Cycling & Sanctity: Gino Bartali’s Race Against The World, The Flesh & The Devil
It was 1948, the Tour de France, one of pro-cycling’s classic races. Riding in it that year was a cyclist who rode for more than simply sporting glory. Drenched in sweat yet with his body shivering in the unseasonal snowstorm that had descended, his race through the frozen Pyrenees was for more than just the winner’s crown. In his case, his wheels kept turning on account of his faith. It was that which had propelled him and would propel him on; the rider’s name was Gino Bartali.
What amazed onlookers could not then have fully comprehended was that that race and its outcome were to have a dramatic impact on Bartali’s home country, Italy. Furthermore, that just a few years earlier, operating out of a Franciscan friary at Assisi, that same rider had been part of a clandestine network saving Jews from the clutches of the SS & Gestapo. On that July day in 1948, as the snow and sleet continued to pelt the by then solitary cyclist, one now far removed from the chasing pact, little could anyone realise that what he was really racing against was the hardest adversary of all and one in direct opposition to his earlier act of faith: a ‘voice’ that kept telling him to quit…
Born into poverty, his parents both worked yet even then barely made ends meet. Education was not for Gino; he was happier when outside, what would become of him, his parents worried. Unexpectedly, his vocation was to come in the form of two wheels. On the streets of his home town Florence he noticed workers going to their work on bicycles, even then he envied their sense of movement, their sense of freedom, and so he taught himself to cycle when six years old. Later, as an adolescent, he was to own his first bicycle, and very soon, to his parent’s despair, along with his younger brother, Giulio, it was quickly to become an obsession. His first job was, fittingly, in a cycle repair shop. Its owner was a keen amateur cyclist, sometimes competing in local races. One day the young Gino came with him and the man’s then trainer. They decided to race, Gino joined in… At the end of it the incredulous owner made straight to the boy’s parents, it had begun…
It didn’t end there though. No matter how much his parent’s begged him to forget about cycling and to get a proper job. Soon the boy was racing, and winning, and, helpfully, getting paid to do so – something that helped assuage some of his parent’s fears. In fact, both boys were now cycling, and for all they were worth. They used to joke that they would become the best cyclists in Italy – they very nearly did.
Before long, Bartali had turned professional. Racing was now his chosen profession, and quickly proved a lucrative one. In addition, he was soon sprinting up the consciousness of sports journalists and thereafter the Italian public and at an alarming pace. On the Continent the world of a professional cyclist was a glamorous one, more so than any then movie star. The young dashing Tuscan fitted the bill, and his face fitted the front cover of magazines as well as the sports pages. Soon he had so many fans he had to hire a press secretary to answer his mail. Women in particular were fans – completely smitten by the rider. It was all going so well – or so it seemed.
The Giro d’Italia was, and still is, the premier cycling race in Italy. By 1936 he had conquered it. He did so the next year as well. From his winnings he moved his parents from their tiny flat to a house the size of the apartment block they had left. He went from one of the city’s poor to walking around its streets dressed in a tailored three piece suit, the world was at his feet. And with his younger brother, still an amateur, now rated one of the best in Italy, their hope for a family dynasty of riders was drawing ever closer, but then tragedy struck.
Giulio was badly injured on the descent of a wet downward mountain course. Bartali rushed to the hospital where his brother had been taken. He arrived only to hold the dying man’s hand. This loss changed everything.
Bartali left cycling. He retreated into himself; alone, he asked what was the point of all he had achieved when such a tragedy could strike. He turned inward for answers. Eventually, instead of asking why such a thing happened, he chose to allow his childhood faith to be deepened by it. He became involved in the lay movement, Catholic Action; using his celebrity, he spent his time urging young Catholics to live their faith. Nevertheless, through it all, a question still hung over the cyclist – would he ride again?
The answer came in the unlikely form of a young woman. He had noticed her working in a dress shop. He liked her but was too shy to speak. Finally he did, and she listened, and soon they were in love, eventually to be wed. It was she who told him that his cycling was a gift. He remounted. Soon he was winning again, more so than ever. The nation cheered as their favourite cyclist returned to lay waste to any opposition. Ominously, the then regime in power also began to take an interest.
Fascist Italy loved sport, and sporting heroes. Bartali was co-opted as a national hero. It was not something he would have chosen, his father was a socialist, and the cyclist’s own creed was Catholicism. Privately, he was sceptical of Fascism in general and more so of its involvement in sport. Frustratingly, his sporting decisions were now to be taken by committee. One that forced an unfit Bartali to take part in the 1937 Tour de France and then withdrew him mid-way through it. They interfered and meddled; he concentrated on the riding.
And, in 1938, he returned and triumphed. On that Tour de France he became only the second Italian ever to win. The joy of the victory was short lived, however. Soon the Tour and all professional cycling across the Continent would be suspended as another ‘race’ was enacted, one that soon engulfed all of Europe in war. Bartali was conscripted into the military. Mercifully, he became a cycle despatch rider; his fame had saved him from being sent to North Africa or some other battlefield. His posting meant that he stayed in Florence. It was from another city, Rome, however, that he was to receive an altogether different task – one that was to involve great personal danger.
