Storm at the Summit

(photo credit 5.1)

CROWDS CHEERED AS THE Italian cycling team boarded the train in Turin on the evening of June 29, 1938. The following day, shortly after nine, they arrived in Paris. As they stepped off the train, the team was greeted by French members of the press and a small crowd of Italian immigrants. Many of the Italian cyclists posed for photos and chatted with the press while their luggage and equipment were transferred to a private bus. Gino, however, was more reserved. He was overcome for a moment by the memories of his last trip to the Tour and his disastrous fall. But he shook off his melancholy and decided to focus instead on the days ahead. The past is set, he thought, but the future is still unwritten.

When all their kit had been gathered up, the whole team was whisked off to the luxurious hotel Pavillon Henri IV on the outskirts of Paris. With views of the Seine and Paris, the hotel was a former palace of the Roi Soleil, the Sun King Louis XIV, and the locale where Alexandre Dumas wrote his wildly popular novels The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The colorful history of the hotel only seemed to bolster the spirits of the Italian cyclists. They were happy to laugh away their time together, with some lounging around in the jerseys given them by the soccer team while others, including Gino, engaged in playful games of soccer in one of the rooms.

Costante Girardengo, the coach of the Italian cycling team, was not nearly as carefree. Girardengo knew the giddy allure of being a famous rider; he had worn that mantle himself. In the 1920s, he was among the first Italian riders to be dubbed a campionissimoor a “champion of champions.” He won the Giro d’Italia twice, and scores of regional races throughout Italy. At the height of his success, it was even declared that certain trains would stop in his birthplace of Novi Ligure in Piedmont, a sign of respect usually reserved for government officials. But the Tour title had always eluded him. When racing the Tour de France in 1914, Girardengo fell several times, most notably during a stage that ended in the French town of Luchon, compelling him to drop out of the race. World War I would force the Tour into a four-year hiatus; Girardengo never returned to race it again.

Forty-five years old, Girardengo had the bronzed complexion of a man who had spent much of his life in the sun. He was not tall, and his compact frame had grown stocky since retiring—a common occurrence for retired wheelmen, who ate as if they were still riding hundreds of miles per week. In photographs, he occasionally offers a glimpse of his breezy former life as a racer. In one happy picture, he appears wearing radiant white trousers and a pair of white patent leather shoes. But in person, his manner was anything but lighthearted. Stern-faced and severe, his mouth seemed to form a permanent scowl. And getting him to answer a reporter’s question was, as one newspaper diplomatically described it, a “superhuman task.”

Whether due to his anxious gait or his terse manner of speaking, it was obvious that the task of coaching the Italian team in 1938 weighed heavily on Girardengo. Perhaps his biggest challenge was to unite men who were used to racing against one another on different professional teams into one cohesive national team. Gino, who was captain of the team sponsored by Legnano, a major Italian bicycle manufacturer, would have to learn to ride beside racers who had been his fierce rivals in competitions throughout Italy. An inability to cooperate fully would doom the team’s prospects in the Tour.

Beyond these strategic issues, other concerns were decidedly more amusing. One ongoing headache was the team clown, a rider named Aldo Bini. Young and incorrigibly handsome, Bini was a hopeless flirt who had received his first phone call from a female admirer within thirty minutes of arriving at the hotel in Paris. Looking to keep an eye on him, Girardengo put Bini in the room next to his own. He also assigned him a roommate who was older and married—a tactic that did not escape Bini’s notice. True to his nature, Bini could hardly resist the possibilities for romance that France afforded him. When the Tour started, he would be spotted kissing and embracing enthusiastic French girls at the finish lines. And one night he was so successful in charming a pair of women who happened to be staying at the same hotel that Girardengo felt compelled to stand guard for hours outside of his room lest Bini try to sneak out.

