3

The First Test

Gino Bartali, circa 1936

(photo credit 3.1)

TORELLO’S BLESSING WAS HARD won, and Gino didn’t want to let his father down. His first goal was to ease his parents’ financial woes or, at the very least, avoid adding to them. He developed some particularly creative strategies to do so. He started waking up at 4:30 a.m. to fit in his training rides ahead of his day’s work in Casamonti’s shop. Still, his paltry income as a bicycle mechanic barely covered the new expenses of training and racing. During most races, for instance, his bicycle pedals tore up the soles of his shoes. But it quickly became expensive to pay five lire—half his day’s wages—to replace them. So Gino came up with a more economical fix: he had the rubber from old bicycle tires sewn onto the soles.

Gino’s early triumphs earned him a spot in a local amateur sports club called L’Aquila, or “The Eagle.” He continued to struggle, however, to become financially independent. One of his fellow racers hatched a solution:

“Listen, Gino, if we arrive together at the finish line, will you let me go first? I have a girlfriend waiting for me and I’ll give you the first prize. What do you say?” he asked.

“All right,” Gino responded, knowing he could then bring home the first- and second-prize purses. He knew he was bending the rules, but he was getting desperate. “Up until this point I hadn’t brought home a single lira and my father was about to blow,” he said. In the end, the ruse did not last long. The directors of L’Aquila soon caught on that he was ceding wins here and there. When he explained why, they offered to give him a stipend of fifty lire per race, a typical award for a first-place finish.

Slightly relieved of his financial torments, seventeen-year-old Gino turned his energies elsewhere. Determined to rid himself of all frailty, he adopted a rigorous series of exercises that developed muscular strength. He had always resented being picked on for being small. “Often my classmates jeered at me and teased me because I was the weakest,” he said. “I was scrawny, I didn’t have the physique suited to my age. I prayed to the Lord that he would make me grow strong. But meanwhile I suffered. I suffered in silence, I held everything closed inside of me, for fear that my pain would be the motive for more jokes.”

Now he had found a method for channeling his pent-up frustration. His training bible was a booklet by a Dutch professor that detailed twenty-four exercises for cyclists that moved through the arms, neck, legs, and the rest of the body’s muscles. He did these calisthenics so religiously that his mother, Giulia, grew to expect the familiar sight of her son exercising at daybreak each morning, soon after the neighbor’s rooster crowed, in front of an open window, even in the dead of winter. Within a year he had increased his chest size by more than three inches.

His bike offered other opportunities for training. On steep climbs, he worked on slowing down his breathing. He taught himself to make do with less water, tempering his ability to withstand the thirst that would grow over hundreds of miles of riding with just a few drops. He built his endurance on hills around Tuscany, and his speed on any flats he could find. Like an inventor tinkering with a new design, he fastidiously recorded all of his observations and experiments in logbooks, a practice that earned him the nickname “the Accountant” for being so meticulous. In everything, he focused on a cyclist’s most important strength—his tolerance for pain, or what Gino called his “capacity for suffering.”

Nutrition also became an obsession. Gino experimented with different combinations of foods. Plain pasta and bananas became favorites; tomatoes, a staple of most Italian diets, were abandoned because of their acidity. Aware of the Bartalis’ circumstances, his neighbors pitched in to help fuel their budding champion. One butcher provided him with free steaks before key races, and other villagers shared extra bread when they had it.

On race days, breakfast began with an espresso or a caffe latte and some bread with jam or Gino’s favorite: honey. Next he ate pasta or rice with a cheese or butter sauce, ideally accompanied by eggs, veal, or steak. For a midday snack, he liked a couple of panini with cheese, marmalade, or salami, sometimes all three at once. During a multiday race, the portions became much larger to account for the increased caloric output. In one such race, Gino was eating almost a dozen raw eggs a day while cycling, breaking their shells on his handlebars before swallowing the yolks. In another, he confessed to eating a whole rabbit and a chicken in one sitting.

