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Response to Review of Pedalare, Pedalare. A History of Italian Cycling

Carlos Caracciolo’s review of my history of Italian cycling, Pedalare Pedalare, is careful and detailed reading of the text. For the most part, I am in agreement with the points made by the reviewer, such as those concerning the chronology of Italy’s cycling history, or the importance of bike shops and the bike industry. However, there are two parts of the review with which I would like to take issue.

First, there is the question of myths. Contemporary sports history is connected very closely to myths, and these have been analysed by Barthes, Pivato and others with regard to the specifics of cycling. Caracciolo seems to imply in his review that I fail to analyse these myths with sufficient detachment and that, moreover, I help to ‘feed’ them by a ‘lack of distance’ from these myths. I do not see this as an accurate reading of two key chapters in my book, those dedicated to the mythical figures of Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, the great Italian cyclists of the 1940s and 1950s. These chapters are, in fact, extended analyses of the myths connected to these cyclists and their rivalry, seen from political, cultural and social angles, and drawing on academic work, theoretical discussions of historical myths, journalism, photography, film, fiction, music and iconography. I make it very clear at the very beginning of the Coppi chapter that ‘there is nothing new to be said about Fausto Coppi’ but that ‘what we can analyse is the Coppi myth’. In addition, Caracciolo’s quotes from my book do not actually show that I have ‘bought into’ the Coppi myth. On the contrary, they are points linked to a study of these myths. Moreover, the chapter on Gino Bartali is almost entirely dedicated to a detailed deconstruction of the key myth linked to Bartali’s career, that linked to the 1948 Tour de France when Bartali is said to have ‘saved Italy’ from Communist revolution by winning the Tour. In that chapter I cast serious historical doubts on many of the established versions of ‘events’ which have been produced over the years.(1)

Secondly, and this is a crucial point, Caracciolo makes it clear very early on in the review that he does not believe that this book is ‘an academic text’. Now, I am never really sure what the word ‘academic’ means in this context. Does it imply that the book is not based on a wide enough use of sources? It would appear not to mean this, as Carocclolo himself points out in the review: ‘The author has used a large and rich bibliography. Moreover, Foot has drawn on several contemporary newspapers and presents, in the pages about Fiorenzo Magni, some unedited archival documents’. So what does the word ‘academic’ signify here? Perhaps the book should have been written in a more obscure fashion, with longer sentences, or overloaded with notes? If being ‘non-academic’ means that the book is ‘too readable’, then I am would prefer that it was not ‘academic’. In another section of the review, the reviewer argues that my own appearance in the text is a key factor here. But historians have been ‘appearing in their own books’ for years.(2) I would argue, moreover, that the whole idea of academic detatchment is somewhat anachronistic. Finally, and this is a little provocative, if ‘academic’ means that a book should only be read by other academics, and never by members of the general public, then I am very happy that my book is seen as ‘not’ academic.

Notes

  1. Caracciolo may want to refer as well to the Italian version of Pedalare, which has a more detailed discussion of these myths in terms of notes and references. Some of this work was lost in the more pared down English language version.Back to (1)
  2. I could cite numerous examples here, but to remain within contemporary Italian historiography, I would point to the work of Alessandro Portelli and Luisa Passerini.Back to (2)