Happy birthday to Ottavio Bottecchia, who was born on this day in 1894, and died on June 15, 1927.
Bottecchia is best remembered for being the first Italian rider to win Tour de France, along with his death that continues to remain shrouded in mystery.
Growing up in stifling poverty, Bottechia became a mason before joining the Italian army in World War One. He was a member of Bersaglieri Corps, fighting as a cycling soldier. He carried messages and supplies on his bike and earned a medal for engaging the enemy with a machine gun.
After the war he went to France in search of work. There he took up cycle racing and began to have good results. He returned to Italy and in 1923 rode the Giro as an independent rider. His fifth place (46 minutes behind winner Costante Girardengo) made him the highest placed independent.
He was recruited by French bike maker Automoto, which had ambitions of selling bikes in Italy. He rode the 1923 Tour de France as a domestique for winner Henry Pélissier.
The next year he took the lead after winning the first stage and held the lead to the end. In 1925 he again won the Tour, though this time he rode more tactically and economically. After that, the winning magic seemed to have left him.
He abandoned the 1926 Tour during a terrible, stormy stage.
He was found murdered on June 3, 1927. His skull was broken, but his bike was a short distance away, undamaged. There are many theories about his death, but no strong evidence points reliably to any explanation.
Bernard Chambaz of the French newspaper L’Humanité was quoted as saying:
Accident or assassination? The accident theory, favored by justice, on the accounts of witnesses and a medical examination which also referred to several fractures, was based on an assumption of an illness, sunstroke and a fall. In fact, the inquiry was quickly closed. The theory suited everybody: the Mussolini régime, the presumed killer and even – it’s sad to say – the family, now sure of a large insurance payout.
Don Dantė Nigris, the priest who gave him the last rites, is said to have attributed the death to Fascists unhappy about Bottecchia’s more liberal leanings. But An Italian dying from stab wounds on a New York waterfront claimed he had been employed as a hit man. He named a supposed godfather, although nobody of the name was ever found.
Much later, a farmer in Pordenone said on his deathbed: “I saw a man eating my grapes. 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 realized who it was. I panicked and dragged him to the roadside and left him. God forgive me!”
1923: Highest placed independent rider in the Giro d’Italia, stage one of the Tour de France (finished second overall)
1924: Tour de France with four stage victories, Giro della Provicia Milano (teamed with Costante Girardengo)
1925: Tour de France with four stage victories, Giro della Procincia Milano (teamed with Costante Girardengo), Buenos Aires 6-Day
1926: Stage two of Vuelta al Pais Vasco (finished second overall)
1925-1926: Automoto Hutchinson
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