Sports nutritionists now know that eating so much meat, particularly steak, hours ahead of rigorous physical activity is a terrible strategy. So much blood is diverted away from the muscles to the stomach to digest a large quantity of meat that a rider is likely to feel nauseated. Yet in the early years of cycling, eating huge amounts of meat had been part of the accepted nutritional wisdom. In fact, a French physician in 1869 (in what was likely one of the first newspaper columns about nutrition and cycling) advised cyclists competing in a road race to pause every twelve to fifteen miles of the race to consume food and drink, preferably a steak and a couple of glasses of Madeira or sweet white wine. Then, after fifteen minutes’ rest, he suggested the riders walk alongside their bicycles for a few minutes before getting back on. By the 1920s and 1930s, the thinking had evolved and simplified. The goal became to fuel up with enough calories to endure lengthy races, since many cyclists came from families like the Bartalis, where food could be scarce at times. Meat was considered very high-quality food for the task because it contained a lot of protein and calories.

In all of his training, the only area that seemed impervious to tinkering was Gino’s riding style. Perhaps it couldn’t change because there was no discernible method behind it. Most other racers took whole climbs either standing or sitting, depending on the grade of the hill. If the slope was mild, they would stand on their pedals to get extra power. If the hill was more extreme, they would get off their bike and flip their rear wheel to move their chain onto a lower gear on the other side of the wheel, which made it easier to take more of the climb sitting. They would only need to stand for the steepest moments. Gino, in contrast, bounced up and down out of his seat haphazardly. “Bartali did a climb in bursts, he was jumpy,” said one teammate. His strength meant he could climb both standing and sitting, and could wait longer than most of his rivals before having to flip his wheel. Newspaper reporters chalked it up to an unusual personal style. A rival racer, however, was more candid: “He looked like he was being electrocuted.”

Defensive cycling had its place, but it was the adrenaline rush of a charge that electrified Gino. Risky, all-or-nothing offensives earned him considerable success as an amateur. As word spread, more and more riders learned to recognize his signature attack. Late in a race, usually during a climb when the peloton was pushing at full tilt, Gino would ride up behind the leader. When he thought the moment was right, he would charge forward, tempting the leader to follow him. If he did, Gino would soon slow down again and let him catch up. When it looked like the other rider had found his cadence once more, Gino would start his quick charge all over again. “He would burst forward,” explained one teammate. “Then two hundred yards after he had done his burst he’d stop for a moment, for twenty to thirty yards, and then burst forward again.” After four or five of these bursts, he launched a longer attack, well aware that his opponent was now utterly exhausted. By varying his speed so dramatically, Gino broke his adversary’s rhythm and wore him down. “To respond to his attacks was to race to suicide,” explained one of his competitors.

In a sport where fluid pedaling is vital, Gino’s unorthodox way of riding a bike did offer one unexpected benefit. Other racers were so transfixed by watching him that they didn’t realize he was watching them even more closely. Like a veteran card shark, Gino carefully eyed his competitors, looking for any “tell” or sign that indicated that they were weakening. It could be something as obvious as a quick grimace, or something as insignificant as a minute muscular twitch. When faced with one particularly strong rider, Gino scrutinized him for days, riding so close to him he could have reached out and held on to his rear wheel. On the final day, after seven hours of monitoring this cyclist’s body for change, Gino noticed something unusual. A small vein behind the rider’s knee was swelling up. Soon after, he started slightly faltering in his pedaling. Gino was ecstatic. To celebrate this discovery he launched a blistering attack and left his opponent in his dust. From that time onward, he knew that a crisis was likely to assail his rival when he noted a vein “dancing behind the knee.”

Later in his career, Gino became even more devious in his attempts to sniff out and study the strategies of rivals. He thought nothing of breaking into his opponents’ rooms after they had left for a race, or when they were out for dinner, to inspect their bathrooms. In an era before drug testing, most riders had a mix of vials and flasks of various liquids, pills, and powders their trainers recommended they use. Many were herbal concoctions, placebos that actually did nothing but provide a psychological boost. Others were more powerful, like the white amphetamines known only as “dynamite” that sped up the heart for a short period. During one such illegal reconnaissance mission, Gino broke into a competitor’s room “like Sherlock Holmes” and used a teammate as a guinea pig, having him imbibe a mysterious green liquid he found there. Little came of it, but his obsessive quest to follow his opponents’ every move continued unabated.

