During World War II, Italian cyclist Gino Bartali (1914–2000) aided the Italian resistance movement by ferrying fake identification documents for an underground network smuggling Jews out of Italy. Because of the war, Bartali did not race during his prime years. Instead, his two Tour de France wins came a decade apart—in 1938 and 1948—giving him the distinction of holding the record for the longest span between titles.
Gino Bartali was born July 18, 1914, in Florence, Italy, to Torello and Giulia Bartali. Together with older sisters Anita and Natalina and younger brother Giulio, he grew up in Ponte a Ema, a small village in the Tuscany region that was surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills. The Bartalis lived in a three-story tenement building with no water or electricity. Torello Bartali, a day laborer, found work in the fields and at a local quarry, while Giulia tended crops and vines to support the family.
At age 17, Bartali won races and brought home cash prizes, which pleased his parents. Seeing a future in cycling, he now began a regimen of regular calisthenics and workouts and logged the foods he ate, the flats he sprinted, the hills he climbed, and the amount of water he consumed. On training rides he cracked raw eggs on his handlebars and slurped them down, studying how his body reacted to this fuel. His obsessive approach to training earned Bartali the nickname “the accountant.”
Bartali was successful on the amateur circuit, although he had an unusual race style. When climbing a hill, he raced up it in bursts, sitting and standing on the pedals instead of maintaining a steady pace. His attacks were also unconventional. His style was to ride up behind a race leader and sprint ahead, forcing a chase. Then Bartali would slow his pace and let the chaser regain his cadence. At this point, he sped up again and started another chase; again, he eventually slowed. By wearing down competing cyclists by breaking their cadence, Bartali was able to maintain a long and aggressive attack and thereby move up in a field of competitors.
Bartali turned professional in 1935 and won the Giro d'Italia in 1936, becoming a rookie sensation. He received so many letters that he hired a press secretary to handle his mail. Fans hounded him for autographs, and poets penned sonnets about him. Bartali's success soon lured his younger brother into the sport, but Giulio's career was short-lived: he died after a crash in 1936. Blamed by his family for Giulio's death, Bartali became overwhelmed with guilt and quit cycling.
From athletic competition, Bartali now joined the efforts of Catholic Action, a group whose mission was to promote Catholic ideals. As a celebrity, he became a favorite speaker among young Catholic boys. Meanwhile, in 1937, he decided to return to cycling because it paid very well. Although he started the season with a bout of pneumonia, he managed to win the Giro d'Italia six weeks later. His attempt to win that year's Tour de France ended when a crash knocked him off a bridge and he went hurtling into the icy river below.
At the same time that Bartali was rising in the sport of professional cycling, World War II tensions were building and fascism was taking hold in Italy under the dictatorial leadership of Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. The goal of Mussolini's National Fascist Party was to restore Italian nationalism and expand the country's influence, and it now turned its attention to Bartali. In 1938, Mussolini's national sports director forbade the Italian cyclist from entering the Giro d'Italia so he could stay fresh for the Tour. The party preferred that Bartali win the Tour de France as a show of Italian superiority.
Recognizing that he was racing under enormous pressure, Bartali started the Tour de France aggressively, pulling ahead during the mountain stages. He held on for the win and bested the second-place finisher by more than 18 minutes. After the race, Mussolini's propaganda machine used Bartali's victory to boost its political position, although the cyclist refused to dedicate the win to Il Duce (Mussolini) during his acceptance speech. In addition, he placed his victory bouquet at the foot of the Madonna at Our Lady of Victory in Paris. The Catholic Church was at odds with the ruling party's manifesto, making this show of alignment with Rome a bold move. Bartali soon paid for it: when he returned home to Italy, there were no parades, no celebrations, and no crowds to greet him.
In June 1940, Italy entered the war against England and France. Four months later, Bartali was required to report for active duty and was assigned the role of army messenger. One of his superiors, a cycling fan, allowed Bartali to perform his duties via bicycle rather than on a motorized scooter. Fearing that he would be assigned to the front lines, he proposed to his sweetheart, Adriana Bani, and they married in November. Their first son, Andrea, was born in October 1941, and they had two more children after the war.
Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa had married Bartali and baptized his firstborn child. In the fall of 1943, he summoned the cyclist to Florence, where Jewish refugees were currently seeking sanctuary. Although German and Italian Fascists pursued those who provided aid to Jews, the Catholic Church hid Jews in monasteries and convents and provided them with food and counterfeit identity documents. Cardinal Costa appealed to Bartali for help, although he cautioned him that he would likely be executed if he were ever caught.
