Fatal Ride

A Tour de France champion's macabre end

The man lay on the side of the road, his head smashed in. Bruises purpled his lean, muscle-braided body, and one of his collarbones had been snapped. A bike rested unscathed against a nearby post, glinting in the Italian sun. Lorenzo di Santolo, a Peonis farmer, rolled the man over—he was still breathing—and saw the unmistakable face of Ottavio Bottecchia, two-time winner of the Tour de France and one of Italy's greatest heroes.

It was June 1927, three years since the beloved cyclist had first dominated the Tour, punishing the peloton with his indefatigable climbing power. After languishing in a hospital for 12 days, the 32-year-old husband and father—a bricklayer and former prisoner of war who'd spent World War I in an elite corps of cycling snipers—died from the trauma, the circumstances of his fatal encounter unknown. Philippe Brunel, in his book An Intimate Portrait of the Tour de France, says some theorized that the former champion had stopped to pick grapes and incurred the wrath of a murderous winemaker, but any Italian worth his weight in vino knows that grapes are too sour to eat at that time of year. After a suspiciously perfunctory investigation, the police would later claim that Bottecchia had either wrecked his bike, been hit by a car, or, while taking a drink of water and struggling to get out of his primitive toeclips, suffered a freak accident involving a roadside rock.

But the truth would seem to be much more sinister.

In the late forties, a man dying of stab wounds in Manhattan, in a final confession, said he'd killed Bottecchia "under contract." But why—and for whom? The name he supplied was never linked to anyone living or dead. Then, in 1973, the priest who'd given Bottecchia last rites claimed, from his deathbed, that Fascists loyal to dictator Benito Mussolini had beaten the rider to death. But Bottecchia, a socialist, is not known to have publicly criticized the regime. According to Brunel, though, shortly after the incident, journalist Giulo Crosti discovered that thugs from the region's right-wing militia had summoned the local sergeant and allegedly demanded his report state that Bottecchia's death was an accident.

Chances are no one will ever know why the first cyclist ever to wear the yellow jersey throughout an entire Tour died such an ignoble death. Once, while winning a race, Bottecchia told another cyclist, "I go." But he was gone far too soon.

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