Alcide De Gasperi visits Gino Bartali in the hospital in 1953.
(photo credit epl.1)
ON AN OVERCAST AFTERNOON in January 2011, we met with Giorgio Goldenberg in his home near Tel Aviv. With wavy silver hair and a jovial manner, Giorgio is now a seventy-nine-year-old grandfather. He speaks English confidently and with only a slight accent, a remarkable feat for a man who has never lived for an extended time in an English-speaking country. As we sipped espressos in his living room, he told us about how he arrived in Israel. In the months following the liberation of Florence in 1944, his parents made plans to evacuate him from Europe, fearful of a German counterattack. They secured a place for him on a British boat taking Jewish children to what was then Palestine. When he arrived, a Jewish relief group arranged for Giorgio and other children without family nearby to live on different kibbutzim, the large agricultural collectives that were being established around the country. Giorgio was sent to a kibbutz near Hadera. It was there that he first began to learn Hebrew and use his Hebrew name, Shlomo Pas. His parents and sister migrated to Israel three years later, in 1948. None of the Goldenbergs would ever see Gino Bartali again.
We had originally started talking with Giorgio by phone in the fall of 2010, after tracking him down through various Italian Jews who had all gone to elementary school together in Florence a half century earlier, and were now located in Italy, Israel, and the United Kingdom. After our first conversations with Giorgio, an Italian Jewish journalist found him as well, which spurred a whirlwind tour of interviews. Several Italian newspapers carried articles about his story, and they were quickly cross-linked and translated into other languages in various forums around the web. RAI, the national Italian broadcaster, filmed an interview segment that was aired as part of the Italian commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2011.
Nearly seven decades later, Giorgio’s memory of his wartime experience still felt close and raw. Giorgio admitted as much himself, noting how for nearly half a century he had never spoken with anyone about Gino Bartali or anything else that had happened to him or his family during the war. Like many Holocaust survivors, he had felt the memories of relatives and friends who had perished were too painful, the darkness of the era too difficult to speak about with anyone, even his own children. It was only in recent years, on the suggestion of his wife, that he had begun to unburden himself and tell his story.
We talked for several hours and the conversation slowly drifted to the present. Giorgio grew more lighthearted again, beaming as he spoke proudly about being a father and grandfather. As we neared the end of our time together, Giorgio became reflective once more and took the measure of his wartime experience and how his family was saved. Time and geography may have kept him from meeting Gino again while he still lived, but Giorgio insisted on acknowledging his family’s debt to the cyclist. “There is no doubt whatsoever for me that he saved our lives. He not only saved our lives but he helped save the lives of hundreds of people. He put his own life and his family’s in danger in order to do so,” Giorgio said, his voice cracking with emotion. “In my opinion, he was a hero and he is entitled to be called a hero of the Italian people during the Second World War.”
Like Giorgio, Gino avoided discussing what had happened during the war for much of his life. Although word about his involvement in Cardinal Dalla Costa’s secret network spread through pockets of the Jewish community in Florence soon after the war ended, it would be decades before the nation learned the details about it. Many of Gino’s countrymen were also reticent to speak about their wartime experiences and this silence was not unique to Italy. After years of occupation and war, citizens of several countries in Western Europe opted to willfully ignore the difficulties of the recent past, choosing to focus entirely in those first years on rebuilding for the future.
In 1978, a Polish Jewish journalist and filmmaker named Alexander Ramati published a book he had written with Father Rufino Niccacci about the work of the religious clergy in Assisi during the German occupation. (Ramati, an Allied war correspondent during the war, had first met Niccacci and Luigi Brizi on the day the Allied soldiers liberated Assisi in June 1944.) Seven years later, he followed up with a feature film based on the book. Although both were framed around Niccacci’s first-person perspective of events, they revealed a good amount about Cardinal Dalla Costa, the Brizis, and Gino. The Italian press covered this story with great interest, and lavished praise on all the protagonists named in the counterfeiting network.
