Ottavio Bottecchia

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Ottavio Bottecchia
Bottecchia1920s.jpg
Bottecchia in the 1920s
Personal information
Full name Ottavio Bottecchia
Born (1894-08-01)1 August 1894
San Martino di Colle Umberto, Italy
Died 14 June 1927(1927-06-14) (aged 32)
Gemona, Italy
Team information
Discipline Road
Role Rider
Professional team(s)
1922-26 Automoto-Hutchinson
Major wins

Grand Tours

Tour de France
General Classification (1924, 1925)
9 individual stages (1923, 1924, 1925)
Infobox last updated on
December, 2008

Ottavio Bottecchia (pronounced [otˈtavjo botˈtekkja]; 1 August 1894 – 14 June 1927[1]) was an Italian cyclist and the first Italian winner of the Tour de France. He was found dead by the roadside; the reason remains a mystery.

Early life[edit]

Bottecchia was born as the eighth child of a poor family of nine children. He went to school for just a year,[2] first working as a shoemaker, then as a bricklayer.[1][2][3] His father left to find work in Germany.[3] Bottecchia later married and had three children.

Despite being a convinced socialist with anti-Fascist convictions, Bottecchia joined the Bersaglieri corps of the Italian army during the first world war.[3] For four years he ferried messages and supplies on the Austrian front with a special folding bicycle. During the conflict he contracted malaria and also had to evade capture several times.[4] Bottecchia endured a gas attack on 3 November 1917 after the battle of Caporetto while providing covering fire for retreating forces. Near Sequals he was captured, but escaped while being marched into captivity at night. After returning to Italian lines, he twice conducted reconnaissance sorties into Austrian-held areas, which by now included his home region of Colle Umberto.[5] Bottecchia was later awarded a bronze medal[6] for valor.[2][3]

After the end of hostilities Bottecchia moved to France in 1919 to work as a builder, which later led to insinuations that he was not Italian - slurs that were compounded by his strong regional dialect. Bottecchia's family continued to struggle with poverty, and his youngest daughter died in 1921 at the age of seven.[3]

Bottecchia returned to Italy where he took up competitive cycling.[2][3] He won the Giro del Piave, the Coppa della Vittoria, and the Duca D'Aosta in 1920 and the Coppe Gallo an Osimo, the Circuito del Piave and the Giro del Friuli in 1921.[7]

Professional career[edit]

Bottecchia became a professional cyclist in 1920.[8] He was given a racing bicycle by Teodoro Carnielli,[9] president of a cycling association, the Associazione Sportiva di Vittorio Veneto. Carnielli encouraged Bottecchia to join the Pordenone sport union.[10]

In 1923 Bottecchia placed fifth in the 11th Giro d'Italia, the highest finish by an 'isolate' (rider without a team). His position attracted the leading French rider, Henri Pélissier, who asked Bottecchia to join his professional team, Automoto-Hutchinson.[2][7][11] Pélissier had just left the J. B. Louvet team after an internal row and had taken another rider, Honoré Barthélemy, with him. Automoto was a French motorcycle company that also sold its products in Italy. Automoto saw the chance not only of winning the Tour de France but of having a further Italian rider to stimulate foreign sales. Henri Pélissier said he had seen Bottecchia ride the Giro di Lombardia and Milan – San Remo and the team signed him.[12]

The new recruit reported for duties with his new team in France, said the writer Pierre Chany, with a skin tanned like an old leather saddle and creases to his face deep enough to be scars. His clothing was ragged and his shoes so old that they no longer had any shape.[12] His ears stuck out so far that the Tour organiser, Henri Desgrange referred to him as "butterfly".[2]

It was as a professional that Bottecchia learned to read, taught by his friend and training partner, Alfonso Piccin. Together they read the Italian sports daily, Gazzetta dello Sport, and clandestine anti-fascist pamphlets protesting at the rule of Benito Mussolini.[2]

Bottecchia's success for his new team included winning a stage in the 1923 Tour de France, where he also placed second overall. He led the Tour from Cherbourg after the second stage and wore the yellow jersey of leader as far as Nice. There he passed it on to Pélissier, who won with the prediction: "Bottecchia will succeed me next year."[13] Such was the reaction in Italy that the Gazetta dello Sport asked a lire from each of its readers to reward him. Mussolini was first to subscribe.[2]

In 1924 Bottecchia won the first stage of the Tour and kept his lead to the end, the first Italian to win.[2] He wore his yellow jersey all the way to Milan in the train[2] - travelling third class to save money.

