Gino was born in a village near Florence and came from humble beginnings. He won his first bike race at the age of 17 in 1931 and his stunning career followed soon after. All in all, he went on to win five Grand Tours, nine Grand Tour mountain classification titles, four other stage races and more than a dozen one-day races and Classics before WWII interrupted his winning streak. But, on the other hand, wartime launched a very different heroic ‘career’ for him.
After joining the local resistance group, Gino would smuggle fake IDs and other documents for refugees in his bike’s hollow frame between Florence and Assisi. He hid a Jewish family in his cellar until the Allies came. He would even haul people in a trailer behind his bike, convincing the checkpoint guards that, as a famous cycling champion, he was just training hard with additional weight – and that’s just skimming the surface. All these actions were punishable by torture and death at the time.
Gino’s bravery and the sheer scope of his deeds have been coming to light only after his death as he was reluctant to share them with anyone, even with his own son Andrea who eventually played a pivotal role in revealing them to the public. In an interview for The Guardian, years after Gino passed away, Andrea Bartali quoted his father’s notable words on this matter: “You must do good but you must not talk about it. If you talk about it, you’re taking advantage of others’ misfortunes for your own gain.” A true testament to Gino’s ‘put your money where your mouth is’ approach. For his incredible efforts, Bartali was posthumously recognized by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as a Righteous Among the Nations in 2013.
As Mr Bartali passed away in 2000, the dedicated film crew of the The Messenger of Peace documentary was tasked with finding all surviving links that could illuminate as many details as possible about his time in the resistance and the role he played in saving (as estimated) hundreds of people, mostly Jews, from certain death. The crew embarked on a journey in Gino’s tracks on the white roads of Tuscany and Umbria to attempt to gather as much material on-site and from people close to him – they even cycled his smuggling route between Florence and Assisi themselves. Along lakes, sleepy villages, little osterias, and world-famous cities, they scoured every nook and cranny for answers, and it paid off, we dare say.
The documentary is a nicely balanced mixture of scenic rides, contemporary interviews with those who were lucky enough to meet Gino, grainy black and white footage of his golden racing years, and a few precious recorded meetings with the late Mr Bartali near the end of his life.
If spring fatigue is hitting you hard and you need a morale boost, this documentary is the best 1 hour and 17 minutes you can possibly spend out of your afternoon.