Gino reacted to the coverage with anger, and privately threatened to sue an Italian television channel when it announced that it would air Ramati’s film. His son Andrea, however, argued against such measures, noting how closely Ramati had worked with Niccacci, Trento Brizi, and others. Gino slowly calmed down and came around to agreeing with his son, but he would remain tight-lipped with the press about his wartime activities for most of his life. The root of his reticence was a deeply felt concern that his celebrity as a cyclist would aggrandize his role in the network and overshadow the other participants’ contributions, ordinary Italians and Catholic clergy who took extraordinary risks to save others. Speaking in an Italian documentary made later in his life, Gino justified his silence as a matter of respect for those who had suffered more than he had during the war: “I don’t want to appear to be a hero. Heroes are those who died, who were injured, who spent many months in prison.”
Gino’s modesty, coupled with the broader need for absolute secrecy about the clandestine network during the war, has left only a thin paper trail about his wartime activities. In recent years it has come to light that Gino may have helped ferry documents to an even wider area in Tuscany and Umbria than was previously known. In 2006, the president of Italy, Carlo Ciampi, posthumously awarded Gino and four priests a gold medal for civil merit for their efforts in an underground network that helped Jewish refugees hidden in Lucca, in northern Tuscany. Very little is known about Gino’s work for this particular network. Despite repeated calls, the government ministry responsible for the award would not share the file they compiled for Gino because, they said, the selection process for this award was not public. The two surviving members of this network in Lucca who also received awards told us that they did not meet with Gino during the war. They were quick to suggest that their deceased colleagues might have interacted with the cyclist, but that any record of such contact was lost. As they explained, it was most common not to know with whom their fellow priests were working. It was each member’s commitment to secrecy and willful ignorance about his fellow members’ dealings that protected these networks from detection and allowed them to save so many lives. Unfortunately, this same secrecy has also rendered these networks much more impenetrable to the light of historical investigation.
Other factors have only made the research about Gino’s wartime work more challenging. As the safety of the network required that Gino minimize his interactions with the recipients of the false identity documents that he was ferrying, or avoid them altogether by working with other trusted intermediaries, he does not appear frequently in the growing body of survivor testimonies gathered by various Holocaust remembrance organizations. Likewise, many of those who did work with him, particularly in the Florence-Umbria network, died without giving a full account of their wartime experiences or what they knew about Gino’s involvement. Gino himself was no help to the cause of research, refusing comment and steadfastly downplaying his role, even in the face of compelling testimony to the contrary from his fellow members.
One exception was Father Pier Damiano at the San Damiano monastery, whom we discovered early on, who had witnessed Gino dropping off documents to Father Niccacci on one occasion during the war. Overwhelmingly, however, after nearly ten years of research, it became clear that we will likely never know the full scope of everything Gino did or the risks he endured to help Cardinal Dalla Costa. But perhaps that is what Gino intended all along. For a man who had lived almost all of his adult life in the unrelenting scrutiny of the public eye, there is something fitting in the fact that he was able to keep some element of his greatest achievement private. As he would tell his son Andrea, “If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.”
In the hours following Gino’s critical stage win in the 1948 Tour, there was “an explosion of joy” all over the country, said Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, a former judge and Italian president who was a young politician in Rome at the time. “It was like a wind that swipes away the clouds,” the ninety-one-year-old added, as he waved his hand energetically through the air to illustrate the effect of Gino’s win on Italy after the attempted assassination of Palmiro Togliatti.
To this day Italians debate the question of how close the nation came to a wide-scale uprising at that tense moment in July 1948. Many ordinary Italians who saw the riots and destruction firsthand insist that they had witnessed the early signs of revolution and civil war. It is a characterization that historian Patrick McCarthy partly echoes when he describes an Italy where “Milan, Turin, and Genoa appeared on the brink of insurrection.” Others are more skeptical. The historian Paul Ginsborg surveyed the protests in the north and the relatively muted response in the rural south and argued that the possibility of nationwide revolution was unlikely. He did, however, note that one prominent Communist politician had suggested to him that “insurrection was feasible in the North, but that Italy would have been cut in two.”
