Ottavio Bottecchia (1894-1927)

Born on August 1, 1894, in San Martino di Colle Umberto, Ottavio
Bottecchia became the first Italian cyclist to win the Tour de France.
Having worked as a shoe-maker, bricklayer and builder and after being
awarded the Bronze medal for valor and distinguished service ferrying
messages and supplies to the Austrian front on a folding bike during the First World War, Ottavio pursued his talent for bicycle racing, joining the professional ranks in 1920.

In 1923 Bottecchia placed fifth in the 11th Giro d’Italia, the highest finish by an ‘isolate’ (a rider without a team). His position attracted the attention of the leading French rider at the time, Henri Pélissier, who asked Bottecchia to join his professional team, Automoto-Hutchinson. Automoto was a French motorcycle company that also sold its products in Italy. Automoto saw the chance in Ottavio not only to win the Tour de France but also to stimulate Italian sales of their motorcycles. Ottavio arrived in France to report to his new team with a skin tanned like an old leather saddle and creases to his face deep enough to be scars. His clothing was ragged and his shoes so old that they no longer had any shape. (Bottecchia’s family always struggled with poverty.) His ears stuck out so far that the Tour organizer, Henri Desgrange, referred to him as “butterfly”.

The only words of French he could manage were: “No bananas, lots of coffee, thank you.”

Bottecchia’s successes for his new team quickly accumulated, including a stage win in the 1923 Tour de France and a second place overall finish. He led the Tour from Cherbourg after the second stage and wore the yellow jersey of leader as far as Nice. There he passed it on to Pélissier, who won with the prediction: “Bottecchia will succeed me next year.” Such was the reaction in Italy that the Gazetta dello Sport asked for a lira from each of its readers to reward him.

In 1924, still riding for Automoto, Bottecchia was in full form, cycling without
any effort on any slope, his stamina perfect, and his morale high. On July
22, the Gazzetta dello Sport’s front page headline reported in large letters:
“Bottecchia triumphantly wins the Tour de France and reaches the goal that for 20 years the strongest Italian riders pursued in vain.”

Bottecchia is not only the first Italian to win the prestigious French competition, winning four stages on his way to victory, but also the first cyclist to wear the yellow jersey from the first to final stage. In fact, upon finishing the race he wore his yellow jersey all the way to Milan on the train – travelling third class to save money. By then his French had improved: “Not tired, French and Belgians good friends, cycling good job.”

Bottecchia won the twentieth Tour de France, the so-called “Tour of
Suffering”, in 1925 – only 49 of the original 130 riders finished the competition – with the help of Lucien Buysse, who served as the first domestique in Tour history. Sadly, he never again reached this peak of success in his short life. He dropped-out “weeping like a child” during a thunderstorm-soaked stage of the 1926 Tour. The following winter, he lost his younger brother, Giovanni, killed by a motorist while riding his bicycle near Conegliano. The following month, on June 3, 1927, a farmer outside the village of Peonis, near Ottavio’s home, found Ottavio on the roadside, his skull cracked and multiple bones broken. Bottecchia was carried to an inn and laid on a table. From there he was taken by cart to a hospital in Gemona. At 10:30 am on June 15, 1927, thirteen days later, Ottavio Bottecchia died without regaining consciousness. The circumstances surrounding his premature death remain a mystery.

Started as a small cyclery by Teodoro Carnielli in 1909 and adopting the
name of a truly great Italian cycling champion, the Bottecchia bicycle
company continues to produce quality road bikes to this day. Greg
Lemond road a steel Bottecchia on his way to victory during the 1989 Tour
de France… only two years after he almost lost his life to a gunshot wound!