Gino Bartali and teammate Giovanni Corrieri enjoy a rare moment of rest during the Tour de France.
(photo credit 11.1)
PLANNING FOR THE TOUR de France began in the early months of 1948, and speculation started immediately about who would lead the team. “Lots of discussion, lots of writing, lots of hidden politicking,” Gino explained. When Gino emerged as a favorite because he had last led the Italian team to victory in France in 1938, Fausto Coppi quickly made his dissatisfaction clear in an interview with the French press. “I would really like to compete, but I would prefer to race against Bartali and not with him, for reasons that you can surely understand.” Having beaten Gino in various races including the Giro d’Italia, Coppi felt he had proved that he shouldn’t have to serve as a domestique for another racer, and certainly not Gino. Others didn’t see it in the same light, and merely chalked up Coppi’s response as the latest illustration of his deep rivalry with Gino. When it became clear that Gino would definitely captain the Italian team, however, Coppi surprised many fans when he declined to participate in the Tour altogether. He would debut at the Tour another year, and on his own terms.
Losing Coppi as a supporting rider was a big blow, and filling out the rest of the team roster was even more difficult. After the war, very few men who had raced before it returned to compete at the highest levels. Yet most of the younger riders, the new generation, had raced only two seasons to establish themselves as professional racers. This inevitably created a gap in the talent development process, leaving a shallow pool of candidates from which to shape a team. The final group that was selected reflected this reality. There was but one other racer besides Gino who had raced at the Tour before the war.
The issue of coaches would prove no less thorny. Gino approached his former Tour coach Costante Girardengo and asked him to lead the Italian team to France. Girardengo considered the proposal seriously. Still, at fifty-five years old, he felt he was too old to go back to the Tour. He declined Gino’s request with a less than ambiguous warning. “Ten years have passed—that’s a lot.” Without Girardengo or Coppi, Gino and the Italian Cycling Federation were forced to become a little creative. For a coach, they turned to Alfredo Binda, the temperamental former cycling star Gino had idolized as a boy.
The Italian press viewed these developments with concern and wanted to hedge their bets. On the one hand, many could sense the national interest in the event, such as one reporter who suggested everyone in Italy was thinking about “nothing but the Tour.” Yet newspaper publishers with tiny postwar budgets did not want to invest too many resources in a lost cause, and so their actions reflected their abject pessimism about Gino’s prospects. When all was said and done, Italian editors would send only fourteen journalists to France to cover the Tour. In contrast, nearby Belgium, which had a significantly smaller population and newspaper readership, would send some fifty reporters, to say nothing of France, which would assign two hundred reporters to cover the race.
The Italian racers, or les Macaroni as many of the French fans referred to them, were scheduled to travel to France on June 26, 1948. In the days before the departure, each man made his final arrangements. Gino did some training under the supervision of his professional team, Legnano, whose director remained guardedly optimistic about Gino’s prospects. Speaking with the press, he declared that Gino wasn’t thinking about anything but victory at the Tour. And then immediately, as if he sensed that he was somehow tempting fate with such a comment, he insisted that Gino, just shy of his thirty-fourth birthday, would be ready to sign a paper declaring an end to his racing career if he won.
In Florence, Gino spent some of his last days in Italy with Adriana, Andrea, and Luigi, knowing that the Tour and the schedule of velodrome appearances and mini-races that followed would keep him away from home for the next several months. Speaking with Andrea, who was a few months shy of his seventh birthday, Gino was reportedly caught off guard when his son asked him a simple question.
“Papà, what gave you the idea to go do the Tour de France? You’re too old now. You’re going to get a beating.” Although Gino must have realized that his son was just parroting something he had heard, it still must have been a blow to his confidence to know that even Andrea seemed to have lost faith in him.
