“I was with Coppi, Bartali and Magni”

There was an air from distant times at the country estate. The muffled silence which governed the sitting room was broken by the song of the blackbird. In the sky, the first shy flight of a swallow. Giovanni Brotto walked confidently despite being almost 89 years old. He had a lean figure, a perfect memory and was talkative. He held an envelope of old photos. He flipped though them and attached names and numbers. “This was taken at the start of the Giro of 1946. I was there with Cottur, Bevilacqua, Degano, Feruglio and Zandonà…” The memories resurfaced clear and vivid: they have names and surnames, dates and cities, places and classifications. Giovanni Brotto was an unusual racer, the Wilier captain in the Giro della rinascita (the Revival Tour), entering the team with the role of third biker after Cottur and Bevilacqua. Fast on the flats, tenacious in climbs, excellent at overtaking. Tireless. He discovered cycling when he was young, challenging his rage of his father, the municipal secretary and then major of Cassola. His family was wealthy, respected and powerful. His father would not want his son to waste his time pedalling. He banned cycling and even hid the bike in the attic. Giovanni found it. He cut the chain which kept it locked. He lowered it to the ground with a long rope and jumped on. Off towards Bassano, Mount Grappa, the Plateau, filling his lungs with fresh air. His father was convinced he was studying, instead Giovanni pedalled hard, enjoying hours of total freedom far away from the reluctantly flipped through books. He invented every kind of excuse to justify being late and tired. He was sixteen years old and full of determination when he made his debut race. He was a novice but very promising. Unlike most cyclists of the time, he did not race for a steady income. The Brotto family were well off and for him it was all about the sport. He could race for the fun of it. On 23 September 1934, the young man from Cassola beat everyone at Schio and won the Veneto novice championship. It was the first in a long line of wins. He alternated training with studying. In four years, he boasted about a hundred victories. He was as strong on the road as on the track, where he befriended Toni Bevilacqua. He won the Astico-Brenta twice, the Zardo Cup twice, the Venetian track championship twice, Popolarissime in Treviso twice and two gran premi di Verona. Together with Lunardon he won the Vigor Trophy in Turin and the Cognac Buton trophy.

He wore the light blue jersey and ended second in the Milan-Monaco stage race. One morning he was late for school. The day before he had won a race and the Gazzetta, which he had in his pocket, had an article on the event, called “Giovanni Brotto the champion”. The head master Lelio Spagnolo, a family friend, stopped him before going into class. He took the newspaper and read the article. At the end he stared at him and after benevolently reproaching him he burst into a hearty laugh. At home his austere father had given up. His older brother, a university student, would follow him. His mother, a teacher, was anxious for the daredevil who won time and time again. While echoes of war were rising, he turned professional and was hired by team Bianchi managed by Mr. Zambrini: he would be a supporting rider at the same level as Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. There was also Giovanni Brotto in the team which tackled the Giro d’Italia of 1940. The one that on paper was considered as Bartali’s Giro, on the road had proclaimed the triumph of the racer from Novi Ligure. Giovanni Brotto took flasks and sandwiches. He help Ginettaccio and a more and more daring Fausto. When racing he gave it his all and when he could do no more, he gritted his teeth and suffered. He did not walk in his father’s shadow! Though a little of the initial success of the champion is also due to him. Military service called, and Giovanni answered. He went to the barracks in Bassano. He alternated duties and training and when his superiors allowed him, he went to the start line of the last races. In 1941 a great race was scheduled, from Milan to Milan, crossing Lombardy: six hundred kilometres between flat land and mountains, passing through Cremona, Mantua, Bergamo, Sondrio and the Valtelline valley. “The start from Porta Ticinese – remembers Giovanni Brotto – was at midnight. We left with lamps hanging on the handlebars. Ahead of us were six hundred kilometres. Every hundred we got provisions. My feet never touched the ground. I rode for 18 hours in a row. Only a martyr can stay on a saddle all that time. I arrived with the leading group at around 6 pm. With no time even to get washed and changed, I was already on the train for Bassano. I reached the barracks in the middle of the night. When he saw me, the picket wanted to know everything about the race. When he saw I was about to collapse, he ordered me to go to the infirmary to rest. I had not seen a bed in two days. I fell into a deep sleep and only woke the following night.” The following year Giovanni Brotto competed in the Milan-Sanremo, a classic opening race of the season, ending fifth. The War years were awful: alarms, bombardments, barbaric executions. Bassano witnessed the tragic killing of the young partisans rounded up on Mount Grappa and hung along the most beautiful streets in town. After Liberation, Giovanni Brotto got back on his bike which he had hidden in the barn for fear of the requisitions that the Germans, perched between Rosà, Cassola and Bassano, were known to implement. It took him only a few weeks to find his right stride and get fit again. When Mr. Dal Molin proposed racing for Wilier Triestina he felt like he touched the sky with his finger. He did not think twice and found himself back in the saddle, just like old times, in a team which recalled a united Italy, the most popular, admired and applauded along the roads of the Giro. He instantly made friends with Cottur, Piccolroaz, Degano, Feruglio, Menon and Bevilacqua. A year later he moved to Arbos-Talbot and participated in the third Giro d’Italia together with Brignoli, Canavesi, Generati, Lambertini, Zanacchi and Locatelli. “Fausto Coppi won the tour, ahead of Gino Bartali and Giulio Bresci. I finished 44th” remembers Brotto proudly. That year Wilier Triestina, with Cottur as its captain who won the 161 kilometre Florence-Perugia stage, was composed of Feruglio, Monari, Piccolroaz, De Santi, and Vincenzo and Vittorio Rossello.

Cottur dropped out. Egidio Feruglio did the best out of the red halberd team coming in 26th. Class of 1917, Brotto was now thirty years old. He raced for a few more seasons, performing well at track meetings, but his career was setting. He started a successful enterprise but bicycles were always in his heart. The yellowing photos take us back to today. A jump of half a century. In the pantry of the country estate, the large pictures of his ancestors hung on the walls and the marble busts of his illustrious predecessors, including high prelates, bear witness to his noble origins and past times. So many dinners and meetings with colleagues were once served in the dining room: around a large wooden table all the greatest cycling champions were seated to celebrate, with all the luxuries that casa Brotto generously offered its friends. One evening Giovanni Zandonà risked suffocating due to a duck bone stuck in his throat. He was a big eater and could not resist a magnificent roast, attacking the meat insatiably. The diners thought he was joking. Instead, he almost did not make it.

He was saved by vigorous pats on the back by Toni Bevilacqua, another person who always provided a good fair at the table. Aligned on the book shelves were hundreds of volumes which Giovanni’s uncles and aunts, grandparents and great grandparents had studied from and which his son Agostino, an architect with a passion for historical research, now read. Brotto had ridden until a few years ago, enjoying breaking away from those who could have been his grandchildren. Up and down, with the lightness and agility of a monkey, along the winding of Mount Grappa, with impossible slopes, without ever feeling tired, the hum of the gear as a friendly voice. As powerful as when he rode next to Cottur and Bevilacqua and passed the flask to Bartali and Coppi. “I stopped when a lorry moved me with a blast of air while overtaking me. It is too risky to race in these conditions”. He put the photos back on the table. He looked out of the window. The blackbirds were silent. The evening closed in.
Cassola, 24 March 2006.

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10th September 2013