Gino Bartali, A Hero for the Ages

Posted on July 22, 2012


It’s fitting that simultaneously with the running of  the 2012 Tour de France, a new book is published detailing the life of Gino Bartali, a two-time Italian winner of the Tour. Bartali won the Tour for the first time in 1938, just prior to Italy’s involvement in World War II.  Shortly after his victory, Mussolini and the Fascists took over the country and Gino was pressed into military service for Italy. He wouldn’t race again until after the war ended. His best years as an athlete were about to be compromised, but that didn’t mean that Gino got off his bike.

Over the course of the next five years, Gino was a secret agent of sorts. Not only was he a member of the Italian Armed Forces, but he was able to use his fame as a celebrated athlete to pass through checkpoints without challenge where civilians would have had difficulty. As a result, he was able to routinely smuggle identity papers for Italian Jews  between Florence and Assisi. He hid the papers inside the seat post of his bicycle. Discovery of this activity by the authorities at any time would undoubtedly have led to certain death.

Bartali’s humanitarianism  became even more personal when he offered an apartment he owned to a good friend of his, Giacomo Goldenberg and his family. Gino sheltered them and brought them food daily from November 1943 until Florence was liberated in August 1944. Without his aid, the Goldenberg family would most certainly have been sent to a concentration camp and may not have survived the war.

One of the most amazing truths about the work that Gino Bartali did during the war is that he didn’t tell his wife Adriana about any of it. If he were caught, he wanted her to be able to deny any knowledge of his work. I’m not sure that I would ever be capable of harboring such a secret.

I haven’t studied the entire history of the Tour de France, but I’ve been watching it long enough to have heard of many of the famed winners of yesteryear. Yet I had never heard Bartali’s name until my wife gave me this book as a Father’s Day gift. The account of his victory in the 1948 race shows the grit and stamina that was required of riders in the earlier days. Most of the mountain roads weren’t paved and the team cars were unable to support the riders well during the climbs because the roads were so treacherous. If the racers had a puncture, they had to repair their tires themselves. During the 1948 Tour the riders encountered such cold temperatures in the Alps that it snowed and with all of the precipitation, they ended up being covered in mud.

Gino’s 1948 Tour started out horribly. By the end of the 12th stage he was 21 1/2 minutes behind the race leader, Louis Bobet, but on the 13th stage he found his old form. He came from a minute behind the stage leader and won the race six minutes in front of everyone. He crossed the line 18 minutes in front of Bobet. On the next day’s stage he won again and finally took the yellow jersey which he never gave up.

The ten-year gap between Gino Bartali’s two Tour victories was the longest gap between wins in the race’s history up to that point and is a record that still stands today. I’m continually in awe of the strength of the human character as exhibited by Gino Bartali.