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Great European Lives: Gino Bartali

Italian racing cyclist Gino Bartali celebrating his Tour de France victory, 31st July 1938. Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images - Credit: Roger Viollet/Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the cycling great whose Tour win helped unite a fracturing nation.

There was nothing like finding that rhythm, that moment where everything came together, the body, the mind, the bicycle, the road, and it felt like flying. It was the autumn of 1943, the summer heat still in the tarmac but a cooling breeze was coming in off Lake Trasimeno away to the right, and Gino Bartali was doing what he did better than anyone.

To his left a freight train passed him from behind, a challenge he couldn’t turn down even though there was still a good way yet until Assisi. He changed down two gears and first drew level with the engine then passed it, thighs pumping, before the tracks and the road diverged. He kept up the rhythm, heart pounding, the air roaring in his ears, and thought about the roadblock he came through a few minutes earlier, the young soldiers, most of whom didn’t need to read the name on his cycling jersey to realise who he was, respectfully asking him to dismount while they checked his papers.

Just a formality they told the champion, and he chatted easily with them about his great races, the Giros d’Italia he’d won and that 1938 Tour de France where he proved himself to be an expert mountain climber.

A couple of the soldiers moved towards his bicycle, preparing to check it over.

‘Ah lads,’ he called out, ‘do me favour and leave the bike, will you? It’s set up just the way I like it, quite delicate.’

Waving away apologies for detaining him, Bartali remounted and pedalled away, knowing that for all the cups and shields on his sideboard at home these rides were, thanks to what was concealed inside the frame of his bicycle, far more important than any mere cycle race.

Gino Bartali’s place in the pantheon of Italy’s sporting greats was all but assured before the Second World War broke out. His back-to-back wins in the Giro in 1936 and 1937 were an extraordinary achievement in themselves, let alone winning the Tour de France in 1938. That race had come at a time when Mussolini’s fascist regime was out to prove the racial superiority of Italians and if Bartali could win Europe’s showpiece cycling event then what better endorsement of all Il Duce was trying to achieve? Nobody told Bartali, though.

When he mounted the winner’s podium in Paris, expected to dedicate his win to Mussolini, Bartoli made no mention of the Italian leader, pointedly walking instead to a Paris church to lay his winner’s bouquet at the feet of the Madonna. It was an oblique yet brave expression of distaste for the regime by the deeply religious 24-year-old (Bartali would set up shrines in his hotel rooms during races and was nicknamed Il Pio, the Pious), but in terms of bravery in the face of evil he was only getting started.

Personal modesty meant it would take until after Bartali’s death in 2000 for the full story to come out. While Italy’s Jews had been ill-treated under Mussolini, this was nothing compared to when the Germans invaded in 1943 and anti-Semitism in the country became truly murderous.

That year the Goldenberg family, friends of a cousin of Bartali’s, arrived in Florence from Fiume, now Rijeka in Croatia, having been driven out of their home by fascists. When the Germans arrived Bartali hid the family in the cellar of his house and kept them there until the liberation of Florence in August 1944.

By then Bartali had been approached by the Florentine Archbishop Elia Della Costa, who was behind many of the clandestine operations to save the Jews in Tuscany, and had readily agreed to the primate’s suggestion he act as a messenger for the secretive network hiding Jews and spiriting them away to safety.

Hence Bartali, one of the most famous faces in the country, would hide in plain sight, riding between Franciscan monasteries across the region where Jews were being hidden, collecting photographs to deliver to forgers making documents that would help them escape, and then delivering the completed documents hidden inside the frame of his bicycle.

For many months nobody suspected the nation’s most famous sportsman was doing anything other than training as he rode
out of Florence to towns and cities as diverse as Assisi, Lucca and even as far as Rome.

Eventually, when there was very little cycle racing for which he could legitimately train, Bartali’s wide-ranging odysseys attracted the attention of the authorities. While arresting the nation’s most popular sportsman would have been a public relations disaster for the fascists, Bartali was interrogated in July 1944 at Florence’s notorious Villa Triste until one of the interrogators, who had been Bartali’s commanding officer earlier in the war (he had been drafted early in the conflict but was discharged after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat), convinced his colleagues the cyclist was not engaging in anything untoward.

It was Bartali’s 1948 Tour de France win, 10 years after his previous triumph, that cemented his place among the cycling greats. Partly this was because of the decade between wins – no Italians had competed in the Tour since his 1938 victory – but mostly it was because the achievement went beyond sport.

After the war Italy was in turmoil, the economy had practically collapsed and by 1948 a political vacuum had prompted a frantic scramble for power among a range of disparate parties.

Bartali had started the Tour badly and by stage 12 was 20 minutes behind the leader when, back in Rome, the leader of the Italian Communist Party Palmiro Togliatti was shot and seriously wounded on the steps of the parliament building. In the febrile atmosphere that followed, anarchy and revolt seemed inevitable. Prime minister Alcide de Gasperi telephoned Bartali and urged him to do his best to win the race. An Italian win in France would, he hoped, give the people something positive to unite behind.

The next three Tour stages were all mountainous and Bartali won them all, an achievement unparalleled in the history of the race. By the time he crossed the finishing line in Paris he was more than 26 minutes ahead of his nearest rival, Belgium’s Briek Schotte. Italians of all political persuasions rushed onto the streets to celebrate.

‘To say that civil war was averted by a Tour de France victory is surely excessive,’ said former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti years later, ‘but it is undeniable that after the attack on Togliatti Bartali contributed greatly to easing the tensions.’

The man whose Tour win helped to unite a fracturing nation had considered giving up cycling almost as soon as he turned professional. Born into a poor family on the outskirts of Florence, Bartali had begun racing when he began work at a bicycle repair shop at 13, turning professional in 1935 at the age of 21 and winning his first Giro d’Italia the following year.

A week after that triumph, however, Bartali’s younger brother Giulio, also a promising cyclist, was killed during a race when a car pulled unexpectedly onto the course in front of him. Gino was devastated, feeling partly responsible for encouraging his brother to follow in his footsteps, and retired from cycling aged just 22. Within months, however, he realised that the best tribute to his sibling would be to become the best cyclist he possibly could.

The death of a younger sibling in a cycling accident was one of very few things Bartali had in common with Fausto Coppi, the five-times Giro winner with whom he would develop one of the great sporting rivalries of the 20th century. Bartali, the stocky, devout Christian Democrat and family man from Florence, whose core support was based in the agrarian south of the country, cut a contrasting figure to the willowy Coppi, a demonstrative, outgoing, left-wing atheist who lived openly with his mistress. His supporters were drawn mainly from the industrial cities of the north.

Although Bartali would later claim the men were great friends out of the saddle, their rivalry was a fierce one that began in 1940 when the younger Coppi ignored his role as Bartali’s support rider to build a massive lead in that year’s Giro, and lasted for 14 years until Bartali’s retirement in 1954. The men pushed each other on to greater achievements but the work he did during the war is what seals Bartali’s place among the European greats, not least because he never spoke of it beyond a few basic facts imparted to his son, Andrea.

‘When I asked my father why I couldn’t tell anyone he told me, ‘You must do good but never talk about it. If you talk about it you’re taking advantage of others’ misfortunes for your own gain’,’ Andrea said after his father’s death.

As the man himself put it, ‘Some medals are made to hang on the soul, not the jacket’.

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