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Tales from the peloton, March 10, 2007

Cycling's murder mysteries

Tour de France winners don’t always live a long and happy life. Two have even been murdered, and one of those murders happened 80 years ago this summer. I wonder if anyone will give him a thought during this year’s Tour? Les Woodland tells of the mystery surrounding the death of one Tour champion.

Now, everyone knows whodunnit in the case of Henri Pélissier. It was his mistress who got as sick of him as his first wife had done and shot him. With a dramatic touch, she used the same gun that the wife had used to commit suicide. Pélissier was such an unpleasant man that you’d have shot him, too. The court that heard the murder charge came as close as it could to telling the mistress to go away and behave herself.

Ottavio Bottecchia
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The difference between Pélissier and Ottavio Bottecchia is that nobody's ever been caught for killing the Italian - and that Bottecchia's brother, eerily, also died on the same stretch of road. Ottavio Bottecchia was frail, with a wide mouth, hollow cheeks and long thin legs. He had "skin like an old saddle, wrinkles that looked like scars, and the awkwardness of a peasant," said one contemporary account.

He used to haul wood from the forests, using a horse and cart but also a lot of muscle power. When that ceased to appeal, he joined the army. Machine guns are never light and in those days they were even heavier. It was when an officer saw him riding a mountain path with one on his shoulder that he turned to Bottecchia and said, "You know, you ought to be a racing cyclist, not a soldier."

And that's how Bottecchia came to place fourth in the Tour of Lombardy in 1923 and 1926, fifth in the Giro in 1923, and fifth in Milan-San Remo in 1924 . You’ll gather that Bottecchia was the George Hincapie of his day - not quite winning, but always in the mix.

In the Tour, though, he came alive. He came second to Pélissier in 1923, and the Frenchman rightly forecast that Bottecchia would win the following year. And sure enough he won in 1924 and again in 1925. He came to France unable to say much more in French than "No bananas, lots of coffee, thank you", won two Tours, and then on June 3, 1927, someone caved his head in with a rock.

He was found outside the village of Peonis, close to his home. His skull was cracked, one collarbone broken, other bones snapped. His bike, which was lying on the verge, not on the road, wasn’t damaged. No skid marks suggested a car had forced him off the road. There would have been scrapes on the pedals or handlebar tape if he’d lost control. But there was nothing.

The verdict was sunstroke. The heat had been too much for him, they said. But that didn’t seem likely for an Italian at home, still less for a man who'd ridden the Tour de France. Above all, it didn’t explain a stoved-in head. I think maybe things were arranged because his life insurance excluded physical attack and a verdict of sunstroke suited his wife.

There's a theory that Fascists murdered him for speaking against Mussolini. An Italian dying from stab wounds on a New York waterfront even claimed he had been employed as a hit man. He named a supposed godfather, although nobody of the name was ever found.

The police never believed the sunstroke claim, but the fascist commander, Gino Caserotti, told them to stop investigating - a move which stoked up the conspiracy theorists. But Mussolini could hardly have been bothered by Bottecchia because he’d been first to contribute when Gazetta dello Sport opened a benefit fund. And anyway, why use a rock when a gun would do the job better?

Maybe someone else had attacked him? Maybe. But a fight that breaks one man's head batters the other as well. Blood and bruises wouldn't go unnoticed. Then, much later, a farmer in Pordenone made a startling confession. "I saw a man eating my grapes," he said on his deathbed. "He'd pushed through the vines and damaged them. I threw a rock to scare him, but it hit him. I ran to him and realised who it was. I panicked and dragged him to the roadside and left him. God forgive me!"

That's the version you'll still read in the books. But it's nonsense. It takes a whopping rock to break a man's skull. You couldn't throw it far, so the farmer would have been close enough for Bottecchia to shout or even recognise him. If you found a national hero, the winner of the Tour de France, nicking a few of your grapes, what would you do? Hurl a rock or go over and shake his hand? How much are a few grapes worth anyway? You wouldn't hurl a rock.

Apart from anything else, if you slung a lump of rock in a vineyard you'd do as much damage with it as Bottecchia was supposed to have been doing by pinching a few grapes off a bunch. But there's something else. Something much more obvious. Who'd steal grapes in June? Grapes aren't ripe until late summer. The mystery continues. Not made any less puzzling by the fact that two years earlier Bottecchia's brother Giovanni had died on the very same road. Will he be remembered this summer as a later generation of Italians sets out on the roads of the Tour? I don't think so, but I hope!

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