Relentlessly pushing his opponents in every way he knew how, Gino rose through cycling’s different competitive categories with ease. Only four years after his first race, he turned professional in 1935. He was right where he had dreamed of being, but cycling at this new level took some getting used to. As an amateur, he had been an independent racer and had been responsible to no one but himself. “No one could tell me anything,” he said. “I took off, went forward, stayed back, as many times as I liked. I was free to make my own way. No one helped me in races. Except in rare situations, everyone was on his own. And to get to the end, you really had to give it your all.” To be sure, this also meant that there was no one to come to his rescue in times of need. In one amateur race, he lost a shoe a few miles before the end. “I finished with a bare foot and there was snow on the ground!” he remembered. In another, he did the final sprint with two flat tires, having pierced both of them just before the finish line. “Among the many little misadventures in those days, though,” he said, “there was at least the satisfaction of being free, of not owing anything to anyone.” Now he belonged to a team, and as its newest member, he had to pay his dues as a gregario, a supporting rider whose own race is devoted to ensuring victory for the captain. “I felt degraded. Being the water carrier and the pacesetter for others is not satisfying!” Gino’s older cousin, Armando Sizzi, urged him to be patient. “You could be like Binda, the master of the mountains,” he said, referring to Gino’s childhood idol. Still, Gino was solemnly reprimanded more than once in his first few team competitions for taking off on his own and winning without the captain’s permission, and at his expense.

Gino chafed in the role of a supporting rider, but the reality was that in the professional world he was little more than another fresh-faced young racer. Such was the extent of his anonymity that when he did start winning those races where he wasn’t obliged to follow someone else’s orders, he caught more than a few journalists off guard. After he took first place in a major race in Spain in 1935, for example, the writers of one of the most prominent Spanish sports journals heralded him in a flashy cover story. He was so unknown, however, that they misidentified him, and mistakenly referred to him throughout the article as “Lino.” In the months that followed, no magazine would forget Gino’s name as he became the most-talked about rookie that season.

Success upended Gino’s life. He soon became the captain of a professional team and quickly became the wealthiest member of his family. His team contract saw him earn 22,000 lire annually, about five times as much as the average factory worker in Italy, and nearly fifteen times as much as he himself had been earning as a mechanic only a few years earlier. Large as it was, this was just his base salary. The real money was in race purses, which Gino started racking up with wins across the country and around the continent. He was soon able to afford to build a new house for his parents, a two-story home much closer to Florence than the building they shared with various families in Ponte a Ema. It had a dinello, or dining room, a living room, several bedrooms, and even a small garden so his parents, still country people at heart, could keep chickens and grow Tuscan staples such as green beans.

The greatest reward, however, was not financial. Despite their father’s fretful apprehensions, Gino’s younger brother, Giulio, had followed him into cycling. Gino couldn’t help but be impressed by his riding. Even though he was two years younger, Giulio could keep up with his brother better than could most of Gino’s peers. As young boys they had dreamed of dominating the cycling world. Now the Bartali brothers started envisioning their future life together as professional racers. While Gino was a rookie sensation, Giulio was beginning to emerge as an important racer in his own right. By the first half of the 1936 season he had already won six races, including one that he captured with a jaw-dropping ten-minute lead. As the pair trained side by side, they plotted their rise to the top. “I tried to give him advice,” Gino said. “I talked to him about my experiences and he would listen and then he would tell me how he had won this race or lost that one.… How I liked to hear him talk. Not that he was a chatterbox; he was a closed type, like me. But when we were together we confided everything.” They made a pact to help each other in races and agreed that once they were competing in the same category, they would team up to trounce their rivals. They were young, but their early victories suggested they had every right to dream big.

All this success, both for himself and then for his brother, introduced its own set of complications into Gino’s life. “I was barely of age and in a couple of years I had become popular like I would never have imagined,” he said. His string of triumphs quickly drew considerable attention from journalists. In a time before the exploits of Hollywood stars had fully captivated Europe, cyclists were the celebrities that everyone spoke about. And so Gino soon found himself eddying in the froth generated by the press. His face became so famous he was obliged to employ a press secretary to handle his correspondence and requests for photographs. Public errands could be handled at what was at best a stuttering pace, as more and more people would interrupt whatever he was doing to ask him for autographs. Even his relations with women had changed. Girls he had only just met gushed over him, and others sent long, impassioned letters. One of these fans’ obsessive love for Gino seemed to speak for them all: “You’re the salt of my life,” she wrote. “Food doesn’t have any taste, bouquets smell, fabrics softness since you installed yourself in my heart.”