On the morning of June 26, the team gathered at a hotel in Milan to do their final inspections. In the late afternoon, they made their way to the city’s main train station. Surprisingly, very few fans were gathered to send them off. One man who did appear was the Legnano team director, bearing two gifts. The first was a large tart for the journey, and the second a bar of soap for each man to use throughout the Tour, an item he thought would be impossible to procure in France without ration booklets.
On the train, they made an unhappy discovery. Someone at the Italian Cycling Federation hadn’t bothered to book the first-class sleeping carriage tickets that the team usually reserved so that they could rest during the overnight journey. It was an astonishing oversight that only underlined the skepticism in the cycling community about Gino’s Tour prospects. Gino tried to save face by offering to pay for the first-class tickets on the spot, but they were sold out. Frustrated and resigned to a sleepless night, he and his teammates settled into their cramped quarters, sitting eight people to a compartment.
In the second-class section of the overnight train to Paris, one of Europe’s most famous athletes began his long journey back to France.
The 1948 Tour would be heralded as the first truly European Tour of the postwar era, but it was not the first time that it had been raced since the cessation of hostilities. Already in 1946, Tour director Jacques Goddet had attempted to restart the event. For all his best efforts, however, he was unsuccessful. The government refused authorization, given the extraordinary quantities of food and gas required to carry out the competition. At first it even hesitated to sanction the 1947 edition for the same reasons. In the end, it relented because, as legend has it, the French longshoremen threatened to go on strike if it did not occur.
As it turned out, the Tour of 1947 was rife with labor unrest and other challenges. Tour communications were all conducted by telegram because a national postal strike had left mail idling in post offices. More important, there was a demonstrable lack of international variety among the racers. Neither Germany nor Spain participated in the Tour. Italy did not send a team either, abstaining for a combination of diplomatic and commercial reasons. Goddet fretted about Italy’s absence because it meant that the Tour would have one less superpower, reducing the international prestige of the event, and potentially endangering its postwar renaissance.
Still, Goddet was too entrepreneurial to give up so easily. Though stymied at the official level by the decisions of the Italian government and the Italian Cycling Federation, an undaunted Goddet quietly worked just weeks before the race to cobble together an Italian team of his own, composed largely of Italian émigrés living in France and whatever second-tier racers he and his colleagues could entice to join. Many of these Italian riders fared surprisingly well; two would finish in the top five. This achievement was particularly impressive given that they had come together at the last minute, with some team members literally cycling across hundreds of miles of France just to get to the starting line.
The 1947 Tour introduced the public to a new generation of cyclists—many of whom would return in 1948—who were presented as being at least as eccentric as their prewar predecessors. One racer was said to call home after each stage to speak to his dog. Another was a viscount of Piedmontese nobility, who claimed to be racing the Tour as a lark, with little concern for whether he finished first or last. A third was said to rest his bike in his bed during the Tour, while he passed the night on the floor beside it. When he fared worse than expected in the race, it was reported that he went home and chopped his bike up in disgust, burying all the pieces in his garden.
Of the one hundred men who raced the 1947 Tour, there were but two revelations, whose stars would shine even more brightly a year later when Gino returned. The first was a scrappy Frenchman named Jean Robic. With his dark aviator sunglasses and the white kerchief he wore over his head on sunny days, he might have passed for a member of the French Foreign Legion, but for the fact that he stood only five foot three inches and was prone to crying when he did poorly in a race. Nevertheless, he was hardly wanting for courage, or, at the very least, bluster. Though he was an unknown racer from one of the lesser-ranked regional French teams, he publicly promised to win and bring his wife the yellow jersey. A little more than three weeks later, during the last stage of the 1947 Tour, he seized the overall lead with the help of a teammate and won the competition.
