Gino Bartali (1914-2000) was one of the finest cyclists Italy every produced and a man revered to this day in Italy.
He was one of the most famous Italian cyclists to emerge from a formidable generation of top riders, having won the Giro d’Italia in 1936, 1937 and 1946. He also won the Tour de France in 1938 and then again in 1948.
A young Gino
The record he holds at the Giro d’Italia for the largest gap between victories, at nine years, came about due to the race being suspended due to the Second World War. However, had it not been for the Tour and the Giro both being suspended during that time, it may well have been this unassuming and devout Roman Catholic, Bartali, that we’d be hailing as the most successful Grand Tour rider ever.
In 1938, aged just 24, Bartali won the hardest stage of the Tour that year, from Digne to Briançon (close to the Italian border) by more than five minutes. The radio commentator, upon seeing the crowds of Italians greeting Bartali, said “These people had found a superman. Outside Bartali’s hotel at Aix-les-Bans, as Bartali was being ushered through to the lobby, an Italian general in attendance shouted ‘Don’t touch him – he’s a god!’ ”
Bartali the God, shredded!
He won 12 individual stages at the Tour de France between 1938 and 1950, and two Mountains Classifications (1938 and 1948). At the Giro he won 17 individual stages and the KOM jersey a mind-boggling 7 times.
On top of this, he was Italian champion 4 times, won Milan-San Remo 4 times and the Giro di Lombardia 3 times.
In that ’48 Tour de France, Bartali’s legend was set in stone after he recovered from a terrible first week to put in one of the most iconic rides ever at Le Tour.
Suffering badly with fatigue, 20 minutes down on the leader and surely headed for defeat, Bartali received a phone call from the Italian Parliamentary President, Alcide de Gasperi, informing that Italy was on the verge of revolution, and, desperate for something to unite the fractured nation, he was urged to win the race to distract the nation’s attention from its political and economic woes.
Bartali in action, center, at the 1950 Tour, stage 18 from Pau to Saint-Gaudens. Cyclists Fiorenzo Magni is left,, and Kleber Piot on the right. (Photo by Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Sports writer Bernard Chambaz stated that:
“History and myth united, and a miracle if you like, because that evening Bartali got a phone call at his hotel. In a bad mood, dubious, he didn’t want to answer. But someone whispered that it was Alcide de Gasperi, his old friend from Catholic Action, now parliamentary president, who told him that Palmiro Togliatti, secretary-general of the Communist Party, had been shot at and had survived by a miracle. The situation in the peninsula was very tense amid the ravages of the Cold War. Italy needed Bartali to do what he best knew how to do, to win stages.”
With the Italian Communist Party occupying television and radio stations throughout the nation and ready to fight the right wing forces they accused of Togliatti’s murder, tensions were running at fever pitch – but Bartali came to the rescue. The next day, on Stage 13, he won by a large margin, then went on to secure the Yellow Jersey, finishing a huge and barely believable 26 minutes ahead of the man in 2nd place.
“Just as it seemed the communists would stage a full-scale revolt, a deputy ran into the chamber shouting “Bartali’s won the Tour de France!”. All differences were at once forgotten as the feuding politicians applauded and congratulated each other on a cause for such national pride. That day, with immaculate timing, Togliatti awoke from his coma on his hospital bed, inquired how the Tour was going, and recommended calm. All over the country political animosities were for the time being swept aside by the celebrations and a looming crisis was averted.”
Rome, Italy. August 10, 1948. The Tour de France winner Gino Bartali (the fourth from the left) is received by the President of the Italian Republic Luigi Einaudi (at the center) and by the Honorable Giulio Andreotti, the undersecretary to the Premer’s Office. The third from the right is the manager and trainer Alfredo Binda, three-time world champion. (Photo by Archivio Cicconi/Getty Images)
Bartali would surely have been remembered as the greatest Italian of his generation and possibly of all time had it not been for one man whose charismatic personality, style of riding and indeed entire way of living stole the limelight from the older Bartali.
That man was the great Fausto Coppi. To list Coppi’s achievements on the bike would take up an entire page, but suffice to note that he was nicknamed Il Campionissimo: The Champion of Champions.
