At the foot of the Vars, a steep, windswept slope high in the French Alps, Gino Bartali was losing his temper. The two cyclists following him were drafting, riding so close to his back wheel that he was forced to shield them against the icy gusts and drag them along. They refused to take their turn at the front of the group, and this galled him. Ahead of the trio, a lone figure, the Frenchman Jean Robic, was getting smaller as he cycled away along the muddy road, which zigzagged around stunted fir trees and piles of rock debris until it vanished into the cold mountain mist. To have any chance of catching Robic, Bartali had to make his move now.
It was July 15, 1948, and this was L'Étape Reine: the Queen Stage, the most important day of the Tour de France. A rough swipe at Bartali's dirt-caked goggles revealed a sobering scene, even for a man who had won the Tour on the exact same terrain 10 years earlier. In 1938, Bartali had soared up the snow-crowned Alps toward an azure sky. Now he could barely see ahead as heavy clouds rolled in around him and the mud beneath his wheels became as thick as glue.
The dismal surroundings reflected the pain screaming in his body. After pedaling more than 1,700 miles over the most challenging topography in cycling, his throat and lungs were burning, his thighs felt as heavy as bronze. He could taste the freezing rain as he gulped the thinning mountain air. But all he could hear, beyond his own body heaving atop the bike, was an eerie, forlorn silence.
Bartali marshaled every last ounce of energy and mental focus to refute the critics with this next climb. Il Vecchio, they were calling him in the press -- the Old Man, at 33 years of age. He was fed up with being dismissed as a has been, defiant despite his humiliating 21-minute lag behind the Tour leader, Louison Bobet of France, at the beginning of the stage. He had even lashed out at the Italian journalists for doubting him. No matter; the reporters had already nicknamed him Ginettaccio (Gino the Terrible), and the newspapers would just chalk it up to another one of his outbursts.
What the press didn't know was that Bartali was also fueled by a secret. Unlike many of the competitors he now raced against, his toughest moments had come not on the steepest pitches of the Tour de France but during the darkest days of the German occupation of Italy during World War II, when Bartali had risked his life to help save hundreds of Jews from deportation and death in Nazi concentration camps.
As Bartali rode toward the mountaintop town of Briançon, instinct told him to attack. Robic, the 1947 Tour de France champion, cast a worried look back as his rival started closing the gap. The Frenchman held his lead to the top of the mountain pass, but Bartali was now less than a minute behind him.
Robic hurled himself downhill. As Bartali faced the harrowing descent a few seconds later, his lips curled into a grime-spattered smile. It was time for the cat to catch his mouse. It was time to show the world that the war had not broken him. And, he was beginning to understand, his return to the Tour after 10 years was about more than just a bike race. It was the final leg of a journey for him and his country, a race that had begun many years earlier on the dusty back roads of Tuscany.
Gino Bartali had been mesmerized by bikes ever since he could remember, but it wasn't until he was 12 years old, in the village of Ponte a Ema, that he scrounged up enough money to buy a rusty fourth-hand bicycle he could finally call his own. Once he had it, it was all he could think about. "The roads that led to us were all up-and-down, inviting routes for those who could pedal," he said. But the greatest attraction for Gino was Florence, five kilometers to the northwest, and the bike mechanic's shop where his older cousin Armando Sizzi worked. With bike frames hanging from hooks across the ceiling, it looked like a butcher's store. But the ambience, a heady mixture of bike grease, cigarette smoke and men's laughter, suggested something more like a barbershop. On busy afternoons it hummed with life. Serious racers came to buy new tires and swap stories about training rides and local races. They mingled with everyday riders waiting for repairs and with neighbors who just stopped by to chat. With a wrench in hand, Sizzi tended to them all, joking as he repaired broken chains and replaced damaged wheels.
Sizzi frequently introduced his shy cousin to his clients and friends. The one who had the most lasting impact on Gino was a Jew named Giacomo Goldenberg. He had come to Florence from Eastern Europe and had a life story dramatically different from any Gino had heard before. Gino was just starting to feel a powerful wanderlust, and Goldenberg, 16 years older, was perhaps the worldliest young man he had ever met. He spoke several languages and had traveled across Europe in an era in which most poor Italians like Gino lived their whole lives in the city or town of their birth. Goldenberg in turn saw something appealing in Sizzi and Gino: They were the kind of welcoming spirits that make a foreign place friendly.
