Ottavio Bottecchia

Ottavio Bottecchia

The northern Italian cyclist won the Tour de France in 1924 and 1925.

Thu 20 Jun 2024 10:14 AM

This year marks the 100th anniversary of when the first Italian cyclist won the Tour de France, the race that originated in 1903, the brainchild of Henri Degrange, the director of L’Auto, a French sports magazine in the hope of boosting its dwindling circulation. Not only would this man win the race in 1924, he would repeat his feat a second time the following year, setting the bar high for any other Italian who wanted to emulate his success. 

Ottavio Bottecchia, participating in the “petit Tour de France” on August 5 1923, in Parc des Princes. Ph. Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Ottavio Bottecchia was the name of the first Italian to don the world-renowned maillot jaune, or yellow jersey, worn by the overall leader of the race, which was introduced in 1919 to mirror the colour of the magazine’s pages. Although at the time, he barely spoke a word of their language, the French fans loved him and nicknamed him Botescià. Over the years, his double victories have only been matched by two other Italian cyclists: the mythical Gino Bartali in 1938 and 1948, and Fausto Coppi in 1949 and 1952. 

Born into an impoverished family, the eighth of nine children, in San Martino di Colle Umberto, in the province of Treviso, Bottecchia had almost no schooling and did not learn to read until after he became a professional cyclist. His first jobs were as a cobbler and then a bricklayer. Despite his socialist ideals, when Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary on 23 May 1915, he joined the Italian army’s Bersaglieri corps. For the next four years, he rode a special folding bike to deliver messages and supplies along the Austrian front. He suffered from malaria and a gas attack. He was also taken prisoner three times by the enemy and escaped each time. After the war, he was awarded the Bronze Medal for Military Valour.

On returning from the war in 1920, Bottecchia married Caterina, with whom he had three children, one of whom died in infancy, but their life was not easy in those hard times. That same year, he began to participate as an amateur in cycle races like the Coppa della Vittoria in 1920 and the Coppe Gallo and Osimo and the Giro del Friuli in 1921. In 1922, he turned professional and the year before he took fifth place in the Giro d’Italia. Invited to join the strong French team, which was owned by the motorcycle company Automoto-Hutchinson, he arrived in France to prepare for his first Tour in 1924. A thin dark-haired man with protruding ears, shabbily dressed and wearing shoes that had long lost their original form, he nevertheless had the physical strength and willpower to pull himself and his family out of misery.

In 1926, Bottecchia began manufacturing racing bikes with a frame-maker called Teodoro Carnielli, whose family would continue to own the company until 1999 when they sold it. Their cycling products are now sold in Europe, the US, Australia, and Japan. Bought in July 2022 by Fantic Motor, the factory was badly damaged by fire, but it is now fully operational again. 

Ottavio Bottecchia’s came to a tragic end on June 15, 1927 in Gemona del Friuli, in the province of Udine. He was 33 years old. During a training ride for the Tour de France, he was found semiconscious and bloody by the side of the road in Trasaghis, a small village near Peonis on June 3. Transported by cart to the Gemona hospital, doctors discovered he was suffering from severe head and other injuries. Although he and his family maintained he had felt sick and had fallen from his bike, other theories soon began to surface. These included a local farmer who said he had caught him stealing his grapes so he hit him over the head with a stick or a rock, whereas another claimed he had fallen from a tree while picking cherries. Motives of passion were even bandied about. Further conjecture related to his brother Giovanni, who had been struck by a car and killed while out riding his bike some months before. The vehicle was owned by a local fascist bigwig who had been a witness at Mussolini’s wedding. Apparently, Bottecchia had refused the compensation the man offered, and insulted him. As a result, he was said to have been beaten up by a fascist squad. To compound the confusion, an Italian immigrant in America confessed on his deathbed that he had been paid to murder Giovanni by an illegal gambling racket. To this day, the truth behind the brothers’ deaths remains a mystery.

Visit the Ottavio Bottecchia Museum

The museum dedicated to Ottavio Bottecchia is inside the Mola in via Tandura, San Martino di Colle Umberto, and it is open on the first Sunday every month.

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