A Frozen Hell

(photo credit 13.1)

GINO AWOKE WELL BEFORE dawn. Giovanni Corrieri, his roommate, watched him. There was something strangely reassuring in what he saw. Gino was silent and lay calmly in bed, in striking contrast to his frenetic banter the previous evening. His bike rested nearby, propped against one of the hotel room’s walls. Like the cowboys in his favorite movies, Gino had insisted on spending the night beside his horse.

After a few minutes had passed, Corrieri climbed out of bed. He walked over to the window and opened it up. The shattering staccato of rainfall poured out on Cannes’s tawny beaches below as a short-lived storm pounded the surface of the Mediterranean into a choppy froth. The Alps stood prominent in the distance, looming behind Cannes’s clusters of whitewashed and pastel buildings. Their peaks jutted thousands of feet upward, a jagged gray barrier that prevented passage to the world beyond. Behind them lay Italy, fractured and heaving in violent national protests.

Gino would soon begin a ten-hour race through the Alps against the world’s best cyclists, wearing nothing more than a thin woolen jersey, a pair of shorts, and a cloth racing cap. If the rain continued in the Alps, the high altitude would turn it into snow and sleet. The crude dirt roads that had been hewn into the mountains would easily yield to this torrent of precipitation, leaving the cyclists to navigate the steep Alpine ascents and hairpin turns in a perilous river of mud.

There was little to say or do. Both men just watched the rain fall in silence. In time, Corrieri turned to his teammate, looking for a comment or at least a gesture acknowledging the situation. Gino caught his glance. Already picturing his opponents struggling hopelessly against the elements, he responded to Corrieri with a most unexpected reaction. He started laughing.

The loudspeakers crackled to life at four o’clock in the morning. As Tour officials made their final preparations before the day’s race began, a mass of colorful vehicles and figures assembled at the starting line on Cannes’s main thoroughfare. Each settled into its place like a veteran member of a cacophonous orchestra. In the front, drivers idled the motors of the forty-five trucks in the Tour’s commercial caravan of sponsors. They each had paid several thousand francs to promote their wares to the crowds expecting the riders behind them. After the publicity cavalcade and the riders came the press corps: 311 members of the media had gathered to follow the day’s race. Most had joined the expedition more than two weeks earlier when the Tour began in Paris. Print journalists rode in cars emblazoned with the names of Europe’s most famous newspapers. A few were chauffeured so that they could type as the race unfolded, punching out their articles on typewriters mounted onto the passenger-side dashboards. Others took notes by hand and relayed them at the end of the day to their editors by telephone. Still others saddled up on motorcycles, where, like the photographers, they could weave dangerously among the racers. The most daring of these rode back and forth through the whole procession like the radiomen who ferried updates to the broadcast stations.

A vast line of Tour support cars lined up behind the press corps. Each team had a small truck to shuttle replacement pieces and backup bicycles, along with a flashy Renault sedan for the coach and commissioner to ride along in. The Tour organizers carried their own supplies around in a massive eighteen-ton tractor-trailer nicknamed “the Dreadnought,” which was equipped with a pharmacy and an office complete with desks and filing cabinets that had been bolted to the walls to secure them. Two humbler vehicles rounded out the Tour caravan. One was an ambulance, whose three female nurses, the only officially sanctioned women in the convoy, were charged with tending to the needs of riders with lacerations, road rash, and broken limbs. The other vehicle, known as “the Broom Wagon,” swept up the broken spirits of the Tour—those riders, and there were always a couple during most stages, who decided they could race no farther and needed to be carried to the finish line.

One final vehicle, known universally as “Car Number 1,” would occupy the place of honor directly behind the racers. It was a convertible sedan and the personal car of the silver-haired Tour director, Jacques Goddet. He had his own driver so that he could take in the whole race standing, clad from head to toe in khaki. His dark eyes peered out from underneath a sturdy pith helmet, and he watched over the entire convoy with the solemn gaze of a British general launching an expeditionary force in Africa.

“Cannes has never awoken this early,” it was said, and for one dapperly dressed coterie, it had never gone to sleep at all. Long before the sun had even countenanced the idea of rising, a large crowd had stumbled out of Cannes’s finer establishments, her glittery nightclubs and casinos, and descended noisily upon one of the city’s main boulevards. Among them were the stars and crew of a French film about Buffalo Bill.