The perception of the impact of Gino’s victory in the aftermath of the riots would also evolve over the years. In the immediate days following the victory, the fact that Togliatti had survived the assassination attempt played a critical role in the nation’s enthusiastic response to Gino’s triumph. Had he died, the country would doubtless have been in a very different mood, regardless of how Gino fared at the Tour. In coming months and years, however, overeager bartaliani and hard-line right-wing Italians, looking to score points in the ongoing battle between Communists and Christian Democrats, inflated the importance of Gino’s victory and dropped Togliatti’s recovery out of the story. Gino became the “savior of the Fatherland” who singlehandedly stopped the outbreak of a civil war.
In recent years, national leaders and Italian cultural historians have advanced a more nuanced view of the victory’s significance. Giulio Andreotti, a parliamentary deputy and prime minister, who witnessed the celebrations in the Chamber of Deputies at the news of Gino’s victory, offered his assessment. “To say that civil war was averted by a Tour de France victory is surely excessive,” but it was “undeniable,” he insisted, that Gino “contributed to ease the tensions.” Former president Oscar Scalfaro fleshed out this idea further when we met with him, describing Gino’s triumph as an entertaining distraction, offering a hard-fought success that resonated deeply when the nation was trying to rebuild. At least two Italian historians have echoed this point. For his part, Gino steadfastly downplayed his accomplishment, saying, “I don’t know if I saved the country, but I gave it back its smile.”
Although Gino had spoken seriously about retirement after his 1948 Tour victory, only a few weeks later, he set off for Holland with Fausto Coppi to the World Track Cycling Championships in Valkenburg. With the two of them racing together on one national team, Italy should have had no trouble winning. Tragically, neither star was in any mood to work cooperatively. Jealous of all the radio discussion about Gino’s Tour victory, Coppi only agreed to race so that he might defeat his Tuscan rival. Gino proved himself no better when the race began, refusing to make any significant attacks lest he inadvertently help Coppi. Instead, the two men spent their time pacing each other, oblivious to the other competitors who were pulling out in front of them. Eventually, when both had fallen far behind the pack, they got off their bikes and quit the race while the spectators hissed angrily at them.
In Italy, this disgraceful performance was shocking enough to prompt the Italian Cycling Federation to suspend both men temporarily, adding more fuel to the fire of their rivalry. For several years already, the story of their match-ups had dominated the headlines. A hungry press, looking to sell newspapers, only ratcheted up the antagonism. But there was also some real substance in their battles. Neither man was afraid to speak dismissively about the other’s prospects in public, and both had long since given up referring to the other by name, each preferring instead to call the other “that one.” The fans followed suit, with whole neighborhoods taking sides as coppiani or bartaliani. Those who dared challenge these local allegiances risked confrontation. Men got into fights over whom they supported, and at least one woman was chased across her rural village by screaming young Bartali fans when she admitted she supported Coppi. Ultimately these divisions would even take on a political dimension, when the Communists rallied behind an apolitical Coppi to combat Gino’s allegiance to the Christian Democrats.
The battle reached its zenith in the spring of 1949, when the time came to choose the Italian team for the Tour de France. Coppi had just defeated Gino at the Giro d’Italia, and his professional team, Bianchi, demanded that Gino be held back while Coppi led the effort in France. Gino, however, was the returning Tour champion, and his supporters felt it unconscionable that he be prevented from defending his title just so that Coppi could make his Tour debut. Both arguments had merit, and the debate quickly became a popular one in public circles. A satisfying resolution, however, seemed unlikely. At one point, Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi even weighed in publicly and insisted that Gino and Coppi race together for Italy. In an unusual show of political unity, Palmiro Togliatti, his long-standing opponent, agreed.