Despite Gino's love of his bicycle, his parents were dead set against his racing; the sport was simply too dangerous. It took Gino more than four years to wear them down. Once he had their blessing, the 17-year-old boy turned to transforming his scrawny physique. "Often my classmates teased me because I was the weakest," he said. He built his endurance on the surrounding hills and his speed on any flats he could find. He sampled foods to see which combinations would best fuel him through strenuous multiday races. During one event Gino swallowed almost a dozen raw eggs a day on his bike, breaking their shells on the handlebars. During another event he ate a whole rabbit and chicken in one sitting. Above all, he focused on a cyclist's most important strength: as Gino put it, a "capacity for suffering."
The adrenaline rush of a racing duel electrified him. Risky, all-or-nothing offensives earned him considerable success as an amateur. More and more riders learned to recognize Gino's signature attack. Late in a race, usually during a climb, when the peloton was pushing at full tilt, Gino would ride up behind the leader. When the moment was right he would charge forward, tempting the leader to follow him. If he did, Gino would slow down and let him catch up. When the other rider had found his cadence once more, Gino would charge again. By varying his speed dramatically, Gino broke his adversary's rhythm and wore him down. "To respond to his attacks was to race to suicide," said one of his competitors.
Bartali turned professional in 1935, only four years after his first race. He was finally where he had dreamed of being. The bike mechanic from a day laborer's family now walked around Florence in well-cut suits. He had tamed his body and his mind and turned a bleak future into one of limitless possibility. "I was in seventh heaven," he said. "I was not yet 22 years old, and I had arrived."
By 1938, the year he captured his first Tour de France, Bartali was the most celebrated cyclist in the world. But just as he reached the peak of his sport, Europe was lurching into war. Italy would not send a team to the Tour de France in 1939, and the next Tour would not be held until 1947.
One evening in the fall of 1943, Bartali received a phone call from the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa. Bartali was unnerved. He had been friends with the cardinal for years, but Dalla Costa never called just to chat. He wanted to meet Bartali at the archbishop's residence in the center of Florence. It was urgent. Bartali understood that phone calls were liable to be monitored by the German occupiers or the Italian Fascists, and the cardinal was being curt.
When Bartali arrived at the residence, Dalla Costa outlined the problem: Jewish refugees were flooding into Florence. Some had come to get closer to the front and the anticipated arrival of Allied forces; others were looking to slip across the Alps into Switzerland or to leave Italy from ports such as Genoa; still others were hoping to ride the war out in Florence or its outskirts, living under assumed identities.
These refugees needed food, shelter and false identity documents, the cardinal explained, and he wanted Gino to help. The danger of the work was inescapable. Secrecy would be of paramount importance. Bartali could not share this information with anyone, not even his wife. The cardinal finally asked Bartali directly: Would he be willing to risk his life for a group of strangers?
Meanwhile, in Fiesole, a hilltop town near Florence, Bartali's friend Giacomo Goldenberg assessed some alarming news that was spreading through his own community: Jews in concentration camps in other German-occupied countries were being murdered en masse. Goldenberg reached out to Armando Sizzi. The two men met one afternoon in Fiesole, and Goldenberg explained that he needed to hide his family. As a humble bike mechanic, Sizzi had neither the money nor the network of contacts to help the Goldenbergs; his only hope lay with his cousin. When Sizzi got back to Florence, he asked Bartali for his help.
Bartali brooded over what course to take. Dalla Costa was his spiritual mentor, the man who had officiated at his marriage and at the baptism of his young son, Andrea. Goldenberg was his friend. Yet Bartali had two powerful reasons not to act: his wife, Adriana, and Andrea. If he was caught sheltering Jews or helping them escape, he could be imprisoned and killed by the authorities.
Finally, without speaking to Adriana, he made his decision.
Early one morning not long after Gino spoke with the archbishop, Adriana awoke to see her husband putting on his cycling shorts, jersey and sweater. "Don't wait for me this evening," he said. "I'm leaving for a few days of training." She stared back at him. "If someone should come looking for me, especially at night," he continued, "say that I left the house for an emergency."
"Who would be looking for you -- at night?" she asked anxiously.
"No one," he replied. "But if someone does, just tell them that I'm out finding medicine for Andrea, who is sick."
"What are you training for if there are no races?" Adriana asked. Races had been canceled six months earlier as the war in Italy escalated.
"I'm just training," Gino said, and he leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. He said he wanted to be ready when the races started again.
