The Road Home

Gino Bartali rides his victory lap after winning the 1948 Tour de France.

(photo credit 14.1)

DURING THE EVENING THAT followed Gino’s resounding triumph, Italian journalists filed long, adoring articles. Gino had gone from a twenty-one-and-a-half-minute deficit to just sixty-six seconds away from the lead, thanks to his stage victory and the time bonus earned for summiting the Izoard first. Several French journalists, however, were more incredulous and speculated that Bobet might still keep the yellow jersey. Most of these skeptics were acting out of little more than economic self-interest. If they suggested that the Tour’s winner had been definitively identified, readers might be less inclined to purchase newspapers and follow its progress. Yet a few of them, like so many other Frenchmen, genuinely believed in Bobet’s prospects. Charmed by his earlier performances and his dashing persona, they clung to the prospect of a French victory in Paris. Bobet, soaring after his undeserved victory lap in Briançon, embraced this feeling in post-race interviews. He belittled Gino’s success and offered a few defiant words that would soon haunt him. “Bartali doesn’t have my yellow jersey yet!”

A little more than twelve hours after they had crossed the finish line, the men gathered again at the starting line and prepared to leave Briançon and its charming town walls behind. After the poor weather, the waterlogged roads, and the various mechanical and physical breakdowns, most riders probably wished to forget the previous day’s stage. On this day, the weather at the start line was clear, with even a rainbow visible, giving credence to the hope that everything that had happened the day before was just a freak of nature. It would take but two hours to snuff out that illusion.

The first mountain pass of the day, the Galibier, was the Tour’s highest, at 8,386 feet. As they began the ascent, the sky turned gray, the air started to get much colder, and flakes of snow began to fall. “It was horribly cold,” said Gino. “The intense cold cut through your muscles, and I hadn’t brought my raincoat.” The racers climbed farther and were enveloped by a snowstorm. They were shrouded in darkness, save for the light that shone out from the headlights of the cars that followed them. In a telling sign of their fierce national loyalty, the French fans who had gathered in the mountains offered warm drinks to the French riders, leaving all the other competitors to shiver in the chill. Luckily, Gino got a few sips of coffee from one of the French racers who admired him. It was better than nothing, but he would have been happier with a glass of cognac, as he said later.

The pace of the snowfall slowed down but the weather remained miserable for the rest of the day as the cyclists pedaled toward Aix-les-Bains. The roads quickly became almost impossible to traverse. At least one press car saw its transmission break down completely under the pressure of a tough climb over ice and impenetrable mud. Riders who had gone blue in the cold found themselves with the unenviable task of trying to navigate 150 miles of climbing. Some invented wild hallucinations to survive the struggle, like one rider who imagined that his young son was starving on a distant mountain peak, just so he could muster the energy to ride up it. Another lost his saddle and was forced to ride many miles without a seat until his coach brought him a replacement bicycle. Others got off their bikes altogether, flapping their arms like hapless birds in a desperate attempt to regain feeling in their extremities. Still other racers had given up even on that, and so, like one Belgian racer, they were left to change their punctured tires with their teeth because their hands had frozen and their cramped fingers were completely unresponsive. The unluckiest of all had to be literally carried out by their teammates. A photographer captured this impossible feat. With an injured teammate draped over his shoulder, a racer pedals precariously, one hand on his own bike and the other hand holding his teammate’s handlebars.

Robic crumpled under the weight of the pitiless weather, already utterly defeated by the previous day’s stage. In a cruel twist, he discovered that many of the French spectators had turned on him. Barely a day after fans had crowded on the mountain passes to cheer him on, they now loudly second-guessed his every move. Some even mocked him with the kind of cowardice that only a spectator in a warm jacket or a heated trailer could know. At one point, Robic was so overcome by fury that he got off his bicycle and chased after an obnoxious fan who was sitting in a car. Ultimately he grew too weary to fight even these petty battles. Numb from the cold, Robic could do nothing as an angry fan screamed out at him, “What are you doing, you lazy bum?” Unable to muster a rebuttal, he simply broke down and started crying.