As consensus mounted for a unified team, coach Alfredo Binda engineered an alliance between the stars whereby both men agreed to race cooperatively for the first part of the race. When they reached the Alps, each was allowed to race more freely. To the eternal disappointment of the bartaliani, Coppi outshone his rival and carried the yellow jersey into Paris. Though Gino came in second, Coppi overshadowed him by becoming the first cyclist to do what had long been considered impossible: winning the Giro and the Tour in the same year. The symbolic importance of the moment could not be understated. In head-to-head battle through some of Western Europe’s most challenging terrain, Coppi had realized the dream that Gino had held since his earliest years as a cyclist.
Coppi went on to win a second Tour title, and by the end of his career his distinctions included five Giro victories as well. Compared to Gino’s two Tour titles and three Giro wins, some felt the debate about who was the best Italian racer was now over. Others argued that it wasn’t a fair comparison since Gino would likely have won more Tour and Giro titles if his career hadn’t been interrupted by the war, which impacted Coppi less because he wasn’t yet in his prime years. To buttress this argument, the bartalianipoint to Gino’s enduring Tour record—the ten-year time span between victories. Even as advances in general health and training have allowed current cyclists to extend their careers and win races like the Tour de France at a later age in life, no other racer has stayed at the very top of the sport for that length of time.
To this day, outside of Italy, Coppi remains better known, partly because his victories were more recent and partly because he helped pioneer the modern, scientifically based way of training, in contrast to Gino’s defiantly old-fashioned approach to cycling. Within Italy, however, most contemporary Italians of all ages, when asked about this duo, will feel a multigenerational loyalty to either Bartali or Coppi. With time the bitter edges of the rivalry have worn down and transformed into celebrations of the legacy of each cyclist.
Among the bartaliani, the remembrances have taken many forms. In 2006, a Gino Bartali museum opened in his hometown of Ponte a Ema, showcasing old bikes, photographs, and other Bartali paraphernalia. In 2009, Ivo Faltoni, one of Gino’s former bike mechanics and a lifelong friend, launched an annual ciclopelegrinaggio, or cycling pilgrimage, retracing part of Gino’s routes between Florence and Assisi when he was shuttling documents. For the inaugural year, more than a hundred riders, including young boys, a couple on a tandem bicycle, and several white-haired cyclists, pedaled from Terontola to the main square in Assisi, where they were treated to one of Gino’s favorite training snacks, prosciutto panini. The winners of the first pilgrimage came from a Roman Catholic cycling society in the north of Italy, which had pledged to live according to the values of Gino Bartali.
On October 18, 1953, Gino and a few friends made their way to what would be one of the last races of his career. Thirty-nine years old, he had raced eighty times that season and won only twice, giving the press yet more fodder to poke fun at his age. In the years since his Tour victory, he had gone from being known as Il Vecchio to Il Vecchiaccio—“the Old Geezer” and even Methuselah, the oldest man in the Bible. Gino grudgingly accepted the jibes, and even enjoyed such moments as when he was parodied in an Italian comedy revue by an actor wearing a yellow jersey “and a beard so long it reached his navel.” Gino took it all in stride. “We athletes are not like beautiful women who can hide their years, and what’s more, I have no desire to hide them. If the affectionate mirth that my ‘venerable’ age provokes can be a distraction for the spectators from the chores and annoyances of daily life which aren’t enjoyable for anyone, all the better.”
As they drove that morning to Switzerland, where the race was being held, Gino dozed in the passenger seat. He was ripped from his slumber, however, when he felt the car lurch and heard the thunderous crash of metal. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the “car was turning over and over, as if in a vortex.” The door flew open and he was catapulted out of the vehicle. He hit the ground on the side of the road, and the car continued to flip several times before it finally came to a standstill a few feet from where he lay.
He could see warm blood pouring out of his leg where he had made impact with the pavement, and as he attempted to move, he felt a stab of pain in his back and winced. Soon he became aware of hands stretching out to him, strangers gathered around him, leaning over to help him up.
“Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” Gino groaned, worried that his back would be damaged by further movement. “If you want, cover me, but do not touch me!” Gino tried to yell. “You will lift me only when the ambulance arrives.”
An ambulance soon appeared, and as Gino traveled to the hospital, he kept his eyes closed, murmuring the names of his sons to keep calm. At the hospital, he was surrounded by a great commotion of doctors and nurses. When he was finally settled in a room, he was able to focus his thoughts. He needed to call Adriana. He picked up the phone and dialed.
“Adriana … Adriana!” Gino said feebly when she picked up. “I’m here in Milan,” he said, telling her the name of the hospital.
“What happened to you, Gino?” Adriana asked anxiously.
“I was in a car accident. Come here right away.”
“Is it serious? Tell me, Gino, is it serious?” she continued.
“I don’t know yet. Come to Milan right away. Don’t say anything to the kids. Tell my mom.”
Overcome by the effort of the call, Gino fainted.
Adriana rushed to Milan and found Gino in a terrible state. He had been cut badly, fractured two vertebrae, and damaged his bowels. In the following days, he was operated on, and part of his intestine was removed. Slowly he began to heal.
As he recuperated at the hospital, Alcide De Gasperi, the former prime minister who had called him during the 1948 Tour, visited him. No record of their conversation remains, but a photograph taken of the moment speaks volumes. The soft-spoken, gray-haired politician, now politically past his prime, leans over and tenderly holds the forearm of the aging athlete lying in bed, rendered immobile by his injuries. It is a warm moment between old friends, and a poignant end to an era during which the great characters in sports and politics performed together on the same stage.
De Gasperi would die within a year from a heart attack. Gino recovered enough to briefly race again, but retired formally from the sport in February 1955.
In his retirement, Gino focused full-time on several business ventures that he had started on the side during his final years of cycling. As early as 1949, after years of racing for Legnano, a professional cycling team owned by the second-largest bike brand in Italy, Gino convinced himself that he could earn more money by launching a professional team and his own line of bicycles. It was a decision that he would regret almost from the get-go. The early Bartali bikes were of poor quality, and the cyclist quickly realized how unprepared he was to help run a bicycle factory and business. “It’s one thing to ride on [a bicycle] and push it at high or impossible average speeds in storms and in the battles of a race, it’s another thing to administer its production and sales,” he said. His professional team fared no better. They lacked the money to compete with established teams like Legnano and Bianchi when it came to signing good cyclists, leaving them with a group of third-string racers whom most saw as a joke. Even Gino could find nothing redeeming about the experience, and later regretted it deeply. “If I had remained with the Legnano team, I would have won more races which were lost because of our inferior bikes.”
For all the money and effort wasted, Gino kept trying. He continued to dabble in business, pitching Bartali razor blades and even his own brand of Chianti wine that dubiously promised “eternal youth” to whoever drank it. A few years after his disappointment with Bartali bikes, he started a small department store that sold everything from Bartalibranded motorcycles to Bartali sewing machines and Bartali shaving cream. It was another area of business that Gino knew little about, and though his intentions were good, it wasn’t long before it, too, ran into trouble. “It was the era of paying by installments,” his son Andrea explained. “Papà sold, but then was embarrassed to ask for the missing payments from those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. And so in time that venture didn’t go so well.”
While Gino struggled with his businesses in the 1950s, a powerful economic boom unfolded across Western Europe as the continent rebuilt and restored its industrial base. Rising consumer incomes enriched manufacturers, and their enduring need to secure effective advertising helped transform cycling into a potent money-maker. Race prizes and appearance fees for winners soon reflected this growing prosperity. In 1952, just four years after Gino’s victory, the Tour winner landed twenty million francs in contracts, or the modern equivalent of approximately $517,000 (nearly three times what Gino took home from the 1948 Tour). In subsequent decades, corporate endorsement deals linked to expanded television coverage would make a victory at the Tour exponentially more lucrative.
