Until very recently, the Italian Gino Bartali (1914-2000) was known for his remarkable feats on a bicycle.
He was the most famous Italian cyclist 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.
To this day he holds the record for the largest gap between victories, at ten years. Indeed, had it not been for the Tour and the Giro both being suspended for the duration of the 2nd World War, 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, from Digne to Briançon by more than five minutes. The radio commentator Georges Briquet, upon seeing the crowds of Italians greeting Bartali said “These people had found a superman. Outside Bartali’s hotel at Aix-les-Bans, an Italian general was shouting ‘Don’t touch him – he’s a god.'”
He won 12 individual stages at the Tour between 1938 and 1950, and two Mountains Classifications (1938 and 1948). At the Giro he won 17 individual stages and the KOM 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 iconoclastic rides ever at Le Tour.
Suffering badly and surely headed for defeat, Bartali received a phone call from the Italian Parliamentary President, informing that Italy was on the verge of revolution, and, desperate for something to unite the fractured nation, he would have to win the race to distract the nation’s attention from its political and economic woes.
“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.” 1.
With the Italian Communist Party occupying television and radio stations throughout the nation and ready top fight the fascist forces they accused of Togliatti’s murder, tensions were running at fever pitch – but Bartali came to the rescue.
“Just as it seemed the communists would stage a full-scale revolt, a deputyran 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.”
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 personality, way of riding and indeed his entire life was set in direct contrast to his.
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 Championships and just about every Classic you care to mention.
Yet it wasn’t just 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 age. He was more stylish in his appearance than Bartali, more carefree, secular whereas Bartali embraced dogmatic Catholicism, and a hero of the industrial North, whereas the older man was a hero of the agricultural South.
Italy was divided into ‘Coppiani’ and ‘Bataliani’. You were either one, or the other.
In many ways Bartali was destined to lose out to Coppi in terms of the remembered 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 were, in a very real sense, becoming liberated.
That, and the emerging technology that would see motor vehicles, televisions and refrigerators become increasingly common meant that the old way of life – and its icons – 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.
And then, in 2010, a remarkable tale emerged, transcribed by Aili and Andres McConnon in their book Road To Valour: A True Story of World War II Italy, The Nazis, And The Cyclist Who Inspired A Nation.
Bartali, you see, had been holding on to a secret, one that, had it not been for the McConnon brother and sister pair, may well have been forgotten altogether.
Gino Bartali, you see, had been risking his life throughout the 2nd World War to save the lives of dozens of Jews from the horrors of the German concentration camps.
After having found a small mention in a local newspaper of a Jewish organization that said that Bartali had helped them, Aili McConnon began to investigate, and what she found is truly incredible.
“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 ferrying forged travel and identity documents to Jewish people hiding in the countryside, with the papers rolled up and inserted down the length of his seat tube.
The German and fascist Italian patrols would see him out on his bike but be too fearful to risk public anger by searching a living legend such as Bartali. However, had he been caught, he would have certainly been shot.
In another instance, Bartali actually sheltered a local Jewish family in an apartment purchased with his cycling winnings.
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.”
In September 2013, 13 years after his death, Bartali was recognised as a “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 needed a tale to jolt it back to reality and to provide a sense of proportion, this is it. And if ever we needed a hero, we need look no further than the great Gino Bartali.
1. L’Humanite, 2003 07 24, Gino Bartali, l’Italien méconnu
2. Obituary, Daily Telegraph, UK