Two generations of cyclists have been denied the opportunity to fulfil all their potential thanks to the wars that engulfed Europe and the world in 1914-18 and 1939-45. Many lost their lives, even more lost the best years of their careers while Le Tour was in abeyance during the years of conflict. For historians the disappearance of Le Tour’s entire official archive of race records and photos from 1903 to 1939 is a sad loss. Arguably if it had not been for the First and Second World Wars, Le Tour would have seen its first five-times winner well before Jacques Anquetil finally claimed that honour with his fifth and last victory in 1964. One rider who could perhaps have claimed that distinction is Gino Bartali, the great Italian cyclist.
In 1938 he had won Le Tour, bringing his tally of Grand Tour victories to three with his wins in the 1936 and 1937 editions of the Giro d’Italia. In 1939, with tensions high in Europe, the Italians did not race in Le Tour which was then contested by national and regional teams. The German invasion of Poland in September of that year marked the end of Le Tour for the next seven years. Bartali was just 25 years old in 1939. In terms of Le Tour, where the average age of winners is 28, he was just entering his peak. Though so many other factors determine the overall result, it is certain that Bartali was robbed of the best years of his career by the war, as were many others.
He was back in the 1948 Tour. Now aged 34 he was one of the older riders, perhaps no longer at his best but with Fausto Coppi’s refusal to ride, he was by default the captain of the Italian team. Any doubts about his competitiveness were put to rest on stage 1 when he won the sprint at Trouville to take Le Tour’s first Yellow Jersey. He lost it the following day and was soon well down on the general classification after missing the decisive stage-winning breaks several times in succession. By the time the race reached the Pyrenees for stage 7, 219 kilometres from Biarritz to Lourdes, Bartali was 20 minutes and 51 seconds behind the Yellow Jersey wearer, Louison Bobet.
The stage to Lourdes was to see the beginning of a remarkable turn-around in fortune for Bartali. He won the stage leading Bobet by just 3 seconds. Even with the one minute time bonus for the stage win it was an insignificant gain in the scheme of things. A devout Catholic, the scene of his victory must have had special significance to Bartali. Later that evening at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes he prayed to the Virgin to protect him from crashing throughout the remainder of the race.
The following day was the final one in the Pyrenees, 261 kilometres from Lourdes to Toulouse that included the climbs of the Col de Tourmalet, the Col d’Aspin, and the Col de Peyresourde. The day started cold with snow on the mountains and the roads were slippery. Bartali, liberally covered with a medicinal oil to help keep him warm, went with Jean Robic early on as he attacked on the Tourmalet. The pair stayed away over the next two mountain passes but were caught by eight chasers on the long 130 kilometre run-in to Toulouse. By the finish line the group had grown to 24 riders, from whom Bartali won the sprint to take his third stage of the race. With the minute time bonus he was also back in the top 10 of the general classification for the first time since Trouville.
A few days later disaster struck when Bartali flatted on stage 12. Repairing the puncture himself, Bartali decided that rather than chase alone he would wait for the peloton hoping that he could find allies among them to bring him back to the leaders. With Bobet away on his own at the front the French riders were unwilling to help and Bartali found himself rolling in to Cannes 8 minutes down on Bobet. That evening he received a call from the Italian Prime Minister, Alcide De Gasperi.
A few days earlier the leader of the Partito Comunista Italiano, Palmiro Togliatti, had been shot four times in the chest and head by an anti-communist student, Antonio Pallante, on the steps of the Italian Parliament. The Communists were in uproar and the Italian General Confederation of Labour had called a general strike. Factories and radio stations had been seized by Communists and there were real fears that Italy could descend into civil strife. Bartali had already discussed the potential effects of the crisis with his team mates, who thought that they might be called back to Italy depending on what happened back home. With stage 13 potentially their last in that year’s Tour the strategy was to attack without reserve.
During the telephone call De Gasperi asked Bartali how the race was going and if he thought he had any chance of overall victory. With the situation in Italy fraught with danger, De Gasperi felt that an Italian triumph in Le Tour would provide a distraction that could help defuse tensions. Bartali, often boastful but ultimately realistic, replied, “I am not a magician. The Tour isn’t over until Paris and there’s still a week to go, ” adding that if he couldn’t be sure of outright victory he was confident that he could win the next stage.
Good to his word Bartali rode to victory on stage 13, a day that included the Col d’Allos, Col de Vars, and the Col d’Izoard. Robic, an impetuous rider, broke early on the Allos riding away from the rest of the main contenders in an ill-advised long breakaway. On the slopes of the Vars he was 2 minutes 15 seconds ahead. Meanwhile Bartali, assessing his own form and that of the rivals riding with him, made his move. By the summit of the Vars he had reduced the gap between him and Robic to 32 seconds, catching him on the descent where in the cold, foggy, and windy conditions he kept Robic in front of him by a few hundred metres, using him as a marker to aid his own descent in the treacherous conditions. On reaching the valley Bartali overtook Robic. In a howling storm with the rain lashing him horizontally Bartali steamed up the Izoard. By the summit he was 8 minutes 45 seconds ahead of the first man behind him, and despite a flat and a mechanical on the run in to the stage finish in Briançon he ended the day taking his fourth stage of that year’s Tour, gaining 18 minutes and 7 seconds on Yellow Jersey Bobet who had to be lifted from his bike in a state of exhaustion.