Paradoxically, however, this same prosperity would slowly push the sport from its central place in European life. From 1950 onward, bicycle sales in France and Italy began to decline, eclipsed first by mopeds and then later by small cars. As they did so, the connection between everyday cyclists and the professionals slowly withered, and the popular experience and understanding of cycling dissipated. Subsequent technological innovations have only further eroded that connection. Today it is difficult for newcomers to the sport to fully appreciate the majestic endurance of a cyclist riding up the Alps at fifteen miles per hour, when a mass-market car can easily manage the task at twice or even three times the speed. Likewise, the audacity of riding around France in three weeks feels diminished in an era when anyone could do it sleeping on a discount flight in a matter of hours. None of this, of course, can take away from a great cyclist’s achievement, but since bikes have ceased to be a part of daily life for so many, spectators no longer instantly understand the stamina and sheer will required to complete races as grueling as the Tour.
In this changing world, a newly retired Gino struggled to find his place. After his businesses failed and his savings were gutted, Gino worked for a period of time as a sportscaster for RAI, the Italian state channel, and generated some controversy by refusing to follow his producers’ guidelines for his commentary. In later years, he covered the races as a reporter for other media outlets. He also made appearances and signed autographs during promotional events set up by Coca-Cola.
Various figures in the cycling world remember Gino in this era for the sharpness of his tongue, a trait that was memorialized in his most enduring public nickname, Ginettaccio—“Gino the Terrible.” Two-time world champion Gianni Bugno described Gino covering the races “in order to tell us every day what we had done wrong.” Others remember his willingness to be baited into a loud argument. For his part, Gino defended his cantankerous tone as proof of his honesty, and regularly even played it up. He agreed to write a racing column for Italy’s largest sports newspaper during the Giro d’Italia that was called “A Mistake a Day”; he titled one of his autobiographies It’s All Wrong, It All Has to Be Redone, in reference to an infamous episode from his racing days when he had shouted at the mechanics who made a mistake when assembling his bike. There was a certain element of humor in all of this, and yet Gino was also occasionally pigeonholed in this part. Where other retired athletes had segued gracefully to roles as benevolent elder statesmen, he was at times depicted as a caricature of a national curmudgeon.
In his late seventies, Gino agreed to co-host a news-satire program where he helped parody the daily news while scantily clad showgirls danced provocatively in the background. It was a controversial decision and, in the eyes of many, a hypocritical and tawdry lapse for a man who had been one of Catholic Action’s most prominent members. Although financial considerations were probably one of his primary motivations for doing the show, Gino defended his decision in the name of his fierce sense of independence. “At my age,” he said, “I think I know what’s good for me.” In the recordings of the show, however, his discomfort occasionally betrays him through forced smiles and a few poorly concealed grimaces.
Despite all the career changes and frustrations, Gino’s family would be a refuge and a source of lasting happiness. To this day, Adriana lives in the home that Gino bought after his 1938 Tour win, where she invited us to talk about her husband. Now a graceful, eloquent, and generous ninety-one-year-old woman, Adriana grew animated as she spoke about Gino and the life they shared together. At one point she paused to catch her breath, and we asked whether she needed a break. Nearby, Andrea, now a seventy-year-old man, piped up, “Yes, tell them when you’re tired, that way we’ll throw a bucket of water on you!”
“Don’t you dare,” said Adriana, laughing, with a flash of mischief in her eyes. “I’m not in a race here!”
Through his family’s anecdotes, Gino emerges as a playful, affectionate, and loyal father and husband. Family photos reveal a relaxed Gino, freed of the burden of the heavy scowl that he wears in so many of his public photos. Spending time with Adriana Bartali, one also realizes what a wide array of people befriended her husband—everyone from Juan and Evita Perón to Pope Pius XII to the opera singer Maria Callas. When Callas met Gino and Adriana one night at the Florence opera, she told Gino, “Signor Bartali, we’re the same, you and I. We’re tenacious, combative, generous, nothing stops us, we always give the maximum.” Was Adriana excited to meet so many legends? Certainly, but it is also clear that she has grown accustomed to living with her husband’s fame after more than seventy years.
