Four Bullets

A mass protest in Milan, one of many that erupted across Italy on July 14, 1948.

(photo credit 12.1)

JULY 14, 1948, WAS a sweltering day in Rome, with the kind of searing sun that melts asphalt and forces people to scurry to the shade. In the Chamber of Deputies, the Italian equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives, politicians were debating a proposed law to round up many of the firearms still lingering in private homes around Italy after the war. The ruling coalition of the Christian Democrats was advocating the measure as an important step to increase public safety. The Communist Party, however, was more skeptical. They were less than eager to confiscate the very weapons with which the Italian partisans had helped wrest their country’s independence from the Germans during the war.

For Palmiro Togliatti, the bespectacled leader of the Communist Party, it was a morning like any other. Clamorous and colorful discussions erupted in the chamber; more hushed and routine meetings were conducted in the offices that surrounded it. At half past eleven, Togliatti decided he wanted to visit a famous local gelateria. Perhaps he wanted to get an ice cream. Or perhaps, like the millions of other Italian cycling fans, he simply wanted to read the newspaper to find out what was happening with Gino Bartali in France. Whatever it was, he decided to set off for Giolitti’s, which had made its name serving up gelato with flavors ranging from hazelnut to watermelon and everything in between. He was accompanied by Nilde Jotti, a female colleague whom Time magazine described as “warm-eyed” and “full-bosomed.” She was also his less-than-secret mistress.

As they walked out the glass doors of the Chamber’s side entrance onto the street, a young man in a blue jacket brushed past them. Within seconds, the young man reached into his jacket for a revolver that was tucked in his belt. The revolver got stuck for a moment, but he quickly jerked it out and started firing. Togliatti instinctively raised his handkerchief to protect his face.

The first bullet grazed Togliatti’s ear. The second hit him on the left side and went straight through his body and out his flank. The third bullet was much more treacherous. It traveled between his ribs and hit his left lung. Togliatti staggered, and a journalist who happened to be nearby rushed to grab him under the arms as he tumbled down to the ground near a parked car. A fourth bullet was fired, but missed its target. Togliatti was still conscious but seriously wounded and bleeding heavily. “Jotti! The bag!” he managed to say, alerting her to check whether his documents were secure. Then he asked whether the gunman had been stopped. Jotti, who was unharmed, threw herself on the body of her lover to shield him from further injury and screamed, “Arrest him! Arrest him!” Togliatti was rushed to the hospital. Within minutes, news of his shooting reached the Chamber of Deputies and spread across Italy, launching a maelstrom of violent chaos. The mysterious would-be assassin who had unleashed it all, however, stood by indifferently and allowed the police to arrest him without protest.

His name was Antonio Pallante, and wild rumors quickly spread through the nation about what had motivated this twenty-four-year-old to shoot the leader of his country’s opposition party. Some voices on the left accused him of being part of a larger government plot to suppress the Communist Party. Voices on the right speculated recklessly about it being an inside job; even more reasoned voices, such as the New York Times, argued that the Communists would exploit the incident to “incite riots and the mobilization of the mob.” Others circulated the rumor that he was a paid assassin, working for an infamous Sicilian bandit. Still others suggested that he was a Nazi sympathizer, a charge Pallante himself would vehemently reject. The most notable possession in his bag, a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, suggested otherwise.

When the first photos of the criminal were published, Italians must have felt a disconnect between the crazed gunman they imagined and the boy they saw in newspapers. With a pale, round face and soft brown eyes, Pallante hardly passed for a cold-blooded killer. One newspaper journalist described him as “dreamy.” Nor did any of the details that emerged about his family offer any clue about his motivations. He had grown up in Sicily, and his mother spoke of his deep religious convictions. He had spent four years in the seminary while he weighed the possibility of becoming a Catholic priest. His father, a forest ranger, described him as a mild and obedient young man who hated weapons. He did note that his son grew angry easily when challenged, but volatile tempers were hardly unique to Sicily, or to Italy for that matter.

There was nothing to suggest that Pallante was visibly disturbed in the days leading up to the attack. A stranger who met Pallante on the train ride to Rome had found nothing abnormal about him. One of the last people to spend any time with him was a friend who had shared a room with him in a boardinghouse. He and Pallante had chatted about several topics, but there was nothing Pallante said that offered any hint of his sinister intentions. In fact, Pallante appeared most interested in discussing a subject that had nothing to do with politics at all—Gino Bartali’s chances at the Tour de France.

