Ottavio Bottecchia

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Ottavio Bottecchia
Bottecchia in the 1920s
Personal information
Full name Ottavio Bottecchia
Born (1894-08-01)August 1, 1894
San Martino di Colle Umberto, Italy
Died June 14, 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.


Bottecchia was born to a poor family of nine children. He went to school for just a year[2] and became a bricklayer.[1] He married and had three children. In the first world war he joined the Bersaglieri corps of the Italian army. During the conflict he received a bronze medal.

With the end of hostilities he became an avid competitive cyclist. He won the Giro del Piave, the Coppa della Vittoria, and the Duca D'Aosta in 1920 and the Coppe Gallo a Osimo, the Circuito del Piave and the Giro del Friuli in 1921.[3]

Professional racing[edit]

His 5th place finish in the 1923 Giro d'Italia, the leading 'isolate' (rider without a team) attracted the leading French rider, Henri Pélissier, who asked him to join his professional team, Automoto-Hutchinson,[2] in 1922.[3] 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 company that also sold 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.[4] The new recruit arrived, 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.[4] 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]

In 1923, he came fifth in the Giro d'Italia. That same year, he won a stage in the Tour de France and came 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."[5] 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 he won the first stage of the Tour and kept his lead to the end, the first Italian to win. But here is the first of the mysteries in his life. 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.

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 theory 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:

He wore his yellow jersey all the way to Milan in the train[2] - travelling third class to save money.

He 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",[6] 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]

Death mystery[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.[7] The verdict was sunstroke but was widely dismissed for Bottecchia was used to the heat and a veteran of the Tour de France. He had also been found in the morning, before the day became hot. 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]

The only events which appear certain are that that morning, Bottecchia rose 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.[8] Theories abound from then on. The priest who gave him the last rites is said to have attributed the death to Fascists unhappy about Bottecchia's more liberal leanings. 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] 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.[9]

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

Miroir des Sports, 21 June 1927,[10]

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.[3] The business expanded under the Carnielli family after Bottecchia's death. In 2006 more than 50,000 Bottechia bikes were sold in Europe.[3]

Literary relevance[edit]

Bottecchia is mentioned at the end of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.[11]


Tour de France:
Second place overall classification
Winner stage 2
Wearing yellow jersey for 6 non-consecutive days
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).
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
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
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


  1. ^ a b Ottavio Bottecchia profile at Cycling Archives
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n L'Humanite, July 7 2003, Sports, Article on Ottavio Bottechia, Le maillot noir
  3. ^ a b c d Bottecchia Bikes, About Ottavio Bottecchia
  4. ^ a b Chany, Pierre (1988), La Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France, Nathan, France, pp189-190
  5. ^ a b c Chany, Pierre (1988), La Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France, Nathan, France, pp194-195
  6. ^ L'Équipe 24 June 2003
  7. ^ Het Raadsel van Peonis, Wielerrevue, Netherlands, undated cutting
  8. ^ Spitaleri, Enrico, Delitto Bottecchia, Antonion Pellicani, Italy
  9. ^ Cycling Revealed, May 2006, By Barry Boyce. The Untimely Death of an Italian Champion: Ottavio Bottecchia
  10. ^ Le Miroir des Sports, France, 21 June 1927
  11. ^ "A splendid thing". 16 November 2009. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]