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Catching Up With Gino Bartali

by David V. Herlihy

Inroduction: David Herlihy wrote this wonderful story of his time with the great Gino Bartali (born 1914, died 2000) back in 1989. Besides this story, BikeRaceInfo has the story of Herlihy's day with Cino Cinelli posted as well.

Herlihy is the author of the essential Bicycle: The History. No cyclist with an interest in the origins and development of the bicycle should be without this book. I have had the privilege and pleasure of reading Herlihy's latest book, The Lost Cyclist, an adventure and detective story about Frank Lenz and his attempt to ride a bicycle around the world in the 1890s. Every page of The Lost Cyclist is a pleasure. It is a wonderful, very well-written, exhaustively researched book that paints a crisp and sharp picture of a century-old world filled danger and wonder for any brave soul on a bike venturing from the safety of home.

Florence, Italy. Just outside the cinema stood a heavyset man of medium height, aged but hardy in appearance. Wrapped in a trench coat, he seemed oblivious to the steady drizzle as he awaited the mass exodus. Suddenly the doors burst open, and the animated crowd spilled out. The man deftly swung into action, grasping the outstretched hands of the young and old alike. He readily exchanged small talk, pausing periodically to sign the programs thrust his way.
The man’s flock of admirers had just seen an hour-long documentary entitled Grazie, Gino (Thank you, Gino), the highlight of the Festival del Popolo, the city’s annual film festival. The subject matter turned crowd pleaser was none other than Gino Bartali, one of the greatest bicycle racers of all time and an enduring national hero.

For many readers, it may be difficult to fathom just how important a figure Bartali was in his prime. His long racing career (1935-1954) transpired at a time when professional cycling enjoyed enormous popularity. During the harsh post-war years in particular, Italians turned to the sport for a much-needed diversion. Thousands lined the streets just to catch a glimpse of Gino and his peers as they flew by, and many more followed their exploits through live radio broadcasts and press reports.

So important was Gino, in fact, that some historians credit him with saving Italian democracy. In 1948, the 34-year-old champion was struggling to claim his second Tour de France, exactly a decade after his first victory in the annual classic. Just as the race reached its climax, a would-be assassin in Rome seriously wounded the head of the powerful Italian communist party, Palmiro Togliatti. The victim slipped into a coma, and the piazzas swelled with violent protesters. A fragile, war-torn Italy appeared on the brink of collapse. Bartali’s dramatic stage victory the next day did more than ensure his second crown—it also brought about a timely resurgence of national pride. As Togliatti’s condition improved, calmer forces prevailed.

Giuseppe Martano and Gino Bartali

1935 Giro: On the right, the young phenom Gino Bartali, who would win the mountains competition. On the left, Frejus teammate and eventual second place, Giuseppe Martano.

In another era, Bartali—above all, a phenomenal hill climber—would surely have had no worthy rival. In addition to his two Tour triumphs, he claimed three Giro d’Italia and four Milan-San Remo. It so happened, however, that his career largely coincided with that of the great Fausto Coppi (who was five years his junior). While cycling buffs still debate which one was the greater of the two, one thing is certain: their fierce rivalry only enhanced the mystique that surrounds both legendary competitors.

Indeed, there was once a time when all of Italy seemed equally divided between Bartalani and Coppisti. This natural division of loyalties was undoubtedly exacerbated by a genuine and marked contrast in personalities, reinforced by their distinct racing styles. Whereas Coppi was the ultimate finesse performer, Bartali was the “faticoso” (one who achieves greatness through sheer effort). A journalist once described Bartali’s famous intensity:

“He is very serious and rarely smiles. He is driven by commitment and duty. He does not tolerate any distractions while racing, and he is entirely focused on victory. He is even prone to admonish his less dedicated peers: ‘We are here to race, not to fool around.’”

Like other great athletic rivalries, the Bartali-Coppi duel transcended the sport itself. In essence, it represented a clash of fundamental values and life-styles. The devout Bartali was irascible but outgoing; the apolitical Coppi was shy but polished. Bartali was the family man who abided by conventional values. Coppi, though married, consorted with the infamous “dama Bianca” (lady in white, so-named for her customary attire). Whenever Bartali and Coppi tangled nothing less than the meaning of life seemed at stake.

