“Indestructible, he was the king of the climbers. But also a champion of faith. And for the Jews, the Righteous Among Nations. A life as a protagonist, for himself and for others.”
This was the glowing tribute offered by La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s number one sports daily (and third best selling national), and founders of the Giro d’Italia to Gino Bartali on the day of what would have been his 100th birthday. Famous pink pages and a legendary wearer of the pink jersey. Two distinct Italian powerhouses.
Bartali won the Giro three times, taking 17 stages throughout a career punctured by the Second World War. More on that in a minute. Add to the legend two Tours of France, a famous sporting rivalry with compatriot Fausto Coppi and a career peppered with wild anecdotes. At the 1950 Tour he was allegedly punched and threatened with a knife by French fans before winning the stage. This was at an understandably tense time in Franco-Italian relations. Chris Froome may reflect with hindsight he had it easy dodging a few cowardice flem balls and some wayward urine.
La Gazetta is not shy with its praise:
“Bartali was a great champion and an extraordinary man. He is the greatest climber in the history of the Giro: more than Coppi, Gaul, Binda, Fuente, Jimenez, Bahamontes, Massignan, Herrera. And more than Pantani, who had rigged fuel…”
Interesting that last turn of phrase. More from us on the charismatic bandana next time…
Today we celebrate Bartali not simply for his considerable achievements and sportsmanship on the road but his legacy off it. Today, 27 January, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Bartali, who spent his honeymoon at the Vatican, was a devout catholic (apparently capable of reciting the entire Papal lineage), a man of his word, one who put helping opponents in moments of crisis - notably chief rival Coppi - before his own pursuit of victory.
Only after Bartali’s death, and typical of the man’s understated nature, did it emerge that he had risked his own life during WW2 by aiding hundreds of Jews obtain counterfeit identity documents. On the request of the Cardinal of Florence (Bartali was a Tuscan native), he used his cycling prowess to pedal hundreds of thousands of miles across the country with photos and other documents stuffed in his bike frame and handlebars. From a printers to Jewish safe houses. When stopped he had the quickness of mind to ask inspectors not to interfere with the delicate mechanisms of his bike. All on the premise he was in the middle of an intense training ride. Bartali also protected Jewish friends by offering a safe hiding place in his cellar. Had he been caught, it is unlikely he would have survived the conflict.
Bartali made no secret of his disdain for Mussolini when refusing to dedicate a Giro victory to Il Duce and he was not the only Italian to heroically protect the Jews during the conflict but for an athlete with such a huge profile and at the peak of his sporting career, it would have been easy to look the other way.
In 2013, and some 13 years after his death, Yad Vashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research in Jerusalem, granted him the honour Righteous Among the Nations.
A true ‘uomo di ferro’, an ironman long before Kona and the obligatory calf tattoos were ever dreamt up.