Bartali carried his bicycle out of the house and rode into the city. On this morning he had a meeting with one of the Florentine cardinal's most trusted intermediaries. In the future the rendezvous spot would change frequently, but the objective would always be the same: Bartali was picking up a few documents and a cache of photographs. After hiding them in the safest place he knew, he began riding south.
The trip from Florence to Assisi was some 110 miles along the most direct route, so on the way Bartali spent the night at a church in Perugia. At dawn the next day he awoke, did his calisthenics and checked his bike. If the distances between the seat, handlebars and pedals were off by even a fraction of an inch, it could cause him muscle strain or pain midway through a ride. When he was satisfied, he wheeled it out of the church, put on his cycling cap and set off for Assisi.
As he neared the town he turned toward the San Damiano monastery. Its head, 32-year-old Father Rufino Niccacci, met him at a side door. "You'll catch a cold, Bartali!" said Niccacci, looking with surprise at the cyclist in his shorts and undershirt.
"Thirteen kilometers from Perugia in a quarter of an hour is not bad, is it?" Bartali replied as he took off his racing cap. Niccacci led him to a private room in the monastery.
There Niccacci watched as Bartali loosened the screw attaching his seat to the bike, removed the seat and pulled out the cache of photographs and documents, rolled up like a scroll and hidden in the hollow frame of his bicycle. Niccacci took the papers, unrolled them delicately and hid them in a cupboard in the monastery's oratory that held sacred relics. In the coming days the photographs would be attached to counterfeit identity documents created by a local printer, allowing the bearers to hide their Jewish backgrounds. Bartali would return in a few days to pick up the completed IDs.
When they finished Niccacci walked his guest to the side door. The conversation turned to cycling as Bartali put his cap back on. "I'll be champion again one day," he promised. With that he mounted his bike and sped off.
When he encountered military checkpoints as he cycled through Tuscany and the neighboring province of Umbria on such secret missions, Bartali used the alibi that he was training. He found many friendly soldiers, men who had lined the streets to watch him race before the war and now were thrilled to meet one of Italy's most famous sports celebrities. Bartali was still searched, of course, but without any bags or weapons, he appeared harmless. After he got back to Florence the distribution of the false identity cards began, and Bartali returned home to his wife and son.
By early 1944 the Nazis and their Fascist partners had ratcheted up their attacks against Jews in Italy, even as it became increasingly clear that they would be defeated in the war. The Goldenberg family counted down the days hiding in an empty cellar that Bartali had found in a building a few houses from his own. The space was barely more than 10 feet by 10 feet, with stone walls and a low ceiling. There were no windows, and the one door was always closed. Dark and cold, the room fit little more than one double bed that the four Goldenbergs shared. There was no electricity or running water.
Only Giacomo Goldenberg's wife, Elvira, ever ventured out, always carrying a water bucket in each hand. With her light brown hair and blue eyes, she did not draw any attention in Florence. For Giacomo and their children, Giorgio and Tea, it was too dangerous to leave the underground hideaway. As a result their lives were filled with a mixture of terror and boredom.
"What can you do if you are closed in a room 24 hours a day?" said Giorgio later. "My sister and I sat there counting flies." Hunger was a constant torment. Their food usually consisted of a meager portion of rice, pasta or stale bread. Most of it came from Bartali and Sizzi; the rest Elvira found on her expeditions in Florence.
One day in July 1944, Bartali received the summons that he had dreaded for months. He was required to appear at the headquarters of Major Mario Carità, chief of Florence's secret police, in the building that most Florentines called Villa Triste (House of Sorrow) because of the screams that were often heard coming from it. Had one of his neighbors tipped off Carità's thugs to Gino's mysterious trips to Assisi? Or, worse, had someone discovered the Goldenbergs?
"These were times when life was held by a thread, vulnerable to circumstance and the moods of others," Bartali said. "You could easily disappear as a result of hatred, a vendetta, rumor, slander or ideological fanaticism." No Italian wanted to cross Carità. Less than two months after the German occupation of Italy in September 1943, the major had instituted "wholesale repressions, tortures, ceaseless interrogations, all of which were accompanied with the most degrading brutality and humiliations," as historian and journalist David Tutaev put it. Carità's men, a gang of about 200, had ingratiated themselves with the Nazis by zealously pursuing Jews and anti-Fascists. By the time Bartali was summoned to Villa Triste, Carità had turned the torture of suspected enemies of the Fascist and German forces into a grim science.