1937 winning team

1937 Giro: The winning Legnano squad. Bartali, the overall winner is in pink, the second rider from the right.

Coppi, alas, died in 1960 at the age of 39, after contracting malaria in Africa just before he was to race his final season (with Bartali as his coach.) His erstwhile nemesis, in contrast, is now 73 and lives relatively quietly in his native Tuscany.
To gain a greater appreciation of Gino’s legacy, the man and his times, I sought out his company. With the help of some friends who run a bicycle shop in Florence, I tracked down Gino one day on the streets of Florence. After I explained that I was an American journalist who would like to interview him, Gino ordered me, in this distinctively raspy voice, to present myself at noon the next day at the Palazzo Vecchio, the famous medieval complex that still functions as the city hall. “I have a very busy schedule,” he snapped, “so be there.”

Arriving as instructed, I followed the signs indicating “riunione ciclistica” (cycling meeting), not knowing quite what to expect. Passing by statues and fountains, through long stone corridors, I eventually stumbled into a small room where a dozen or so well-dressed men stood chatting—but no Gino in sight.
I soon learned that I was surrounded by local bicycle retailers, race organizers, and assorted cycling dignitaries. Gino would be arriving shortly to distribute various prizes on behalf of the municipality, including one for the most original and attractive storefront display, as judged by a roving committee on the day of Florence’s main professional race.

Suddenly, Gino briskly strode into the room. The buzz fell to a hush, as we all dutifully lined up behind the ex-champion and followed him into the adjacent room, taking our seats at a long table. The vice-mayor suddenly appeared at the podium and delivered a few remarks on the health and environmental benefits of cycling. Next spoke Alfredo Martini, the current director of the Italian national team and Gino’s life-long friend.

At last, the emcee began to tick off each category. As the winners were announced, they advanced to the podium to receive their awards from Gino. Cameras flashed and tapes rolled. Finally, we learned that the grand prize for best display would go to a shop that had cleverly exhibited one of Bartali’s war-era Legnanos.

Just as I thought the meeting was about to adjourn, I suddenly noticed that Gino was motioning to me. “And now an award to an American journalist…”, I heard the emcee adlib. As I arose and sheepishly made way my way to podium, I took in the rousing applause. Gino beamed as he handed me a little bronze bicycle. It was then that I realized that his gruff demeanor was nothing more than a façade, and I was touched by his evident thoughtfulness.

Bartali in the 1939 Giro

From the 1939 Giro: Bartali is in front and alone at the top of the Ghisallo. Giovanni Valetti was the eventual overall winner with Bartali second, @ 2 minutes 59 seconds.

To my great delight, my good fortune did not end there. I was invited to join the group for lunch, after which I would be given the opportunity to interview Gino. Off we went in a fleet of vehicles to a first-class restaurant, where we all enjoyed a boisterous four-course meal with free-flowing wine.

At last, I had the opportunity to sit down with Gino. He talked freely about his upbringing and cycling career, effortlessly ticking off his numerous victories.
“I grew up in a small town outside of Florence,” he began. “My father was a field hand and my mother took care of me, a brother, and two sisters. When the mandatory school age was raised to fourteen, I began to bicycle several kilometers to the nearest school, in Florence. Then I started to work for a local bicycle mechanic. He eventually talked my father into letting me race.”
That mechanic, ninety-year-old Oscar Casamonti, is still very much alive. He is immensely proud of the fact that he detected a future champion in the young Gino. He still marvels at the way that boy would perpetually charge over the surrounding hills on his beloved bicycle.

“My first victory was also my first great disappointment,” Gino continued. “Hours earlier, I had turned sixteen, the age limit for that race. After I won, a group of boys approached the officials and demanded that they disqualify me.” It is clear that Gino has never forgiven the culprits, among whom was a certain Cino Cinelli. It is equally clear that he hates to lose for any reason—which may explain why he rarely did.

Bartali spent his first professional season, 1935, as the star of the Frejus team The next season he switched to Legnano, and won his first major race, the Giro. He would remain with that team for eleven more seasons. During that stint he won the bulk of his palmari.

Naturally, the subject of Coppi arose. “I knew he was a champion the moment I first saw him race, in 1938.” Gino affirmed. “We became good friends, despite our rivalry.”

