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.Full Story >>