Sunday, December 4, 2011

The True Story of 'The Champion and the Bandit'

So in the interest of expanding the knowledge base and preserving cycling history through translation... time for another book report!

I just finished Marco Ventura's il Campione e il Bandito, a well-researched account of the relationship between Costante Girardengo (Italy's first campionissimo) and Sante Pollastri (Italy's most wanted man in the late 20's, also written by him as Pollastro). My first long read in Italian, the book was a bit of a challenge at times, but proved well worth the effort.

Ventura's work was the inspiration for RAI's fiction of a similar name, a two-part foray into how far one can stretch the truth for dramatic effect. I won't go too far into criticizing it, but the main issues for me were the non-period correct bikes, class-breaking language, non-location correct settings and three main diversions from the truth: that Pollastro and Girardengo were close childhood friends; that Biagio Cavanna was some sort of upper class talent scout; and the final showdown and end of Pollastro. Aldo and Paolo, both from the Novi Ligure area, give further in-depth reviews of this on their blogs for the Italian-speakers who are interested. In addition, you can watch the entire thing on youtube in pieces, starting with the first part, below.

So back to the book and 'true' story and a quick translation that sets the stage of the early lives of the protagonists.

Their adventure begins in an Italy of misery. They were both sons of extremely poor farmers. One doesn't know for certain if they were friends, certainly they would have known of each other, because they were linked by a common passion for the bicycle: a vehicle of freedom for both of them. If in fact Girardengo would become a myth of cycling's greats, Pollastri would become the most famous bandit of the twenties. - Corriere della Sera's Costantini Emilia.

Sante was not only a fan of cycling, but tried his hand at a racing career as well. Gira's teammate Negrini is quoted as saying he even raced against Sante. But he evidently didn't have 'the stuff'. The bicycle would change from a ticket out of misery into a getaway car. A great deal of time is spent on theories and events leading up to why Sante turned to a life of crime, interspersed with the racing developments and growth of Gira, who was ten years into the most successful cycling career to date by the time Sante graduated from home robberies to his first cold-blooded murder. On July 14th of 1922, while robbing a transfer of money of the Bank of Tortona, the cashier Casalegno was murdered by a member of Sante's gang. The law was led to Sante by a switch-up in getaway vehicles. Sante's Maino was left behind by a member of the band as they hurried to get away after their unexpected killing. This began Sante's life as a bandit and a long run from the law that wouldn't finish until 1927.

This also leads me to two details for the vintage collecting set. Aside from the great detail of Gira's racing and private life which have been referenced by other authors as being some of the best-researched accounts of 1920's racing, Ventura brings us information about the Novi area's famous bicycle brands.

The first of these revolves around another "good bandit" or Robin Hood type. One hundred years earlier in the same area around Alessandria, Giuseppe Mayno della Spinetta (Monte Spineto being a mountain where he hid from the law), in protest of French inscription, began a similar career of banditry. While Mayno was an anti French guerrilla, Pollastri fell more into the thinking of anti fascist anarchists. Somewhere hidden in these pages is the explanation of how Cicli Maino is actually a descendant of this Robin Hood, the spelling changed to further distance it from its seedy roots!

The other is of course the start and growth of Cicli Girardengo, started in the forties with sons Ettore and Luciano. In 1964 assembly was transferred to the prison in Alessandria and was supplier to Maino (without the 'y'). After the death of Costante, the firm changed hands and eventually closed in the eighties, 'the second death of Girardengo' wrote Le Monde.

The book goes into great detail about a meeting on September 25, 1925, between Pollastri and Girardengo, who was racing at the Vélodrome d'Hiver against the Pélissier brothers, Bottecchia and Binda. By all accounts, Sante whistled a cifulò, which only Novi locals would recognize, to his old friend and Gira's masseur, Cavanna. The three met. Sante finally met his cycling idol and gave Gira his account of the circumstances around one of his cop-killings. Sante's condition to this was that Gira only tell the authorities should he be killed. The resulting rumors were enough to call Gira into court at the first of Sante's trials!

The second half of the book recounts Sante's time in prison and his heroics when he led the resistance to an inmate revolt and armed other inmates while protecting their jailers! His good behavior would set him free in 1959 after 32 years in prison. He spent his freedom selling various items around Novi (via bicycle) and staying within the law.

Woven throughout the book is the lyrics to a popular song about the legend of the bandit and the champion by Francesco De Gregori (written by his brother Luigi Grechi). Video below.

I found my interest change from the racing insight and biography of Girardengo to the incredible story of the bandit Pollastri. By the end of the book, I had almost forgotten the link to cycling's pioneering years; however, Ventura's level of detail and research is something that goes way beyond the typical content of most Italian cycling books... birth of the Giro - Girardengo - Binda - Guerra - Bartali/Coppi - end of the golden age.

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