Bini and the other Italian riders were all too happy to ham it up for the newspapermen, but Gino often tried to avoid them altogether. Still, the members of the foreign press, many of whom considered Gino a favorite to win the Tour, were eager to size him up. They hounded him with questions and photo requests, but the results left something to be desired. With an average height and wiry build, Gino was hardly an imposing figure when photographed. His prominent Roman nose was slightly crooked because it hadn’t healed properly after he had fractured it four years earlier in an accident at a regional competition in Italy. (The episode also left his nose with a sun-shaped round scar on the tip.) The rest of his body was quite strong, but he was not overly muscular. He appeared “delicate, nervous and … quite fragile,” according to one journalist. His limbs were sinewy, and the most prominent features on the thin arms that stretched out from his woolen jersey were the veins. They “remind you of ivy climbing the trunk of an oak tree,” remarked another writer. But rarely weighing more than 149 pounds, Gino resembled a slender cypress more than an oak. Always sensitive to his slight appearance, Gino himself claimed to be made of harder wood, “like the olive trees in the fields around Siena where my father was born.” No one, however, could deny that his legacy in Italy was imposing, and the fact that he had been deliberately sidelined from the Giro to steel himself for the Tour escaped few in France.

As the start of the race drew near, the anticipation about Gino and all the other racers reached fever pitch. Unfortunately, the first casualty occurred on the opening day of the race. As the ninety-six riders rode from the offices of the Tour organizer, the L’Autonewspaper, to the starting line, they were surrounded by a turbulent current of thousands of cheering Parisians. Many were dressed in dapper suits and rode alongside them on bicycles and motorcycles, and in cars. Amid the chaos, a motorcycle slammed into a French rider and knocked him from his bike. He climbed back on and rode with the others to the starting line. He wouldn’t, however, make it beyond the second stage as a result of the injuries he’d sustained.

The members of the press flirted with danger as they wove among the crowds and the cyclists on motorcycles and in cars. By 1938, newspapers from all over Europe regularly sent dozens of reporters and photographers to cover the Tour. The rush to score the best photos and stories was as competitive as the race itself, with some newspapers even supplying their own private airplanes to shuttle photographs and stories back to editors. Radio broadcasters were no different, with French channels alone offering almost twenty different newscasts in 1938 on any given day of racing.

Some might have thought that all the attention and the jostling detracted from the race, but the truth was that the press was as central to the Tour as the cyclists themselves. At its core, the Tour was a grandiose publicity stunt, and the competitive spirit between reporters stemmed from the very reason it had been created in the first place: the ambition to sell more newspapers.

On a cold day in November 1902, Henri Desgrange, a former cyclist turned magazine editor, ate lunch with a colleague, a sportswriter named Géo Lefèvre, at the Zimmer Madrid Hotel in Paris. Both wore vests and knee-length black frock coats, and both were at loose ends. Their magazine, L’Auto-Vélo, was barely two years old and on the brink of bankruptcy. They needed to improve circulation immediately. As they discussed strategies to remedy the situation, Desgrange and Lefèvre noted how a popular invention—the bicycle—had boosted sales for various other publications for several decades. In 1869, Le Vélocipède Illustré sponsored an eighty-mile race between Paris and Rouen. Véloce-Sport followed suit, and promoted a three-hundred-mile race between Bordeaux and Paris in 1891. In the same year, Le Petit Journal bested Véloce-Sport by organizing an even longer event, a 743-mile road race from Paris to Brest and back. All of these competitions had been successful in driving up circulation as spectators along the route and throughout the nation snapped up copies of the newspapers to get the latest updates.

None of this was news to Desgrange, who had stood front and center in the world of early cycling competitions. A former law clerk, he set the first world one-hour record of twenty-two miles in 1893. After he retired from cycling, he continued promoting the sport and even wrote a book about how to become a master cyclist. In 1900, he was hired to lead L’Auto-Vélo, a young newspaper trying to upstage its rival, Le Vélo.

The conversation at lunch on this day kept returning to the topic of races. Whether in France or in the United States, where thousands of breathless fans filled stadiums to watch the famous six-day cycling competitions, there was something universally appealing about them. Mulling it all over, Lefèvre had a novel idea. What about combining the excitement of the road races popularized in France with the hypnotic appeal of the six-day American events? Fleshing his idea out further, he described a multiday race that traveled through various French cities. Desgrange reportedly paused and then replied, “If I understand you, petit Géo, you’re proposing a ‘Tour de France’?”

Notwithstanding a few hiccups along the way (the Tour’s length was reduced from thirty-five days to nineteen because so few people initially signed up), Desgrange’s project came to fruition in the summer of 1903. Sixty riders left Paris on a taxing 1,509-mile stage race moving clockwise around the country. Many stages took over twenty-four hours. The start times were scheduled at indecent hours, like 2:30 a.m. in Lyons or 11:00 p.m. in Bordeaux, but timed to the newspapers’ publication schedules so that the morning headlines would bear the latest updates. The winner was a Frenchman named Maurice Garin, known as the “little chimney sweep” because he stood five feet three inches and had cleaned chimneys before he became a cyclist.