Female fans made him bashful, but the most startling aspect of fame for Gino was how intensely his rivals’ supporters lashed out at him, providing an early taste of the conflicts he would face later in his career. They filled his mailbox with mocking letters, going so far as to send him suggestions for an epitaph to put on his grave. “Here in the dust lies the champion of Ponte a Ema,” wrote one spectator who encouraged fans not to put flowers on Bartali’s grave, but rather to use them to decorate his rival. Gino was crestfallen. His mother saw how the letters saddened him. “It’s better that you don’t read them Gino,” Giulia urged. “They do nothing but rot your blood. I will tell the postman to give them to me so that I can use them to get the fire started.”

In the end, these were all just comparatively small inconveniences. Gino understood how good he had it. The bike mechanic who had once struggled to get work now walked around Florence in well-cut suits. He had tamed his body, his mind, and even his fate, turning a bleak future into one of limitless possibility. “I was in seventh heaven. I was not yet twenty-two years old and I had arrived.”

On Sunday, June 14, 1936, Gino was in Turin in the Italian Alps waiting for the rain to ease up enough so that his race could begin. Some three hundred miles south, his younger brother was also competing, in an amateur cycling championship. Nineteen years old, Giulio was racing against impossibly high expectations. Just a week earlier his older brother had won the Giro d’Italia. Despite this, Giulio was faring rather well, and Gino was convinced he was developing into the most talented Bartali on the bike. “Giulio was physically more gifted than me. He was regular in his pace, he beat me on the final sprints, and on ascents he was the one who held my wheel better than a lot of professionals who raced with me at the time. He was the best amateur in Tuscany,” he explained.

Unlike their counterparts in Turin, the organizers of the amateur championship chose to start their race. The rain did not let up. On a particularly muddy stretch, Giulio fell behind and then launched an impressive uphill attack to catch the two leaders. On the descent, the three drafted closely together. Behind them a car that had either missed or ignored signs about the race veered dangerously toward them. The first two cyclists swerved to avoid it. Giulio didn’t stand a chance. He hit the vehicle with full force, his clavicle slamming against the door handle as his body crumpled to the ground. He was rushed to the hospital.

Gino took the train home after his own race was canceled, completely unaware of what had happened to his brother. In Florence, a close friend waited for him in the station. Before the friend even had a chance to say anything, his face betrayed him. Gino sputtered instinctively, “Has something happened to Giulio?” At the hospital, the brothers were able to talk briefly. “These things happen,” Giulio told him weakly, braving a smile. He had already received several blood transfusions, but Gino donated his own blood, too. Giulio underwent an operation the following day, and Gino passed the hours praying in a nearby chapel. The procedure did not go well; Giulio emerged too weak even to speak. Suffering from massive internal bleeding, his condition deteriorated quickly. He died squeezing his older brother’s hand.

“The deepest sadness fell on us like lead,” said Gino. “We went from the greatest joy to the most terrible pain.”

Torello, who had never wanted his children to race in the first place, got angry with Gino. “You see now that my fears were justified?”

All Gino could muster in reply was, “It’s destiny, Babbo.”

His mother forbade any discussion about cycling, and begged Gino to reconsider his career. Wrestling with his own sense of guilt, he needed no further encouragement. He quit racing and exiled himself to a small cabin by the sea.

As he wandered restlessly along the water’s edge, Gino’s way of seeing himself and the world transformed dramatically. He began to think of his brother’s death as not just an accident but also as a divine warning against the excesses of his earlier life. He had let himself be intoxicated by success; the road to sobriety required that he anchor his life to something larger than himself. Already a practicing Catholic, he devoted himself further to the Church, and turned to his faith to ground him in the world. The lay group Catholic Action, of which Gino had been a member since he was ten, became even more important to him. Formed in 1867, this group organized a wide range of religious and social activities for young boys and men, ranging from prayer meetings and Bible classes to summer camps and athletic associations. By 1928 the group claimed to have 600,000 young members throughout Italy. After Giulio’s death, Gino assumed a more visible role, speaking frequently to young boys at Catholic Action meetings, explaining the role of his faith in his success.

In their family home, Gino built a small chapel and dedicated it to Giulio. It stood barely eight feet wide but it was large enough for an altar with a statue of the Madonna holding the cross, several candles, and a kneeler for quiet prayer. Gino had become painfully aware of the attention he drew at the local church, where his presence distracted other parishioners from the service. In the family chapel, the Bartalis would have a private place to offer daily prayers for the repose of Giulio’s soul. Soon after its construction, the space would be blessed by the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, a figure who was emerging as an important friend to Gino. Bishop Placido Nicolini of Assisi, another friend, would provide a chalice to be used by visiting priests who said mass.