In the police interrogations that followed his arrest, however, a different picture of the would-be assassin emerged, a misshapen one of secrets and double lives. For several years he had flitted haphazardly between political parties in Catania, a city on the east coast of Sicily. He was supported by money from his father, who had sold a portion of the family land to fund his education. His father believed that his son was studying law at university.

Pallante was fiercely patriotic, but his political sympathies were confused, shifting, and erratic. There was but one constant—a deep-seated hatred for Togliatti. In Pallante’s twisted logic, Togliatti was not only responsible for some of the reprisal killings carried out by the partisans at the end of the war, but was now plotting to hand Italy over to the Soviet Union.

In early July, Pallante had asked his family for more money so he could return to Catania and finish his undergraduate thesis. With the money in hand, he did return to Catania, but only long enough to purchase five bullets and a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. He then began his long journey north. Once he had arrived in Rome, he tricked a Sicilian deputy into giving him a pass to watch proceedings in the Chamber of Deputies so that he could study Togliatti’s routines and behavior. At first he tried to lure Togliatti into a private meeting by sending him an urgent and mysterious note. When that message went unanswered, Pallante decided instead to try to shoot Togliatti when he was out in the open. On the morning of the fourteenth of July, he waited nearly thirty agonizing minutes by the side entrance to the Chamber of Deputies. Even after he had committed the act and he had begun to understand the enormity of what he had done, Pallante was unrepentant. As he sat in police custody, he spoke calmly about shooting Togliatti. “I have always thought that his suppression would be healthy for Italy, but it was only three or four months ago I came upon the idea for the first time of committing the assassination myself.”

In France, the morning of the fourteenth was unfolding in a happier manner. The nation was celebrating Bastille Day, France’s Independence Day. In Paris on this day everyone was a boulevardier, eagerly strolling the city’s vast avenues in search of amusement. In the morning they could enjoy the grand military parade in the Champs-Élysées, where the president of the Republic was set to appear as the guest of honor. In the afternoon, the city’s various national theaters offered free matinees for all the Frenchmen luxuriating in their day off work. By evening, Paris would be set ablaze as fireworks were launched from various locations. When their embers dissipated into the darkness of the sky, the city below them would keep glowing, as all her finest monuments, bejeweled with thousands of tiny lights, illuminated the night skyline.

On the French Riviera, Cannes also buzzed with holiday fervor. In the turquoise waters of the Côte d’Azur, snow-white and cream-colored yachts idled lazily in the sun. On the beaches, children built empires of sand, and more than a few women, the pretty young things that are never in short supply in Cannes, could be seen modeling France’s shocking new tribute to bathing-suit minimalism—le bikini. Nearby, young couples strolled under the date-palm trees that bordered La Croisette, the city’s most famous boulevard. This long green chain of droopy palm leaves was complemented by the occasional mimosa tree whose petite yellow flowers released a light, fruity scent with a hint of mango, which local parfumeurs bottled and sold so that visitors could savor the Riviera long after their holiday was over.

Bastille Day was a day for wine and happy picnics, and in Cannes these simple pleasures took on a charming elegance of their own. Picnic baskets brimmed with Provence’s most succulent treasures—the myriad types of olives and tapenades that are specialties of the area, and various fruit confits and calissons, delectable local confections made of almonds, melon, and sugar. The wine lover was certain to relish his own delights. Provence is famous for her rosés, but on a national holiday champagne was de rigueur for any red-blooded Frenchman with the means to purchase it.

Of course, anyone who cared to look closely in 1948 would have noticed some shortages. Many store shelves were still empty, and like everywhere else in France, in Cannes many food staples remained under tight rationing. The city itself also seemed a little worse for wear. The war had turned the stream of tourists seeking sunshine into a dribble, and Cannes was short of money.