In its second year, overzealous fans almost ended the Tour before it had even returned to Paris. In Nîmes, in southeastern France, they blocked the race route with a barricade, forcing cyclists to dismount and use their bikes as shields as they fought their way through the crowds. Farther south, fiercely loyal supporters of a local cyclist competing in the Tour tried to sabotage the chances of rival riders by littering the road with bottles, stones, and nails. During one stage, Garin himself was attacked by an angry mob, and during another he declared, “If I’m not murdered before Paris, I’ll win the race again.” Surveying all of this, the Tour organizers quickly realized that they would need rules to rein in the spectators as well as the riders if they wanted the race to continue.

Desgrange famously said that his ideal Tour would be so herculean that only one racer would manage to finish it. After the success of the first Tours, he tinkered with the race route constantly, making each year’s race seem more arduous than the last. In 1910, the Tour entered the high mountain ranges of the Pyrenees for the first time. The course was so challenging that the riders nearly revolted. A French racer named Octavio Lapize, who had won various stages in 1909, was forced to get off of his bike several times because the weather conditions were so dreadful and the road gradient so steep. As race officials watched from the stage finish line at the top of the Aubisque, Lapize screamed at them, “Murderers!” By 1919, only eleven riders of sixty-seven, or fewer than twenty percent of those who started, managed to finish what had become the longest Tour to date, fifteen stages totaling nearly 3,500 miles.

That was a challenging year for the Tour, but 1919 also saw the birth of one of its most enduring traditions. After World War I, severe food and manufacturing shortages prevailed throughout France and Europe. Many teams were barely able to scrounge up racing jerseys, let alone dye to color them. As a result, many riders wore some stitching on the shoulders to demarcate different teams wearing otherwise nearly indistinguishable gray jerseys. Halfway through the Tour, one team director suggested the race leader wear a colorful shirt to help spectators identify him. Created from yellow wool to match the color of the pages of the L’Auto newspaper, every leader’s jersey, henceforth le maillot jaune, also bore the initials H.D. in honor of the Tour’s founder.

Such flourishes soon transformed the Tour into a national institution. By the 1920s, it was obvious that Desgrange’s scheme to attract new readers and advertisers had been a successful gamble. Daily circulation of L’Auto (the newspaper’s name was shortened from L’Auto-Vélo in 1903) had more than doubled from 200,000 in July 1914 to 500,000 by July 1924.

The popularity and commercial possibilities of the Tour did not escape the interest of the bicycle manufacturers who sponsored its different teams. Recognizing the value a Tour victory could bring their brands, sponsors contracted supporting riders to help their aces win. Desgrange was outraged by this at first, and denounced these riders as domestiques or “servants.” In time, however, he would come to see their value in making the stars of his race shine even brighter.

Although the role would evolve over time, few tasks were ever really beyond the purview of a domestique, or gregario as they were known in Italy. One of the most important was to ride ahead of their captain to create a windbreak to let their leader draft behind them, allowing him to use as much as thirty percent less energy in his pedaling. They were also expected to chase down opponents and share precious food and drink en route. Some captains demanded even more. One Italian cyclist insisted his domestiques help him as he relieved himself on the bike. (One pair pulled along his bike with him on it, while the other pair found newspapers and water to clean him up afterward.) A French cyclist who lost a toe to sepsis was said to have demanded that his domestique amputate his own toe to better understand his pain. (The captain’s toe reportedly remains on view to this day in a jar of formaldehyde on the counter of a bar in Marseille.)

By the 1930s, when Gino arrived on the scene, Tour organizers were already trying to quash some of the more egregious traditions. In May 1938, newspapers published rules mandating that racers eat team meals together at designated locations, a response to various cases in previous years, in which riders skipped out on meal bills during the Tour. Another rule tried to rein in one of the Tour’s most beloved rituals, la chasse à la canette, in which riders would run into cafés as they were passing through a town and gather as much wine, beer, and other drinks as they could carry, and then run out again without paying. The Tour directors took such misdeeds seriously, and their warnings about breaking these or any of the myriad other Tour rules were comically severe. Fortunately, such interdictions could do little to dampen the spirits of the rambunctious Tour cavalcade.

