First name: Gino
Last name: Bartali
Age: died on 05-05-2000 – 85 years old
Date of birth: 18-07-1914
Birthplace: Ponte a Ema
Nicknames: the Silent, the Pious, the Mystic or the Monk, because of his intensely Catholic faith, and the Nordist of Tuscany because of his native Tuscany coupled with his preference for the Flemish races.
We are very happy to let the very special career and life apart from racing be relived for a moment in his story.
For Bartali it all starts in 1935 when he wins a stage in the Giro d ‘Italia. Both in 1936 and 1937 he became overall winner with three and four stage wins respectively. He also won the points classification three times. In 1937 he also rides the Tour de France with a win in one stage but then a abandonment follows. There is a final win and victory in the mountain classification in 1938. In that year there are also two stage wins, one of which is very special. He gives himself a nice birthday present on July 18 with stage win in the 11th stage Montpellier-Marseille.
Bartali’s further career was then considerably interrupted by the Second World War. Nevertheless, he added a third Giro to his palmares (1946), a second Tour de France (1948), 2 times Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Switzerland, among others. In 1950, Bartali even seemed headed for his third Tour victory. But in the Pyrenees stage to Saint-Gaudens, which he won by the way, things went thoroughly wrong. During the ascent of the Col d’Aspin, supporters threatened, spat on and mocked the Italians. Bartali told them after the inauguration in Saint-Gaudens, that the two Italian teams would leave the Tour. And so it happened. Obviously, without the war and the many incidents, Bartali’s final palmares would have looked very different. But in the end, Bartali thought that was only an afterthought, as he was active on other fronts besides racing.
Hero during the war
So in 1938, Bartali won his first Tour de France. That victory was an outright state affair for the Italians. The then Italian dictator Benito Mussolini saw in a Tour victory proof of Italy’s strength. That the Italians could dominate the most important cycling race in the world was a real prestige issue for Fascism in Italy. Bartali was gently coerced into dedicating his victory to Mussolini, but he refused. This was a serious insult to Mussolini, and a great risk to Bartali. Mussolini had just enacted Italy’s racial laws, which meant that Jews lost their citizenship and no longer had a chance of getting government jobs or other important positions.
Letter carrier for the Jews
During the war years, Bartali was approached by the Cardinal of Florence, Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa. The archbishop had set up a network to help Jews. Jews were given shelter in monasteries and buildings of the Catholic Church. Bartali, who was known for his long and intensive training, thus carried false papers hidden in his frame from one place to another. When Bartali was stopped at checkpoints, it was very easy to distract the soldiers by starting a conversation about the race. He also asked the soldiers not to touch his bike because it was adjusted exactly to his measurements. Similarly, Bartoli would regularly bike to the Trentola train station in his racing outfit and in the national tricolor. This station was an important border station between the occupied north and the liberated south of Italy. When he then got off his bicycle there, a crowd of fans immediately gathered around him, so that even the police paid more attention to him than to what was happening next door. Thus the resistance could then smuggle Jews onto another train that would then take them to the safe south.
After the war, Bartali won the Tour de France one more time on 1948 and again that victory was used by politicians. The political climate even then was very revolutionary after a failed assassination attempt on communist leader Palmiro Togliatti. To bring unity back to the country, Italian President Luigi Einaudi allegedly begged Bartali to win the Tour de France. Bartali did as he was asked and the Tour victory indeed strengthened the sense of unity among Italians. For this he was also praised in the Italian press after his death. However, not a word was said about what he had done for the Jews. Later this was even questioned and dismissed as a nice story….
And so we are left a little hungry about the heroic status Bartali had amassed during the war and outside of cycling. But of one thing we are sure; his cycling record will stand forever!
Text: Patrick Van Gansen