The Italian press insisted that he had cheated by drafting behind a car in that critical stage, but nothing came of their accusations. Robic celebrated his victory with the extravagant purchase of three cars and the promise to purchase a fourth if he won again in 1948. His wife got his yellow jersey, and the nation got a new champion. Robic quickly became a common figure in the French press, with his face being used to peddle products as varied as shaving cream and bicycle seats. By 1948 he was omnipresent and seemingly omniscient. Like a solemn monarch, he helped send off the organizers who inspected the course before the Tour. When the route was publicized, a photograph of his face appeared in the center of the Tour maps circulated by the press. If there was any suggestion that all this attention had turned a prickly personality into one that was downright Napoleonic, Robic would not consider it. “These detractors, I will amaze them this year, I swear it!” he declared.
The other great discovery was an Italian rider named Aldo Ronconi. To be sure, he wasn’t an entirely unknown element. Anyone who followed Italian cycling closely would have known that he had been a supporting rider for years, first for Gino and later for Coppi. At the 1947 Tour, however, he proved that he was a star in his own right, and earned himself a nickname befitting his new status—“the Emancipated Slave.” His background was colored with many of the same hues as Gino’s. He had come from a poor family that was deeply religious. Indeed, his brother was a Catholic priest who was not above disguising himself as a mechanic to get around Tour regulations that forbade family members from riding along in the Tour caravan.
By the spring of 1948, Ronconi found himself chafing in his role as a supporting rider to Coppi. He complained in the international press about having to sacrifice his own chances for Coppi as part of his duel with Gino. When Coppi declared he wouldn’t participate in the 1948 Tour, it was announced that Gino would captain the Italian “A” team and Ronconi the “B” team (Italy and Belgium, both cycling superpowers, were allowed to send two teams each to compete as separate entities). Ronconi saw his opportunity and made no bones about his ambitions: “After the Tour, I will be able to race for myself.”
The 1948 Tour promised its audience an expanded slate of European stars and, above all, spectacle. At a moment when food shortages were an ongoing concern, the Tour was a celebration of unimaginable extravagance. In the lead-up to the start, newspapers around France left no mouth-watering detail unreported as they covered all the provisions required for the three-week competition. Highlights from the long list of foods that would be consumed included nearly 1,200 pounds of pasta, 1,500 whole chickens, and 200 pounds of chocolate. Thirty thousand bottles of wine, beer, and water were also requisitioned because “without wine,” one journalist declared, “the Tour would not be worthy of being called the Tour de France.” Even the otherwise staid Tour pharmacy was imbued with an air of indulgence when it was announced that it would carry six thousand tablets of aspirin and some twenty-six gallons of eau de cologne, which was thought to have some medicinal value when applied during massages.
Once the Tour started, it fell to the publicity caravan to carry on the spirit of excess. In all, there were some forty-five sponsors who had each paid several thousand francs to promote their wares to the public in the parade that preceded the racers in each stage. On some trucks, like the one promoting “Royal Mint Bubble Gum Américain,” smiling attendants showered spectators with small packages of gum. On others, new machines were outfitted to run ongoing displays. A laundry detergent manufacturer equipped a truck with a special washing machine that allowed the public to watch as it cleaned the racers’ muddy jerseys. Another sponsor, O.C.B. Rolling Papers, paraded a machine that could cut and fold cigarette rolling papers before everyone’s very eyes. Inevitably, the most popular advertisers were the liquor companies, which hosted spirited parties featuring popular French singers in the evenings after various stages.
Advertisements in the newspapers and magazines jumped on the festive bandwagon, too, showcasing the heady new era of postwar prosperity that was just a purchase away. A food company heralded a modern world where vegetables could be stored and enjoyed year-round as frozen foods. A cologne company advertised a new offering called Après le Match (“After the Match”), which claimed to eliminate the need for a shower when applied after a sweaty sports competition. And a chemical company advertised a new miracle household insect repellent called DDT; its novel aerosol can promised to turn killing bugs into a “game for children.”