Bottecchia won the Tour again in 1925 with the help of Lucien Buysse, who served as the first domestique in Tour history. Accused in 1924 of winning without trying, Bottecchia won the first, sixth, seventh and final stage. He was never the same after that and dropped out, "weeping like a child",[14] during a thunderstorm in 1926. Buysse emerged the winner. The writer Bernard Chambaz said:

The unpleasant hand of destiny fell on his shoulders. It was as though the misery of his origins had caught up with him. Dark thoughts and a presentiment of the future haunted him. He abandoned the Tour of 1926 on a stage which those who were there described as apocalytpic because of the cold and the violence of the wind. He went home, unhappy. He no longer had the heart to train. He feared that he'd been 'cut down by a bad illness'. He coughed and he ached in his back and his bronchial tubes. The following winter, he lost his younger brother, knocked down by a car.[2]

Mysterious events[edit]

Refusing to wear yellow[edit]

During the 1924 Tour Bottecchia wore the yellow jersey throughout the race except for the stage closest to Italy, which went from Toulon to Nice.[2] That day he wore his team jersey, one of several in the peloton and therefore less obvious. The Tour's paperwork vanished when it was taken south from Paris in 1940 to escape the German invasion of the second world war and none of the newspaper reports of the period explains Bottecchia's decision.

Several explanations have been offered for Bottecchia's behavior. One theory is that he was afraid of being mobbed on the road by Italian fans, who would have delayed him or inadvertently knocked him off his bike. Another suggestion is that he wanted to avoid Mussolini's Black Shirts. Reading anti-fascist tracts to become literate suggests anti-fascist leanings. Bottecchia's tyres had been punctured before the start of some stages and fascist opponents could have been behind it. A further theory is that Bottecchia had made uncomplimentary remarks about an earlier Italian champion, Costante Girardengo, and that he worried fans would take revenge.

Bottecchia wore the yellow jersey again after Nice and all the way to the finish. Reports say that he sang as he rode:

Unexplained death[edit]

Monument to Bottecchia at Trasaghis by the Tagliamento river

On 3 June 1927, farmers outside the village of Peonis, near Bottecchia's home, found him on the roadside. His skull was cracked, one collarbone and other bones broken. His bike lay some distance away on the verge and wasn't damaged. There were no skid marks to suggest a car had forced him off the road and no marks to the pedals or handlebar tape to suggest he'd lost control.

Bottecchia was carried to a bar and laid on a table.[2] A priest gave him the last rites. From there he was taken by cart to hospital in Gemona. He died there 12 days later[2] without regaining consciousness.[15]

The official verdict of sunstroke was widely dismissed. Bottecchia was used to the heat and a veteran of the conditions that he had to endure during the Tour de France. He had also been found in the morning, before the day became hot.

The only events which appear certain are that Bottecchia had risen at dawn and asked for a hot bath to be ready for him when he returned after three hours. He rode to his friend Alfonso Piccini's house to go training together as on other days. Piccini decided not to go and Bottecchia went to see another friend, Riccardo Zille. He had other things to do, however, so Bottecchia set out alone.[16]

Theories abound about the circumstances of his death. Bernard Chambaz of L'Humanité said:

Accident or assassination? The accident theory, favoured by justice, on the accounts of witnesses and a medical examination which also referred to several fractures, was based on an assumption of an illness, sunstroke and a fall. In fact, the inquiry was quickly closed. The theory suited everybody: the Mussolini régime, the presumed killer and even - it's sad to say - the family, now sure of a large insurance payout.[2]

Don Dantė Nigris, the priest who gave him the last rites, is said to have attributed the death to Fascists unhappy about Bottecchia's more liberal leanings.[17] But Bottecchia was a barely literate racing cyclist at the end of his career, better known in France than in Italy, and not a politician or celebrity who could sway opinion. There's a theory that Fascists murdered him for speaking against Mussolini. An Italian dying from stab wounds on a New York waterfront even claimed he had been employed as a hit man.[2][17] He named a supposed godfather, although nobody of the name was ever found. But Mussolini had been first to contribute to the Gazzetta dello Sport benefit fund.

