In the Saddle

Gino Bartali points playfully at his younger brother, Giulio.

(photo credit 2.1)

THE BARTALI BROTHERS WERE destined to become a cycling dynasty, Gino was sure of it. Two years apart in age, he and Giulio rode together on their bikes all over the countryside near Florence with a band of their classmates, like a herd of Tuscan horses that galloped in the grasslands nearby. “I felt like one of those foals,” Gino said, “the young horses who ran with their manes in the wind without the slightest restraint.” The boys tackled the dusty Tuscan hills for the thrill of sprinting until their lungs burned, and they challenged each other to races. “Let’s see who can reach the top of that hill up there first!” someone would shout, and they would be off. Gino would always arrive ahead of everyone else, followed closely by Giulio, and they would get off their bikes and wait for the others. “Heavens, how they struggled!” Gino said. “I sweated less and I didn’t huff and puff as much.”

It quickly became obvious that Gino was the strongest racer of the group. But it wasn’t until he tested his mettle against real racers, every once in a lucky while, that he began to realize that he was different, special even. Sometimes when messing about on their bicycles, Gino, Giulio, and their friends would run into amateur racers training along the steep Tuscan roads. “Annoyed by our presence on their wheels, they would do battle with us. Despite their perfect bicycles, they didn’t always beat us, even though the bikes we pedaled were like lumbering horse buggies. In fact, on many climbs with me, they would lose,” Gino said. “At first, even I was astounded and embarrassed by this discovery.”

Gino wasn’t the only one who was becoming aware of his talent. He had taken a part-time job three days a week during the sixth grade in the shop of a Ponte a Ema bicycle mechanic named Oscar Casamonti. Casamonti was an amateur racer himself and had been hearing the talk around town about his young apprentice. Wanting to see with his own eyes if the rumors were true, he brought Gino along one day for a ride with him and his training partners. Gino stayed well behind, trudging along with his heavy touring bike. “Everyone had a racing one, and I had my work cut out for me to seem equally confident,” he said. It was decided that they would cover about fifty-five miles, and from time to time Casamonti would dart forward. When they reached the midway point, Gino’s boss raced ahead and left everyone else in his wake. Some of the others began to drop away, but Gino did everything he could to keep up. To a point. Not daring to pass Casamonti, he didn’t push quite as hard as he could have, explaining, “I didn’t want to disrespect him, he was my boss!” When Casamonti was sure that he was alone in the lead, he turned back and saw young Gino right behind him. His eyes became as big as saucers. Upon returning home he went directly to speak with Torello and Giulia.

They had a boy on their hands who was born to race.

In 1920s Italy, few things were remotely as appealing as cycling for boys like Gino. Soccer found its faithful in cities from the fall through the spring, but cycling was the symbol of summer. Like no other sport, it succeeded in captivating the attention of people living in the countryside as well. From villages high in the Italian Alps all the way down the peninsula to Sicily, cycling drew crowds of onlookers, journalists, and newsreel directors. One well-known Italian journalist described the transformative effect of the Giro d’Italia, the multistage competition that was the most important cycling race in Italy. “For many houses lost in the mountains, for much of the countryside drowned in sun, for many people from villages perched at the tops of hills, the Giro is life’s only spectacle, the fleeting vision of a faraway world that races from one big city to another, and ties all of Italy into a single ring.” Nor did cycling’s popularity stop at Italy’s borders. The rest of continental Europe embraced it, and the international fan base in North and South America was growing swiftly.

It was hardly a tough sell. Competitive cycling took the age-old excitement of horse racing and unleashed it from the confines of the racetrack onto the familiar roads of everyday life. Audiences flocked to competitions, mesmerized by the sight of men jockeying against each other atop their iron horses. Race organizers cashed in on it all and competed among themselves, each trying to make their race the longest, their route the most challenging, and their prize the largest. Manufacturers of bicycles sponsored whole teams and helped establish a season of races. A freewheeling sport was transformed into a major industry; an international obsession became a fixture of modern life.

By the time Gino was a young boy, a class of cyclists had emerged who could make their living by competing for large prizes. Three days before Gino turned thirteen, the Italian cyclist Alfredo Binda won a striking victory at the first professional World Cycling Championship in Germany, and Gino began to dream of a world he had never imagined before. With colorful personalities and even more colorful entourages, racers like Binda had quickly become as famous as the races themselves. They hailed from different parts of Europe, but came almost universally from the working classes. Many were from long lines of families who worked in the mines; others were lumberjacks, cheese merchants, and millers. Young Gino and his contemporaries could not resist the allure of these pedaling cowboys; astride the latest bicycles with exotic curled racing handlebars, they wore spare tires draped over their shoulders and donned racing glasses that resembled modern-day swim goggles. “Back then, racers were personalities,” recalled one Italian rider. Gino fell in love with these larger-than-life characters.