Bobet fared better at first, attacking aggressively early on in the race. Perhaps he thought Gino would struggle on the first mountains, mistakenly thinking, as one journalist humorously put it, that Gino, “like all elderly people, isn’t very quick to throw his legs out of bed.” Or perhaps he was just trying to emulate the success of the Italian team’s attack on the previous day. Whatever his motives, Bobet’s strategy failed. Like Robic before him, he would soon watch helplessly as Gino sped by him.

In this stage, as in the Cannes-to-Briançon stage, Gino rode like a man possessed. As Goddet noted, “A world of difference was created between the Florentine and the men who, for a moment, still passed as his adversaries.” Gino endured all the usual insults from the French fans and even an occasional snowball, barreling up muddy mountain ascents at speeds that were often double those of his competitors. “He was,” Goddet continued, “overheated by an interior flame that has consumed him for ten years, and nothing could extinguish the fire that had set his heart ablaze.” Goddet was right. Gino’s burning determination had only increased in the past decade, fueled in ways not even he fully understood by all the tumult and suffering he had witnessed as war tore apart his homeland.

As Gino crossed the finish line first, the crowds that had gathered in Aix-les-Bains booed him. He was undaunted, and reveled in the strength he had shown in the mountains. I feel like a lion, he thought. His victory in this stage had confirmed the precedent set by his previous day’s performance. Henceforth, the yellow jersey was his to lose. As time would soon show, it would never leave his shoulders again.

It took a little while for the spectators who had gathered at the finish line to absorb the impact of what Gino already knew. For some, that moment arrived after just sixty-six seconds—the remaining gap of time between Gino and Bobet in the general classification. For everyone else, it arrived in the eerily quiet minutes that followed. With every passing second that other riders failed to appear, Gino’s lead grew. For Bobet, it took a little longer to accept. And yet when he finally acknowledged it, the truth of Gino’s victory was impossible to deny. Bobet’s dream of winning the Tour was over. It had died, as he would later acknowledge, on the road from Cannes to Briançon.

At the hotel in Aix-les-Bains, Gino received a surprise visitor, a Christian Democrat deputy who brought with him the good wishes of Prime Minister De Gasperi. In the two days that had passed since the phone call, Gino had far exceeded his promise to the prime minister. He had “defeated everyone and everything, nature and man,” as one journalist declared, and emerged as a near shoo-in to win the Tour. By the next stage, it became apparent that the prime minister was not the only leader who wanted to pass on good wishes. An emissary from the Pope also appeared and gave Gino a special medal, telling him that “His Holiness wishes that you win the Tour, as a loyal and athletic champion.”

Sitting with Gino in his room, surrounded by various floral bouquets and congratulatory telegrams, Coach Binda was stunned into silence by it all. Finally he managed to stammer a few words.

“My God, you nearly killed me, my champion.”

“You did not always call me that. You, as well, did not have faith in me,” said Gino with a smile.

“You’re right, who would have thought … at your age,” Binda replied, embarrassed.

Gino laughed it off and announced that he would write a telegram to his six-year-old son, Andrea. His message was but one sentence long: “Your father is a champion again.”

In Italy, the celebrations that had started the previous night continued, gathering steam as Gino moved closer to Paris. There was a “feeling of resurrection,” said one former Italian president who was in Rome at the time. In another part of the capital, it was reported that a union meeting ended abruptly when a car with loudspeakers drove by to inform the crowds of Gino’s victory. The crowd dispersed to seek out a full update and a celebratory drink at nearby cafés. Near Gino’s home in Florence, people cheered “Long Live Bartali” in the streets. Several even rang the doorbell of his home in celebration. Farther north, a young priest put a radio on the altar, its speaker barely audible, as his congregation gathered for evening prayers. When he heard the familiar timbre of Gino’s voice, he interrupted the service and turned up the volume so that the whole church could listen to the cyclist being interviewed.

