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Tour de France history: Bartali rescues Italy

In-depth
6 Jul 2021
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In 1948 Italy was on the verge of revolution. To prevent anarchy the country needed a hero, and up stepped Gino Bartali

Words: Giles Belbin Photo: L'Equipe

Wednesday 14th July 1948, Carlton Hotel Cannes. It’s the third rest day of the Tour and Gino Bartali is in his room relaxing. Two weeks ago he started the race in fine form, winning the first stage.

His spell at the top of the General Classification proved to be short-lived though, and despite picking up another couple of stage wins in the Pyrenees, as the sun rises in Cannes he is more than 21 minutes behind race leader Louison Bobet. Bartali is not even the top-ranked Italian on GC – that honour belongsW to Aldo Ronconi, riding for Italy’s B team.

After a lie-in Bartali hosts some journalists in his room – a regular occurrence. Many have been critical of his performance and ask if the soon-to-be-34-year-old has too many miles in his legs. The Italian is unhappy and mocks the questions before joining teammates for a game of cards. All the time he is unaware that a dire situation is unfolding in his homeland.

In Italy, Alcide De Gasperi’s Christian Democrats had been voted into office three months earlier, the country seemingly taking its first steps towards political stability after the Second World War. But that very morning, while the riders rest on the Mediterranean coast, the chairman of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, is shot three times outside his office in Rome.

Almost immediately Italy descends into anarchy. Strikes are called and demonstrations held. Factory workers hold their managers hostage. Unrest pervades the country and revolution is in the air.

In France, Bartali is told the news by journalists as they depart the race to head home. Over the course of the day his mind repeatedly returns to Italy and concern for his family. What should he do? Return home or continue riding? The story of what happens next has passed into cycling legend.

Bartali is called to the phone. It is De Gasperi. The two men know each other but of course Bartali is still shocked to be called by the prime minister. De Gasperi asks Bartali how things are going and if he thinks he will win the Tour.

‘Well, there is still a week to go,’ Bartali says. ‘But I am 90% [sure] I’ll win tomorrow.’ De Gasperi urges Bartali to try to win the race. ‘It could be very important for all of us,’ he says.

A comeback for the ages

Over the years there has been speculation over whether this telephone conversation actually took place. As Aili and Andres McConnon write in their meticulously researched biography of Bartali, Road To Valour, given what happened over the next two days to some observers it seems ‘singularly dramatic’.

But they conclude the call was ‘much less unusual than it might now seem’, citing multiple sources, including surviving members of the 1948 team who were present, who confirmed the call happened, and highlighting that the men were already exchanging telegrams as the race progressed.

In 1998 Bartali himself told Leonardo Coen of La Repubblica that De Gasperi had called at 9pm and insisted it was important he won the race. Bartali said he had replied, ‘I can’t promise you that I will win the Tour because the Tour is won by arriving in Paris in yellow. I guarantee you the stage… I will make it beautiful.’

And how he did. The next day Bartali launched an almighty attack on the Col d’Allos. Bobet went with him but the Italian accelerated after stage leader Jean Robic. By the time Bartali topped the Col d’Izoard, drenched by freezing rain, he was alone out front.

In Briançon he won the stage, with Bobet more than 18 minutes down. The Frenchman was still in yellow, but Bartali had reduced his deficit to just 51 seconds.

Next was another massive day in the Alps and from Briançon to Aix-les-Bains, Bobet and Bartali locked horns. Over the Lautaret, the Galibier and the Croix de Fer, where this photograph was taken, the two men matched each other pedal stroke for pedal stroke. Then finally – cruelly – Bobet cracked on the Porte and Bartali rode away. So much for ageing legs.

Bartali was ruthless. In another extraordinary display the Italian won the stage while Bobet finished more than seven minutes back. As night fell in Aix-les-Bains the yellow jersey was hanging in the wardrobe of the Italian master. Bartali had gained nearly 30 minutes in two astonishing days in the Alps. Beautiful indeed.

The next day Le Dauphiné Libéré described ‘a life and death struggle between two great champions’, plus a story from across the border under the headline ‘Peace in Italy’. Bartali’s exploits had proven the ultimate diversion.

‘From home they told me that instead of people going to read bulletins of strikes, demonstrations, death, they asked for those of the Tour,’ Bartali told Coen 50 years later. ‘In Parliament there were those who shouted, “Bartali is the yellow jersey! Long live Italy!”’

By the time they rolled into Paris, Bartali’s winning margin was over 26 minutes from second placed Alberic Schotte. The gap of 10 years between his first Tour win and his second in 1948, explained in part by the war, remains a record.

During the conflict Bartali worked as a military bike messenger but was secretly helping Jewish families, harbouring them in his house and running fake papers and money that he hid in his bike during ‘training rides’.

His actions only came to light after his death from a heart attack in 2000. ‘Good is something you do, not something you talk about,’ he had said. ‘Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.’