On July 5, 1938, this caravan left Paris and began its counterclockwise journey around France. The first week of racing was chockablock with the usual jostling as the riders settled into the race. Eight Western European countries had sent teams, but the fans were most interested in the top contenders: the Italians, French, and Belgians. The early stages of the race were largely flat ones, and so the Tour favorites patiently bided their time. Each racer had his reasons for holding back, but for Gino it was a question of following Girardengo’s strategy to save his attacks for the mountains. In 1938, the Tour rules had increased the amount of time bonuses awarded to the racer who reached the top of individual mountain passes first. Given that a time bonus shaved off minutes from a cyclist’s overall time, Girardengo encouraged Gino to accumulate as many of these as possible.

While Gino held back, no other rider emerged to fill the gap. Whether the other riders were consciously following the same strategy as the Italians remains unclear. It’s just as possible that they were simply interested in keeping close to Gino and the other stars. In the end, all the speculation about what tactics the riders were silently mulling mattered little. The mountains now fast approaching would force every rider to reveal his hand.

The stage that Desgrange would call “the most important of the Tour” began in Pau, a village on the northern edge of the Pyrenees. From there the riders would travel 120 miles to Luchon, a mountain town close to the border of Spain, known for its thermal baths. Between these two locales, the riders would travel up and down the Aubisque, the Tourmalet, the Peyresourde, and the Aspin. At 4,885 feet, the lowest of these mountain passes, the Col d’Aspin, was still higher than more than four Eiffel Towers.

But the mountains were about more than just climbs. There were rudimentary roads through desolate uninhabited landscapes, liable to wash away during the first real rainstorm. There were uneven gradients that threw a man off his steady cadence and tired him even more quickly than usual. And, just as night was certain to follow day, the mountain ascents were followed by descents. Bone-shaking rides over gravel and around hairpin turns, descents were the place where a fatigued rider might try to make up time, only to lose control, crash, and “leave meat on the road,” as modern racers describe it. In the 1930s, the French press was even less subtle and described this kind of racing as à tombeau ouvert—or “open grave.” It was hardly a figurative turn of phrase. On a similarly steep descent three years earlier, the Tour had experienced its first racing fatality when a Spanish rider crashed and died.

The mixture of spectacle and danger has an eternal appeal, and so, on July 14, 1938, the crowds came early and they came in record numbers. Buses, cars, and other vehicles stretched for miles up and down the mountains. Many had come from the surrounding areas and nearby cities, but a good number had come from as far away as Paris on a special overnight train arranged for fans to see the stage. One journalist estimated there were up to fifty thousand people gathered in the mountains. “It’s unimaginable,” he wrote, to see so many fans setting up camp in the barren landscape.

When the racers first set out that morning, Gino rode along with the peloton, his blue jersey lost in the sea of national colors. In time, a series of clouds lifted, and the sun bore down on them, promising a sweltering day of racing. “This stage is one of the worst one could imagine,” said Gino. “It is also, in my opinion, the most punishing because it’s the first confrontation with the mountains. They arrive just like that. Without any transition, one must climb.”

When the gradient of the road increased significantly near the mountain town of Gourette, Gino surprised his fellow riders. “Suddenly, from the small group at the lead, one could see the blue silhouette of Bartali take off magnificently,” wrote one journalist. “It was better than a sprint. It was a type of superhuman flight up the terrifying slope.” No other racer chased after him, each man consumed by his own climb. Only a Tour organizer’s car followed closely behind Gino. It displayed a large banner that admonished “Do Not Push!”—a warning to the drunken spectators who frequently ran onto the road to push straggling racers up the mountains.

For the crowd watching and the caravan following slightly behind him, it certainly appeared as if Gino would need no such help. His pace up the slope was relentless. “One had the impression,” explained one reporter, that Gino was “launched by an invisible catapult.” Gino was alone when he reached the top of the day’s first four cols, the Aubisque.

He rode less aggressively on the way down the other side of the mountain, and lost ground. His two chief Belgian rivals chased after him and caught him. As they got up close, they scoffed at Gino’s attempt to break away, chiding him for using the wrong gear. It had been so easy to catch him, they claimed, that they had time to pause and “eat some tender little pigeons” on the mountain road.