Few in this illustrious crowd seemed to be fazed about walking to the starting line of the day’s race as the brief rainstorm petered out; fewer still seemed perturbed about doing so in their evening finery, clutching bottles of champagne. If such behavior crossed the line into boorishness, no one seemed to mind. Perhaps it was the fact that many of them were from the ethereal world of the movies. Or perhaps it was just a question of geography. On the Riviera, the wealthy and besotted have never worried too much about the trivialities of propriety.

The rest of the spectators, the mere mortals, flowed in like the morning tide. They came alone and they came in crowds. Some came by foot, and a great number came by bicycle. Couples rode together wearing matching shirts, while other fans rolled in on two-, three-, and four-person bicycles. If previous stages were to be any indicator, there were likely even a few Franciscan monks riding about, though the familiar noise of their cassocks flapping against the wheels of their bikes would have been barely audible. It was drowned out by the happy chatter of young girls that bubbled out from under bright-colored umbrellas, carefully positioned to protect the bobbed coiffures that were in vogue.

They all mixed together in a loud and splashy display of humanity. On the sidewalks, small children chased each other around while their parents chatted with other adults. Migrant Italian workers shuffled among the French citizens for whom they were building houses and roads. Some people milled about in the street, squinting to see through the forest of umbrellas whether the big-name racers had appeared yet. Others laughed at the hundreds of paper pamphlets that were being handed out by Tour officials, with their preposterously stern warnings against helping racers up the mountains. Some of these were straightforward: “Pushing: It’s cheating.” Others were more philosophical: “Those racers who struggle today in the hills ardently desired to race the Tour. They freely chose their lot.”

Many people struggled to secure a good spot from which to watch the action that would soon unfold. The early birds took up places on the curb. Everyone else improvised. They stood on benches, cars, crowded balconies, and rooftops. Young boys peered out from the tops of store awnings; a few even shinnied up lampposts.

To some, all this frantic activity seemed unnecessary. The day’s 167-mile racecourse would provide more than enough space for everyone to congregate. And congregate they did. From Cannes all the way to the finish line in the mountain village of Briançon, the sides of the road swarmed with clusters of people. The flatlands and mountain summits filled up quickly, and it wouldn’t be long before a few zealous supporters would dot the forsaken climbs through the Alps. Whole towns closed down as fans made a day of it, anticipating for hours on end that thrilling moment when the stars would appear and then speed off, visible for less than a minute. In the meantime, they waited. If the weather obliged, the bold could be counted on to write colorful messages to their favorite racers in chalk on the sections of the road that were paved, each encouraging word measuring several feet across. The Italian fans, whether working in France or just visiting for a few days from Milan or Turin, were never afraid to write large patriotic proclamations in Italian: Viva l’Italia! Viva Gino!—“Long Live Italy! Long Live Gino!” The rest of the spectators were happy just to pass around bottles of wine, cheering loudly, even boisterously, as they watched the antics of the local children, decked out in cycling uniforms and helmets, who were competing in short races for prizes donated by local storekeepers.

Everywhere, they waited.

At the Carlton hotel in Cannes, each member of the Italian team made his final preparations. Aluminum water bottles were filled and placed in their holders, seat heights measured to an eighth of an inch for the umpteenth time. Bike frames were checked and rechecked. Anyone who cared to look would have noted that Gino had opted for slightly thicker tires. They were undoubtedly heavier than his regular tires, but Gino hoped that they would compensate for their weight by giving him some added traction in the mountains.

When everyone was satisfied with the state of their equipment, they sat down together for a team breakfast. Gino devoured an imposing pile of eggs, meat, and bread with marmalade, and washed it all down with several cups of coffee. Discussions around the table were few and far between. It was as if the boisterous mixture of laughter, gossip, and bravado that usually accompanied the Italian team had been swept away with the rain. To be fair, the conditions hardly seemed conducive to even the most superficial of conversations. At five in the morning before a long day of climbing, few subjects seemed worth wasting the energy needed to speak about them. Most members of the team, including their captain, were lost in reflection about the events taking place in Italy.

“How is Togliatti?” Gino asked a journalist.

“He’s been operated on. I heard on the radio he’s still alive,” he responded. Gino was somewhat calmed, but this update did little to relieve the other Italian riders.

A few silently contemplated the uncomfortable question posed by the Tour director in a column that he wrote for one of France’s most popular newspapers. “Bartali fights the final battle of his career. After a defeat in the Tour, what’s left for this champion, overtaken by Coppi?” Others mulled over their own diminishing future prospects. The 1948 Tour winner would take home 600,000 francs, and even more from appearance fees in races afterward. Nearly all the other racers would return home with nothing to show for their efforts but their disappointment. Gino understood this. Finishing his meal off before starting on one of the American cigarettes that he reserved for moments of importance, he broke the uneasy silence that hung in the room.