Located a few miles from the heart of Florence, Villa Triste was not a typical prison, at least not from the outside. It was a five-story luxury apartment house made of marble and yellow sandstone in a neighborhood popular with lawyers, businessmen and other professionals.
The polished exterior, however, did little to calm Bartali as he walked through the neat courtyard, past a low row of narrow windows that offered glimpses into the coal bunkers in the basement that had been turned into prison cells. Villa Triste was "a sinister place that aroused terror," he said. Off the large entrance hall flanked with tall marble columns was a spacious room with a dining table, sometimes littered with empty wine bottles and the remains of lavish feasts if Carità had felt like using a prisoner's interrogation as the evening's entertainment. Sometimes he would stage mock executions. He fired his revolver just past the nape of a prisoner's neck as Carità's guests watched and laughed.
First, however, most prisoners were dragged down to the subterranean cellars. As their eyes began to focus in the darkness, they were shocked by the sight of medieval torture tools. There were "thick whips, rods of steel, pincers, manacles," Tutaev wrote, not to mention carpentry tools used "to tear off earlobes of recalcitrant victims." In one room was a heavy wooden triangle where Carità would have prisoners splayed and tied and then beaten until their flesh hung in bloody ribbons. In another area, electric shocks were administered.
After Bartali glimpsed these horrors he was led into a questioning room to wait for Carità. As he sat, petrified, he spied some letters addressed to him on a table. How would he respond if Carità had found evidence of his work carrying forged documents?
The major burst through the door. He launched into a tirade against the Catholic religion. Bartali struggled to stay calm. Carità snatched up one of the letters on the table and started reading it aloud. The letter came from the Vatican and thanked Bartali for his "help."
"You sent arms to the Vatican!" yelled Carità.
"No!" Bartali responded. "Those letters refer to flour, sugar and coffee that I sent to people in need. I didn't send arms. I don't even know how to shoot! When I was in the military, my pistol was always unloaded."
Carità had Bartali thrown into a cell, leaving him to worry and listen. For the basement in Villa Triste was a very noisy place. Men and women were dragged screaming down the stairs and thrown into the coal bunkers, barely nine feet long and six feet wide, and left there for weeks. When they weren't being interrogated or tortured, they could hear the moans and screams of other prisoners as Carità and his men tried to extract information and force admissions of guilt. They put out cigarettes on the faces of prisoners, pierced their eardrums with daggers and forced open their mouths to pour scalding hot liquid down their throats.
On his third day at Villa Triste Bartali was taken back to the interrogation room, where Carità and three of his henchmen waited. Carità asked again about the letters from the Vatican, and Bartali repeated his story: Some Tuscan parishes were gathering coffee, flour and sugar to send to the refugees who had flooded into the Holy City. Bartali had helped procure these supplies from farmers he knew. Carità still wasn't persuaded. Exasperated, Bartali added, "If you want to try yourself, Major, I will teach you how. Give me sugar and flour. We'll make a package and we'll send it in your name. You'll see that the Holy Father will send you thanks." As soon as he said it, he knew he had gone too far. Carità was enraged. But before he could lay his hands on Bartali, one of his militiamen stepped out of the shadows and said, "If Bartali says coffee, flour, and sugar, then it was coffee, flour, and sugar. He doesn't lie."
Bartali had been so terrified of Carità that he had hardly noticed his other interrogators. When he looked at the man who had defended him, he was startled to see a familiar face. It was Olesindo Salmi, who had been his military supervisor when Bartali had been drafted into the war before the Nazis arrived in Italy. Salmi had authorized Bartali to use a bicycle instead of a scooter for his military duties. He was taking a big risk by defending Bartali, but he had waited until he was sure Carità had no further damning evidence. Bartali didn't know any of this. He just sat in astonishment.
He was even more astounded by what happened next. Carità released him. Bartali's fame had certainly helped save his skin, but Carità was also distracted by bigger worries. The Allies were moving closer to Florence by the day. "We'll meet again," he said menacingly as he left, instructing Bartali to remain in Florence.
Within a month the city had been liberated, and Carità had fled. In 1945 he was killed in a gunfight with U.S. soldiers in the Italian Alps.
In July 1948, Bartali, a decade older than most of his competitors, was back in France at the Tour, where he had so often dreamed of being during the war. Yet nothing was going as he had planned. Midway through the race, on July 14, he was more than 21 minutes behind the leader.