Infuriated, Gino charged up to the second mountain pass, the Tourmalet, determined to shake his rivals. When he was about one mile from the top, he tried to push harder. He succeeded in dropping one Belgian rider, but he couldn’t shake the other. Am I not going to be able to get rid of this leech? Gino asked himself. I push. He rests. At nine hundred meters from the top, he is still there. I take off sprinting. Gino finally shook him off and raced into the descent.

The battle up the day’s third peak was waged against his own body. Gino stared down the cold face of the mountain ahead of him. He attacked once more, only to be blindsided by fiery pain. “I felt my heart, usually so calm, beating hard and it seemed, looking at my jersey, to have enlarged. My chest was so swollen and my breathing so labored … I felt something inside me tearing. I was overcome by a great fear that I would have to dismount.”

Nevertheless, Gino kept pushing, trying to maintain his lead. As the climb continued, he felt his mind breaking down, and the battle of voices raging in his head erupted. He began speaking aloud in delirium to the mountain. Like a chant, he started whispering “I can’t go on; I can’t go on. I can’t go on.” Then he focused back on the mountains ahead and called them out for what they were: “difficult, mean and made of rock.” His chant slowly became a series of prayers that matched the rhythm of his pedaling. “Go, go, go!” Then he added other words to shore up his courage, repeating them as he worked his way along the switchbacks: “Up there it’s finished, up there.”

The race seemed endless; the chaotic gathering of people, trucks, and cars on the mountain roadside resembled a colorful oasis in the desolate landscape well above the tree line. A few braver souls had pitched tents among the bare rocks. Others enjoyed picnics near parked publicity trucks for companies like Montplaisir Beer. Closer to the road, fans were everywhere. Cheering from the roadside or the hoods of cars, this human mirage would disappear as soon as the racers had passed.

Gino took it all in as he rode by, and only the sharp pains of his body buckling could pierce his dreamlike delirium. His arms and back, hunched now for several hours, ached. His legs were growing weary, and each push of the pedal was painful. The prospect of food and water, which might otherwise have offered some hope, was doubtful. They had long since passed the lunchtime food drop, and any sandwich, banana, or sugar cube that he might have stored in the front pocket of his woolen jersey had already been eaten. He had one small tin water can that offered paltry relief from the climb and the sun. His Italian teammates, who would normally have refilled it at roadside wells, were far behind him in the mountains.

Yet, as he looked back at the other cyclists behind him, he suddenly found solace, even nourishment, in the sport’s most perverse pleasure—the suffering of others. The two Belgians in black jerseys were buckling. The dual strain of the climb and their attempt to catch up with Gino was simply too exhausting. With renewed vigor, the Tuscan cyclist crossed the day’s third mountain pass, the Peyresourde, first. The yellow jersey was virtually his, and this knowledge powered him on.

As Gino raced down the other side of the Peyresourde, some spectators appeared out of nowhere and crossed the road. Terrified, Gino clenched his brakes. “I flew off my bike as if I had been on an airplane.” Miraculously, he didn’t break any bones. But his bike was not nearly as lucky. The wheel broke, forcing Gino to wait for a replacement. Abandoned on the mountainside, he paced angrily as the seconds ticked by. Finally, his team car pulled up.

Gino clambered back on his bike as quickly as he could change the wheel. It wasn’t quick enough. Rattled by his fall, he took the descent more slowly than he had planned. The Belgians passed him. Exhausted, scraped up, and covered in mud after seven hours and sixteen minutes on his bike, Gino pulled into Luchon. He was two minutes and thirty-five seconds behind the race leader.

Back in Italy, the day was unfolding in an insidious manner for altogether different reasons. The source of all the trouble lay in a distressing new publication, the Manifesto of the Racial Scientists, which appeared the same day as Gino’s resounding performance in the Pyrenees. The Manifestowas described in depth in the popular newspaper Giornale D’Italia and many other publications. Claiming to be a scientific investigation of the Italian race, the document was reportedly written by a group of top Fascist scholars and intellectuals who were temporarily working for Mussolini’s Ministry of Popular Culture. Italy’s foreign minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, would later say that Mussolini “practically wrote it himself.” Through ten points, it argued why the Italian race was “Aryan, Nordic, and heroic” and stated that “Jews do not belong to the Italian race.” And foreshadowing what was to come, it proclaimed, “The time has come for Italians openly to declare themselves racists.”

