Grouchy, passionate, straightforward but also tireless, faithful, strongly Catholic. This was Gino Bartali, also known as the “Ginettaccio”, “Gino il Pio”, “the timeless”, “the old man”: there was a nickname for every trait of his personality or his sporting career just like it happens in some small villages, where everyone knows the “bad boys” and love them despite their stunts. But, how did this simple cycling passionate country boy do to become the unforgettable and unforgotten Gino Bartali?
The life of Gino Bartali
He was born on 18 July 1914 in Ponte a Ema, a small town between Florence and Bagno a Ripoli, and approached cycling from a very young age also thanks to his apprenticeship in the neighbour’s bike repair shop. Initially, he shared this passion with his brother Giulio, a few years younger than him, who died prematurely during an amateur competition just 10 days before Gino’s first major victory at the Giro d’Italia. Let us take a step back in 1935 when as a complete unknown he enrolled as an independent cyclist in the Milan-Sanremo: he was 21 and ranked fourth. As revealed in the RAI documentary “The Timeless”, this result earned him the engagement with the Frejus team of Turin and the affection of Emilio Colombo, the cunning director of the sport national paper “La Gazzetta dello Sport”. On that occasion, he leveraged the inexperience of Gino, who was leading the race, to distract him and make him lose ground. In the same year, he rode his first Giro d’Italia crossing the finishing line in 7th position. The year 1936 represented the turning point and the beginning of national and international victories: Bartali raced for the Legnano team, which was famous for scouting young competitive cyclists as Learco Guerra, and won his first Giro d’Italia. He refused to dedicate his victory to the Duce, which the fascist regime, on the other hand, expected him to do. Bartali’s relationship with Fascism will always be characterised by a mutual, undisguised dislike: he was not inclined to pledge loyalty to the regime and he only obeyed his personal, intimate and religious beliefs. “I’m a good Catholic” is one of his most famous phrases. Nevertheless, he will never openly line up against the government, always remaining halfway between independence and transgression.
On the other hand, the Fascist regime needed a figure like the one of the Italian champion because it perfectly reflected Mussolini nationalist ideology; therefore, it accepted him but always tried to fit him in the regime as much as possible. This is what happened in 1937, when Bartali obtained his second victory at the Giro d’Italia and was nominated captain of the Italian Team at the Tour de France. This competition should have been the occasion for the Regime to demonstrate the supremacy of the Italian sportsman over the French one. Bartali’s first participation in the French tour ended disastrously due to a bad fall, but “the Timeless” did not surrender and in 1938, at the age of 24, he celebrated his victory. In 1940, he participated to the third Italian Championship and married Adriana Bani (affectionately known as “Lady Bartali” among Bartali’s supporters). Gino, unexpectedly shy and reserved during the 5 years of engagement that preceded the wedding, never separated from her and they had three children, Andrea, Luigi and Biancamaria.
Anyone who has studied a bit of Italian history knows what happens next, not only to Gino Bartali’s life but to the whole country, and anyone who has analysed the stories of the greatest Italian cyclists knows how certain events sadly repeated themselves. As it happened years before to Costante Girardengo, Gino Bartali’s career was suddenly interrupted because of the War, which however did not prevent the Tuscan sportsman from continuing to train and to do much more, as it will be revealed only some time later. However, Gino Bartali’s cycling successes resumed after the end of the conflict: in 1946 he won his third Giro d’Italia and two years later, when he was 35, he made his return to the other side of the Alps and won the second “Tour de France”. This last was a particularly significant and greatly symbolic victory. It was a time when cycling, rather than football, had the power to bring people together and animate the crowds; cycling and not yet football was in fact perceived as a true national sport, endowed with a transversal aggregating power superior even to politics. In 1948, the leader of the Italian Communist Party Palmiro Togliatti had been victim of an assassination attempt and the country was going through a moment of great shock and civil disorder. On this occasion, the influence of cycling was also evident to the then Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi, who called Bartali to ask him to win the “Tour de France” as he had well understood that Bartali’s victory would have helped to calm things down and to distract and unify public opinion again.
A lot was written, said and even sang about Gino Bartali. The Piedmontese singer-songwriter Paolo Conte perfectly outlined his unforgettable appearance (“Oh, how many miles of road in my sandals, how far has Bartali gone, his nose sad like a hill, those cheerful eyes like those of an Italian on a trip”). Many others have described his personality, witty and rough at the same time, the impressive physical resistance (apparently due to his heartbeat and rib cage naturally predisposed to effort) and above all his fervent devotion. However, to have a complete picture of Gino Bartali it is necessary to point out his gossipy rivalry with “the Campionissimo” Fausto Coppi and his role as a “courier” of the Resistance.
Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi: respect and rivalry
The antagonism between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi was one of the most famous in the world of sport and beyond, also because it was incited by the media and extended – metaphorically speaking – well beyond the racetracks. Coppi was five years younger than Bartali and established himself as the sportsman of the post-war period while Gino was trying to reaffirm himself. Coppi was polemical and pleasure-loving (it looks like he drank and smoked even before the races), Bartali was reserved and ascetic instead. The two athletes were as different in their cycling history as they were in private life: Bartali, as said, always was a faithful husband and a loving father, Christian Democrat and practicing Catholic. On the contrary, Coppi was separated from his wife and in a relationship with another woman (the “White Lady”); he was atheist and appreciated by people close to the Communist Party. In the newspaper “Il Corriere della Sera”, Curzio Malaparte describes them as follows: “Gino is a son of the faith, Fausto a son of free thought. Both belong to the working class, they […] somehow represent the two main currents of contemporary Italian thought. Bartali belongs to those who believe in traditions and their immutability, Coppi to those who believe in progress. […] Bartali believes in afterlife, paradise, redemption, resurrection, in everything that constitutes the essence of the Catholic faith. Coppi is rational, a Cartesian, a sceptical spirit, a man full of irony and doubts who only trusts himself, his muscles, his lungs, his good luck. ”
The two met for the first time in 1940 on the route of the the Giro d’Italia: they both wore the shirt of Legnano team, but the winner of the Giro had to be only one. “The old” Bartali, who had been knocked out by a bad fall, in the role of domestique helped Coppi to win his first Giro just before the outbreak of the war. Bartali’s revenge came in 1946 and from then on, with alternate successes, the two athletes were connected in a combination of intolerance and understanding on which people have much fantasized.
It is not clear if Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali were really friends in their private lives, however, they certainly respected each other as athletes. Nevertheless, or perhaps by virtue of that, they did not spare provocations and spites during races. In 1959, while they were guests of the television program “Il Musichiere”, they made fun of each other’s defeats and stunts reciting an ironic piece of music (“…how many times you lost, how many times you lost” sang Coppi; “…he won the Giro d’Italia but he got hit, he got hit “, answered Bartali in a laidback way). An episode that has become almost as famous as the picture published in 1952 on the cover of the magazine “Un anno di sport”, where the caption said: “Bartali passes the water to Coppi who wear the yellow jersey”. This iconic passage of the water bottle fired up the press and the fans, some of them attributing the noble gesture to the older cyclist, some others to the younger one, partly incited by Bartali’s own statements. Whatever really happened, their rivalry became proverbial and, although it was very heart-felt, the tones of both factions always remained friendly.
Fausto Coppi, “the Heron”, died in 1960 at only 40 years of age of undiagnosed malaria. He had won five Tours of Italy, two Tour de France and three Italian Championships and had gained a place on the podium of the greatest athletes of the golden age of Italian cycling.
Gino Bartali and the Jews
The story of Gino Bartali and the Jews saved from deportation is quite recent. Apparently, Gino used to say to his son Andrea that “doing good doesn’t have to be told”, and this is why his efforts to help the persecuted Jews emerged only 40 years after, around the eighties, when Gino confided to his son the truth about his fake trainings. Indeed, after the armistice of 1943 during the German occupation, the unsuspected Gino Bartali became a real courier of false identity documents, which he used to take from Assisi to Florence, hidden inside the bicycle’s frame, travelling almost 400 kilometres a day.
Helped by the Church and the Catholic Movement, he was able to carry on this sort of shuttling back and forth saving the lives of hundreds Italian Jews who otherwise would have been persecuted and deported by the Nazis. Bartali was brave and smart; to avoid being discovered when he was stopped by the military, he used to ask them not to touch his bicycle because it had been perfectly calibrated for the races. If this were not enough, in 2010 Giorgio Goldenberg, the son of a surviving Jewish family, revealed that Bartali had hidden his family in his basement until the liberation of Florence in 1944, with the risk of immediate execution. “I want be remembered for my sporting achievements and not as a war hero. The heroes are others. Heroes are those who have experienced physical and mental pain, who have lost their loved ones. All I have done is riding my bicycle, which is the best thing I can do”.
Thanks to his “riding a bicycle”, Gino Bartali was declared in 2013 “Righteous among the Nations” and he was awarded the honour that Israel gives to non-Jews who have saved even just one Jew during the Second World War.
Today, there is a museum dedicated to Gino Bartali in Ponte a Ema, where numerous objects and the bicycles belonging to the champion who has marked, as a sportsman and as a man, so much of the Italian history, are collected.