The cycling legend and devout Catholic who risked his life to protect Jews
If Chris Froome triumphs this Sunday in the final stage of the Tour de France, he will have more than confirmed his place among the greats. But there is one record that he won’t have broken: for the longest time span between victories. That is held by the Italian legend Gino Bartali, who won in 1938 and 1948. He was also known as “Gino the Pious” because of his passionate devotion to his Catholic faith.
Bartali’s most lasting accomplishment, however, was one few people know about. During the Second World War Bartali helped Jews hiding in Tuscany and Umbria escape detection by the Nazis and Fascists. Bartali secretly sheltered a family of Jews in an apartment he owned and he travelled between Florence and Assisi, transporting false identity documents hidden in the frame of his bicycle. In both his humanitarian work and his cycling, Bartali’s Catholic faith was the cornerstone of his life at all of its critical junctures. As he put it: “My faith in God, my heartfelt love for religion, have always given me the strength to overcome all the things that were first thought impossible.”
From a young age, religion played a pivotal role in Bartali’s life. Born into a humble labourer’s family living in a working-class hamlet on the outskirts of Florence, Gino became involved in devotional life early on. At the age of 10 he joined the lay group Catholic Action and remained involved throughout his life. Formed in 1867, Catholic Action organised a wide range of activities for young boys and men, ranging from prayer meetings and Bible classes to summer camps and athletic associations.
Catholic Action became even more important to Gino after the first big tragedy rocked the Bartali household. In an amateur race in Turin, soon after Gino had won his first Giro d’Italia in 1936, Gino’s younger brother, Giulio, raced in rainy, slippery conditions. On a precarious downhill descent Giulio was hit by a car that had either missed or ignored instructions about the race. Doctors operated on Giulio, trying to save his life, but the 19-year-old died a few days later.
Gino was devastated and quit cycling. As he grieved for his lost brother his way of viewing the world transformed. Already an active Catholic, he devoted himself further to the Church and turned to his faith to ground him in the world. At Catholic Action meetings he began taking a more visible role, speaking frequently to young boys at meetings, explaining the role of his faith in his success. In their family home, Gino built a small chapel and dedicated it to Giulio so that the Bartalis would have a private place to offer daily prayers for the repose of Giulio’s soul. With few other career options, Gino made the difficult decision to return to cycling. Through prayer he found a new motivation: he would race to honour his brother’s memory.
As Bartali reached the summit of his sport in 1938, his faith came into the glare of the political spotlight in Europe. In a stunning victory, Bartali won the Tour de France in 1938. By this point, Mussolini’s Fascist government tried to use every Italian athletic victory as proof of the strength of the Fascist ideology. In this environment, it was expected that athletes, particularly those competing abroad, would dedicate their victories to Mussolini. Bartali behaved very differently after his Tour win. Instead of thanking Mussolini, he thanked his fans in his victory speech and the next day he was photographed taking his victor’s bouquet to a local church in Paris, where he laid it at the feet of the Madonna. The Fascist regime took note. Just a few days later Mussolini’s press office sent a secret missive to newspapers throughout the country (which Mussolini controlled at this time), and ordered them to avoid any discussion of Bartali’s personal life – including his religion – in any news articles about his cycling.
Bartali, like so many other young men of his era, saw his life upended by World War II. At a moment when his future appeared uncertain, his faith served once more as an important pillar in his life. In the early days of war, when he was conscripted into the army, it offered him an inviting escape from the dreariness of military life and his growing frustration with Mussolini’s government. “I plunged myself into reading the lives of the saints. I frequently read St Anthony, St Catherine, St Thérèse of Lisieux,” he said.
By the autumn of 1943, when the German army occupied Italy, Gino was challenged like never before. As Jewish refugees flooded into Florence, hoping to escape deportation to camps, they turned to the Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, for help with shelter, food and false identity documents. The cyclist and the cardinal had been friends since well before the war through the Catholic community; Dalla Costa had married Bartali and baptised his son. Dalla Costa was a spiritual mentor to Bartali, but his request was a very perilous one. He was asking Bartali to risk his life for a community of strangers, and if Bartali was caught his own life would be endangered, not to mention those of his wife and young son.
Bartali understood the dangers involved but he also knew his conscience would not let him stand idly by. As one fellow member of the resistance put it: “One made the choice to be on the side of the Fascists or to defend the people.” Bartali mustered his courage through prayer and made his decision to help.
After the war, Bartali struggled to re-establish himself as a cyclist. As he returned to the Tour de France in 1948, he performed poorly in the first half of the race. Many journalists declared that Il Vecchio (“the old man”), as Bartali was known because he was 10 years older than most of his competitors, had no chance. But Bartali showed the power of his resolve once more.
On the 13th stage, hampered by a more than 21-minute disadvantage behind the race leader, Bartali felt his legs surge beneath him. Not only did he make up much of the lost ground, he also pulled into the lead of the race the next day. A few days later, as Bartali was preparing at his hotel for one of the final stages of the competition, he was surprised by a visitor. It was an emissary from the pope who had appeared to give Bartali a special medal, telling him that “His Holiness wishes that you win the Tour, as a loyal and athletic champion”.
Off the bike and in the years following his retirement, Bartali’s faith would continue to be a source of happiness. In the autumn of 1947, Pope Pius XII referenced Bartali in an address to a crowd at St Peter’s Square when he linked Bartali’s battles on the bike to the larger moral battle to lead a virtuous life. Bartali had the honour of meeting Pope Pius XII, and later met popes John XXIII and Paul VI.
In his early 80s, as Gino’s health began to fail him, he shared his wishes for his final arrangements with family members. He requested a traditional funeral Mass and asked to be buried in the brown robes of the Carmelites, of which he was a lay member. On the afternoon of May 5 2000 Bartali quietly passed away. News of his death was broadcast on Italian television and Pope John Paul II joined those in mourning, hailing Bartali as a “great sportsman”. A few years later, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, commended Bartali’s “great strength” and “great character”. Giorgio Goldenberg, the surviving member of the Jewish family who Bartali sheltered in one of his apartments during the war, offered his own appraisal of the cyclist’s legacy in 2011. “There is no doubt whatsoever for me that he saved our lives,” he said. “He was a hero and he is entitled to be called a hero of the Italian people during the Second World War.”
This is an adapted version of an article which first appeared in 2012. Road to Valour, Gina Bartali: Tour de France Legend and Italy’s Secret World War Two Hero by Aili McConnon and Andres McConnon is available for purchase online.