Gino Bartali was a chain-smoking cycling superstar at a time when cycling was the most popular summer sport in Europe. In an era when many Americans were swinging for the fences, trying to be the next Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, Europeans were chasing fame on their bicycles. Bartali lived out this collective fantasy when he won the Tour de France in 1938. Though a decade older than most of his competitors, he returned to the Tour in 1948 where racers battled snow, sleet and rain. The following piece, adapted from Road to Valor by siblings Aili and Andres McConnon, explores the life of Gino Bartali, a sports icon and secret WWII hero.
The physical and economic devastation of World War II crippled both Italy and Gino Bartali's career. Before the war, cycling had been the most popular summer sport in Europe and after winning the Tour de France in 1938, Bartali had become its crown prince. His face had become a mainstay of newspapers; fans hounded him for autographs everywhere. But after the world was divided in battle, "the triumphant years of the prewar period" as Gino put it, were "lost in that deafening uproar that had shattered nature and souls."
Finally, in July 1948, a decade older than most of his competitors, Gino Bartali was back in France at the Tour where he had so often dreamed of being during the war. Yet nothing was going as he had planned. Already midway through the race, he had fallen more than twenty-one minutes behind the Tour leader.
To make matters worse, on July 14, 1948, chaos erupted in Gino's homeland. On the morning of the 14th, a mysterious assassin shot Palmiro Togliatti, the magnetic leader of the Communist Party and Italy's second most powerful politician, as he left the national parliament in Rome. Emergency radio bulletins quickly spread news of the attack. After years of food shortages, rampant unemployment and a ferocious struggle between rival political factions, Italians reacted to Togliatti's shooting with breathtaking outrage. Across the nation, citizens flooded into the streets and formed angry protest groups. At a moment when Italy was considered an important battleground in the Cold War between America and the USSR, many Italians felt like the nation was spiraling toward outright civil war.
In Rome, the Prime Minister of Italy, a demure former Vatican librarian named Alcide De Gasperi, struggled to restore peace. As his government enacted emergency measures and mobilized police reinforcements, his political opponents began organizing a massive general strike. On the evening of the fourteenth, it was reported that De Gasperi made an urgent phone call seeking help. No one could doubt that the situation warranted it, but many would be surprised when they found out who he was calling. It wasn't Harry Truman in Washington or Joseph Stalin in Moscow. It wasn't even Pope Pius XII across the river in the Vatican City.
It was Gino Bartali.
"Do you recognize me, Gino?"
"Of course I recognize you, you're Alcide. Please excuse me, Mr. Prime Minister … we used to be on familiar terms," Gino responded, utterly perplexed. The two had known each other since well before the war but that didn’t explain why the Prime Minister was calling him during a rest day at the Tour de France.
"And we should continue to be. Tell me, Gino, how are things going there?"
"Well, tomorrow we have the Alps…"
"Do you think you'll win the Tour?"
"Well, there's still a week to go. However I'm 90 percent sure I'll win tomorrow," Gino responded, as he wondered why De Gasperi was worried about him and a bicycle race given the crisis in Italy.
"You're right, Gino. It's true that there's a week to go. But try and make it happen. You know that it would be very important for all of us.”
"Because there is a lot of confusion here," the Prime Minister responded.
"Don't worry, Alcide. Tomorrow we'll give it our all." For all his kneejerk confidence, it was a long shot and Gino knew it. With nothing else to say, the Prime Minister ended the call. De Gasperi was asking a lot to be sure, but even more had been asked of Gino before and he had delivered. Gino hung up the phone and swallowed.
When he returned to the beach where his teammates had been smoking and chatting, Gino dropped to his knees. With his finger tracing the following day’s racecourse in the sand, he outlined a risky strategy of continuous attack. Instead of waiting until the decisive climbs later in the day, the Italians would strike right at the beginning. Rather than waiting to respond to their opponents' first move, they would attack first. Instead of having his teammates to support him, Gino would charge up the mountains alone.