With its publication, the Jewish community in Italy, which numbered some 47,000 along with another 10,000 foreign Jews, could see the first clouds of a changing political climate. Since 1933, Germany had started enacting anti-Jewish laws. In Romania, Austria, and Hungary, anti-Jewish legislation instituted in the first half of 1938 had created a similarly pernicious climate. In Italy, the Manifesto was the harbinger of an emerging new era of public and private persecution.

The Manifesto would affect the Jewish community most directly, but it also affected Fascist relations with other groups in Italy as well. In a more subtle way, the Manifesto represented a significant flare-up in the complex relationship between the Fascists and the Catholic Church. By discounting mixed marriages between Jews and Gentiles and later failing to recognize conversions of Jews to Catholicism, the Fascist regime was violating agreements it had earlier signed with the Church that delineated each other’s realms of power. Clearly displeased by it, Pope Pius XI, the head of the Church, publicly criticized the Manifesto and the ideology that motivated it three times in the two weeks following its publication.

Perhaps most surprising of all is the fact that the publication of the Manifesto and the emerging Italian racism that it represented even transformed coverage of Gino’s progress during the Tour. Modern sports fans accustomed to newspapers that separate political and sporting news in distinct sections would hardly expect that the events from one arena would affect developments in the other. Yet in 1938, when Mussolini controlled the Italian press, that was precisely what happened. When the Tour began, one prominent magazine wrote that Gino and the Italians had gone across the border to win “in the name of Mussolini.” As the Tour progressed and the Manifesto was published, the language became increasingly belligerent. Gino was no longer just a cyclist, but a warrior who “uses his bicycle as a weapon.” By the end of the competition, the most prominent sports newspaper and sports magazine in Italy would be heralding his performance as proof of the strength of the Italian race.

The race from Pau to Luchon was followed by a rest day on July 15 that allowed the journalists and fans to digest the performance of the top stars in the Pyrenees. The stage had been so grueling that even a former winner of the Tour de France had to be pushed up a hill by teammates, and then—out of desperation—he grabbed a car to help tow him (an infraction that disqualified him). Though Gino had finished third in the stage, he had improved his overall ranking from eighteenth to second. Most important, many journalists were convinced that they had seen a flash of what was needed to win the Tour. One wrote, “The king of the mountains in the Pyrenees was Bartali.… He was deprived of first place by an unlucky break.” Another journalist gushed, “He is the great and real champion of the mountains. We were speechless before his allure and before the extraordinary ease of his style, which is harmonious and powerful all at once.”

Yet fifteen stages remained in the Tour. Gino fought to take the lead for the next five stages, but in the flatter terrain the yellow jersey eluded him. As he prepared to tackle the Alps, the extra boost he desperately needed caught him by surprise. He was awakened one morning by a knock on his hotel door. When he opened it, he was greeted by his father, who had made his first trip ever to France to see his son race. Gino was astounded. Torello cried as he embraced his son.

The next day in the Alps, Gino was ablaze. His attack came early and his rivals never recovered. He pushed so hard that he thought he could hear his heart pounding in his chest; when he spat on the roadside, he saw blood. He stormed up and down the Col d’Allos, the Col du Vars, and the Col d’Izoard, winning three of the most difficult mountain bonuses. At the top of the Izoard, he was welcomed by a hollering chorus of Italian fans. “It was an uproar. A continuous celebratory yell, every shout was an incitement, a push, a whip,” he said. “Every ovation refreshed and cleansed my morale.”

By the time Gino arrived in Briançon, the king of the mountains had earned his crown. He finished more than five minutes ahead of the second-place rider and some seventeen minutes ahead of the Tour leader. Bystanders realized they had witnessed an epic performance. “It’s true that the sport of cycling has never known such a mountain man, a real phenom, an athlete that comes around once every twenty years, an absolutely unique case,” said one journalist. For Gino the stage victory was more personal. “Think about destiny,” he said, referring to the stage in the 1937 Tour when he crashed into the Colau River, ending his Tour hopes. “On exactly the same streets where I had been defeated a year before, this year I got my win.”