“Let’s put it this way,” she explained. “These were all normal events that were a part of our lives, that happened from time to time.”
After Andrea and Luigi, Adriana and Gino went on to have a daughter, Bianca Maria. All three children live nearby with their families. For Gino’s children, at least in their early years, their father’s celebrity could be double-edged. Andrea, who was six years old when his father won the Tour in 1948, understood firsthand the commitments of a national champion. His father was away from home for long stretches of time during the racing season, and when he returned, friends and well-wishing strangers were constantly looking to spend time with him. Andrea would spend much of his formative years at a Catholic boardingschool, and even there the rivalry between the coppiani and bartaliani was bitterly felt. With time, however, he would come to accept his father’s unique place in the national imagination. As he matured and his father retired from life as a racer, the two found more time for each other, enjoying road trips together around the country or just quiet games of cards at home.
Gino’s parents, Torello and Giulia, would continue to be pillars of strength in his life for the rest of their days. Both played an active role in their grandchildren’s lives, with Torello sharing stories from the old life in Ponte a Ema around the family hearth while Giulia prepared culinary delights, including a popular rabbit stew. Both had lived to see Gino enjoy international success, though they were relieved when he stopped cycling. As Gino put it when he retired, “For a quarter of a century my mother has been waiting for me to stop racing. I know her and her anxieties well. I have always felt her prayers in my heart. Now she will finally have a bit of peace.”
In his early eighties, Gino’s health began to fail him. The heart that had powered him through a staggering lifetime tally of 370,000 miles of cycling became more capricious and soon required a pacemaker to regulate its beat. His voice became so gravelly that it was almost incomprehensible, hardened by the cumulative toll of a throat operation and decades of heavy smoking. His skin yellowed and his hair receded. His body grew heavier, slowed by a propensity to get out of breath and tire easily.
Sensing that his life was drawing to a close, Gino grew increasingly reflective. Interviews with the press in those final years reveal a man at peace with himself. In one interview, Gino offered a heartfelt description of his vision of life: “Life is like a Giro D’Italia, which seems never-ending, but at a certain point you reach the final stage. And perhaps you don’t expect it. Now I’m beginning to expect it. Yes, I’ll soon be called and I’ll go up there.… Heaven should be a happy place, like those green summits of the Dolomite Mountains, after you’ve rounded a hundred curves, pedaling all the way.”
Privately, he shared his wishes for his final arrangements with his family members. He requested a traditional Roman Catholic funeral mass and asked to be buried in the brown robes of the Carmelites, a Catholic religious order of which he was a lay member. Finally, he confessed to his family that he had been praying that he would die peacefully at home, and be spared the difficulty of a drawn-out terminal decline in the hospital.
True to his wishes, an eighty-five-year-old Gino spent his last days at home in bed. On the afternoon of May 5, 2000, with his wife and children gathered around him, his breathing grew weaker until he quietly passed away.
News of his death was broadcast on Italian television. Pope John Paul II hailed him as a “great sportsman,” and newspapers across Europe and North America published obituaries about him. In Italy, the Corriere Dello Sport dedicated its front page to a reflection on his career with the headline “Good-bye, Ginettaccio.”
The funeral was held three days later. Friends and family gathered inside a local church while a group of aging bartaliani, many wearing their old cycling jerseys, stood outside. Speaking to a journalist, one of those fans offered a simple tribute to the cyclist’s legacy: “When we were poor and weary, he gave us back our honor.”
After the mass was completed, Gino’s former teammates carried his casket out of the church. They brought it to the Ponte a Ema cemetery and laid it to rest near his parents; his stillborn son, Giorgio; and his beloved brother, Giulio.