The Day Gino Bartali saved Italy


This is a story about sports, politics, life and a great champion.

The Tour de France was not held during the WWII years until 1946.

L’Auto, Desgrange magazine that organized the Tour, had been closed in 1945 due to the collaboration with the German Regime. Only in 1946 Jacques Goddet, the Tour manager, could find a new journal: L’Equipe; with which he immediately set-up the new Tour de Fance, to be held in 1947.

Jean Robic, the small French climber, won the first Tour after the war. The riders crossed a country still half destroyed, in which the reconstruction took place slowly, thanks also to the contribution of lots of immigrant workers, especially Italians.

In 1941, when Germany declared war to France, and won quickly, Italy declared war only when it was certain that Germany would win. Thus, the French felt still betrayed and treated the Italian workers harshly, making them pay for the war years even after its conclusion.

In every competition between France and Italy, Italian fans would gather to cheer their athletes, finding in them the vindication of the suffering they felt, while French fans would fight and scream against the Italians with all the anger of the betrayed.

The Italian victory at the Velodrome in the basketball game between the national teams in 1946, fueled a great anger against the Italian players who had to run, protected by the police officers.

In bicycle races it was even worse. The cyclists were, and are, at the mercy of the spectators, so the Italian cyclists ran between two minacious wings of people. 1948 marked the return of the Italian national team to the Tour (the competition was held between national teams at the time), but only Gino Bartali, among the best, went, while Fiorenzo Magni and Fausto Coppi remained at home.

Bartali won the Tour in 1938, at the age of 24. He was born in 1914, so the best years of his career had gone in the war, and we can only imagine what he could have achieved in those years.

Still, at the age of 34, he was one of the best. A very religious man, during the war he used his celebrity to bring dispatches in his backpack to the partisans, and to hide in the bicycle tubes the documents to hide the jews in his region and avoid deportation. The fascists would greet him and he would joke with them, allowing him to go through controls without being severely inspected. He had to hide himself not to be captured for several months.

A big man, with a characteristic big nose, a thunderous voice and great charisma, Gino Bartali won the Giro in 1946 and twice the Tour de Suisse, in 1946 and the following year. Meanwhile, the younger Fausto Coppi was considered the best cyclist. Gino competed very well and his constant training allowed him to not lose too much of his ability.

The Italian team was not at its best. Bartali ran almost alone and after the first week was about 20 minutes from the race leader, the young French Luison Bobet, who was the hero of the French. Gino won the first  stage and the two Pyrenees ones, but lost time because he didn’t realize the Bobet group was so ahead of him. Communication was very poor at the time.

On th 14th July 1948, during the Tour rest day, Bartali thought whether to retire or not. To go and run other profitable competitions, a thing happened in Italy. Antonio Pallante, a young man of 25, attempted the life of Palmiro Togliatti, then leader of the powerful Communist Party in Italy.

Pallante waited in the shadow and shot three times. Togliatti was only injured and was brought to the hospital. However, Italy was still a turbulent country, in which a Communist upheaval was still feared, and the masses were ready to go to the street with the weapons they had kept in the cellars after the war.

The local leaders wanted to bring the people to the squares, protest, take the rifles hidden at the end of the war. Togliatti himself, still conscious, tried to calm down the people, but there was rage, the anger of the war was still felt around, and the fear was real.

Alcide de Gasperi, the Italian chief of the Government, a man from Trentino who, in his long political life had been a citizen of the Austrian Empire, an Italian MP during Fascism, by fascist confined, and imprisoned, then guided the Christian Democratic Party to a victory in the April 1948 elections, kept his cold blood. He asked the phone number of the hotel where the cyclists stayed and in the evening he asked to call Bartali.

Gino was sitting at the table, mumbling, eating and thinking about the following day’s stage. There would be the Alps, his favourite path, and he could do something to improve his position. Alfredo Binda, the former World Champion turned technical manager of the National Italian team, called him in a room and handed him the phone.

  • Mr Bartali, this is Alcide De Gasperi, the chief of the Government
  • Good evening – said Bartali, not really knowing what to say.
  • As you may know, today Palmiro Togliatti was shot. He’s alive fortunately, but the country is in turmoil
  • I’m sorry, but, what can I do?
  • I thought, if tomorrow you could win the stage, do something big. I mean, you are loved in the country, maybe the people would not do anything wrong.
  • I’ll try excellence, I’ll do my best – Bartali would say in the end.

The day after, Gino was unexpectedly focused. As soon as the race started, he escaped. It was a hard stage, and with his experience he was one of the few to know what was ahead: Col D’Allos, Col de Vars and  Izoard. Gino considered the race as a competition against his young self, the one who left his best years in a war that had costed millions of lives. On the Col D’Allos he has already some minutes of advantage. On the Vars he has extended it.

In the same hours the Italian radio starts telling of him. The people stopped working, quarrelling, eating. They gathered at the bars, at the windows, wherever there was a radio, listening to Gino Bartali’s enterprise. As he climbed the Izoard somebody in the squares asked how many minutes far was Bobet, who had already given his best. Gino arrived in Briancon almost 20 minutes before Bobet. He was second and knew he had a chance to win.

The day after, he climbed the Galibiet, Croix De Fer, Portet, Coucheron and Granier. He arrived in Aix Les Bains and got the Yellow jersey. Around him, thousands of Italian immigrants who had taken a holyday and millions in the squares in Italy, cheering his victory instead of doing a revolution.

The Tour was still long, but Bartali kept his advantage. Italy was safe, who knows whether it was thanks to a sportsman or thanks to the fact that the Italians were tired of the war.

When he came back, Alcide De Gasperi asked him what he wanted. Bartali asked to have the chance not to pay taxes.

In the years to come, Gino Bartali had a feud with Fausto Coppi, creating a legendary rivalry. Coppi died young, in 1961, for malaria. Gino instead lived much longer. Every year, until he could, he followed the Giro with his car and was always the most beloved figure among the old cyclists.

Gino Bartali became a folk hero, a popular man, and the conscience of the sport, always listened to. He was admitted to the Yad Vashem as a right among the nations.

“You do the good, you don’t say it. And some medals should hang on the soul, not on  the shirt”.