His commanding stage win in Briançon had given him the yellow jersey. He would keep it all the way to Paris. With the result of the race more or less decided, the French press amused itself with short pieces about Gino’s personality and his life off the bicycle. Inevitably these focused on his religious observance and regular attendance at mass before races, or small details like the fact that he often ate with a small statue of the Madonna watching him. Gino tried to keep his calm, but his appetite for being teased had only diminished since he was a young boy. “Sir, my faith is a personal, private matter. It shouldn’t interest anyone,” he rebuked one reporter. “Judge me on the road, speak about my race, about my gears and my weaknesses. That should suffice.” Gino might have been more sympathetic had he understood the motivation behind the focus on his religious allegiance. Whereas many in France booed the Italian soccer team for their support of Mussolini, Gino’s religious beliefs distanced him from the regime. The French press did not characterize him as a Fascist, as many would try to do in Italy.

While the newspapers hailed his victory as a foregone conclusion, Gino knew how quickly a cyclist’s fortunes could change. So he remained intensely focused on the race and kept the journalists and fans trying to guess his mood. If he had performed as he hoped, he was gracious and spoke freely with all who approached him. If he was disappointed or nervous, beware. He would ignore journalists’ questions and send photographers away. Inevitably his temper got the better of him. At the starting line of one of the last stages, a group of gushing young girls swarmed Gino as he tinkered with his bike. They wanted his autograph.

“Niente!”—“No!” he said, swatting them away with his hand. “Leave me alone.” His flirtatious teammate Aldo Bini was only too happy to swoop in and lead the smiling young women away from his captain.

On the early morning of August 1, 1938, several hundred people lined up outside the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, where the racers would complete their twenty-eight-day odyssey. The gates opened at nine, and three thousand people flooded through. By noon, twenty thousand spectators sat in the arena and cheered on the arrival of the champions. Many racers rode in wearing new jerseys, white socks, and fresh caps. Not Gino. He did not don the fresh yellow silk jersey that he was given for his victory ride into Paris. Instead he wore the same woolen jersey he had raced in, now caked with mud and dried sweat, and a white cap, dirtied by dust.

For coach Girardengo, the Italian victory was particularly sweet. “I have realized one of the dreams of my life: helping one of my countrymen win the Tour,” he said. Through Gino, Girardengo had lived out his greatest cycling aspiration and provided Italy with its second Tour winner ever—thirteen years after Bottecchia had last won, in 1925. Reflecting on Gino’s triumph a few days after the Tour, Girardengo momentarily relaxed his stern demeanor and waxed nostalgic about the first time he had ever seen Gino race: “Seeing you pedal, Gino, was one of the first signs of aging for me, like a woman who was very beautiful who watches her daughter the night of her first ball.”

Gino, in turn, thanked Girardengo for motivating him through the most arduous mountain stages. “During a moment when my legs started to become heavy or I felt that burning in my stomach, the contraction which marks a peak effort, I heard your voice telling me simply, at once tender and authoritative, ‘Gino, Gino …’ And then soon enough, I felt myself comforted. My legs became light again and I took off again for the summit. You were my father.”

In Italy, Gino’s victory sent the Italian press into happy hysterics. The triumph was immediately imbued with political sentiment when it was announced that Mussolini would award Gino a silver medal for “athletic valor.” Predictably, some reporters used Gino’s victory as an attempt to praise Mussolini, with one journalist referring to Gino as “Mussolini’s sports ambassador” and another declaring that Gino had obeyed Mussolini’s command to win. Others went further, deriding France as a land of “democracy and international pigswill” and linking the Italian Tour victory to the racial ideology underlying the Manifesto. According to that interpretation, Gino’s victory in Paris was about more than just an athletic triumph—it was proof of the superior quality of the Italian race. “The ovations were not only directed at the triumphant one of the Tour de France. They had a louder and more significant sound. They were exalting the athletic and moral virtue of an exemplar of our race. Gino Bartali’s victory surpasses the limit of sports events as clamorous as it is.”

The climax for the propaganda machine should have been the victor’s acceptance speech. Between the tens of thousands watching at the Parc des Princes velodrome, and the millions listening by radio across the continent, it was the perfect opportunity to try to transform an athletic success into a political one. Gino would have been aware that Fascist officials were expecting him to praise and thank them.

