On Sunday, the Tour de France had its first Italian champion in 16 years in Vincenzo Nibali, who won four stages of this year's dramatic race through the Alps, Pyrenees, and Vosges mountain ranges. In the Tour's 111-year history only seven Italians have claimed the top step of the podium, so this is news. With any luck, he'll escape the fate of the first Italian ever to win the Tour, who was found dead in mysterious circumstances by the side of the road in 1927.
Ottavio Bottecchia was born in 1894 to an impoverished family in northeast Italy and was working as a bricklayer when World War I broke out. He promptly joined the Italian Army and served as a bicycle messenger hauling heavy artillery through mountain passes, which is how he discovered he had a talent for riding bikes. After the war ended in 1918, Bottecchia pursued competitive cycling full time. Studying the sport under Henri Pélissiser, the athlete finally learned to read in his twenties and he spent a good deal of time consuming antifascist literature.
In 1923, Bottecchia won second place in his first Tour de France and the world took notice. An Italian newspaper promoted subscriptions to fund a sponsorship and the first person to give to the cause was none other than Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy.
The Italian took first place the 1924 Tour de France, winning the first stage and holding the coveted yellow jersey for the rest of the race—in other words, Bottecchia never surrendered the lead. There was one stage, however, during which he chose not to wear the yellow jersey. Since that course was the one closest to the Italian border, some believe that the the popular Italian athlete might have wanted to avoid being recognized and delayed by overeager fans. Another theory is that Bottecchia was trying to dodge Italian Fascists who could have been looking to put him out of commission in a more permanent way.
Bottecchia never took a public stand against Mussolini, but neither did he keep his socialist sympathies secret. In 1920s Italy, athletes were seen as symbols of the state's might, and for a star like Bottecchia to have even of whiff of subversion would have been enough for some of Mussolini's passionate partisans to hate him—and even, some argue today, kill him.
In June 1927, Bottecchia, then 32 years old, was found nearly dead on the side of the road (he'd die 12 days later). His bloodied body was laid out next to a vineyard, his skull and collarbone cracked. His bicycle was neatly propped up against a fence and showed no signs of going through a crash, a detail that would fuel conspiracy theories in the decades to come. The official story was that he suffered a sunstroke and smashed his bike into the fence, which seemed ridiculous to many—it's far more likely, to those possessed of a romantic inclination toward a belief in secret plots, that Bottecchia was murdered by the Fascists.
There's hardly any evidence that the Fascists actually killed the cyclist, but the other explanations don't make much more sense. One story has Bottecchia picking grapes when an angry farmer bashed his head in with a thrown rock—the farmer even confessed to this on his deathbed, supposedly—but that doesn't really explain the broken collarbone. And there's no denying that death by a bike crash or a pissed-off winemaker doesn't have the romantic ring that "Ottavio Bottecchia was murdered by the Fascists" does.
Bottecchia's death overshadows his life, which is a shame: He was one of the greatest cyclists of the 1920s, and a hero for holding onto his socialist beliefs when doing so was dangerous. His legacy lives on in Vincenzo Nibali's Tour de France victory and between the legs of all who have ridden frames bearing his name. Bottecchia—the bicycle manufacturer still in business today—says its mission is "to develop to realize bikes for all the needs, by combining style and devotion." Bottecchia wrung out an amazing career in the midst of war-torn Europe by overcoming poverty and illiteracy. I'd sure as hell call that "style and devotion."
Lindsey Adler is also a cyclist of Italian heritage. Follow her on Twitter.