Bartali agreed to help and began ferrying documents in the Tuscany region, meeting the cardinal's assistants at different rendezvous spots. The cyclist delivered photographs and papers to Assisi, where a printer manufactured false identification papers that Bartali then delivered, hiding them in the hollow frame of his bike. He attracted little attention because people of the region were used to seeing him riding his bicycle, and many of the soldiers at transit checkpoints were fans.
Over the course of the war, Bartali rode thousands of kilometers between Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican. In war-torn, German-occupied Italy, the ID documents he ferried helped Jews conceal their identity. Bartali also secured food and clothing for the refugees, and he supported the underground in moving refugees closer to Allied territory—or into Switzerland—by scouting routes that were free from German checkpoints.
Bartali did experience a close call, in July of 1944, after Fascist secret police Major Mario Carità intercepted some of Bartali's mail and found a letter from the Vatican thanking him for his “help.” Carità arrested Bartali, suspecting that he was sending arms to the Vatican. During further interrogation, Bartali claimed that the Vatican's thanks were for the flour, sugar, and coffee he had helped Tuscan parishes gather for refugees. Although Carità did not believe the celebrity athlete, Bartali's former military supervisor assured the police major that Bartali did not lie and the cyclist was soon released.
The Allied forces, which included Great Britain, France, and the United States, liberated Florence in August of 1944. Now age 30, Bartali returned to racing and in 1946 won the Giro d'Italia by 47 seconds over Italian rival Fausto Coppi. His racing was increasingly inconsistent, however, and his strength and stamina were not what they had been. He grew frustrated at his struggles and was resentful that the war had robbed him of his prime race years. Bartali now earned the nickname “Ginettaccio”—or “Gino the Terrible”—because his mood was often sour. Once he actually dismounted his bike in the middle of a race and hit a bystander who had taunted him.
When Bartali attempted the 1948 Tour de France, he got off to a bad start. At the end of stage 12, he was 20 minutes behind the leader and the press was writing him off as a has-been. The athlete was reinvigorated by a phone call from Italy's new prime minister requesting that he win for his fellow Italians. A fractured country, Italy then stood on the brink of civil war due to the attempted assassination of the country's Communist Party leader. Requested by the prime minister to win the tour—or at least grab some stage victories—Bartali rose to the task, winning four of the Tour's remaining nine stages and riding the yellow jersey into Paris to capture his second Tour de France victory.
Despite the fact that he was aging, Bartali continued racing because it was all he knew. In 1950, he won the Milan-San Remo spring classic, the longest one-day bike race on the pro circuit. He made 80 appearances in 1953, but won only twice, earning the name Il Vecchiaccio—the old geezer—from the Italian press. Finally, in 1955, he retired and moved into business. For a time, Bartali ran a department store and also a bike company. Later, he worked as a sportscaster and cycling columnist.
In the decades that followed World War II, Bartali remained silent about his involvement with the resistance network. In 1978, his exploits were uncovered by a Polish journalist writing about religious clergy during Nazi occupation. Even after his work with the resistance became known, Bartali remained quiet on the subject. Although researchers have had difficulty determining the impact of his actions, some historians estimate that he saved between 500 and 800 Jews from persecution. In their book Road to Valor, Bartali biographers Aili and Andres McConnon share a story told to them by Bartali's son, Andrea. “If you're good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum,” his father once told him. “That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.”
Bartali died May 5, 2000, in Florence. Thirteen years later he posthumously received the Righteous among the Nations designation from the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. The award honors non-Jews who risked their lives on behalf of Jewish civilians during the Holocaust. Documentary film director Oren Jacoby included Bartali's story in his 2014 film My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes. “He had everything to lose,“Jacoby told the BBC's Peter Crutchley. “His story is one of the most dramatic examples during World War Two of an Italian willing to risk his own life to save the lives of strangers.”
McConnon, Aili, and Andres McConnon, Road to Valor, Crown Publishers, 2012.
Bicycling, June, 1991, Ralph Hurne, “When the Campionissimi Rode.”
New York Times, May 6, 2000, p. A-11.
World War II, September/October, 2012, Gene Santoro, “Racing for His Life—and His Country's,” pp. 22–23.
British Broadcasting Corporation website, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine (May 9, 2014), Peter Crutchley, “Gino Bartali: The Cyclist Who Saved Jews in Wartime Italy.”*❑