The bill for mounting the Tour would be footed by the cities and towns where the stages were raced—each municipality would pay dearly for the privilege of playing host, at a moment when many municipalities were still struggling to rebuild after the war. When the caravan did roll in, however, there were few signs that anyone begrudged the expenditure. In fact, the only vocal critic to get any press coverage at all was the American film starlet Hedy Lamarr. She was angry that all the activities surrounding the Tour had diminished the coverage of her own arrival in Paris. The rest of the country appeared happy just to have a distraction and a chance to enjoy the impromptu local holidays that were so often declared to celebrate the Tour’s arrival.
A few individuals would attempt to exploit all of this enthusiasm for less than noble purposes. In Toulouse, a defendant on trial for collaborating with the Vichy regime offered one of the more shameless examples of opportunism. Having learned that the judge, plaintiff, and lawyers had all postponed his trial so they could enjoy the Tour’s arrival in their city, he asked to be released from jail for the same reason, and promised to return to his cell as soon as the race had finished. In Marseille, it was reported that a serial killer nicknamed Pierrot le Fou—“Pierrot the Madman”—was planning to sneak out of France by taking advantage of the Tour’s first visit ever to Italy. One theory posited that Pierrot might don the attire of a cyclist and then hide in the scrum of the peloton as it crossed the border leaving France. The difference between fear and excitement has always been a question of relative distance, and so this storyline, too, became fodder for endless titillation and speculation around France, even if the actual Tour participants might have been a little unnerved at the possibility of having France’s number one public enemy riding in their midst.
For all the excitement, the first half of the 1948 Tour unfolded largely as might have been expected. Robic, whom the press had nicknamed Biquet—“Little Goat”—for his agility in the mountains, took the lead in the climbing competition in the first series, the Pyrenees. Ronconi raced consistently and was viewed by his competitors as one of the strongest cyclists in the competition.
Gino also fared well enough in the beginning, even winning three stages. But by the time the Tour had embarked on its second half, it was obvious that he was starting to suffer. Part of it could be chalked up to a few unlucky breaks, the kind of mishaps that befall every rider. Still, some wondered whether the wear and tear of several consecutive days of racing would put greater distance between him and the leaders. One Belgian writer, who felt Gino had already lost his place among the top contenders, described him as “a very normal, second-class rider.” A French reporter was more targeted in his diagnosis of why he was failing. He speculated that Gino had lost le jump, that critical capacity for a final strong push that defines a great climber.
Everyone else was more interested in talking about another rider entirely, a young Frenchman named Louis Bobet, who, one reporter joked, could pass for Gino’s nephew. Twenty-three years old, with movie-star cheekbones that could have been carved from marble, he was “Le Pin-Up Boy,” as one French newspaper called him, and a Tour director’s dream come true. He combined an unexpectedly strong performance on the bike with a confident gait off of it—the unlikely fusion that brings new fans to the sport and sells newspapers by the hundreds of thousands. His fellow racers, and initially a few journalists, however, were jealous and skeptical. Many took to calling him Louison, or “Little Louis,” a pet name coined by his mother, in a less than subtle suggestion that he was not yet seasoned enough to come out from behind her apron strings. Others, who grew more numerous as his days with the yellow jersey extended, saw something more substantive in his rise from a lesser-known supporting rider to the de facto leader of the French team.
The final judgment about Bobet would be rendered in the Alps, the second series of mountains in the 1948 Tour. To get there, he and the other racers would have to summit the Col de Turini, a 5,272-foot mountain pass along the route from San Remo to Cannes. The press referred to the Turini as the first Alpine mountain ascent, even if technically it fell during a section that wasn’t considered a mountain stage. This was the first year it would be raced, and therefore few journalists knew what to expect from it. With a narrow, twisting road to the top that had asphalt only in parts, it was certain to be grueling. A younger rider who wasn’t used to racing on such poor road conditions could easily buckle. Add a bout of fatigue or dehydration, and the possibility of an accident or an injury grew exponentially. It was not surprising, then, that the press was highly skeptical about Bobet’s chances. “We doubt that Bobet can cross the Turini properly. This mountain pass is such a difficult challenge that a real catastrophe could ensue if Bobet is not supported [by his teammates].”