Elsewhere in Europe, Italian migrant workers and emigrants were enthralled by their countryman’s performance. On a stage that crossed into Belgium, seven spectators wearing bright yellow shirts each held up signs with letters that spelled out Bartali’s name. In Liège, the Belgian city where the Tour stopped overnight, ten thousand Italians gathered in the town square where Gino’s hotel was located at 10:00 p.m. and cheered loudly until nearly 2:00 a.m. Some danced and threw their hats in the air; others embraced each other and cried tears of happiness. The celebrations only ended when the police cleared the square so that Gino and the other people living nearby could rest. The local Belgian newspapers, reflecting the sentiment in many countries where Italian workers lived, arrogantly dismissed it all as an example of “southern temperament.” A French reporter, however, was more sympathetic to the Italians’ enthusiasm. “Their unbridled praise does not make us laugh. We would also like to have our own Bartali and acclaim him like a god, express our admiration and cover him with flowers.”

Other members of the press were similarly fervent when it came to their coverage of Gino’s victories. Although at least one journalist tried to pretend that he had not written an article doubting the Italian’s chances, most were more honest. One Italian journalist described the scope of Gino’s triumph, “Bartali wrote in these last two days—if one can write with pedal strokes and drops of sweat—perhaps the most beautiful page of his career.… Today it is enough to remember that forty-eight hours ago in Cannes, Bartali was marked as a man already largely beaten and perhaps on the eve of his withdrawal.”

The Tour director, who had also doubted Gino, offered his own poetic account of all that had passed. “From snowstorm, water, and ice, Bartali arose like a mud-covered angel, wearing under his soaked tunic the precious soul of an exceptional champion.”

In New York, the bomb threat at St. Patrick’s Cathedral never materialized. In Italy, the incendiary political situation was slowly being extinguished. After the strike ended at noon on July 16, businesses and private citizens set themselves to the task of repairs and cleaning up. Taxis began running again, and buses and trains resumed their regular schedules of operation. Gino called home to his parents and asked them about the mood in Florence and its reaction to his victory. His parents responded with typical brevity: “Calm and enthusiastic.”

Nevertheless, several aftershocks of angry protest continued to reverberate throughout the country. There were still outbursts of violence in several cities, even though 55,000 members of the navy and air force were mobilized alongside the 250,000 members of the army and police that had already been engaged. A skirmish in a remote region of Tuscany between the army and a renegade group of partisans continued for several days. In the Chamber of Deputies, angry recriminations were hurled about as politicians debated who was most to blame for everything that had unfolded.

All told, the human and financial costs of the riots were significant. Over the course of a few days, fourteen people were killed and another two hundred were seriously injured, many of them police. It was further estimated that the country had suffered some seventy billion lire of damages from the strike, which amounted to over ten percent of the country’s GDP in 1948. Those costs were added to the enormous expense that the nation already faced with its rebuilding efforts after the war.

At the hospital, Togliatti continued to recover. He had a brief brush with pneumonia, but the infection was contained with a heavy dose of penicillin that had been manufactured in the United States. (Some critics noted the irony, given the acrimony between Communists and Americans.) At one point he asked his son to read him the newspapers to learn what had happened since he was shot. His doctors, however, advised against it. They were concerned that the news might adversely affect his health, given his weakened state. As a compromise, it was decided that his son should read only the sports news. Togliatti was very pleased by all of Gino’s successes.

Across the city at Regina Coeli prison, Antonio Pallante, who was being held in isolation in a makeshift cell that the guards had crafted by outfitting the prison chaplain’s office with bars, only learned about Gino’s victory several days later. Listening to the guards’ account of what had happened in France, he was overwhelmed by what he described as a “great national pride” that united him for a brief instant with his countrymen.

As the Tour neared its final stage, the organizers had much to celebrate. While they would have no doubt preferred a Frenchman to carry the yellow jersey into Paris, if only for the greater number of newspapers that could be sold, Gino’s dramatic comeback made for great newspaper copy. Underdogs and sports upsets always create headlines, and Gino’s performance had injected a palpable sense of suspense into a race that had only a few days earlier been criticized as lacking the excitement of earlier years.

Spectators embraced the 1948 Tour to an extent that now seems extraordinary. In part, it was the dramatic tension of the race. More important, however, was that the Tour provided a welcome distraction from the struggles of postwar life. Fifteen million people in France, or nearly thirty-eight percent of the country’s population, had stood on roadsides to see the race in person. If an event were to boast a similar national turnout in the United States today, it would require more than 115 million to appear. As it stands, the most popular multiday sporting event, in terms of attendance, in American history was the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. With an estimated attendance of just 5.8 million, or 2.5 percent of the U.S. population, it paled in comparison.