In time, the darkness of Gino’s grief lifted slightly. Giulio, his brother and best friend, was gone, but Gino knew he had to move forward somehow. The problem was determining what he might do outside of cycling. His options, he realized, remained as limited as they had been before. He was twenty-two years old, but he had barely managed to get a sixth-grade education. Factory work was a possibility in Milan or Turin, but that would mean leaving behind friends and family and abandoning Tuscany altogether. He could return to being a bike mechanic, but the pay that had seemed pitiful to him as a thirteen-year-old would have appeared minuscule at twenty-two. The only other alternative, working around Florence as a day laborer, would mean a descent into his father’s grinding poverty.

As Gino weighed his options, his isolation from the outside world came to an end. Friends from home began visiting again. Teammates implored him to return to lead them. Former stars gently explained that accidents were as much a part of the sport as they were of life itself. Hundreds of fan letters began pouring in. His press secretary who had earlier handled all his fan mail wrote him a moving letter of his own. His sister Anita brought him his bike.

No amount of pleading, however, could lessen Gino’s feelings of guilt. “Giulio is gone. My Giulio, my brother. Do you understand?” he told his friends in moments of despair. Giulio’s death was a wound that cut him to the core, leaving him with deep misgivings about his life’s passion. Cycling had given him everything, but it had also stolen the one person who was dearest to him. Ultimately he would carry his grief over his brother’s death to the grave. Until the moment he was too frail to travel at all, Gino rarely missed a chance to stop by his brother’s tomb in Ponte a Ema whenever he left or returned to Florence.

In that summer of 1936, however, Gino was intent on figuring out how he would spend his remaining days. It would take the advice of a bewitching newcomer to help him make the choice. She told Gino not to let Giulio’s tragic death become his final memory of cycling. He had to race to honor his brother’s memory. Gino listened and made the difficult decision to get back in the saddle.

Her name was Adriana Bani, and Gino had spent the better part of 1935 trying to muster the courage to speak to her. She was just shy of sixteen years old, slim-figured, with mahogany curls. From the moment he saw her, Gino was smitten. Adriana came from a conservative family who lived on the northeast edge of Florence. Her father had served in the artillery in World War I and now worked as a railway administrator. Her mother was a housewife. When Gino first set eyes on Adriana, she was working in downtown Florence near Palazzo Vecchio in a shop called 48, a type of early department store that sold all kinds of fabric for forty-eight centesimi. Her sister had worked there, and when she married, her job opened up. The timing suited Adriana, who had just finished up school and wanted to help her parents by getting a job.

At first Gino simply watched Adriana while she worked. A friend of his ran a pasticceria, a pastry and chocolate shop, across the cobbled street from 48. Already a lover of chocolate and sweets, Gino needed no further excuse to visit his friend. A colleague of Adriana’s soon noticed Gino lurking across the road. Adriana, however, didn’t follow sports and had never heard of the famous cyclist.

After several days of fretting, Gino finally gathered his nerve to speak to Adriana. He ventured into the store, hoping to engage her casually in conversation. But his confidence failed him. He quickly retreated after fumbling haplessly about as only a man in a women’s fabric store can. After that, he returned to watch her from his post in the pastry shop. Adriana pretended not to notice. Most of the time. Sometimes she did steal glances at her mysterious mute suitor. “With these looks we came to understand each other a bit,” she explained. As she left the shop one day, Gino finally decided to make his move. Swallowing his trepidation as best he could, he walked over to her and awkwardly asked whether he could accompany her to the tram she took home at night. She told him she already had an escort, her brother-in-law, but agreed to let Gino tag along. He did—with his eyes fixed on the pavement and in total silence all the way to the stop. Amused and touched by his shyness, Adriana finally asked him, “Shouldn’t you say something?”

The cyclist’s anxieties slowly disappeared as he began walking her home once in a while, with Adriana’s brother-in-law always hovering behind them. Adriana was certainly attractive, but it was her intelligence and modesty that captivated Gino. Though he was famous across the country, she was unfazed by his celebrity status. Adriana in turn was attracted to Gino’s sincerity. “He was so embarrassed and funny in his shyness that it was sweet. And I fell in love with that, his purity of soul and his ingenuousness in everyday life,” she explained. The two were lovestruck. They shared their first kiss in a piazza in Florence on a day when Adriana’s brother-in-law escort was bedridden with a fever.

