What's Cool In Road Cycling

The Adventures of Gino Bartali, Part One

Gino Bartali, the great Italian rider of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, would be a legend if it were just for his exploits on the bike. But his career spanned tragedy and triumph for Italy as a whole and Bartali managed to be at the centre of the action.

Gino Bartali was born in Ponte a Ema east of Florence on 18 July 1914. He had a strict Catholic upbringing and would be later known for his piousness (according to one commentator, it was his “pious and religious life that enabled his moral and physical fibre to work like a clock.”) By all accounts he was a tough, feisty and outgoing character right from the start of his cycling career, with a gravelly voice due to a childhood injury to his vocal chords. A broken nose sustained in 1934 only added to his hard man appearance, despite a modest stature of 5’7”. His nickname was Ironman.

Accounts suggest that Bartali was a volume trainer, putting in huge training rides in preparation for the long and tough races of the day. Blessed with a seemingly bombproof constitution (and reportedly a very low heart rate), Bartali was well known for staying up late, enjoying his red wine and other beverages, and more than the occasional cigarette. He was wary of doping – and apparently fascinated by Fausto Coppi’s use of drugs – but was reported to have enjoyed more than 20 espressos every day, leading some to suggest that he was already well stimulated.

Although his cycling career was defined in many ways by his rivalry with Coppi, Bartali’s achievements were ferocious in their own right: twice the winner of the Tour de France (with 12 stage wins); three Giro d’Italia victories (with 17 stage wins); and being Italian national champion four times, winning Milan-San Remo four times, and a host of other victories. And all this with a career split by WWII and spanning a particularly bleak period of modern Italian history. Yet Bartali not only managed these achievements on the bike, but also managed – in ways both private and public – to make a wider impact on the politics and history of the time.

Sport and Propaganda
Mussolini and his National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista, PNF) came to power in Italy in 1922. After the controversial elections of 1924, the PNF won total control and Mussolini gradually transformed the government and the country into a one-party police state under his direction. The Catholic Church offered some opposition, but reached an accord with Mussolini in 1929, although was critical of the treatment of Catholic Action, a lay group to promote Catholic values, of which Gino Bartali – as a good Catholic lad – was a member (his political sympathies were with the Catholic democrats, a faction of the Italian People’s Party that become the Christian Democracy party in 1943).

Bartali won his first Giro in 1936 at 22 years of age (a spectacular achievement until Coppi won his first at age 20) having won the mountains prize in 1935. His brother Giulio was also a promising junior cyclist but was killed in a racing accident while Gino was at the Giro. It almost caused the older Bartali to retire from cycling and was an eerie prelude to Fausto Coppi later losing his brother Serse in a bike racing accident.

Bartali’s victory in the Giro of 1937 was even more dominating than his first. But the demands of the tougher edition that year, and his extensive training regime before the race, had taken their toll. At the end, with victory in hand, he was spent. But the PNF government saw sporting success as a propaganda tool to promote Italy’s vitality. The government therefore wanted Bartali to stamp Italian glory on the Tour de France of that year, Italy having been excluded in 1936 due to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia (then Abyssinia). He was thus ordered to compete.

Despite his fatigue, the Ironman was naturally true to his moniker. On the mountain stage from Aix-les-Bains to Grenoble, over the Telegraphe and Galibier, Bartali won the stage by 1’53”, taking the yellow jersey, with teammate Francesco Camusso in second place. But on the next stage to Briancon, Bartali was brought down in a crash with teammate Jules Rossi and ended up falling off a bridge into a river. Camusso pulled him out, reportedly covered in blood and mud. Bartali struggled on to the finish nearly 10 minutes down on the stage winner in 33rd place but with enough of an advantage to hold onto the race lead. It was a true hard man performance. But on the next stage, from Briancon to Digne with the climbs of the Izoard, Vars and Allos, Bartali was struggling and lost the stage by 22’33”.

Bartali wanted to fight on, but the Italian government, seeing its propaganda plans going awry, called him home and he abandoned after stage 11. According to Herbie Sykes, he had to borrow the train fare to get home from Emilio Colombo of the Gazzetta dello Sport. But the indignities at the hands of the fascists were not over. In 1938, Bartali was one of several cyclists banned from competing at the Giro and ordered to direct their energies at winning the Tour.

