Bartali: Cycling on a Rough Ride

At first glance, nothing distinguishes the village of Ponte a Ema from any other Italian town. Located in the Florentine neighborhood, about ten kilometers away from Tuscany’s capital city, it features ochre-colored facades spanned across narrow streets, and half-open green shutters under the morning sunshine. Yet, for a party of cyclists turning on via Chiantigiana, stopping by in this village is part of a modern pilgrimage.

They have stopped on the doorstep of Gino Bartali’s ‘casa natale’, where he grew up to become later one of the most famous Italian cyclists of all time. Gino was born on July 18, 1914, in this small village south-east of Florence, into a humble household whom he’s the third kid. One would not have to wait for long until Gino rides his first bicycle: he takes it on a daily trip to his school in Florence. Gino is young, but he is already seized by a passion for cycling, and he starts working in Oscar Casamonti’s bike repair shop at the age of 13.

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The latter is an amateur cyclist, and soon enough, he understands that Gino is a boy gifted with cycling skills. However, his father would not let him compete, so it takes time and stormy negotiation for Gino to integrate Pente a Ema’s cycling team. But once he’s in, he reveals an amazing potential, getting his first trophies in local competitions, then national ones. In 1934 at Grosseto, Gino makes himself known by being second to cross the finish line – though he departed 18 minutes after the other competitors. His way is chosen: he joins the professional team Frejus the following year.

In 1935, he wins the Italian championship, while the former five-time champion Learco Guerra invites him in his own team. A title succeeds to another: two successes at the Giro d’Italia, followed by international recognition when he wins the legendary Tour de France biking race in 1938. Cheered by the crowd, turned into a sporting god by the press, Bartali seems at the height of stardom – he’s only 24.

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Bartali quickly becomes an idol. (Photo: Lo Sport via ClassicLightWeights)

One image particularly struck the public: following Italy’s victory in the 1938 edition of the Football World Cup, all athletes were (tacitly) required to perform the “Roman salute” – a fascist symbol soon to be adopted by Nazi Germany – something that Bartali would refuse to do. Instead, the champion favors the sign of the cross: he is nicknamed “Gino the Pious” and, following his sensational victory at the 1938 Tour de France, he brings a spray of flowers to the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires basilica, in Paris. This is a startling contrast that would threaten Bartali’s glory as fascism has wind in its sails.

Italy's team perform the fascist salute in 1938
Italy’s – victorious – World Cup team, 1938. (Photo: Sportskeeda)

Indeed, at the time, Italy is surely desperate for heroes. Benito Mussolini has been heading the country since 1922, and three years later implements a ‘legal dictatorship’ at the top of the government. Censorship, cult of personality, elimination of political challengers… All boxes are ticked under the ‘Dictatorship for Dummies: Augmented Edition’ checklist. Il Duce, as he is nicknamed, turns his country into a police state; at the same time, Hitler writes Mein Kampf in prison. Local papers aim at using Bartali to glorify the Italian government; but Bartali is far from sharing their ideals.

Cycling competitions are severely cut off at the outbreak of WWII. Just married, Gino joins the ranks of the Italian army, but uses his fame to be assigned biking courier within the army, so that he can keeps on training. The geopolitical context is getting more and more stifling: trapped by the alliance of Italy and Germany, numerous Jews go into hiding, and some are sheltered in convents spread across the country to avoid authorities on the hunt. Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, who celebrated Gino’s wedding just three years earlier, now requires the assistance of the cycling champion on a secret mission.

Bartali is asked to convey fake identification documents across the country. These are destined for helping Jews out of their hideouts: granted with a new identity, they would not be threatened by the state police anymore. However, this is a dangerous mission for Gino, who already made him known for his strong antifascist stand… But “the Pious” would not refuse such a noble quest. Hiding the fake documents within the frame and the saddle of his bike, pretending to train hard for the upcoming competitions, he travels miles every day – up to 350 kilometers daily – to safely carry the papers from one convent to the other. As a famous sportsman, he can easily talk his way through customs, even though sometimes policemen got to search him.

“When Bartali was stopped and searched, he specifically asked that his bicycle not be touched since the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed.”

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Bartali on a bike… and a secret mission? (Photo via Mario Avagliano)

It happens that Bartali conveys messages as far as the Vatican; the Pope Pius XII has expressed ‘a wish’ for peace and intercultural dialogue – something the current regime does not seem to support.

“Mankind owes that vow to the numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: ‘Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers.’ Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or slow extermination.” – Pius XII, 1942

Bartali seems to be a very zealous cyclist, which sometimes raises suspicion. A letter thanking him for his achievements – sent by the Pope himself – is intercepted by the Italian authorities, who interrogate Gino insistently. The noose is tightening on him, so he decides to flee his home village for the Apennine Mountains. He is finally arrested in late-1943 and spends 45 days in jail, before he is released on bail. Fortunately, the tide is turning in favor of the Allied powers (at the same time, a bear helps defeating Italian forces at Monte Cassino and Hitler is threatened by German resistance) and, given the stampede of the fascist authorities, his case is not fully investigated.

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After the war: back to the competition! (Photo: Chiara Chiara via TesTeach)

Following the conflict, Gino hardly takes time to breathe a little – he supports the Vatican’s humanitarian missions and accommodates a Jewish family in one of his Florentine residences. Then he gets back to the biking races, winning his third Giro and his second Tour de France in 1948. This would be the last major title under his belt, and Bartali definitely achieves his transition into a cycling legend. Nicknamed ‘campionissimo’ (the champion) and ‘l’intramontabile’ (the indestructible), his fame mostly stems from his biking achievements.

Indeed, his wartime efforts are kept quiet for a while – Gino himself does not talk about them – and following a career filled with victories, podiums, walkabouts and recognition, his last title will be earned three years after his death. In 2013, the Yad Vashem memorial honors him with the ‘Righteous Among The Nations’ status.

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Bartali’s bicycle when he won the 1938 edition of the Tour de France. (Credit: Museo del Ghisallo via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Since then, the modest home located on via Chiantigiana is more than a touristic spot. It is the cradle of the unbelievable destiny of a brave sportsman as well as a just individual, who biked his way through the scourges of his time. As he stated, “some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.” (E certe medaglie si appendono all’anima, non alla giacca.)


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