Gino must have wrestled with what to say. After the public squabble about his hesitation to participate in the Tour a year earlier, Gino had witnessed the power of the regime. And between the news coverage in the French press and his conversations with family and friends in Italy, Gino had heard about the recent dispute between the regime and the Church. As perhaps the most famous member of Catholic Action, he knew that his behavior would be closely studied.

In the end, Gino spoke as he saw fit. In his address to French radio listeners, he made a completely apolitical statement thanking his fans in France and Italy, his voice at times nearly drowned out by the spectators screaming in the stands. As one modern Italian historian explains it, “In 1938, everyone knew that they had to thank Il Duce. So if Bartali didn’t do it, it was a definite political gesture.”

His address to Italian radio listeners remains more of a mystery because the recording no longer exists. Il Popolo d’Italia, the regime’s most prominent mouthpiece, claimed that Gino had spoken about his pride in winning the Tour “holding high the colors of Fascist sport.” In a secret report about Gino maintained by the regime’s political police, however, an altogether different account emerged of what he had said. According to the agent writing it, Gino “mumbled” instead of praising the regime. Moreover, the report noted that Gino would not have reacted well to Fascist praise because he considered himself a member of “Catholic Action and not Fascism.”

If anyone had any lingering questions about where Gino’s loyalties lay, his activities the next day might have helped answer them. With reporters and magazine photographers watching him, he went to mass at Our Lady of Victory church in Paris in the early morning. This time he cleaned up and wore a gray suit, a black shirt, and a light-colored tie. He even slicked his hair back. After saying a short prayer, he placed his Tour de France victory bouquet at the feet of a statue of the Madonna. Nearby, a group of schoolchildren had assembled to catch a glimpse of the champion. The church’s curate, who had been chatting with Gino, introduced the cyclist to the group: “I present to you Bartali, winner of the Tour de France, who came to thank the Virgin who allowed him to win.”

On his return to Italy, Gino received a lukewarm welcome, very different from what he might have expected. The Italian press didn’t dare cover the full details of it, but one otherwise apolitical French newspaper sent a reporter who did. Remembering the public celebrations enjoyed by previous Tour victors from various countries on their return home, and perhaps thinking about how the Italian regime particularly celebrated sports, the reporter was amazed to see how little was being done to commemorate Gino’s victory:

An Italian wins the Tour de France, he wins a sensational international victory and his compatriots—who are Latins prone to delirious joy—don’t react much at all? There’s a problem.… Not a cat at the train station. No organized reception. Nothing. I don’t understand. Let’s keep looking. Is this because Bartali is Catholic? There isn’t exactly harmony currently between Rome and the Vatican.

Events in the following days seemed to confirm his suspicions. Unlike the soccer team, Gino would not be invited to a flashy photo shoot with Mussolini. At the velodrome in Turin, during his first appearance as a Tour champion before a large audience in Italy, the head of the Italian Cycling Federation was conspicuously absent. The atmosphere was decidedly reserved, though the regime could not snuff out all emotion. As Gino rode his victory lap around the velodrome, his mother sat in the audience wearing a special blue dress for the occasion. She cried softly with happiness.

By early August, the regime’s frustration with Gino escalated even further. Fascist officials sent Italian newspapers strict instructions regarding their coverage of Gino. A former journalist himself, Mussolini had closely controlled what newspapers wrote about for years. His Fascist press office, the Ufficio Stampa, would send secret bulletins to the editorial offices of publications with rigid guidelines on what to cover and how to cover it. They even specified the acceptable vocabulary, the type, and the size of the letters. And on August 9, 1938, the Ufficio Stampa made the regime’s feelings about Gino astonishingly clear to the press: “The newspapers should cover Bartali exclusively as a sportsman without any useless accounts of his life as a private citizen.” Practically, this meant Gino would receive less coverage in the press. It also ensured that journalists could cover only Gino’s results and provide none of the extra details and color that helped create the heroes that readers adored.

Of course, in August 1938 no journalist dared tell Gino about the regime’s secret orders. If Gino himself noticed a change in his press coverage, he kept his mouth shut. His scorn for the regime had thus far been veiled—he made a statement by the statements he didn’t make. But as the winds of war began to tug at Italy’s borders, no man would be able to live outside of the tempest that was to come. Gino didn’t know it yet, but he was about to ride straight into the political morass his father had warned him to avoid at all costs.

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