No Helmet for Me, Grazie
by Robert Rutkowski

It was in '48, or was it '49? Well, no matter. It was the seventh stage of the Giro d' Italia, and I was as usual riding in support of my team leader, the great Gino Bartali. We had the epic Gavia pass to negotiate that roasting, desert-dry day, and to make matters even more desperate, our nemesis, Coppi, was at his strongest, and was crushing everyone with his every pedal-stroke.

As the steep, demanding meters were slowly, painfully pushed behind us, our two suffering teams came to the fore and took turns wresting the lead from one another with desperate, lung-bursting efforts. Soon, the summit would be reached, and a clear lead had not been achieved by either the green-and-red or the blue-and-white squadri.

We all knew the imminent, perilous descent would decide the stage. Whoever could fall like a stone down the gravelled, rutted Alpine tracks; fall like a stone, yet keep tires to the road and not fly out into space some 2,000 meters above the valley floor -- that rider would be first through the town of Sarduccia, and that pre-eminence would surely decide the stage.

Soon the road would drop away before our front wheels. We exchanged looks full of tension, of something that would have bordered on fear, if we Bartalini had been capable of fear. The entire gruppo, some 56 riders, pushed pages the pink pages of Gazetta dello Sport, given to us by the cheering tifosi lining the route, under our tunics, to protect against the terrible chill when going so quickly down the mountain.

We all donned our leather helmets, and as we did, I took advantage of the brief interruption in the pace and order to dash suddenly away by myself.

In just a few moments I was around the first bend and far ahead of the gruppo. I could hear cries behind me, but I thought them to be the cheers of the crowd. I fell down the broken, rubble-strewn road faster than I had ever descended before... a devil had taken possession of my soul. I burned with the expectant fire of anticipated victory

Far behind, Bartali and Coppi, unbeknownst to me, had reached an agreement to neutralize the descent in the interest of safety. My exploit, if it succeeded, might cause a great enmity to form between the two campioni. Coppi would forever believe that Bartali had made a false bargain, knowing of my plan well in advance of their summit negotiation. My hard-won job as a Legnano "gregario" would be forfeit if my attack succeeded. In one of the Fiats of the following caravan sat the corpulent, sullen Signore Sinistro, the dark and fearful authority behind the Bartali/Legnano squadra. When word of my impetuous deed reached Don Sinistro, he muttered a terrible curse and drew an immense pistol from the folds of his cloak. His intention was clear. If I won, my triumph would be my epitaph. The winner's bouquet would decorate my modest headstone.

With only three kilometers left to Sarduccia, I rounded the final hairpin turn nearly five minutes ahead of the furiously-chasing Bianchi and Legnano squadri. Behind them drove the raging Don Sinistro and his henchmen, all clutching sidearms and harboring thoughts of murder.

Nothing now stood between me and my fatal victory... nothing but isolated groups of cheering well-wishers, jeering Coppi tifosi, and the occasional wine vendor feeding the throng's thirst with great bottles of the local Fungo vintage.

I have just told you that I had safely rounded the last hairpin before the town. However, in my haste to break from the main group at the summit, I had failed to buckle the chin strap of my leather helmet, and in the violent motion of the turn, the helmet fell from my head. Behind me, Don Sinistro's Fiat had passed through the descending riders and had come up nearly to my wheel; easily within pistol range of my green and red shirt. Indeed, Don Sinistro himself was steadying his shooting hand against the door pillar of the auto, taking a satisfied aim upon my exposed, broad Milanese back, when I chanced to run my helmetless head into the 2-litre wine bottle a vendor was holding out to a spectator directly in my path.

The bottle struck me full in the unprotected forehead. I fell to the ground just as Don Sinistro's careful shot passed through the air where I had just been. In fact, the bullet broke the wine bottle!

In seconds, my senseless form and my bicycle had been pulled to safety. When the frantically-chasing gruppo came upon the scene and saw that my escapade had been somehow neutralized, the pace immediately slowed and good relations were instantly restored between the two teams. Even better, the capitano of the 2nd-category Belgo squadra had admired my headstrong courage and asked Bartali if he would release me to his team. The great campionissimo, seeing that our sponsor Don Sinistro would forever harbor an evil intention toward me, agreed.

And so, as I lay with a gash to my head and my racing clothes soaked with wine, I had won a place in a new team in which I would be allowed to show my own prowess, I had escaped the stern rebuke of the beloved and feared Bartali, and I had escaped being riddled with the blunt, heavy bullets of Don Sinistro and his minions. It is undoubtedly true that my very life had been saved because my head had been helmetless at just the right moment.

© Robert Rutkowski

Thanks to James Thomson for bringing this to our attention. Not the 18th century Scottish poet and dramatist. The other one.