But when the Tour rolled into town, Cannes spared no expense. Whole parts of the city had been cordoned off to prepare for its arrival; a prominent tribune stand was built at the finish line so that the area’s top politicians could see the race’s finale. The cyclists, used to simpler lodgings elsewhere in France, were put up in the most opulent hotels. These weren’t just luxury hotels, they were some of Europe’s best—the type of establishments typically reserved for the world’s wealthiest, “the Maharajahs and the blondes” as one journalist termed them. In an inspired act of beneficence, the city and Tour organizers had reserved rooms in one particular hotel, arguably the finest of them all, for the Italian team. It was the Carlton, whose two prominent cupolas were said to be designed to resemble the breasts of the city’s most famous courtesan.

Rest days like this one offered an extended opportunity for celebration, although they were officially intended by Tour organizers as a day of quiet recuperation before and after a tough mountain stage. Various catered receptions would be organized, and fashionable clubs would invite cyclists to be guests of honor at their parties. Bands at nightclubs would play to all the visitors who had followed the Tour into the city. There was no doubt that the more earnest cyclists would spurn all such engagements. But it would hardly be surprising to find at least a few of them enjoying the festivities. After 1,700 miles in the saddle, no one could begrudge a man a canapé and a couple of cocktails.

In Room 112 at the Carlton, the day was shaping up to be a quiet one. While Gino had gone sightseeing with his teammate Giovanni Corrieri during an earlier rest day, he planned for a more tranquil day in Cannes. The morning had started well enough. Gino had enjoyed a sleep-in and a late breakfast, the twin delights of Tour cyclists on rest days. The daily mail pile had yielded its own pleasures in the form of a pair of notable telegrams from Rome. One came from Monsignor Montini, passing on blessings from the Pope in the Vatican. (Montini himself would later become a pope.) The other was from Italy’s prime minister, Alcide De Gasperi, thanking Gino for a short greeting that he had sent and wishing him luck for the following day’s race.

When the members of the press began to gather in his room for their daily debrief, Gino’s expression quickly soured.

“Always the same questions!” he barked angrily at the twenty or so reporters who surrounded the bed where he rested. The Italians and other riders frequently gave interviews from bed because when they weren’t racing, they wanted to do everything they could to let their legs recover. Corrieri, who was lying in bed just inches away, was silent as Gino mocked the journalists’ questions.

“So, Gino, will you win the Tour? Your setback in the general classification doesn’t frighten you? What are you planning to do?” Gino asked sarcastically.

Gino was in one of his moods, which was no news to anyone, least of all the journalists who had been following his every movement for the last couple of weeks. But their questions did seem redundant, if not impertinent, given how many had already written him off in their respective publications.

The Italian writers, both those in Cannes and those following the Tour via telephone updates and radio broadcasts, were particularly vocal in their criticism. As could be predicted, most attributed Gino’s poor performance to his age. As an older racer, Il Vecchiolacked the endurance needed to keep pace with younger cyclists over three weeks of competition. “While I felt really good, everyone was going around saying that I was a finished man: an old man who still knew how to defend himself but that it took more than that to win the Tour,” Gino later recalled.

Other Italian journalists were more pointed. One of them blamed Gino’s poor performance on his cherished status with the bartaliani, his fans. “Bartali is embraced by too many people. Too much love always leads to sin.” Others faulted Gino for inviting Adriana to spend the night with him two days earlier when the Tour stopped over in San Remo, Italy. For Gino, it had been a rare occasion to see his wife during a two-month absence from home, and he insisted angrily to the press that the couple had slept in a bed together with their son lying between them. For hardened wheelmen, however, the presence of women and the possibility of intimate relations, no matter how absurdly remote, could spell nothing but trouble for a racer.

The lead journalist on the cycling beat of Italy’s most prominent sports journal Gazzetta dello Sport was the most memorable critic as he pronounced, “Bartali, the old king of the mountains, is no longer the king today.” He put Gino’s shortcomings in the context of Italy’s recent history: “These are bad times for monarchies, and kings also pass away in the world of sports. It is wars that knock the world over, and athletically, it’s the great racing battles that replace the important champions of the past.”

The French press was surprisingly more sympathetic. Gino repaid them in kind when he offered one journalist an exclusive interview in which he outlined three major reasons for his poor performance in the Tour. First, he complained that he was competing not just against one French team, but many. He was right. There were several French regional teams in the 1948 Tour in addition to the French national team. Second, Gino claimed that he felt “alone” because his teammates weren’t strong enough racers to support him when he needed it.