In 1946, after the war ended, Gino rejoined Legnano for three more seasons. In 1949, after his stunning Tour victory (he is the only one to have won two Tours ten years apart), he captained his own team. Two Milanese brothers, Giuseppe and Mario Santamaria, manufactured the “Bartali” bicycles. Gino also teamed up with Tommaso Nieddù and adapted the latter’s distinctive “Cervino” derailleur system.  Their partnership never paid off for Gino, however, as the vast majority of racers began to employ the French Simplex parallelogram derailleurs. Gino himself admits that he would have done likewise, had he been free to choose. Some even say that he lost a number of races to Coppi on account of an inferior derailleur.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Gino’s career spanned an impressive phase of bicycle development. As a youngster, he had to reach back to his chain and manually shift gears. By his last season, 1954, he was using Campagnolo’s first “modern” derailleur, the Gran Sport. In the interim, bicycle frames and components became ever lighter. Gino is proud to have been among the first racers to use an aluminum crankset, custom-built for him in France. Naturally, he followed the latest technical developments closely, but in the end he simply wanted to win races with whatever equipment he had at his disposal.
Prompted by an injury to his leg, suffered during an automobile accident, Gino at last retired at the advanced age of forty. He then became director of San Pellegrino. He continued his coaching career over the next fifteen years, while also making occasional appearances in the broadcast booth to commentate on races. Finally, in 1971, he retired from the sport altogether. “Frankly, it got so that you couldn’t tell the young racers anything any more,” he huffed. “They just wouldn’t listen.” Added Gino almost wistfully: “They have it so much easier than we did.”

Since his retirement from racing, however, Gino has hardly kept a low profile. He remains an ardent fan of cycling, assisting the local youth team that gave him his start so many years ago. He is a familiar figure at the finish lines of races, amateur and professional. And he still has ties to the cycling industry. He does public relations for Ofmega, the parts manufacturer with whom he has been associated since his racing days. And, a few years back, he founded a small factory to produce a new generation of moderately priced “Bartali” racing bicycles. Gino admits, however, that he is not as involved in the enterprise as he would like to be, the factory being in a different province and in the hands of his two sons.

On the social circuit, Gino continues to be in constant demand. Although not a gifted speaker, he will, on request, stand up and deliver an extemporaneous speech, inevitably drawing laughs from the audience who appreciate his folksy humor. Earlier this year, for example, he attended Francesco Moser’s retirement ceremony.  He will soon head to Monaco to participate in a festival celebrating the sport of cycling. Gino proudly points out that he and Eddy Merckx are the only ex-champions to have received personal invitations from Prince Ranier.

Gino had barely sketched out his life, when he realized the late hour. As he arose to rush off to his next appointment, he asked me if I would care to join him later that week for a cyclists’ banquet marking the end of their riding season. Of course, I readily accepted, in hopes of continuing our conversation.
On the appointed evening, Gino swung by my residence. I entered his white Rabbit station wagon, prominently marked “Bartali-Ofmega,” and off we sped to a Tuscan hilltown. On the way, Gino drove past his home and pointed it out to me, a modest two-story structure facing a piazza. We continued through his childhood village, where I could see for myself the narrow, sloping roads where Gino trained so arduously as a youth.

Entering the banquet hall, we were immediately invited into the adjacent bar. As the bartender poured us our drinks, an adoring crowd enveloped Gino.  Just as the ex-champion began to savor his glass of white wine, the rapid-fire questioning began.

“Did DeGasperi (the Italian prime minister in 1948) really call you in Paris to plead for a victory,” asked one middle-aged man. “What’s a good diet for a racer?,” piped in a youngster. “Who are the champions of today?” demanded a woman. “What about that famous photo,” the bartender couldn’t resist querying, “Were you giving Coppi the bottle or was it the other way around?”

Gino wheeled around, glass in hand, beaming with amusement, as if he had never entertained these questions before. “Yes, he did,” Gino insisted, referring to De Gasperi. “He told me that there was a great crisis unfolding in Italy, and that the country could really use a victory. I told him I would do my best, but I was by no means confident that I could overcome the stiff competition.” “You’ll have to ask a doctor about diets,” Gino continued with a chuckle, as he patted his large belly. “Next week I’m going to Monaco, and it’s going to be embarrassing to be seen with Merckx. He looks like he could still race.” “I gave Coppi the bottle,” Gino affirmed, handing the bartender his empty glass, as if to dramatize the point.