“Let’s think about the race, guys, it could be the last.” It was no rousing call to arms, just a simple statement of the facts.

No one responded.

At the Hotel Victoria, Bobet did his own final inspections. Like Gino and many of the other racers, he had adapted his bicycle for the day’s stage, opting to exchange a heavy pedal axle for a hollow one, which would allow him to ride more quickly because it was lighter. To most onlookers, it seemed an unusual decision because a hollow axle was decidedly less robust. With a large lead over both Robic and Gino, Bobet had no need to race so aggressively. In fact, he could afford to lose the stage and even a few minutes of time—as long as he avoided any major disasters that might prevent him from shining in the flats that would follow the Alps. But Bobet wasn’t in the mood for conservative racing. Perhaps it was anxiety—there are few shoulders on which the yellow jersey rests easily. Or perhaps it was vanity—winning in the Alps would have exorcised those remaining demons in the press who still doubted him. Whatever it was, Bobet planned to race for victory alone.

Robic must have smiled when he checked over his own equipment. For once, his leather helmet would be an object of envy in the peloton. This signature accessory had made him the butt of countless jokes because few others regularly wore anything beyond a cloth cap. Cycling was always a dangerous sport, but in the mountains, where the roads were often little more than gravel and mud, it could be deadly. Just weeks before the Tour, a Belgian racer had died during a descent in the Tour of Switzerland, in which Robic had competed. Later, in the Pyrenees stages of the Tour itself, one of Gino’s teammates was struck by a swerving car, and another car, a press vehicle, slid off the road into a ravine, killing one passenger and seriously injuring the other.

At least one team of racers followed Robic’s example and insisted on wearing helmets for this and every other mountain stage. Other riders adopted equally unorthodox measures to protect themselves throughout the Tour. One French rider, an outspoken Communist, had been spotted secretly dipping a medallion of the Madonna into holy water for good luck on the climbs, moments after making a big show of turning his back to a bishop during a mass for the racers.

With all their final preparations completed, the French team headed for the starting line in the center of Cannes. The Hotel Victoria faded quickly from sight and with it the inscription that their coach had left in its guest book: “With the hope that the hours spent here will allow us to keep the yellow jersey until Paris.”

“The weather is unstable. Storms and lightning are moving through the Alps and Pyrenees. Temperatures are unseasonably low.” The news from the national weather report was unsettling, but no one at the sign-in area at the Café des Allées seemed to pay it much attention. Forecasting the weather has always been challenging, and the summer of 1948 seemed a particularly difficult subject for divination. Reports in Paris spoke about freak summer weather patterns that brought snowfall to the Black Forest, but in Cannes nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Summers in the Riviera tend to vary only between hot and blistering, and the last two days had been no different. On July 13, they had suffered through temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, though the sea had become turbulent by the evening, with “menacing waves and white foam like fangs that wanted to bite.” The rest day on July 14 had brought relief from the sun with some light cloud cover. Given all of this, it was no surprise that anybody who did pay attention to the weather reports might have greeted them with skepticism. Sympathetic souls might have chalked up this seeming mistake to the difficulty of interpreting regional weather patterns; more cynical hearts saw just another instance of the big-city bluster that has won Paris the eternal enmity of the provinces.

In any event, the press was much too distracted by a new arrival in their midst to bother about the weather. Maurice Chevalier, a famous vaudeville singer and an Academy Award–nominated actor, had been coaxed from his villa in nearby Bocca to serve as a guest columnist for two days. He had worked for Hollywood heavyweights like MGM and Paramount, but had no experience as a sports journalist, and it was unclear whether he had ever even seen a cycling race before. Yet he would receive 100,000 francs for his labors—the same amount that in Paris awaited the winner of the Tour’s King of the Mountains contest.

There was little to indicate that the racers begrudged Chevalier all the attention or money that he was receiving. Most were too busy with more important things, such as filling the pockets of their jerseys with food to eat while they raced. Few, if any, noticed that Gino had arrived at the starting line with “smiling eyes” as one journalist put it, even if he was accompanied by a paltry honor guard of only four fans. Gino was just happy to be racing one of his favorite stages. As he had told a journalist a few days earlier, he wouldn’t find it so hard to lose the Tour if he could just hear it announced that he was the first over the Izoard mountain pass one last time.