These live attendance figures, large as they were, represented just a fraction of the audience that followed the Tour. Millions among the rest of the population read coverage in their newspapers, heard Tour radio broadcasts, or watched the newsreel updates at cinemas. Millions more followed the Tour in other European countries and around the world.

The 1948 Tour was more popular than anyone could have expected, but lucrative it was not. Gino would win a little over a million francs in prize money from the Tour, and had commitments for short races that would take place after the Tour, worth nearly 3.5 million francs. The total winnings would today be worth about $187,000, and Gino had agreed to split it all with his ten teammates. The other famous racers earned less. Bobet earned 486,400 francs, or what would be just over $20,000 today, and Robic earned 261,700 francs, or the modern equivalent of about $11,000. Compared to current earnings for Tour victors or even sports stars in general, these figures seem terribly small. Still, after years of reduced or totally diminished income, the racers were happy to get whatever they could. And in postwar Italy, the money could be stretched. One of Gino’s youngest teammates got enough money from the Tour to marry his sweetheart, make a down payment on a house, and furnish it with all the latest appliances.

Every prize and even the mere chance to compete for one, however, came at a high price. After three weeks of hard racing that exposed them to the extremes of weather and terrain, no one could deny that the Tour wreaked a terrible toll on its participants. Of the 120 men who started the race, just forty-four completed it. The rate of attrition for the old guard—those like Gino who had raced before the war—was equally sobering. Only four of ten would cross the finish line in Paris, though three of those four placed in the top ten. This was an obvious testament to their abilities as racers, but also to the nature of the race. Between the elements and the great distances covered, the Tour demanded the kind of endurance and “capacity for suffering,” as Gino called it, that many younger riders still hadn’t yet cultivated.

The Tour had even transformed Gino, the one man who had endured its tests better than anyone else. The change wasn’t immediately discernible in his physique or his general manner. On the surface, Gino was in excellent physical shape and he remained as irascible as ever, even punching an admiring armed French police officer who inexplicably tried to pat his face at a stage finish line. And yet there was an indelible sadness that began to mount during the final stages that Gino would only fully understand when he reached Paris.

The last day of the Tour opened with a light drizzle, curiously appropriate for an odyssey that had been forged by the ravages of the elements. The rain would make the roads that led to Paris more slippery, but it could do little to douse the enthusiasm of the crowds who had turned out this day to see the crowning of the Tour champion. Officially, the final stage of the Tour is still a race, but its results have only ever mattered where the standings in the general classification are close, something that could not have been further from the case in 1948. With a twenty-six-minute lead over the next racer, there was no question that this was anything less than an extended victory parade for Gino.

The celebrations started early as the Tour riders snaked lazily through the streets of Roubaix as part of a pre-race show that lasted some forty-five minutes. By 10:00 a.m., they had begun the 178-mile journey into Paris. It was not long before they saw one of the first Italian flags that would be waved that day. It stood outside of an industrial workshop on the outskirts of Paris, where it had been placed by one of the many Italian workers now cheering on the Italian team from the side of the road. A simple but heartfelt message had been written across its green, white, and red fabric: Viva Gino Bartali!

As the crowds grew larger, it was obvious from the words of support shouted in French that many of the French fans had thawed in their attitudes toward Gino and the Italians. They had pelted him with snowballs, booed him at finish lines, and one spectator had even sent an anonymous death threat (Binda chose not to tell Gino about this letter). By Paris, however, Gino had finally earned a modicum of their respect. The French press had come around much more quickly. Though their own government was in a state of flux with the role of prime minister changing hands, they would dedicate front cover pages to long, baroque tributes to Gino’s triumph. As one journalist wryly noted, “Gino Bartali, after having beaten his adversaries, defeated the prime minister.”

By the time the Tour caravan reached the outskirts of Paris, the weather had improved and the cyclists began to enjoy some of the scenes of spontaneous ebullience that had greeted their arrival throughout so much of France. A pilot brought his plane down from the sky and flew it right beside them, its wings so close to the ground that they might have clipped a tree. Happy, screaming crowds of people lined up ten and twenty deep on the roadside to see the riders race by. And for the first time ever in Tour history, there were a few television cameras filming the race’s finish. Few could appreciate their significance at the time, but with their help the Tour would grow into a truly global event.