Both excuses might have been technically accurate, but neither held much water. The Tour had for many years featured multiple French teams. In fact, during his victorious 1938 Tour, Gino had raced against three French teams without any incidents of unfair collusion between them. And if Gino felt that his teammates were weak competitors, he had no one to blame but himself—after all, he had helped select them.

Gino’s most important complaint was that the national cycling federations that governed the sport in each country should force their best racers to compete in the Tour. In Gino’s words as reported in the French sports newspaper L’Équipe, such a mandate was necessary because the Tour was a “race with international impact where the honor of each country is in play.” The question wasn’t which Italian rider Gino would have wanted the Italian Cycling Federation to oblige to ride in the Tour and help him. That was obvious: Fausto Coppi. The real question was how a man who had been so emotionally scarred by the Fascist government’s interference in his own fledgling career could now demand that the current government interfere in another man’s career. As he wrestled with the prospect of losing the Tour and fading into irrelevance, Gino was openly considering abandoning one of his most cherished personal convictions. As Coppi’s long shadow cast its pall over him in Cannes, Gino hit a new low.

Just a short walk away, at the Hotel Victoria, the French team was spending the rest day in much better spirits. Jean Robic, the ruling showman of the team, was particularly boisterous—and for good reason. He was a day away from one of his favorite stages, the race from Cannes to Briançon, and his performance thus far in the Tour had been excellent. In the first round of climbing in the Pyrenees, Robic had succeeded in challenging Gino on the Italian’s favorite mountainous battleground. The press had taken notice. In Robic, one reporter proclaimed, “Bartali has found his master.” To be sure, Robic had his own concerns. There was still a sizable gap between him and the Tour leader, his teammate Louis Bobet. Yet it was nothing that couldn’t be made up in a stage or two. In the previous year, Robic had come back from a similarly large setback and won.

Robic was ready to celebrate, and his plans reflected that. Like a young starlet at a photo shoot, Robic would spend much of the day posing for the cameras of the national media. He hammed it up for photographers while milking a goat at a nearby farm. He also rode a donkey on the beach and then made a trip to a local hospital to speak with several sick children about the Tour. Other racers and onlookers might have thought that Robic was overexerting himself the day before the most grueling stage in the Tour. But for Robic, these activities were rather tame as far as his rest days were concerned. During an earlier rest day in Biarritz, he had borrowed a motorcycle from someone in the Tour caravan and gone for a joyride with friends. He was later spotted in a local casino. A few days after that, when the Tour stopped for a rest day in Toulouse, Robic was delighted as fans mobbed and cheered him in his hotel. When he slipped out the back door of the hotel to explore the city’s market, he was spotted again, this time by a group of stocky female fishmongers. They seized him and hoisted him up to their shoulders, parading him around the cheering crowd for the better part of an hour. The revelry continued at Toulouse’s city hall, where Robic and several other riders were praised again at a public reception. Though it wasn’t yet noon, several bottles of champagne were opened.

Aldo Ronconi, the captain of the Italian “B” team, likely spent much of the rest day as he had spent his other rest days, writing postcards to his friends, family, and fans. After years toiling in both Gino’s and Coppi’s shadows, it was a delightful novelty to be writing to his own fans. It didn’t hurt, either, that there was a lot of good news to report to them. Ronconi had enjoyed some flashes of brilliance in the flats and was holding his own in the mountains. Like Gino, Ronconi had struggled during the last stage. Still, as he sat in his hotel room in Cannes, he could take pride in the fact that he was the top Italian racer in the general classification. The rider who had come to France to show his countrymen that he was Gino’s equal was now on track to defeat him.

Other riders spent the day on more routine tasks. One French rider planned to get acupuncture to help a sore knee. Two other French racers helped a third with his personal grooming and shaved him as he lay in bed. One Belgian racer was known to spend a few hours of his rest days in a bathtub filled with vinegar because he thought it would help his muscles limber up. Another Belgian racer would spend part of the day cleaning his clothes, a ritual he performed every day. His roommate, however, was less fussy and was happy just to turn some of his dirty clothing inside out and get another wear with less effort.