No doubt thinking about his own prospects, Ronconi was seen smiling widely at the starting line. Bobet looked visibly uneasy, like a star Thoroughbred that gets restless waiting in the gate. Robic, however, gleamed with happiness and confidence. “The three cols today are my lucky ones,” he said. “I cannot lose.”

At ten after six, a pistol was fired and the race began. Gino pressed forward and his wheels began to glide easily over the road beneath them. Fans cheered and the whole Tour cavalcade rolled forward. Fueled by an inordinate quantity of diesel, the publicity caravan sped ahead and left a sizable cloud of exhaust fumes. The riders, many wearing bandages after falls in earlier stages, rode after them with the grim determination of injured cavalrymen riding into battle. Over the next several hours they would traverse a gradual ascent, a gentle valley descent, and then a climb up and down three mountain passes. A ride up one of them alone was a formidable journey. The smallest rose some 6,900 feet, which was even more impressive and unusual since the racers would start at close to sea level that day.

They had barely crossed through the city’s gates when the Italians began their attack. One of Gino’s teammates sprinted forward. In a telltale sign of nerves, Bobet parried, even though he should have had a whole team to rely on for support. Several other riders chased after him. Gino stayed back, with Robic watching his every move from just a few inches away. Within a few minutes, Bobet and the front group had caught the breakaway rider. The first attack had ended. The sky clouded over as the peloton regrouped beneath it.

There was an eerie lull as the cyclists made a slow climb out of the Riviera. After riding past endless rows of olive groves and fields of grapevines, they began a descent through a valley into a small village. The riders slowed down shortly before eleven as race officials handed over the first of two yellow food bags they would get to fuel them for the next eighty miles of hard climbing: some cold chicken, a chocolate bar, five cubes of sugar, and a few bananas. They transferred these meager rations to the pockets of their jerseys and flung the bags to the side of the road. Ahead stood the first mountain pass, the Col d’Allos, its top half invisible under the heavy fog that had begun to cover the valley in cold rain. The mood of the riders and the caravan changed as quickly as the weather. “Gone were the gay crowds, the villages, the flags. The little group of men in their gaily colored sweaters seemed forlorn in the vastness of this magnificent landscape,” wrote one American journalist.

Remembering his surroundings from the last time he had raced there in 1938, Gino felt his heart squeeze as he was overwhelmed by emotion. “I could hear the shouts of the Italians who ten years earlier had deafened me on those same ascents,” he said. But there wasn’t much time for nostalgia. While changing his gear for the mountains, which required him to pedal backward and then lean over and pull a lever, he left himself vulnerable, if only for a brief moment.

Robic saw his moment and attacked. He broke away from the pack and rushed up the mountainside, where some lavender and a few small fir trees broke through the unending wall of gray. Gino, who was trying to conserve energy by drafting in the wind stream behind a teammate, weighed his next move. Robic kept sprinting, and soon took the lead. Within minutes he passed the red flag marking the final kilometer of the climb, and just as quickly he rolled over the top. Gino was already a minute behind, and the distance was growing.

Though he was steering through little more than mud and gravel, Robic sprinted skillfully through the descent. French journalists who had arrived earlier abandoned any pretense at objectivity as they stood on their cars and cheered him on. One newspaper car that was following him through the mud lost control and slid into a ravine. The driver was thrown from the car, but escaped any major injury. A passenger fractured his clavicle. Miraculously, no one died.

The temperature kept dropping, so much so that the cold rain turned into a wet snow. Yet the idea of snow in the middle of July seemed so otherworldly that journalists reached for literary allusions to describe it. One saw something of a biblical apocalypse, another Dante’s vision of hell. Listeners across France heard all of this as they were tuning in to the noontime radio updates. Even if the change in weather seemed rather worrisome to some, everyone could sit down to lunch with the comfort of the facts. Robic was in the lead, and the yellow jersey remained safely in French hands.

Lazarus awoke on the Vars mountain pass. Gino charged up this second and penultimate climb, his gaze blank and emotionless. His jersey and shorts were now completely stiffened by freezing mud, but underneath them his body moved fluidly from side to side. An icy wind blew as he pedaled, forcing the stunted firs that had taken root among the mountain’s rocks to bend as though in deference to him. Seeing Robic in front of him on the road, Gino contemplated his final attack. The only thing left to do was to pick the right moment.

Ahead, crowds wrapped in drenched blankets and improvised jackets watched as the road leading up to the Vars summit capitulated to the onslaught of snow and freezing rain. The buses that had carried them there rested among the rocks, metallic behemoths in a lunar landscape. Robic still held the lead, but he periodically looked back and tried to gauge the strength of the familiar green figure behind him.