True to their plan, the Italians started sprinting the next morning almost immediately after the race started. The temperature turned much colder and Gino lingered slightly behind, watching as his teammates baited his rivals into tiring themselves out. When the Vars mountain pass came into sight, Gino made his move. As he charged up the second and penultimate climb of the day's race, his gaze was blank and emotionless. His jersey and shorts were now completely stiffened by freezing mud, but underneath them his body moved fluidly from side to side. An icy wind blew as he pedaled, forcing the stunted firs that had taken root among the mountain's rocks to bend as though in deference to him. Seeing his rival, Frenchman Jean Robic, in front of him on the road, Gino contemplated his final attack. The only thing left to do was to pick the right moment.
Ahead, crowds wrapped in drenched blankets and improvised jackets watched as the road leading up to the Vars summit capitulated to an onslaught of snow and freezing rain. The buses that had carried them there rested among the rocks, metallic behemoths in a lunar landscape. Robic still held the lead, but he periodically looked back and tried to gauge the strength of the familiar green-jerseyed Italian cyclist behind him.
What he saw could not have been comforting. Pumping relentlessly on his pedals, Gino was gaining on him. On the roadside beside them, the French fans watched nervously as the Italian shortened the Frenchman's lead to a few hundred yards. Some, still furious that Italy had allied with Germany against France during the war, jeered him and later his teammates as Fascists. But these were just angry aberrations. The rest of the crowd was more passive, transfixed by the morbid suspense of a lion stalking his prey.
Robic held out until the top of the Vars. Panicked, he leaned sharply into the descent down the mountain. Gino followed after him, pedaling aggressively. Robic raced madly through abrupt turns. The bitter wind battered his tired body and during a fast glide, he yelled something incomprehensible to a passenger in a nearby official's car. Someone passed him a newspaper. He shoved it under his sweater, a haphazard shield against the cold, and he tried to stay ahead of Gino, who was slowly gaining ground in his wake.
As they came down the Vars, Gino caught him. Speeding over a road that had been ravaged by flooding, he rolled past Robic, who was now so forlorn that he couldn't even muster a rebuttal. Instead he looked up slowly at Gino, with the sadness of a man who knows his fate is sealed. Physical exhaustion, food deprivation, and the elements had taken their toll. Robic's body had crashed and other racers soon would overtake him. Many wondered whether he would even make it to the finish line.
At the foot of the Izoard, facing a final twenty-mile climb steep enough to stall all but the most rugged cars, Gino felt his legs surge beneath him. “The cold blocked the fire of the muscles, but a numb and soaked Gino gunned his engine,” observed the Tour director. The old wheelmen would chalk it up to the power of good fortune. It stood to reason that the man who won the 1938 Tour wearing the number thirteen jersey would rise again ten years later in the thirteenth stage. The bartaliani, the true believers, however, dismissed such musings as mere superstition. To them, this was nothing short of divine intervention.
Gino reveled in the clarity of one thought: I feel like a giant. Looking neither left nor right, he powered right past the crowds of stupefied onlookers. Covered in mud and remnants of grease applied earlier to ward off the cold, he was nearly unidentifiable. Man and bike had become one, a pulsing mass of muscle and chrome that shimmered in the light rain. Moving rhythmically from pedal to pedal, Gino was completely at ease as he worked his way up the slope. With a six-minute lead over the next racer, he rode to the top alone. At the summit, actor and singer Maurice Chevalier yelled out to him from a French press car, "Bartali! You're immortal!" And for one fleeting moment when Gino crossed the finish line, he was right.
The news traveled back over the Alps into Italy as fast as the radio signals could carry it. As had been the case ten years earlier, Gino's performance quickly took on a political value that was much larger than one man. To the cheering crowds across postwar Italy, Gino soon personified the whole country and all of its emotions -- angry, bruised, indomitable, and triumphant. No athletic victory had ever tasted as sweet for so many.
-- Excerpted by permission from Road To Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon. Copyright (c) 2012 by Aili and Andres McConnon. Published by Crown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.