The most talked-about rider, Louis Bobet, the Tour leader, all but disappeared. Unlike other rest days, such as the one where he ended up at a cocktail party hosted by a ravishing actress, Bobet had decided to spend the whole day in his hotel room. Tempting as some of the day’s festivities might have sounded, there was just too much to lose by tiring himself out. Still, Bobet appeared to be in undeniably good spirits. He had won the previous day’s stage and kept the yellow jersey that he had worn for eight of the past twelve that had been raced. He was returning to full health as an injection of penicillin seemed to have cleared up the few painful boils that had appeared on his legs—boils that the press had matter-of-factly attributed to “overtiring, too much eating, and perhaps abuse of performance-enhancing substances.”

After a good night of rest, he could spend this morning quietly thinking about how far he had come. In some two and a half weeks, a baker’s son from Brittany had become a household name in France. His wife had become a fixture of the press. Police protected him at the finish lines from adoring fans; loyal admirers showered him with gifts, like the pound of unsalted butter he would receive that day from his hometown. Articles from different corners of Europe anointed him France’s newest crown prince of cycling. No matter where he looked, Bobet could not escape one fact: his life had changed irrevocably. After years of training and sacrifice, Bobet finally grasped the imminence of his victory in Paris.

And then he got very, very nervous.

In Italy, the situation turned from bad to bleak. Togliatti was rushed to the operating room for emergency surgery, led by one of the nation’s leading surgeons. Christian Democrats, Communists, and journalists congregated in the waiting area. “This is the worst possible thing that could have happened,” said Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi, as he raced to join them at the hospital. Though likely in extreme shock and delirious with pain, Togliatti was still conscious. But he was losing blood rapidly, hemorrhaging internally, and had already needed several blood transfusions. At a quarter after one, he was anesthetized and surgeons began the arduous work of trying to remove the bullets from his body.

Outside the hospital, the news of Togliatti’s attack swept across the country as radio stations posted radio bulletins and newspapers printed special editions. This information sent the country into chaos. Work in factories and many offices stopped almost immediately. Protesters gathered in the streets, ripped up pavement, and crafted barricades to stop police. “A wind of panic” menaced the country, wrote one journalist. In Rome, “the city wore the livid mask of fear,” reported another. In Milan, factory workers took over their workplaces by force. Other workers did the same in Turin, and even held hostage some thirty managers, including the managing director of the Fiat car factory.

The shooting of Togliatti brought all the dissatisfactions, frustrations, and divisions in postwar Italy to the fore with chaotic results. If Togliatti died, everyone feared what would befall Italy. As his condition remained uncertain, the country teetered closer to the brink of revolution or civil war. Public protest meetings that were held in most of Italy’s major cities quickly turned into riots. In Venice, a group of radical Communists seized a radio broadcast station and attacked an oil storage center. In Pisa, a pistol-toting Fascist hijacked a horse and carriage and opened fire on a crowd of workers, until he was dragged down and beaten to death by the crowd. In Taranto, protesters hurled rocks and bottles of gasoline at police. In Rome, demonstrators gathered in the large piazza in front of the office of the Foreign Ministry. Rioters made several attempts to break into the building, and the police fired shots into the air to scare them off. In Genoa, a group of radicals seized full control of the city government.

In Gino’s hometown of Ponte a Ema, there were loud demonstrations in the streets. Many people in the crowds were crying, according to one pair of longtime residents, the Grifonis, who witnessed the events. “We were out of our heads,” recalled Tullia Grifoni. “This news really upset us.” Across the Arno River in Florence, angry protestors stormed the offices of the Christian Democrats and plundered them. Another political party that sympathized with elements of the Fascist platform fared even worse. Protesters forced their way into its offices, burned files, and then threw the office furniture out on the street. In a more remote and hilly part of Tuscany where Gino liked to train, a group of armed partisans took to the mountains and began a bloody battle against the army and the police.

In the USSR, radio stations in Moscow announced that Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party were “outraged” by the attack on Togliatti. Across the Atlantic, the CIA and the State Department would have found out about the shooting in the early morning. For officials who believed that Italy’s choices would affect the fate of Western Europe, it must have been a terrifying moment as they followed developments from afar. At 8:55 a.m., the terror came much closer to home when an anonymous caller, who police believed was motivated by Togliatti’s shooting, phoned the switchboard of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and said, “I am a Communist. The cathedral will be blown up at a quarter to twelve.”