To make matters worse, that same day chaos erupted in Italy. An unknown assassin shot Palmiro Togliatti, the magnetic leader of the Communist Party and Italy's second most powerful politician, as he left the national parliament in Rome. After years of food shortages, rampant unemployment and a ferocious struggle between rival political factions, Italians reacted with outrage to Togliatti's shooting. Across the nation citizens flooded into the streets in angry protest. Many Italians felt the nation was spiraling toward civil war.
In Rome, Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi, a demure former Vatican librarian, struggled to restore peace. As his government enacted emergency measures and mobilized police reinforcements, his political opponents began organizing a massive general strike. On the evening of the 14th, De Gasperi made an urgent phone call seeking help. It was not to Harry Truman in Washington or Josef Stalin in Moscow. It wasn't even to Pope Pius XII across the Tiber in the Vatican City. It was to Gino Bartali.
"Do you recognize me, Gino?" De Gasperi asked.
"Of course I recognize you," Gino responded, perplexed. "You're Alcide. Please excuse me, Mr. Prime Minister. We used to be on familiar terms." The two had known each other since well before the war, because both were prominent Catholic activists, but that didn't explain why the prime minister was calling Bartali during a rest day at the Tour de France.
"And we should continue to be," De Gasperi said. "Tell me, Gino, how are things going there?"
"Well, tomorrow we have the Alps. ... "
"Do you think you'll win the Tour?"
"Well, there's still a week to go. However, I'm 90 percent sure I'll win tomorrow," Bartali responded, wondering why the prime minister was worried about the Tour given the crisis in Italy.
"Try and make it happen," De Gasperi said. "You know that it would be very important for all of us."
"Because there is a lot of confusion here," the prime minister said.
"Don't worry, Alcide. Tomorrow we'll give it our all."
Bartali hung up the phone and swallowed. For all his knee-jerk confidence, he knew he was a long shot. When he returned to the beach where his teammates had been smoking and chatting, he dropped to his knees. Tracing the following day's racecourse in the sand with his finger, he outlined a risky strategy of continuous attack. Instead of waiting until the decisive climbs later in the day, the Italians would strike right at the beginning. Then, instead of having his teammates to support him, Bartali would charge up the mountains alone.
The next morning, true to their plan, the Italians began sprinting just after the race started. The temperature turned much colder, and Bartali lingered slightly behind, watching as his teammates baited his rivals into tiring themselves out. When the Vars mountain pass came into sight, Bartali made his move. As he charged up the second and penultimate climb of the day, his face was emotionless. His jersey and shorts were stiffened by freezing mud, but his body moved fluidly from side to side. The wind forced the stunted firs that had taken root among the mountain's rocks to bend as though in deference to him. Seeing Jean Robic in front of him on the road, Bartali contemplated his final attack. The only thing left to do was to pick the right moment.
Ahead, crowds wrapped in drenched blankets watched as the road leading up to the Vars summit came under an onslaught of snow and freezing rain. Some, still furious that Italy had allied with Germany against France during the war, jeered Bartali and his teammates as Fascists.
Robic held out until the top of the Vars. Panicked, he leaned sharply into the descent down the mountain. Gino followed, pedaling aggressively. Robic raced madly through abrupt turns. Someone passed him a newspaper. He shoved it under his sweater, a shield against the cold.
Finally Bartali caught him. Speeding over a road that had been ravaged by flooding, he rolled past the leader, who couldn't muster a rebuttal. Robic's body had crashed, and other racers soon would overtake him. Many wondered whether he would even make it to the finish line.
At the foot of the Izoard, facing a final 20-mile climb steep enough to stall all but the most rugged cars, Bartali felt his legs surge beneath him. I feel like a giant, he thought. Looking neither left nor right, he powered past the crowds of stupefied onlookers. Covered in mud and remnants of grease applied earlier to ward off the cold, he was nearly unidentifiable. Moving rhythmically from pedal to pedal, he was completely at ease as he worked his way up the slope. With a six-minute lead over the next racer, he rode to the top alone. At the summit, the actor and singer Maurice Chevalier yelled out to him from a French press car, "Bartali! You're immortal!" And for one fleeting moment, as he crossed the finish line, he was.
The news traveled back over the Alps into Italy as fast as the radio signals could carry it. To the cheering crowds across postwar Italy, Bartali personified the whole country in all of its emotions -- angry, bruised, triumphant. No athletic victory had ever tasted so sweet to so many.