We soon headed into the dining hall together to take our seats at the table of honor, facing about one hundred animated amateur cyclists and their families. The night was full of good food and good cheer, and Gino once again handed out awards with his customary aplomb.

Afterwards, Gino drove me home. As we wound our way down narrow country lanes, I contemplated what more to ask of him. I thought back to the film, which asserted that fascist authorities, uneasy about Gino’s unshakeable allegiance to the Pope, regularly interrogated him. I further recalled how he had reportedly harbored Jewish refuges, at great risk to himself. I decided, however, not to pursue these lines of questioning, recalling how he had skirted such matters in the film (“I don’t want to be taken for a hero when I wasn’t one,” he had insisted on screen. “Heroes are people who give their lives for a cause.”)

Instead, I raised another delicate subject: the untimely death of his younger brother Giulio, who suffered a fatal collision with a car during an amateur race shortly after Gino turned professional. Gino was so shaken by the tragedy that he nearly quit the sport, until friends convinced him that he was duty-bound to pursue his career. “All the races I had won two years earlier as an amateur,” Gino reminisced, “my brother was winning too.” Knowing that Coppi had also lost a younger brother due to a racing accident, I wondered if the two had ever commiserated. “No,” Gino replied after some reflection, “that was one thing we never talked about.”

Gino proceeded to lambaste the doctors who had tried in vain to revive Giulio, asserting that they had failed to properly execute their duties. He has likewise condemned the doctors who tended to the ailing Coppi. I could readily see why Gino has acquired a reputation as a harsh critic. His 1979 autobiography, after all, is entitled Tutto sbagliato, tutto da rifare. ("Everything’s messed up; it all must be done over.”)

When I asked him what his goals were for the future, he expressed only one heartfelt desire. “Two years from now, on my 50th anniversary, if I live that long, I want to travel with my wife Adrianna to Fatima, Portugal, to see the holy shrine. I remember racing there once and I’d love to go back.”

From what I could glean from my brief time with Gino, he leads a relatively simple and modest life, despite his enduring fame and busy social schedule. Of course, as a racer, he never made anything resembling the astronomical salaries of today’s champions. Still, many of his peers, with far fewer laurels, managed to parlay their racing fame into fairly lucrative business careers.

Alas, that has hardly been Gino’s lot, though not for lack of effort. Besides investing his winnings in various projects, he has frequently appeared in ads, hawking everything from soft drinks to bike parts. Still, he has surprisingly little to show in the way of material assets. By his own admission, he was a far better athlete than businessman. One friend tactfully sums up Gino’s business career as follows: “He trusted those that he shouldn’t have trusted, and he ignored those he shouldn’t have ignored.”

Wondering if he felt cheated in life, I asked Gino if he thought that his lifelong involvement with cycling had given him his financial due. “No, certainly not,” he replied instantly, but without a trace of bitterness. He remarked that it was simply his misfortune to retire just as races were reaching television screens, and salaries were about to explode as a consequence. “At least I’m nobody’s slave,” he declared with an air of pride and defiance.

Just then, we began to approach a tollbooth. Gino slowed down his car, bringing it to a stop just behind an immense truck. After a few moments, he realized that the vehicle was parked, even though the driver had neglected to engage his hazard lights. Furious, Gino banged on his horn with one hand and shook a fist with the other. He unleashed a torrent of swear words as he depressed the gas pedal and swung his vehicle around the offending obstacle. The startled toll collector instantly recognized the irate man behind the wheel, and flashed a knowing grin.

As we entered the highway, I held my tongue, not wishing to test Gino’s prickly temperament. He, too, said nothing. A few minutes later, however, Gino broke the silence. To my surprise, as we passed by a cemetery, he instinctively crossed himself and muttered a short prayer

It immediately struck me that his seemingly miraculous transformation somehow captured his essential, if somewhat contradictory, qualities. His outburst at the tollbooth revealed his raw determination and fierce resolve to overcome anything in his way. Yet his spontaneous prayer suggested a sincere reverence and genuine compassion.

I concluded that Gino is truly a man, to use a Tuscan expression, fatto a modo suo (“made in his own way.”) He is indisputably a champion for the ages yet one who has never ceased to count himself among his fellow mortals. Indeed, when asked in the film to recount his greatest victory, Gino affirmed: “I won the challenge of life, winning the love of the people.”