What he saw could not have been comforting. Pumping relentlessly on his pedals, Gino was gaining on him. On the roadside beside them, the French fans watched nervously as the Italian shortened the Frenchman’s lead to a few hundred yards. Some, still furious that Italy had allied with Germany against France during the war, jeered him and later his teammates as Fascists. But these were just angry aberrations. The rest of the crowd was more passive, transfixed by the morbid suspense of watching a lion stalk his prey. “My heart was going boom-boom in my chest,” said one middle-aged French journalist. “I wouldn’t have traded my seat for the hair I had in my twenties.”

Robic held out until the top of the Vars. Gino, however, had now whittled his lead down to thirty seconds. Panicked, Robic leaned sharply into the descent down the mountain. Gino followed after him, pedaling as aggressively in the descent as he had during his climb. Farther behind him, Louis Bobet was faltering. His vision had started to cloud, one of the first signs of bonking—the condition when a rider’s body shuts down because he has consumed all the energy stores in his muscles. Bobet would soon suffer a further setback when his hollow pedal axle cracked in the mud. Even farther back, the rest of the peloton struggled. Between the roads and the elements, they were going to have a hard time finishing one climb, let alone three.

Robic raced madly through abrupt turns. The cold wind battered his tired body and made him ever more liable to take a nasty fall. During a fast glide, he yelled something incomprehensible to a passenger in a nearby official’s car. Someone passed him a newspaper. He shoved it under his sweater, a haphazard shield against the cold, and he tried to stay ahead of Gino, who was slowly gaining ground in his wake.

As they came down the Vars, Gino caught him. Speeding over a road that had been ravaged by flooding, he rolled past Robic, who was now so forlorn that he couldn’t even muster a rebuttal. Instead he looked up slowly at Gino, with the sadness of a man who knows his fate is sealed. Physical exhaustion, food deprivation, and the elements had taken their toll. Like Bobet behind him, Robic’s body had crashed and other racers soon would overtake him. Many wondered whether he would even make it to the finish line.

Just minutes afterward, Gino realized that he was about to hit the same wall. He had missed the food satchel earlier in the race, and his body was threatening to shut down. “Heavens! What coldness! What absolute hunger!” he exclaimed later. “I was so hungry, I felt I would die of hunger.” There was no doubt that he was starting to regret having refused the sausage and bread someone in a press car had offered him earlier, even if it was heavy fare to consume before a hard climb. Famished, Gino looked around to see if any spectator had something to eat. When nothing immediately materialized, he began to wonder whether he would have to walk his bike up the last mountain pass, the Col d’Izoard.

It was no small stroke of luck when someone reached out and handed him three bananas. To this day, the identity of this generous stranger remains unknown. It’s possible that it was some anonymous Tour official with food to offer from an extra satchel. One of Gino’s teammates believes it was a priest. Whoever it was, their gift could not have come at a more propitious moment. Gino made quick work of all three bananas. His body responded almost immediately.

At the foot of the Izoard, facing a twenty-mile climb steep enough to stall all but the most rugged cars, Gino felt his legs surge beneath him. “The cold blocked the fire of the muscles, but a numb and soaked Gino gunned his engine,” observed the Tour director. The old wheelmen would chalk it up to the power of good fortune. It stood to reason that the man who won the 1938 Tour wearing the number thirteen jersey would rise again ten years later in the thirteenth stage. The bartaliani, the true believers, however, dismissed such musings as mere superstition. To them, this was nothing short of divine intervention. “The good Lord took a pair of wings from one of his angels to put them on the back of Bartali,” wrote one.

Gino reveled in the clarity of one thought: I feel like a giant. Looking neither left nor right, he powered right past the crowds of stupefied onlookers. Covered in mud and remnants of grease applied earlier to ward off the cold, he was nearly unidentifiable. Man and bike had become one, a pulsing mass of muscle and chrome that shimmered in the light rain. Moving rhythmically from pedal to pedal, Gino 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, Maurice Chevalier yelled out to him from a French press car, “Bartali! You’re immortal!” And for one fleeting moment when Gino crossed the finish line, he was right.

The news traveled back over the Alps into Italy as fast as the radio signals could carry it. Italian radio had started broadcasting again at 1:00 p.m., and a good number of Italians, particularly in the north, were able to pick up the French channels, too. In Rome, a young representative ran into the Chamber of Deputies and made a loud announcement to the gathered officials:

Attenzione! Great news. Bartali has won the stage and maybe the yellow jersey. Long live Italy.”

