21 May, 2006

The Mysterious Death of Ottavio Bottecchia

Ottavio Bottecchia was the first rider to lead the Tour de France from start to finish, winning in 1924 and 25. He was known as "Le Macon de Frioul" (the Mason from Frioul) and was a hero to all of Italy.

But this post is not about Bottecchia's racing career, but about his death. In 1927 Ottavio died under mysterious circumstances. He had gone on a training ride and was found bloody and beaten by the side of the road near a vineyard. He soon died of his injuries.

Some in the Italian press claimed, based on the official police report, that he had crashed. But Bottechia's bike was propped up neatly at the side of the road undamaged.

Others said he had stopped at the vineyard to eat a few grapes and was beaten up by a furious farmer, but the grapes had not yet ripened. Though some say a farmer confessed to hitting him in the head with a stone.

It is far more likely that Bottecchia was murdered for political reasons. Italy was in the midst of a Fascist take-over. As so often happens in difficult times, some people were willing to trade freedom for a sense of security. And, predictably, the right wing had stepped in to take advantage. Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party badly wanted the support of Italy's great sports hero. They had already been using him as a role model for their vision of a fascist Italy.

But it seems that Ottavio Bottecchia was no facsist. Some said he was a socialist and was willing to speak out about his beliefs. And for this the fascist thugs had good reason to murder him. His injuries included a fracture at the base of the skull, a broken clavicle, and many bruises. Yet no one dared call his death a murder.

And so the Fascists came to power and launched a senseless war in Ethiopia; it is easier to consolidate power during a war. Soon Mussolini joined Hitler in an attempt to conquer all of Europe. And he eventually was excecuted and hung from a street lamp in Milan along with others of his ilk.

Some time later, in New York city, an Italian immigrant, on his death bed after being stabbed, confessed to being hired to murder Bottechia. The priest who administered last rites to Bottechia confirmed this story from his own death bed in 1973.

Framemaker Teodoro Carnielli, a longtime friend of Ottavio's, created frames bearing Bottecchia's name. These frames, later produced by Carnielli S.P.A., have been ridden by five Italian champions and four world champions. Greg Lemond rode a Bottecchia when he won the 1989 Tour de France.

I am the proud owner of a 1989 top-of-the-line Bottecchia.


Anonymous said...

I'm no apologist for the Fascists, but from all I've read it appears to be at least conceivable that Bottechia died from injuries substained in a crash. The accounts I've read point to the parked bike as the best evidence against a crash, but we've all seen weirder things happen than ghost-ridden bikes coming to a stop upright against a wall. And a fixed-gear bike--which is almost certainly what he was riding--would be more able to do that than a modern, geared bike with sharper handling.

As for the death-bed confession? Pah. Look at how many folks "confessed" to being at the execution of Jimmy Hoffa. The current dig is one of a dozen-or-so sites goombas have pointed to as his final resting place.

Given the poliicized (if not outright corrupt or incompetent) state of the police and medical examiners in Italy at the threshhold of Mussolini's rise to power, Ottavio's death is destined to forever be one of cycling's great mysteries.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the most complete discription of the Bottechia "incident" I have seen. I too have a Bottechia bike that looks identical to the one you own except for components. I was interested to know who built it, and you have shed light on that for me. A lovely bike to ride, and some history to ponder next time I struggle up some steep hill.

Kind Regards, Alan Bergamini, New Zealand.

Anonymous said...

This is a very weird story. I think it makes sense for him to be killed with the fame he had from the tour wins. Maybe he met up with a competitor to ride and made him mad. This acrticle has made me courious to this story and my Bottechia.

I am interested in Bottechia bikes. I own a bottechia bike that I think was made in the late 80s to early 90s and i am interested in its value. If anyone knows Bottechia well please contact me at KngOfTheMtn18@aim.com

Scooter said...

John Foot wrote what is probably the best-researched description of the Bottecchia incident in his book "Pedalare Pedalare"

It's a good read.