At midday on July 13, with the temperature inching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the riders faced destiny. Gino felt strong: “On that stage, I realized that I had achieved my best physical shape, and maximum ease in my pedaling. My muscles worked like the gears of a clock.”
Halfway up the Turini, Gino found himself side by side with Bobet, ahead of everyone else. A rumor had been circulating that something was wrong with Bobet, but no one knew for sure what it was. Gino considered breaking away, but hesitated. “Everyone would say that yes, I had done well,” Gino reasoned, “but that I had kicked in a half-open door, given that Bobet was sick and had not been able to compete on equal footing.” Besides, as far as Gino was concerned, Bobet was too green to be a real threat. “I thought he was a wild card, a young man of great potential who had wanted to draw attention to himself.” Gino was confident he could bide his time.
It took but a few moments for his optimism to disappear. Rolling over a nail on the road, Gino’s tire popped. Bobet took full advantage of the situation and sped off. “Bobet didn’t have anything but a little boil on his foot,” Gino later discovered, “and as soon as he realized that a nail had pierced my tire, he spurted ahead like an elf.” With a support car nowhere to be found and his teammates far behind, Gino bent over and began to change the tire himself. In the time that it took to replace the tire and inflate a new one, a small group of riders from France and Luxembourg rode past him. Gino was livid.
“I was in a black mood,” he said. “I had let myself get played like a novice.” What was most infuriating was that Gino had grossly underestimated his young rival, a tactical error that a cyclist of his experience should have never made. “Of course, if I had known that Bobet was strong on climbs too, I wouldn’t have let him take all of that advantage.”
When he was finally able to ride again, Gino chased after the group of riders who had passed him. Desperately pumping his pedals, he raced forward with all the energy he possessed.
And then he stalled.
Maybe it was the heat or maybe it was the thought that Bobet had outwitted him. Or maybe it was the realization that even at a moment when he felt as strong as he had felt in recent years, his body was no longer responding under pressure. The French reporter was right.
He was losing le jump.
Ahead, Bobet was a model of strength and intelligence. He reached the summit of the Turini mountain pass first and claimed the time bonus. By and by, he prudently eased up and allowed the small group of riders behind him to join him. Riding with the group, he would be able to draft off the other men and preserve himself for the stages that followed.
Those waiting for some auspicious sign to memorialize the importance of the moment were not to be disappointed. Just past Cagnes, the conductor of an express train to Paris riding on the tracks beside the cyclists spotted them. Within a moment, he had slowed down the train so that the passengers, and even the mechanic, could rush to the doors and windows to gaze at Bobet, riding confidently toward the glittering coast of the Riviera.
The end of the race was little more than a formality. In Cannes, Bobet glided past the beaches, palm trees, and grand hotels that lined the main boulevard, La Croisette, and won. The press was euphoric, and the reporters who had once doubted him got religion. “Le Pin-Up Boy” became the “Uncontested Hero.”
Several agonizing minutes later, after the victor had been kissed, photographed, and paraded, Gino crossed the line, surrounded by a phalanx of anonymous riders. He had lost ground instead of gaining it, which meant he had ridden himself right out of contention. In total, he was now twenty-one minutes and twenty-eight seconds behind Bobet in the general classification.
But there was something greater than just the loss at work—the stage had revealed a different racer from the one who won the 1938 Tour. When exposed to the Tour’s hardest challenges during the eighty hours the cyclists had raced thus far, some fundamental cracks in Gino’s strength were beginning to show. Jacques Goddet, the Tour’s director and éminence grise, offered the verdict rendered by many in the press corps. “For those of us who rode beside the racer in our cars and our motorcycles, we believe we can discern his true pain. Bartali will not win the ’48 Tour. It was the Turini that affirmed it.”