Bartali was now in second place, just 1 minute and 6 seconds behind Bobet, finding his best form just as the Frenchman was losing his. The following day Bobet attacked early on. Bartali, knowing he needed to ride his own race and reserve his energy let him go. The gap never extended much beyond a minute and by the Croix de Fer amid a snowstorm Bartali was with the Frenchman, speeding past him to claim the one minute bonus on offer to the first man over the summit. On the Col de Porte Bartali launched his attack, going over the top 6 minutes and 20 seconds ahead of the second placed rider on the road. By the time he rode alone into Aix les Bains he was in Yellow, 7 minutes and 33 seconds ahead of Bobet thanks to the time bonuses he had won on the day.
To win two stages in a row, especially two mountain stages, is a prodigious feat, but Bartali wasn’t finished. On stage 15 from Aix-les-Bains to Lausanne he countered all attacks, finally breaking away after the town of Vevey with some 37 kilometres left to go. Unfamiliar with the route he nearly scuppered his chances when he spotted a road sign that told him Lausanne was only 12 kilometres away. Thinking he was near the finish he threw away his water bottle and the food in his pockets, including half a de-boned chicken. Unbeknown to him the organizers had routed the final kilometres of the stage away from the lake and into the hills surrounding the town. Hungry and thirsty he managed to hold on to win his third stage in a row and further extending his advantage over Bobet to 13 minutes and 47 seconds.
It was a remarkable achievement. In just a few days he had overturned a deficit of 22 minutes to take a commanding lead in Le Tour and his three straight stage wins were not to be repeated until 1999 when another Italian, the colourful sprinter Mario Cipollini, went one better with four. On stage 19 Bartali claimed his seventh stage win in 1948 in Liège amid scenes of rancour as the Belgians, keen to win a stage on home soil, led the race by riding in the slipstream of the Tour caravan. Behind them an angry Bartali rode alongside the car of Tour Director Jacques Goddet, threatening to abandon if Goddet didn’t tow him and the Italians to the front of the race. Goddet, recognizing that the Belgians were taking an unfair advantage and concerned that Bartali would be good to his word agreed. In a final twist to the Italo-Belgic rivaly Bartali then gave Briek Schotte a tow back to the group when the Belgian rider, in third place overall, dropped off the back of the group. As they swept into Liège Schotte repaid the favour by leading Bartali out in the sprint, which the Italian won by a wheel from Robic.
With two stages left to run the overall victory was a formality for Bartali. As the race finished on the Champs Elysèes with a victory by his Italian team mate Giovanni Corrieri, Bartali had won the general classification with 26 minutes and 16 seconds over Briek Schotte. Bobet had dropped to fourth, 32 minutes behind; he would go on to become the first rider to win Le Tour three times in a row. In all the Italian’s had won ten stages, seven by Bartali. His ten year gap between Tour victories remains a record. In Italy the news of his exploits and the celebration of his stage wins and overall victory helped to calm public unrest. Togliatti is alleged to have asked how the Italians were faring in Le Tour when he awoke from his coma a few days after being shot. His recovery and immediate appeals for sense to prevail and an immediate end to the unofficial general strike were of greater significance, but we should not underestimate the power of national sporting success in its effect on the popular mood. Though only one factor in the return to calm it is fitting that Bartali’s incredible Tour played its part in the land that gave the world the phrase, “bread and circuses”.
Bartali died in May 2000 aged 85. Shortly after his death news emerged of his involvement with the Delegazione per l’Assistenza degli Emigranti Ebrei (DELASEM), an Italian resistance organization that worked to help Italy’s Jews hide and escape from the persecutions of Mussolini’s satellite state the Repubblica Sociale Italiana between 1943 and 1945. Bartali, who refused to give Mussolini the fascist salute after his Tour victory in 1938, used training rides as a cover to courier forged documents, photographs, and exit visas between the forgers secret printing press and the Jews in hiding in convents, monasteries, and private homes in Tuscany, even going as far as Rome. His drafting as a military messenger gave him a further alibi for his movements in the thousands of kilometres he covered.
The documents were hidden in the handlebars and frame of his bicycle. If ever stopped by the police he would ask that they not touch his bike as it was set up to an exact technical specification. Already a national hero, the star-struck police were happy to comply. As well as couriering documents Bartali would also carry money, picked up from a Swiss bank account in Genoa to be distributed to families in hiding in Florence. Bartali also hid the family of Giacomo Goldenberg in an apartment he owned, and later in a nearby basement, until the liberation of Florence in 1944.
An exact number for the lives Bartali helped to save isn’t possible to arrive at, but his contribution certainly did help to save lives. Of the 10,000 Jews deported to Germany between 1943 and 1945, 7,000 died in the concentration camps. Through his work for DELASEM and the Assisi Network Bartali contributed to saving over 1,000 people from a similar fate. In 2013 he was honoured with the title of חסידי אומות העולם, “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. The Second World War may have stolen many years of his career but amidst the horrors of the Holocaust Bartali showed his moral courage and endurance when he chose to do what he felt was ethically right despite the risks and his own fear of discovery. In later years he was to say to his son, Andrea, “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.” Bartali is rightly remembered for both.
by Mike Dash
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