Two Tour de France wins and 5 Giro victories stand alongside one World Championship and just about every Classic you care to mention bar Flanders.
Bartali and Coppi
Yet it wasn’t just the fact that Coppi was coming through as a precocious young talent as Bartali entered what, for cyclists, is considered middle age. It was also the fact that Coppi represented a new era, a shift not just of generations but of attitude and belief . He was more stylish in his appearance than Bartali, more carefree, and also secular, whereas Bartali embraced dogmatic Catholicism. Coppi was a hero of the new industrial North, whereas the older man was a hero of the old agricultural South.
1949 Tour with Coppi and Bartali leading the break, Stage 17. (Photo by Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Italy was divided into ‘Coppiani’ and ‘Bataliani’. You either loved one or the other.
In many ways Bartali was destined to lose out to Coppi in terms of the legacy of the two men, not just because of the fact that Coppi won more (and with greater style), but also because Bartali was a symbol of tradition, a tradition that was slipping away all over Europe.
Fresh from the ravages of the Second World War and desperate for relief from the ensuing hardships, European society released itself from many of the shackles that had held it for so long. People, and the young especially, were, in a very real sense, becoming liberated from the past.
Furthermore, the emerging technology that would see motor vehicles, televisions and refrigerators become increasingly common meant that the old way of life – including its icons, such as Bartali, as well as the bicycle as the dominant mode of transport in western Europe – would slip away and become increasingly irrelevant.
This was the situation for many years, as Coppi’s star rose ever higher and Bartali, as the decades went on, became more and more a forgotten man. Coppi’s sudden death at 40 years of age on January 2nd 1960, from malaria, further added to his myth, elevating his legend to iconic status.
In 2010 however, a remarkable tale emerged that would re-write the story of Gino Bartali. Written by Aili and Andres McConnon, their book Road To Valour: A True Story of World War II Italy, The Nazis, And The Cyclist Who Inspired A Nation shone a light onto a largely unknown heroic chapter of Bartali’s life.
Bartali, you see, had been holding on to a secret, one that, had it not been for the research of the McConnons, may well have been forgotten altogether.
Bartali incredibly had been risking his life throughout the 2nd World War to save the lives of more than eight hundred Jewish people from the horrors of the German concentration camps.
After having found a small story, in the late 90s, in a local newspaper of a Jewish organization that said that Bartali had helped Italian Jews, Aili McConnon began to investigate, and what she found is truly remarkable.
“When the Nazis occupied Italy in 1943, they worked together with the Italian Fascists and they were ferocious in their search for Jews,” said Ms. McConnon.
“If you helped the Jews in any way, you were helping an enemy of the state so you were a traitor. You could face torture, imprisonment and execution. And you risked the life of your family. Bartali had a wife and young son.”
But when Bartali was approached by a friend to help local Jewish families in and around his native Florence, he immediately accepted.
He began by carrying forged travel and identity documents to Jewish people hiding in the countryside, with the documents rolled up and inserted down the inside of his seat tube.
One of the falsified ID cards carried by Bartali during the war, that saved a life.
The Italian anti-Jewish local patrols would see him out on his bike but generally be either too enamoured with his feats at the Tour and the Giro or be too fearful to risk public anger by searching a living legend. Had he been caught though, he would have certainly been shot. However he was on rare occasions halted but his bike never searched.
In another instance, Bartali sheltered a local Jewish family, the family of his friend Giacomo Goldenberg, in an apartment he had purchased with his cycling winnings. Bartali himself told very few people of his work during the war, showing just how humble this formidable man truly was.
Bartali’s son Andrea remembered his father after his death, when being interviewed for the book, and recalled the great cyclist saying this to him:
“If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere. You must do good, but you must not talk about it. If you talk about it you’re taking advantage of others’ misfortunes for your own gain.”
In September 2013, 13 years after his death, Bartali was recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, for his efforts to aid Jews during World War II.
If ever cycling, and by extension our celebrity-crazed modern culture, needed a tale to jolt it back to reality and to provide a sense of proportion, this is it.
And if ever we need a hero, we need look no further than the great Gino Bartali.
Bartali’s son, Andrea, as his father is recognised by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations in 2013, as a non-Jew who helped Jews survive or escape the Holocaust.