Ottavio Bottecchia (1894-1927) was an Italian cyclist and – notably – the first Italian winner of the Tour de France bike race. Born as the eighth of nine children to a poor family in San Martino di Colle Umberto (a small community about 40 miles north of Venice), Bottecchia began working at a young age. In fact, he only went to school for one year, before working as a shoemaker, and then later as a bricklayer, in order to help support his family. In World War I, Bottecchia joined the Bersaglieri Corps of the Italian Army, for which he transported messages and supplies across the Austrian front via bicycle. He endured a great deal of hardship during the war, including contracting malaria, experiencing a gas attack, and being captured (and escaping) multiple times. He was awarded a bronze medal for his service. After the end of the First World War, Bottecchia moved briefly to France to work as a builder. He eventually returned to Italy, where he began cycling competitively in 1920.
As a cyclist, Bottecchia was immediately successful. In 1923, he placed fifth in the 11th Giro d’Italia. His success in this race led him to being recruited by the famed French cyclist, Henri Pélissier, to join his French team. He was incredibly successful on this team, winning the first stage of the Tour de France just one year later, in 1924, and wearing the yellow jersey for a long part of the Tour. He won the Tour again in 1925, and became known nationwide in Italy, appearing often in the “Gazetta dello Sport.” Although Mussolini was a big fan of Bottecchia, Bottecchia was an outspoken socialist, and was decidedly anti-fascist and anti-Mussolini. Later, at the height of Mussolini’s power in 1927, Bottecchia died under suspicious circumstances. Although it was deemed to be a bike accident, many still believe that Bottecchia was assassinated for his anti-fascist views. [Photo: Agence de presse Meurisse - Bibliothèque nationale de France]