Elsewhere, automobile traffic came to a complete standstill when cheering fans filled the streets as they made their way to the Parc des Princes velodrome where forty thousand of them would watch the end of the race. Still, in this sea of streamers and tanned faces that engulfed the Tour cyclists as they made their way into Paris, no one ever lost sight of the man of the hour. “Bartali stood out in his yellow jersey in the clear and overheated sky like the legionnaire’s bugle call in the solitary desert,” wrote one French journalist.

As Gino focused on safeguarding his overall victory, the Tour’s lesser luminaries fought over the final stage. It was a feat of poetic beauty, then, when Giovanni Corrieri, Gino’s roommate and lieutenant, rocketed through the tunnel and was the first to appear on the track of the velodrome to win the day’s race. After riding for three weeks in Gino’s service and in his shadow, the “Sicilian Arrow” could enjoy a triumph of his own.

Forty thousand voices roared as one when Gino burst through the tunnel into the velodrome a couple of minutes later. His dark tan glistened from beneath his yellow woolen jersey, and every ounce of him pulsed with swashbuckling vigor as he sped along the faded pink concrete track. His victory assured, he raced to the finish line where his teammates awaited him.

Just like that, it was all over. After almost 150 hours in the saddle, the race ended. Ten years after his first triumph, Gino Bartali had won the Tour de France once again and set a new record—the longest time span between victories—that remains undefeated to this day.

After he had dismounted from his bike, Gino headed for the lawn in the middle of the track. As he stood there chatting with Corrieri and the others who had finished, waiting for the rest of the racers to arrive, he caught sight of a French rider, the other thirty-four-year-old member of the old guard, crying by himself. Gino walked over and embraced him, recognizing that he was contemplating the diminishing prospects of his own career, one that had seen him come maddeningly close to winning the Tour three times. Putting a hand on his shoulder as he held him, Gino tried to console him. “The war ruined us old men. It made us lose our best years and many victories that we will never recover.” The French rider, with red eyes and a bristly, unshaved face, could only nod in agreement.

While the sting of the lost years would never completely disappear for Gino, as he spoke with the press that day, he showed the first signs that he had stopped fighting the weight of history. By any measure, he had defied the odds (only three winners in over a hundred years of Tour history have been older than Gino). When he thanked his teammates and his fans, he exuded gratitude for his improbable journey, a sentiment that he would most eloquently articulate only later: “Everyone in their life has his own particular way of expressing life’s purpose—the lawyer his eloquence, the painter his palette, and the man of letters his pen from which the quick words of his story flow. I have my bicycle.”

After some twenty minutes had passed, the last racer crossed the finish line and the awards ceremony began. Photographs and newsreels provided generations to come with an enduring record of those final moments of the 1948 Tour. In those images, Gino walks up to the podium where several officials congratulate him and hang a large sash bearing the title “Tour de France 1948” across his chest. The Tour hostess, a beautiful blond actress named Line Renaud, gives him a large bouquet of flowers and kisses him on the cheek. Gino smiles bashfully and wipes her red lipstick off his face. The crowd jumps to its feet in a standing ovation, and for a moment Gino is overcome. “I have won the most beautiful race in the world. With this, I will enter into history,” he would later say. In the newsreels, he just smiles widely and waves back to his fans. Then he slowly makes his way down from the podium and mounts his bike.

As Gino begins his victory lap, it is a scene of bitter triumph as only the ancients could have written it. Winning the Tour fulfills a quest that motivated Gino for the better part of ten years. Yet by scaling the largest summit cycling had to offer, he is finally forced to accept the superiority of the one rival he could never hope to defeat: time. Riding in the yellow jersey at the age of thirty-four, he is coming to the end of a journey that he would never again repeat.

Alone on the track, a flicker of sadness crosses Gino’s face. But it passes quickly and only heightens his ability to savor this one perfect moment. For as he heads into the home stretch, the happiness he radiates is as clear as day—it is the carefree pleasure of a boy on a bike, gliding effortlessly through the air, resplendent in the afternoon sun.

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