So did the press. They described the racers in Homeric prose:

These racers were once similar to you, and many, in fact, are still the same as you: farmers, day laborers, builders, gardeners. They took a bicycle and they conquered the world on the back of that fragile steel seahorse. Now cities wait for them and acclaim them, because they are strong, because they have challenged the dust and the rain, because they have fallen and, though injured, they have gotten up again, because they have conquered the mountains, because they have raced, always, nonstop and breathless. They are the heroes of a humble and exciting tournament who have made themselves knights of hard work.

With such praise, the sport quickly became a fertile ground for a class of famous stars.

The most prominent of these won prizes at the big races and then cashed in on their success by collecting fees for appearing at smaller events afterward across the continent. Reporters followed them devotedly, hungry to depict characters who traveled greater distances in one race than many people would travel in their lifetimes. Popular art filled any gaps that the newspapers neglected. The fictive exploits and intrigues of cyclists quickly became the fodder for countless novels and films.

Charles Terront, who raced wearing blue stockings, white flannel knee breeches, and a silk ascot, was the first major cycling icon to ride to the top of the cultural zeitgeist. After he won a 743-mile round-trip race between Paris and Brest in 1891, he was met at the finish line by thousands of spectators. He proceeded to devour four meals and then reportedly slept for twenty-six hours. As he slumbered he became a national sensation. After he awoke, he attended eighteen consecutive banquets organized to celebrate his success. The rewards didn’t stop there. Terront received a seat of honor and a free box in the Paris Opera, and the writer Paul D’Ivoi turned him into a fictional hero in his novel Les cinq sous de Lavarède.

In the United States, “wheeling” peaked in 1896 when the New York Times declared, “The wheel is triumphant.” Tiffany issued a silver-plated bicycle frame, Thomas Edison experimented with an electric tricycle, and the League of American Wheelmen blossomed to 75,000 dues-paying members including John D. Rockefeller. Thousands of Americans flocked to Madison Square Garden, originally built by Cornelius Vanderbilt for cycling races, to watch the grueling “Six Days.” Cyclists from around the world raced for six days and six nights, and the racer who covered the most total distance won.

America had its moment, but European cyclists stole the show in the first decades of the twentieth century. The aspiring racer became a cultural fixture in Europe, like the Jazz Age flapper in America, a defining image of an era and its ambitions. Countless young Italian men earnestly believed this fantasy could be their reality.

Young women proved no less willing to be swept up in the hoopla. Scores of them flocked to see famous cyclists at the finish lines, and the most daring delivered lipstick kisses to the victors along with their contact details. (One racer was reported to have gathered the personal information for some five hundred women during one multistage race.) Such was the prevalence of women that some men even considered them a moral hazard. In his book on cycling, Henri Desgrange, the founder of the Tour de France, warned cyclists about these “pretty little lecherous souls who would be charmed to experiment with you … to determine whether your qualities as a man in bed are as remarkable as your qualities as a racer on the track.”

It was no great surprise that few riders paid Desgrange any heed. Most were all too happy to repay this romantic interest in kind, using their time off their bikes to take their admirers out to lunch, to dance, or even back to their hotel rooms. Other riders were less interested in the chase and chose instead to spend their rest days in bordellos. One Italian rider became such fast friends with the women who plied their trade in Rome’s red-light district that he knew nearly every one of them by name and routinely stopped by their salons just to say farewell whenever he left the city for an extended period. The teams’ sports managers were happy to turn a blind eye to such pursuits as long as racing results didn’t suffer.

Henri Pélissier, a legendary French rider with a soft smile that made women’s hearts flutter, was so popular that he had to develop an unconventional strategy for rebuffing his many female fans: he solicited his wife’s help. Pélissier won the Tour de France in 1923, and during every Tour he raced he received dozens of marriage proposals that he passed on to his wife to answer. Eventually she tired of this arrangement. Ten years later, out of desperation, she took her own life. Pélissier took up with a new lover, but tragedy continued to haunt him. In the midst of an argument, she shot and killed him, using the same gun his first wife had used to end her life.

Pélissier’s murder was the sensational stuff of headlines, but it was far from typical. Most cyclists were treated with admiration by their supporters. Ardent fans were ecstatic if they could simply get the autographs of their favorite cyclists at the finish line. Everyone else was just happy to bask in their presence. “We were all gods,” remembered one racer with amusement. “We had no idea what was happening to us.”

This was the exhilarating vapor that swirled around young Gino, beckoning from newspapers, radio, and the wistful chatter of cyclists at Casamonti’s. He drank it all in. “There I was, enchanted, hearing about those adventures that seemed marvelous to me,” said Gino about the shop, his “second home.” “I would leave a bit of my heart and my dreams there.” The transformation was astounding. The boy who had struggled to pay attention in school could sit for hours focused on the most minute adjustments for a customer’s bicycle. And any waking moments when he wasn’t working a shift in Casamonti’s, he would be happily riding his own bicycle, that ponderous one-speed iron contraption that hardly seemed worthy of the name.

