It seems that after many years another Italian biker, Vincenzo Nibali, is about to win the “Tour de France“, very likely the most important cycling race in the world. I’m very happy for the national prestige, however, as far as I am concerned, sport recently has lost that fascination it used to have. Medicines, doping, scientific studies have despoiled the athletes of that romantic, magic aura, that gave them the traits of demigods born to test and break human limits. Nowadays when you see a record crashed, you cannot help but wonder: did he deserve it or did he have a “little” help?
Gino Bartali ‘s only doping was good food and a bottle of Chianti. “Ginettaccio“, as he was called, was born in Ponte Elma, near Florence, in 1914 and very soon developed a great passion for cycling . In the thirties, he become professional and the whole nation learnt to love him for his passion, incredible determination and spirit of sacrifice, that made him win the ” Giro d’Italia” twice and the “Tour de France” in the years before the outbreak of the second World War. In those tragic years, when all the competitions were suspended, he used his bike to save people’s lives. Every day he cycled from Terentola-Cortona railway station to Assisi (67Km) in the midst of shootings and bombings, hiding in the crossbar of his bike the documents to help the Jew refugees leave the country. When the war was over, he was considered too old for the races and the new rising star of cycling was his antagonist and friend Fausto Coppi, five years his junior.
After the war Italy was a disintegrated country, always at the verge of the civil war. Guareschi called it the country of Don Camillo & Peppone, that is, a nation divided between the Christian Democrat Party of Alcide de Gasperi and Andreotti and the Communist Party of Palmiro Togliatti e Pietro Nenni. The Christian Democrats largely won the first republican election of our history in March 1948, therefore Alcide De Gasperi became head of the government. However, strong concerns continued to spread throughout the country, exploding dramatically at 11.30 on July 14, when Antonio Pallante, a young Sicilian linked to extreme right-wing, attempted to the life of Togliatti in Piazza Montecitorio, wounding him seriously. Tumults and riots exploded, radio broadcasts were interrupted, a general strike was proclaimed and the Minister Mario Scelba ordered bloody repressions against unauthorized demonstrations. Those were days of high tension, but where was Bartali?
Bartali was in France for the “Tour”. He was 34 and the leader of the Italian team. He knew that, somehow, he was a second choice as the two bright stars of cycling Coppi and Magni had remained in Italy for both political and personal reasons.Furthermore the Italian team was not actually welcomed, as the French could not forget the “great betrayal”, that is, when Italy had announced to enter the war on the side of Germany eight years before, right when the Nazis were marching to Paris. During the stages the Italian athletes were constantly insulted and Bartali himself was attacked by a spectator. After 12 stages, he had 21 minutes delay from the leader, the French Bobet.
What follows is the narration of how an athletic deed may become gloriously heroic. Bartali was concerned about his family and had desperately tried to contact them. Right before the beginning of the 13th stage he received a call. He left his bike and seized the receiver, hoping to hear his wife’s voice, but it wasn’t his wife, it was Alcide De Gasperi, the President himself. He politely inquired about the race and asked Bartali if there were any chances he might win the “Tour”. Bartali declared it almost impossible as there were too many minutes that separated him from the leader. Therefore, the President asked him to do his best to win at least a stage, in the hope that the sport news might distract people from politics. Bartali was stupefied but many years after that event, he confessed that those words had given him the adrenaline he needed to do what it will make him a legend.
Bartali won stage 13 with a large margin, jumping to the second place and in the next stage, Bartali won again, and took over “the yellow jersey” as leader of the general classification. Bobet was now in second place, eight minutes behind. The next stage, stage 15, was also won by Bartali. Stage after stage, the Italian excitement about the Tour de France increased, and the political tensions quieted. When the 25th of July “Ginettaccio” was on the Parisian podium, the situation in Italy was totally under control. An invisible hand had pushed the saddle of the Tuscan athlete, who had succeeded in driving his bike to a legendary world where a man “too old to win a tour” may become a hero.