The clapping that started on all sides of the room built into a loud and thunderous applause.

From the hospital where Togliatti lay, word traveled that he was slowly recuperating. The one-two punch of good news knocked Italy into a state of total euphoria. Outside, people rushed out of cafés and bars into the capital’s great squares in a spontaneous and spectacular celebration.

Giorgina Rietti, an Italian Jew who had spent the war years hidden in Assisi and Perugia, was outside walking in the outskirts of Padua, passing through an alley, when she overheard a radio announcer declaring that Gino had won the mountain stage. Instead of protesting and fighting, people around her started cheering and toasting each other. Gino’s victory changed their mood completely, Rietti recalls. “Italians who thought they were going to hurt each other ended up drinking together.”

Similar scenes unfolded in cities and towns across the country, leaving citizens and journalists alike astounded by the speed of the change in the country’s mood. The Le Monde correspondent stationed in Italy captured the sentiment of many Italians as he wrote, “No event in the world could have been as important as Bartali’s victory. This was clearly apparent on July 15 when the news of his exploits transformed the highly dramatic atmosphere into which Italy had been plunged following the attack on Togliatti.”

As had been the case ten years earlier, Gino’s performance quickly took on a political value that was much larger than one man. To the cheering crowds across postwar Italy, he soon personified the whole country and all its emotions—angry, bruised, indomitable, and triumphant. No athletic victory had ever tasted as sweet for so many.

In Briançon, the organizers at the finish line feted Gino’s victory by playing an operatic aria from Puccini’s Tosca: “I lived for art, I lived for love” floated out from the loudspeakers. Yet after ten hours, nine minutes, and twenty-eight seconds in the saddle, Gino was too tired to acknowledge the music or even just to lift his hand. Caked from head to toe in mud, he was shivering until Binda wrapped him in a trench coat. As he started to walk toward the team car, a few reporters swarmed him and asked him how he felt. Anyone expecting a florid victory speech, however, was left disappointed. Gino, his face slightly green and distorted from the day’s exertions, barked out only one sentence: “Ho fame”—“I’m hungry.” As was the custom after each stage, the Tour hostess, typically a pretty young girl from the local area, presented the victor with a bouquet of flowers. Gino, however, pushed them right back into her arms and told her to take them to the nearest church. With that, he got into the team car with Binda and left.

Eighteen minutes after Gino, Louis Bobet crossed the finish line. Utterly defeated, his face was covered in mud, except for the tiny furrows where tears had fallen down his cheeks. When he got off his bike, he had to be held up by a second person to keep from falling to the ground. Although immediate rest would have been most sensible, the cheering of the crowds clouded Bobet’s judgment, and he soon allowed himself to be talked into a victory lap that was entirely unearned. Robic made it across the finish line six minutes after Bobet. Dangerously fatigued, he had fallen off his bike on the Izoard and might not have finished the race at all had several spectators not hoisted him back on so that a supporting rider could help push him to Briançon. At the finish line, he grabbed the rider and begged not to be left alone. Ronconi was the last of the great stars to cross the finish line, after a humiliating final climb that had seen him literally pushed up the Izoard by his teammates. In three days he would drop out of the Tour altogether.

At the hotel, the excitement among the Italians was palpable. Teammates, who earlier in the day had been preparing themselves for a premature return to Italy, now dared to imagine the final victory in Paris. Gino, however, peeled off his muddy jersey and lit a cigarette. The next day he would have to do it all again, except this time he would have to climb five mountain passes instead of three. Fearing the onset of a chill, he collapsed into a hot bath.

In Rome, the man at the center of the political tempest in Italy lay unconscious as he recovered from his operation. By all accounts, his room in the hospital was spartan. There was nothing more to it than an iron bed painted white, and a little cupboard on which were placed several bottles of mineral water, along with a small basket of fruit and some sweets. It was only outside the room, where a security team kept a close eye over any visitors who appeared to gaze upon Togliatti through the window, that one could understand the importance of the patient who lay within.

When his eyes finally fluttered open, his family and friends must have wondered what he would ask. Italy had changed so dramatically in the last few days, and Togliatti, whose last memory was hearing Pallante’s gunshots, was still completely oblivious to it all. As it turned out, however, it wasn’t the country he wanted to focus on, or the whereabouts of the gunman. It wasn’t even his own health that worried him. Instead, he whispered but two simple questions:

“What happened at the Tour? How did Bartali do?”

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