Some suggested a fight. But a fight leaves cuts and bruises to both sides. Much later, a farmer in Pordenone said on his deathbed:[2] "I saw a man eating my grapes. He'd pushed through the vines and damaged them. I threw a rock to scare him, but it hit him. I ran to him and realised who it was. I panicked and dragged him to the roadside and left him. God forgive me!" The problem with the story is that to throw a rock large enough to break a man's skull demands being so close to the victim that literally throwing it isn't necessary. Bottecchia was a local hero, on his bike, easily recognised so close to home. The farmer would have known him. Also his body was found in Peonis, not Pordenone. The farmer said he dragged the body off the farm and onto the roadside. If that was true, how did the body end up 35 miles (55 km) away? The final riddle is what Bottecchia was doing in a vineyard in June. Grapes don't ripen until late summer.[18]

"Bottecchia was a revelation. His name will stay inseparable from the Tour de France."

Miroir des Sports, 21 June 1927,[19]

Bottecchia bicycles[edit]

In 1926, Bottecchia began working with frame-maker Teodoro Carnielli to manufacture racing bikes, taking advantage of his Tour de France knowledge.[7] The business expanded under the Carnielli family after Bottecchia's death. In 2006 more than 50,000 Bottechia bikes were sold in Europe.[7]

Literary relevance[edit]

Bottecchia is mentioned at the end of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.[20]

Palmarès[edit]

1923
Tour de France:
Second place overall classification
Winner stage 2
Wearing yellow jersey for 6 non-consecutive days
1924
Tour de France:
Jersey yellow.svg Winner overall classification
Winner stages 1, 6, 7 and 15
Wearing yellow jersey for 15 days (the entire race).
1925
Giro della provincia Milano
Tour de France:
Jersey yellow.svg Winner overall classification
Winner stages 1, 6, 7 and 18
Wearing yellow jersey for 13 non-consecutive days.

Grand Tour results timeline[edit]

1923 1924 1925 1926
Giro 5 DNE DNE DNE
Stages won 0
Tour 2 1 1 DNF-10
Stages won 1 4 4 0
Vuelta N/A N/A N/A N/A
Stages won
Legend
1 Winner
2–3 Top three-finish
4–10 Top ten-finish
11– Other finish
DNE Did Not Enter
DNF-x Did Not Finish (retired on stage x)
DSQ Disqualified
N/A Race/classification not held
NR Not Ranked in this classification

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Ottavio Bottecchia profile at Cycling Archives
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r L'Humanite, 7 July 2003, Sports, Article on Ottavio Bottecchia, Le maillot noir
  3. ^ a b c d e f Foot, John (2011). Pedalare! Pedalare!. New York: Bloomsbury. 
  4. ^ Foot says Bottecchia escaped capture twice, but La Gazzetta refers to three escapes.
  5. ^ Gregori, Claudio (July 29, 2014). "Bottecchia, il primo italiano a vincere il Tour, fu eroe della ritirata di Caporetto [Bottecchia, the first Italian to win the Tour, was a hero of the retreat from Caporetto]". La Gazetta dello Sport. Retrieved 6 December 2014. 
  6. ^ According to Foot the medal awarded to Bottecchia was a silver medal. La Gazetta indicates that the silver medal was awarded to his brother.
  7. ^ a b c d Bottecchia Bikes, About Ottavio Bottecchia
  8. ^ The manufacturer of Bottecchia bicycles offers two dates for the start of the cyclist's professional career. Bottecchia.com says that he was in his third year as a professional when he won the Giro in 1923, while the company's Australian site refers to 1922.
  9. ^ Carnielli owned a small bicycle manufacturing company which today still produces Bottecchia bicycles.
  10. ^ "History - Ottavio Bottechia". Bottecchia.com. Retrieved 6 December 2014. 
  11. ^ An alternative version of Bottecchia's recruitment has it that Automoto's Aldo Borella approached him after the Giro win.
  12. ^ a b Chany, Pierre (1988), La Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France, Nathan, France, pp189-190
  13. ^ a b c Chany, Pierre (1988), La Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France, Nathan, France, pp194-195
  14. ^ L'Équipe 24 June 2003
  15. ^ Het Raadsel van Peonis, Wielerrevue, Netherlands, undated cutting
  16. ^ Spitaleri, Enrico, Delitto Bottecchia, Antonion Pellicani, Italy
  17. ^ a b Startt, James (2000). Tour de France/Tour de Force - a Visual History of the World's Greatest Bicycle Race. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. p. 41. 
  18. ^ Cycling Revealed, May 2006, By Barry Boyce. The Untimely Death of an Italian Champion: Ottavio Bottecchia
  19. ^ Le Miroir des Sports, France, 21 June 1927
  20. ^ "A splendid thing". 16 November 2009. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]