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Gino Bartali: The Cycling Champion Who Helped the Jews Escape from the Nazis

By Monica Buck

Born in Florence in 1914, Gino went from simple bike mechanic to one of the most esteemed riders in the history of our beloved sport. He won the Giro d’Italia in 1936, 1937 and 1946, he triumphed in the 1938 and 1948 Tour de France as well. Unfortunately, World War II robbed him of the peak of his career, but as unlikely as it sounds, that was the time he did the riding he will be forever remembered for.

It was no secret that Gino wasn’t thrilled about the rise of fascism in Italy. After all, he refused to dedicate his 1938 Tour victory to Mussolini, even though the fascists insisted on it. He chose to gravely insult il duce instead, taking the flowers for the winner of the Tour to a church. He had everything to lose, yet when asked by the Cardinal of Florence, Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, to join a secret network offering safe passage to Jews and other people in danger, he didn’t hesitate for a second.

Gino Bartali (1914-2000)

The resistance movement found a perfect role for him. He became a courier, and pretending to train, Bartali was in fact carrying photographs and counterfeit identity documents to and from a secret printing press. When he was stopped by the authorities, he always cooperated but made sure to tell the soldiers not to touch his bicycle, because it was “set up to achieve the maximum speed possible”. In truth, he always said that because the documents were hidden in the frame and handlebars of his bicycle.

But that wasn’t enough for Gino. It is also reported that he showed up in the Italian Alps once with a trailer behind his bicycle, claiming it was there to add some weight. But it contained a hidden compartment where there were people Gino was smuggling across the checkpoints. He also hid a Jewish family, the Goldenbergs, in his cellar despite the fact that Germans were killing everybody who was hiding Jews.

It is estimated that his work saved hundreds of people, yet until recently the general public didn’t know about it at all. Which is not surprising if you consider the fact that Gino hesitated to tell the story even to his own son Andrea. And when he did reveal some of it, he promptly ordered Andrea not to share the stories with others.

“When I asked my father why I couldn’t tell anyone, he said, ‘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.’,” Andrea recalled in an interview for The Guardian.

Gino Bartali on the summit of Col du Tourmalet

And when Andrea pointed out to his father that his actions were undoubtedly heroic, he would reply: “No, no – I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.”