The only thing that would have made Gino happier was his father’s permission to race in official competitions. Despite Casamonti’s urging, Torello refused to allow his son to get involved in what he considered to be a wild and hazardous world. Gino’s father knew full well that a cyclist, let alone a child, was no match for a car if they collided on the road. “Babbo didn’t want me to bicycle race with my friends,” Gino explained, “because he was always afraid I’d get into trouble.” Nor was Giulia Bartali favorably disposed to the sport. Any mother would have been terrified by the loud groups of youth that ripped around dangerously in Florence’s streets with reckless abandon, leaving frazzled onlookers in their wake. Newspapers in that era regularly reported the violence wreaked by bicyclists as they crashed into pedestrians, fracturing their bones and even killing them on occasion.

Torello made his feelings abundantly clear one day after a friend of Gino’s borrowed his bike. The friend had attached his own pair of curved racing handlebars, replacing Gino’s regular touring set. When he returned the bike, he left the new equipment affixed. In this way, Gino got his first taste of riding a racing bicycle. Intoxicated by the thrill of training on the vehicle of his heroes, he forgot to remove the handlebars at the end of the day. He paid a steep price when Torello discovered his bike later. “When Torello returned home from work and saw the bicycle bastardized in that way, he told me simply that if I didn’t remove it immediately from his sight, he would have it reduced to scrap metal in five minutes.” Gino fought back his tears, stung by his father’s disapproval.

Torello couldn’t stomach the idea of his son as a racer because Gino’s health seemed borderline at best. On one cold day in the winter of 1929, when Gino was fifteen years old, he settled into one of the usual neighborhood games of cops and robbers. Snow was falling, a rare occurrence in Ponte a Ema. Drawing the short stick saved for the robber, Gino hid himself for the better part of a day while his companions searched for him. As the sun dropped below the horizon, he started walking home, assuming that the game was finished. One of his friends, however, caught sight of him and insisted that Gino had been captured. The others soon gathered around and agreed with this verdict. Gino was indignant but outnumbered, and so he unhappily accepted his punishment. They forced him to the ground and covered him from head to toe in snow. His friends left him, and his mother discovered him some time later, wet and shivering. A high fever took hold, and Gino’s parents grew petrified that he would come down with pneumonia. In an era before penicillin, pneumonia, along with any number of other infections, could be a death sentence.

Somehow Gino survived. In time he strengthened enough to move around, though it would be six months before he could speak normally. He wanted to move past this harrowing experience, but his peers made that virtually impossible. They began calling him Careggi, the name of Florence’s most famous hospital. It was his first nickname and one he would remember forever, a reminder of the ordeal he had suffered.

Gino responded by devoting himself to training. Perhaps he was trying to convince his friends and family that he had recuperated completely. Or perhaps he was just trying to persuade himself. Whatever it was, he began to obsess about stripping away his weaknesses and building a stronger version of himself. He wanted to train and he wanted to race.

Unfortunately, his fervor did not elicit a change in his parents’ attitudes about cycling. Now more than ever, their elder son’s ambitions filled them with dread. They had almost lost him to a menacing illness, and it was no secret that cycling was a dangerous sport. Even seasoned professionals occasionally died in accidents during competitions. Torello put his foot down. There would be no racers in his family. Casamonti continued relentlessly to champion Gino’s cause. He told Torello it would be a crime not to let the boy race, but Torello was deaf to his pleas. “One day you will bring him back in pieces,” Torello said. He had no idea how his words would come back to haunt him.

On the day of Gino’s seventeenth birthday, July 18, 1931, something unexpected happened. As the family ate dinner that night, Gino asked whether his brother could take part the following day in a competition that several of Giulio’s classmates had entered in a nearby town. Torello quickly replied that Giulio was too young to race. “If need be, you do it,” he said to Gino. “With this mania in your blood, you won’t even let me sleep.” Maybe his attitude had softened on his son’s birthday, or maybe he was just tired of fighting the inevitable for so long. Worn out by years of pleading from his son, countless townsfolk, and even the Ponte a Ema parish priest, Torello finally relented. “My heart leapt,” Gino wrote afterward. “I took off before the sound of his words, so sweet to my ears, disappeared. It was one of the best presents I had ever gotten in my life.”

Gino won the race the following day and savored his first taste of victory. It didn’t last long. He was immediately disqualified because the race was for fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds, and having just turned seventeen, he was no longer eligible. Yet this unfortunate outcome could do nothing to overshadow the larger victory Gino had won.

He had become a racer.

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