In time Adriana told her mother a young man had caught her eye. Her mother was skeptical.

“A racer? But what does he do? What does he earn?” she said.

“He rides a bicycle,” Adriana replied.

“But how is he able to make a living on a bicycle?” her mother countered.

“He’s good. He’s starting to be a champion,” said Adriana.

“Well, then, introduce him to me,” her mother replied, unconvinced.

Adriana suggested to Gino that he meet her parents.

“Let’s wait a little. I think it’s a bit soon,” he said. Given all the media attention he was garnering, Gino was worried about the scrutiny a new girlfriend would receive. “If I lose, the blame will fall immediately on you.” The young pair agreed to keep their relationship secret.

After a year, Gino finally met Adriana’s parents. He joined them for a meal and asked permission to court their daughter. They reluctantly agreed. Strict and traditional, Adriana’s family forbade her from spending time with Gino alone. Luckily for them, his training and racing schedule was so busy that he could not stop by very often. When he did find time to visit her, the sitting-room door was to remain open at all times. Sometimes Adriana would wave to Gino from the window as he left at the end of the evening. Her mother did not approve. “Too familiar,” she scolded. In public, they could only be together when accompanied by friends. Most often they spent time getting to know each other at the pastry shop across from 48. Once in a while Gino even convinced her to play hooky from work and sneak out with him. “Sometimes we would go to the movies, but it was on the sly because I didn’t have permission to go,” she explained.

Adriana had an endearing independent streak. She worked, drove, and smoked in an era when it was uncommon for most Italian women to do so. But she hesitated about Gino and his career. By its very nature, cycling was an unpredictable way to make a living. The difference of only a few minutes, even seconds, at the finish line had a dramatic effect on how much a cyclist earned. Winners did well, but most others just scraped by. As she weighed the prospect of marrying Gino, Adriana couldn’t help wondering whether this was a stable foundation on which to build a family.

Gino realized as much himself. He could envision the future he wanted to have with Adriana. “We would have kids and I would try to win as much as possible, so that they would have a good example. Then we would have grandchildren, our children’s children, and I would tell them my stories when I got old. I liked to imagine my future life and I imagined it like that,” he said. But racing history was littered with would-have-beens and should-have-beens, hopeful young things whose rise to prominence had been outpaced only by their fall into obscurity. Gino had been a professional for a little less than two years, but was already one of Italy’s top racers. The fans knew his name; the journalists argued about how to pronounce it; his fellow competitors had learned to fear it. And yet all of them were asking the same question about his track record: Was this just another flash in the pan, or the start of something bigger?

The answer lay in the Tour de France. Even for wheelmen a generation older than Gino, no other competition was more prominent or lucrative. The race itself was a perpetually fertile field for outlandish headlines; every aspect of it that could be writ large was writ still larger to ensure that it was the most talked-about event in the sport. The length of the course was outrageously long—several thousand miles around France—and it was designed so that the competitors would have to ride over the summits of several of France’s highest mountain passes.

Yet for all its shimmering promise, it remained utterly unattainable for the cyclists of Italy. Despite a nearly endless run of attempts, only one Italian, Ottavio Bottecchia, had ever won the race. In the years that followed, the appeal of a Tour victory never faded. The prize money was part of the allure. Successful racers could hope to buy villas in the countryside or cabins by the sea, or to purchase a farm or launch a small business that would support them for the rest of their lives.

Gino, however, was interested in more than mere treasure; the scope of his ambition was decidedly larger. Achieving something that another Italian had already accomplished wasn’t enough. He wanted to set a record that had never been attained by any man from any country: Gino wanted to win both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France—in the same year.

The idea had been raised before by other cyclists, but most experts had dismissed it as dangerous, foolhardy, and perhaps even physically impossible. It was easy to see why. To even attempt to pull it off, a cyclist would be forced to ride more than five thousand miles around Italy and France. To put that into perspective, this would be the equivalent of a cyclist racing against the best riders in Italy from Chicago to Seattle and then racing back from Seattle to New York, but facing a fresh group of international stars. True, there would be a four-week break between the two events. Yet with the schedule of short races, the cyclist’s other obligation as a professional, it could hardly be called a time of rest.

The Giro and the Tour. Few men had ever dared to fully contemplate the weight of this challenge; none of them wanted it more than Gino. Still, dreaming about an impossible record could only take a man so far. In 1937, Gino decided to get on his bike and set it.

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