A national tragedy had become a potential international crisis.

Most of the Italian press in Cannes started packing their bags as soon as they heard the news from home. Gino caught sight of them as they were checking out of the hotel. Convinced they were leaving early because they thought the Tour was lost, Gino jumped up from his chair, where he had been chatting with his teammate Corrieri, and charged over to confront them. They barely had time to tell him they were returning to Italy before Gino interrupted them defiantly:

“Go! Go home!” he shouted. “I know what you’re thinking: I’m old. You came here and tired yourselves out for nothing. There’s no point in following Bartali’s race, that poor old man, eh? But I’m warning you: a stopwatch won’t be big enough to record the amount of time by which I’ll beat the others. And don’t come back to interview me when I have the yellow jersey!”

The anger in Gino’s pale blue eyes quickly dissipated when the journalists explained that their departure had nothing to do with him. He thought immediately about his wife and sons in Florence. He tried calling them, but could not get through.

Details of the attack on Togliatti would trickle in as the day wore on. Yet already the parallels to a painful episode that had shaped Gino’s childhood were eerie. As an eleven-year-old, Gino had received his first lesson about the dangers of politics when he helped his father hide his Socialist pamphlets after his employer was murdered, just one of several high-profile leftist figures to be killed by the Fascists. For Italians, it had been a pivotal moment as the nation was kidnapped by a dictatorship, and later war and destruction. With Togliatti’s shooting, the country seemed to be retracing its recent history and falling back into another cycle of murder, chaos, and repression.

With little to do but wait, Gino stewed anxiously for the rest of the afternoon. One final problem remained: his coach, Alfredo Binda. Compared with all the troubles at home in Italy, it was a small issue. But it was a small issue that bothered Gino a lot. After the previous day’s disastrous race, Binda had opened up to the Tour’s organizing newspaper with several caustic comments about Gino’s prospects, saying, “Bartali is no longer young enough to endure the repetitive tests of a Tour de France. He races well and he conserves energy, but he no longer recovers quickly enough. Tomorrow he may accomplish a great feat … but he will suffer the effects the following day.”

Binda chalked up Gino’s lagging performance to his decision to race both the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Gino hadn’t performed well in the 1948 Giro, and Binda now thought he was too exhausted to succeed at the Tour. Such criticism wasn’t news to Gino, but that didn’t make it any less hurtful. Binda had betrayed the private relationship between cyclist and coach, and had done so for the transparent goal of improving his own reputation in the French press.

Gino tried to remain resolute. After a quiet meal with his teammates, he led them all out to the beach to play a few rounds of terziglio, an Italian card game. The ten men consumed a large cake decorated with an Italian tricolor ribbon, a bottle of vermouth, and a couple of packs of cigarettes. They were a little more lively for a time, but inevitably everyone fell back into their thoughts. Gino was no better, his mind turning to a strange new feeling that had started eating away at him a few days earlier. It was tough to put a finger on what exactly was agitating him. Perhaps it was the news from Italy. Or perhaps it was his disappointing results or the fact that the racers he was struggling to keep up with weren’t even teenagers when he last raced at the Tour. Or maybe it was the fact that his thirty-fourth birthday was only four days away. Whatever it was, he couldn’t help feeling that he was finally succumbing to the one doubt his critics kept raising.

He felt old.

As the afternoon wore on in Italy, the situation continued to deteriorate. Physical damages to private and public property around the nation kept mounting. Scores of people had been injured in riots and several had even been killed. A nationwide general strike was announced and set to begin at midnight. Industry-specific strikes were not a new phenomena in postwar Italy, but this strike would incorporate almost every industry, including the postal service and telegraphs and, for the first time in twenty-five years, the railways.

