by Roger Childs

When Bartali was stopped and searched, he specifically asked that his bike not be touched since the different parts were carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed. –Citation in a posthumous award to the legendary Italian cyclist 

One of Italy’s finest sportsmen

Gino Bartali was one of greatest Italian cyclists of the twentieth century.  He had many successes in bike races in Europe in the late 1930s and 1940s, including two victories in the Tour de France and three in the Giro d’Italia

His victories in the Tour straddled World War Two, and it was in fact during the war that the man and his bike created a legend. The staunchly Catholic Bartali used his machine and training rides to save Jewish people in danger.

A rapid rise to the top

Bartali was born in Florence and took up bike riding at the age of 13. He proved to be a natural and in 1935 aged 21 he turned professional. He quickly became one of Europe’s top cyclists with a number of big race victories:

  • 1935: Italian National Road Championship
  • 1936: Giro d’Italia 
  • 1937: Italian National Road Championship and the Giro d’Italia 
  • 1938: Tour de France

He has ridden the Tour in 1937 and was the yellow jersey holder when he fell off a bridge in a valley near Briancon. Despite severe cuts and difficulties with his breathing he continued on for a few stages, but was eventually forced to retire. 

However he was back the next year and thousands of Italians flocked to France to see him win the most prestigious race in the sport.  French commentator Georges Briquet observed ...these people have found a superman.

His success in the 1938 Tour was based on his superb mountain climbing skills. He never danced on the pedals, but used well timed gear changes and the power of his muscular legs to ride over the mountain passes in the seat. His record of winning three Tour mountain stages in a row has never been equaled.

The cyclist at war: dedicated to saving Jews

When war broke out in 1939, Bartali was conscripted and not surprisingly became a bike messenger. Jewish people had lost their civil rights in 1938, but it was not until the German Army moved into northern Italy in 1943 that they were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

The Cardinal of Florence was a key figure in coordinating operations to help Jewish people escape from Italy. He asked Bartali to assist and the cycling legend quickly agreed. He was a familiar figure biking on the roads of Central Italy and this provided an excellent cover for his secret activities to aid the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants (DELASEM) 

Bartali used the handle bars and frames of his bike to conceal his secret cargo. He

  • collected money from Swiss banks in Genoa
  • distributed the cash to Jews hiding in Florence
  • collected photographs and counterfeit identity papers from Jews hiding in convents
  • delivered the documents to DELASEM who made up passports
  • observed the movements of troops and police and warned the Jews in safe houses of planned raids.

He constantly risked his life and when stopped by authorities insisted that he was out training and that his bike must not be interfered with. As a national cycling superstar riding in a jersey with his name on, he was able to carry out more than 40 major rides between cities.

In addition to this secret courier work, he also helped individual Jewish people, including his friend Giacomo Goldenberg and his family, hiding them in his apartment and a nearby basement. In the north he led refugees into the Swiss Alps and even transported some in a wagon behind his bike! He told patrols that it was part of his special training!

After the war

Once the war ended, Bartali, now in his 30s, wondered if he could still be competitive at the highest level. The proof came when he entered the Tour de France in 1948. Ten years after his pre-war victory, Gino Bartali won the event again by more than 26 minutes, one of the largest margin in the history of the Tour. The following year he was second.

Right through until his death in 2000, he insisted that his work assisting Jews during the war remain a secret. So it was only in the twenty first century that the courage of this remarkable sportsman became known.

But why did Bartali want his wartime exploits to remain secret? He told his son: If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirt and then they shine in some museum.  That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.