AT THE STEEP FOOT of the Vars, on a windswept slope high in the French Alps, Gino Bartali lost his temper. The two cyclists following him were drafting, riding so close to his back wheel that he was forced to be their shield against the icy wind and drag them along. They refused to take their turn at the front of the group, and this galled him to no end. Ahead of the trio, a lone figure was getting smaller as he cycled away along the muddy road, a coagulated laceration zigzagging its way up the barren escarpment, winding around craggy pinnacles, stunted fir trees, and piles of rock debris until it vanished into the cold mountain mist. Gino had to make his move now if he would have any chance of catching the leader disappearing into the fog before him.
It was July 15, 1948, and L’Étape Reine—The Queen Stage—the most important day of the Tour de France. A rough swipe at his dirt-caked goggles revealed a sobering scene, even for a man who had won the Tour on the exact same terrain ten years earlier. In 1938, Gino had soared up the imperial snow-crowned Alps toward azure heavens above. Now he could barely see where mountain met sky as heavy clouds rolled in around him and the mud beneath his wheels became thick as glue.
The dismal surroundings echoed the pain screaming inside his body. After pedaling more than seventeen hundred miles over the most challenging topography cycling had to offer, his throat and lungs were burning, his thighs felt heavy as bronze. Unable to see far beyond his handlebars, he had to depend on his other senses to fill in the details. He could feel the pitch under his wheels as the grade of the road steepened. He could taste the icy rain turning into jagged snowflakes as he gulped the thinning mountain air. And all he could hear, beyond his own body heaving atop the bike, was an eerie, forlorn silence.
Gino marshaled every last muscle and ounce of mental focus to silence the critics with this next climb. Il Vecchio they were calling him in the press, “The Old Man” at thirty-three years of age! He was fed up with being dismissed as an embarrassing has-been, defiant despite his humiliating twenty-one-minute disadvantage behind the Tour leader. He had even lashed out at the Italian journalists, yelling at them 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. But what the press didn’t know was that Gino Bartali had a secret. He had much more bottled up inside him, beyond his frustration with being so far behind, and he had not sat idle during the war. Unlike some of the competitors he now raced against, his toughest moments came not on the steepest pitches of the Tour de France, but during the darkest hour of the Nazi occupation of Italy, risking his life for strangers.
The memories of that chaotic era were still raw, and they were the reason the surprising phone call last night had unhinged him. Reports of large-scale protests and fighting in the streets back home had filled Gino’s mind, and his breath shortened as he thought of his wife and young sons. He had listened aghast as the prime minister of Italy, on the other end of the telephone, explained how important a Tour victory would be to their homeland.
As he rode toward the mountaintop town of Briançon, instinct told Gino to turn his head around. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw his competitors behind him cracking, their pale faces contorted, their drenched bodies swaying precariously atop their bikes. He had let them draft long enough. With a surge of raw power, he stood up out of his saddle and sped forward. Soon the French cyclist in the lead came back into sight.
Sensing his foe, the French cyclist cast a worried look back. He was right to be alarmed; Gino cut an intimidating figure. His eyes invisible under his muddy goggles, he appeared almost supernaturally welded to his bike; his lithe racer’s body flexed forcefully, maneuvering his bicycle up the switchbacks.
Closing in on his rival, Gino sat back down, letting the French cyclist regain some ground and some hope. When he found his rhythm again, Gino stood to attack once more. Again and again, they played this grueling game, all the way to the peak. By the time the French cyclist crossed the top of the mountain pass, he was utterly exhausted. Gino, in contrast, trembled with excitement as he neared the summit less than a minute behind. I am at one with the mountain, he thought as he flew over the top.
As he faced the harrowing descent, Gino’s lips curled into a knowing smile beneath his grime-spattered face. 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 his return to the Tour, he was beginning to understand, was about more than just a bike race in France.
It was the final leg of a journey for a man and his country that had begun more than twenty years earlier on a dusty back road in Tuscany.