In private meetings, Communist leaders urged their members to keep calm, to ensure that any action the party took would be deliberate and considered, rather than a rushed reaction to provocation. Leading Communist deputies were dispatched around the country to pacify regional party members, union leaders, and their membership. The same men who had once preached fire and brimstone in the Chamber of Deputies now found themselves trying to douse the ravaging flames of discontent. No one envied them their task. The Communists had been such obvious and public victims of an unprovoked attack that it was really no surprise that some of their more radical members had been calling for retribution. Still, in private, more than a few of them must have seen the cruel paradox of the situation they found themselves in. The New York Times explained, “Indeed it is an ironic twist to the event that Togliatti was shot down while leading the Communists in a Parliamentary battle against the Government bill calling for the collection of unlicensed arms. This would disarm the Communist partisans, but it would also make assassinations more difficult.”

The Christian Democrats struggled with their own troubles as they tried to navigate the actual logistics of how to stabilize the country. For Prime Minister De Gasperi and his ministers, the day was filled with a chaotic flurry of meetings, updates, and impossible decisions. Italy was declared to be in a state of serious public danger, and all public gatherings were soon banned. A mandatory curfew was established, and 250,000 members of the army and police were alerted for possible deployment to secure the country.

At some point in this day of extraordinary measures, an unusual idea was hatched. Italy’s most powerful politicians realized there was someone outside of politics, and of Italy for that matter, who might help. According to France’s newspaper of record, Le Monde, De Gasperi discussed the possibility of sending a telegram to this person with his foreign minister. In the end, the prime minister decided to make a phone call instead. No one could doubt that the situation warranted it, but many would be surprised when they found out whom he was calling. It wasn’t Harry Truman in Washington or Joseph Stalin in Moscow. It wasn’t even Pope Pius XII, across the river in the Vatican City.

It was Gino Bartali.

“Do you recognize me, Gino?” De Gasperi asked, reaching Gino in the early evening.

“Of course I recognize you, you’re Alcide. Please excuse me, Mr. Prime Minister … we used to be on familiar terms,” Gino responded.

“And we should continue to be,” De Gasperi said.

Gino listened, utterly perplexed. A minute earlier he had been sitting with his teammates on the beach, and now he was speaking with the leader of his homeland. The two were far from strangers, having known each other since well before the war, moving as they did in similar circles of Catholic activism in Italy. The two had also exchanged friendly telegrams earlier in the Tour. Still, none of that made this phone call any less surprising.

“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 ninety percent sure I’ll win tomorrow,” Gino responded, as he wondered what reason De Gasperi had, given all of the current problems at home, to be worried about him and a bicycle race.

“You’re right, Gino. It’s true that there’s a week to go. But try and make it happen. You know that it would be very important for all of us.”


“Because there is a lot of confusion here,” the prime minister responded.

“Don’t worry, Alcide. Tomorrow we’ll give it our all.” For all his knee-jerk confidence, it was a long shot and Gino knew it. With nothing else to say, the prime minister ended the call. Gino hung up the phone and swallowed. De Gasperi was asking a lot, to be sure. But even more had been asked of Gino before, and he had delivered. Steeling himself for the challenge ahead, Gino returned to his teammates on the beach.

When he found them, Gino dropped to his knees and began silently drawing the following day’s racecourse in the sand. Conventional wisdom suggested that they should reserve their energy for the final climbs. Given the uncertainty about how the team would fare in the mountains, it seemed safest for the Italians to bide their time and see how their opponents attacked. In turn, Gino could then count on his teammates having enough energy to support him on the final mountain, which would help improve his overall chances. With several days of mountain stages awaiting him after the following day’s race, prudence demanded that an older racer conserve himself.

Prudence wasn’t an option Gino wanted to consider. With his finger tracing through the sand, 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. Rather than waiting to respond to their opponents’ first move, they would attack first. Instead of having his teammates to support him, Gino would charge up the mountains by himself.

Elsewhere in Cannes, the other Tour riders made their final arrangements. Bobet took his dinner in his room and was fast asleep by nine. Robic and four other teammates only finished eating dinner at ten, at which point they began a lengthy final inspection of their equipment, cutting into the precious hours of rest before they needed to wake, well before sunrise the following day. The Italian team took a short constitutional to walk off the cake and vermouth and then retired to their respective rooms. After changing into their matching striped pajamas, Gino and Corrieri prepared for bed. Flitting between nervousness and giddiness, Gino kept chattering away until the wee hours of the morning. Corrieri, however, did what he always did. He turned off the light, rolled over in bed, and fell asleep.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!