The 1938 Tour de France
Despite any misgivings they might have had, the Italian team for the 1938 Tour was a powerful one. As well as Bartali there the more-than-capable climber Mario Vicini, who had ironically placed 2nd riding as an independent in the 1937 edition after Bartali had been called home. Rossi was back (but not Camusso) as well as several other veterans. The first campionissimo of Italian cyclists, Constante Girardengo, was the team director. Although Bartali was on a mission from Mussolini, the leadership of the team was up for grabs, with Girardengo intending to see who was the strongest between Bartali, Vicini, and Giordano Cottur.

The French team was reckoned weak, with the Belgians regarded as the main threat. True to expectations, Bartali was soon duelling in the Pyrenees with Belgian climber Felicien Vervaecke, who held the race lead for eight stages after winning the Pau-Luchon stage with the climbs of the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Peyresourde, and Aspin (Bartali was the leader over the first three climbs). Sitting in second place, Bartali waited for the Alps and made his move on the reverse of the 1937 stage, this time from Digne to Briancon. It was a ride that would make Bartali a legend. His gap at the finish in Briancon over second place (his teammate Vicini) was 5’18”. Vervaecke had cracked and finished 10th, 17 minutes down, falling to third overall. Taking the time bonuses for crossing all the three climbs first gave Bartali another 5 minutes.

Bartali was now in the yellow jersey with a lead of nearly 18 minutes over second place. Italian fans from Turin had flocked to Briancon and, according to Bartali’s own account, “there was an explosion of excitement.” Bartali had taken risks on the descents during the stage, forcing the pace, and attributed his win more to his descending than his climbing. “I plunged into the valley [the descent from the Izoard] thinking only of the cool glass of milk I’d asked to be ready for me in my hotel room when I arrived,” Bartali later said. “That is what was going through my mind when I achieved the dream of my life.”

The next day, however, even the Ironman was feeling the effects of his efforts. Giradengo advised caution and sent Vicini ahead on the Galibier climb to hoover up the time bonus. Bartali was still worried that his position was tenuous and descended incautiously from the Galibier to pull back the leading group. It was a long stage, some 311 kilometres to Aix-les-Bains, and Vervaecke mounted a counter attack of sorts by leading the peloton over the Iseran. At the finish, though, the favourites finished together. Vervaecke was now back in second place, but still 20 minutes behind Bartali, and even a win in the time-trial stage before Paris was not enough to seriously erode Bartali’s winning margin.

World War II
Bartali still had little more than contempt for the fascists and had won the Tour for himself and for Italian fans. He might have played into Mussolini’s hands by winning the Tour but was now a hero and a well-known public figure to all Italians. This public profile would offer a measure of protection during the tough years of WWII and give Bartali the opportunity for his most daring and least well-known adventure. When Italy declared war on the Allies on 10 June 1940, not coincidentally the day after the Giro for that year finished, Bartali was just shy of his 26th birthday.

Yad Vashem is “the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust”, established in 1953 in Israel. One of its projects is to celebrate and remember The Righteous Among The Nations, individuals that stood up to Nazi atrocities against Jews during WWII. Sportspersons are included among the righteous. For example, Yad Vashem recounts the story of Polish soccer player Tadeusz Gebethner who in 1939 fought the German invasion of Poland, then later escaped from a prison camp and saved Jewish families from imprisonment before dying in the Warsaw uprising in 1944.

It has been known for a number of years that Gino Bartali was involved in efforts during the war to shelter local Jews, something that he keep largely quiet in post-war years. But many of the details are only now emerging, subsequent to Bartali’s death in 2000, as memoirs and accounts of the time are published. Yad Vashem is currently considering his elevation to The Righteous Among Nations, like Tadeusz, in recognition for his efforts.

The Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants (Delegazione per l’Assistenza degli Emigranti Ebrei) or DELASEM was responsible for coordinating the emigration of Jewish refugees from Italy from 1939 onwards. After the German occupation of Italy in September 1943, DELASEM was forced underground but continued to work with sympathetic local Catholic leaders in the Rome and Genoa areas and helped coordinate the hiding or escape of up to 35,000 Italian and foreign Jews, according to reports.

In the Florence area, DELASEM’s efforts were run by Giorgio Nissim, a Jewish accountant from Pisa, and the branch is credited with saving 800 people. Unlike Fausto Coppi, Bartali was not required for wartime service. The last Giro d’Italia was held in 1940, but Mussolini’s regime wanted cycle racing to continue during the war – although riders were apparently required to ride for free. One-day races continued through 1941 and 1942 but largely ground to a halt with the Allied invasion in July 1943, Mussolini’s subsequent overthrow, and the German occupation of Italy. But with the end of racing, Bartali had plenty to keep him busy and our story will continue in Part 2.

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