The Cardinal Archbishop of Florence, Elia Dalla Costa, asked to see Bartali. This was not unusual in itself, that primate had married the cyclist and his bride, Andrea, in 1940. But on this occasion, the impetus of the meeting came from the Vatican where the then Supreme Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, had specifically asked the cardinal to escalate his secret operation that was then helping countless Jews flee the ever watchful eye of the German SS. This operation was centred on a Franciscan Friary in Assisi and consisted of forging travel documents and passports to allow Jews to travel from danger or to remain where they lived but with new identities. Bartali was asked to be one of the chief couriers of these documents – concealed in the inner tubing of his handlebars. His sporting status meant that no one would think anything of his cycling long distances on a regular basis. It was a perfect ruse. It worked.
It was not without danger though. Bartali had already hidden a Jewish family in one of the properties that he owned. Soon the local Fascists, at the behest of their Nazi masters, took an interest in him and began questioning his movements. There was another cost as he hid his activities from his wife. She was already suffering from nervous tension at having to live in a war zone – Italy by then had been invaded from the south by the Allies – and now she was pregnant for the second time. He chose not to worry her, but his actions left a strain on him, something, inevitably, she noticed. Allied bombing started. One night, there was an explosion near to where the couple hid; Andrea gave birth to a stillborn child soon after. Shortly after that, as the raids continued, Gino cycled alone to the graveyard where he had buried his brother. He carried with him a small box. It was there in that same plot he laid to rest the child that had not lived.
In August 1944, Florence was liberated.
With the war’s end, Bartali found that the sport he had loved and lived for was shattered. It would take two years before even a semblance of its former races and competitions would be restored but its once lucrative circuit was gone. In addition, the best years of his sporting life were also gone. Aged 30 years old he was deemed too old to race competitively. These next years would be ones of darkness, almost despair, for Bartali. In the end, one night he cycled to the graveyard of his brother and child, it was there he would pray alone for some time, seeking an answer as to what to do next. When he rose from his knees, he mounted his cycle confident he had his answer: he was to race again…
When he started racing again, the slurs that followed were not just about his age. His opponents now openly mocked his faith. He was known to be a personal sporting favourite of the then Pope, with whom he had had a private audience after winning the Tour de France in 1938. At the end of that race in Paris, he had taken his winner’s bouquet to the church of Our Lady of Victories – dedicating his win to the Mother of God. It was known that Bartali not only regularly attended Holy Mass before races but also had a shrine dedicated to St. Therese in his hotel room, whilst all the time exhorting his fellow Catholic riders to practice their faith and to sanctify their professional work.
Italy was in post war chaos, politically and economically, sharply divided between the Christian Democrats and Communists. In the middle of it all, Gino had started racing again. He was competing but not winning, not so easily anyway. He entered the 1948 Tour de France. He had won it ten years earlier, no rider had ever won it with such a time lapse in between: no one gave him a chance.
That year, 1948, his main rival would be Fausto Coppi, a younger man, and an altogether different one. This would become more than a race between two sporting rivals. It was also seen as one between a cyclist who was favoured by the communists and indifferent to the faith opposed by one who had links to the Christian Democrats and was devout. It was between an urban sophisticate and a countryman, between tradition and modernity, with the ‘modern’ rider fastidious about his diet and his health whilst the man who symbolised the older order ate, smoked and drank with Chestertonian abandon.
Through the roads and the mountains of France they were to face each other. Only one could be victor. And that victory was won on a stage in the mountains. That day, Bartali rode with almost preternatural strength. Crowds, rivals and organisers looked on in astonishment at the figure racing through the snow on those treacherous mountain slopes. Even so they could have not known how hard it was for the former champion, who, by then, was suffering from severe hunger pangs, so much so he was about to stop, to give up, he thought he couldn’t go on then suddenly a hand came from the crowd and offered him some fruit. It was to prove enough for him to continue. No one knows who did this; later reports claimed that it was someone dressed as a priest, but whoever it was it changed everything. Bartali was later to say that from then he felt as if he was being picked up and carried to the finish. On that day, he vanquished his opponents so much so they never recovered – the race was his. On the eve of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, he had ascended the mountain, and won.
His victory was to have a unifying effect on his divided homeland – some suggested even averting a possible civil war. Not least because of a picture taken on one of the stages. It was of the two rival Italian riders caught on camera sharing a water bottle. One passes it to another, they both drink, before the bottle is replaced, and then in the sweat and the heat continue to race. For some, that picture was to become a symbol. Post-war Italy – left & centre – could co-exist, could work together, they were born with a common heritage, something that transcended any new found political posturing.
Bartali retired from the sport soon after to lead a quiet life in his native Florence. Not until many years later did it become public knowledge what he had done for so many during the war. So much so that it was only after he had been dead 13 years that he was declared Righteous Among the Nations. He was equally self-effacing about his many sporting triumphs. On being asked by one reporter about his medals and trophies, he replied the only ‘medals’ worth having were those received in Heaven.
In May 2000, after a Requiem Mass, he was laid to rest dressed in the robes of the Carmelite Third Order, with the Scapular of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel a reminder of Bartali’s greatest earthly victory, and the promise of a heavenly one.