personified humility and discretion, one who rarely asked questions in press conferences, and instead sat quietly at his table working on his daily story.
But while Mura did little to attract attention, he was impossible to ignore in the press rooms of the Tour de France, a race he first covered in the 1960’s, and remained by far his favorite race.
No, Mura could not be missed because, year in and year out, he produced each story from his trusty Olivette Lettera 32, a portable Italian typewriter. Housed in a Bianchi celeste green casing, Mura tapped out his stories day in and day out, year in and year out, amidst occasional cigarette breaks that allowed him to chat with journalists, while reflecting on his next lines. And while the old man and his typewriter may have provided an initial moment of curiosity to many newcomers, veterans of the press room also found comfort in the click-clack of his old Lettera 32.
Mura may have been an Italian, but there was no race he loved more than the Tour de France. And the Tour loved him. For some of his friends in the press room, the Tour never really started until Gianni showed up. “He would always bring me a bottle of the best Grappa,” Jean-Louis Le Touzet, a long-time journalist with French daily Libération, remembers fondly. And for anyone who knew Gianni , it was clear that gastronomie could often be found on the same plate with bicycle racing. Throughout his career in fact, he also wrote a culinary column with his wife Paola. Perhaps there was something in the combination fine food and great racing that always made Mura feel so at home in France.
Mura first covered the Tour in 1967, and those early years left an indelible impression. The ’67 race was marked by the tragic death of British rider Tom Simpson, whom Mura had befriended. It was a moment that he never forgot, and he often recounted the exact moment when he learned of Simpson’s death. “Felix Levitan (the former Tour race director) stood on a chair in a church in Carpentras and announced, ‘at 16:40 Tom Simpson died.’”
But while his first Tour was forever tainted by Simpson’s death, he found undeniable beauty in the race and the sport itself. In many ways, bicycle racing was a very different sport when Mura first arrived on the scene. Years before team buses filled streets and parking lots close to the start of a race, journalists worked in proximity to the cyclists in ways unimaginable today. “I can still remember the smell of vinegar that Raymond Poulidor put in his bath water,” Mura recalls of Poulidor’s recipe to reduce toxins in his legs after a long stage. And he remembers fondly when the riders, including champions like Eddy Merckx and Bernard Thevenet would sleep in high school dormitories, with up to 80 riders at times sharing eight showers.
Amidst the rich array of anecdotes in his arsenal, Mura, who at 74 was the same age as Merckx, found a certain poetry in bicycle racing and the Tour de France. Mura was part of a generation that found beauty in the movement, the attacks, or collapse of cyclists, in the heat of the moment. And on occasion he even found poetry in the cyclist’s own words.
“There is a great literary tradition in the Tour,” Mura said in a 2011 interview with Philippe Brunel in the French daily, L’Equipe. “When I was young every newspaper had its great writer. “I would be in the press room with writers like Antoine Blondin (i.e. a French writer and long-time columnist for L’Equipe). “I felt so modern with my Lettera, because Blondin was still writing by hand. He would fill the whole page up, but the more beers he had, the smaller his writing became.”
“He could be intimidating,” Le Touzet wrote of Mura. “He has read everything.”
While Mura grew up in the age of Louison Bobet and Hugo Koblet, and he spent his formative years with Anquetil and Merckx, few cyclists touched him as much as fellow Italian Marco Pantani. In Pantani he saw “a fakir,” a hermit with spiritual status in certain cultures, and he often heard a touch of French poet Paul Eluard when Pantani himself spoke. “He didn’t speak like a rider,” Mura said. “He was the kind of person who would say on the Alpe d’Huez, ‘Why do I climb so fast? To hide my agony.’ There was just something ancient and poetic in him.”
“In our imagination, the heroes of the Tour are always lone riders on a climb,” he said. “They will never be Cipollini or Cavendish. No you have to be a climber like Robic, Gaul or Bahamontes.”
In some ways Mura’s decline in health mirrored that of his country, as Italy is one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus. But while the number of COVID-19-related deaths continues to rise in Italy, Mura finally succumbed to a heart attack.
The tributes came instantly, first by his own paper La Repubblica, but also by the Italian sports daily La Gazetta dello Sport, where he got his start. While the Italian press was the first to react, much of his reputation was built here in France, as he covered the Tour much more than any of the Italian races.
“Gianni loved the Tour de France profoundly,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme told VeloNews. “We would see each other with pleasure in the press room each year, where he was a huge personality. I have an image of him working behind his typewriter and I know how much his stories were appreciated. I will always remember him as a great journalist, a discreet man, always friendly, passionate and impassioned.”
“He died today, but he was not a man of today,” Brunel said of his friend. “He was part of a long heritage of writers. They didn’t come out of journalism schools. They were from another time, another world.” And to underline the point, Brunel had a last thought for Mura’s faithful Lettera 32. “His typewriter was not just a machine. It was a way of thinking.”