An Italian road cycling legend, who won the Tour de France twice (notably, 10 years apart) in 1938 and 1948, Gino Bartali’s legacy was further solidified in 2010 when his actions in World War II were revealed. In addition to his status as an accomplished road cyclist, Bartali’s use for his bicycle extended beyond racing. During World War II, he relied on his cycling training to cover up secret efforts to rescue persecuted Jews throughout the war. Using his trusty steed to carry messages and documents to the Italian Resistance, Bartali also hid a Jewish family in his cellar and ultimately helped save their lives. A legend in more ways than one, he proved to be a person unafraid to take matters into his own hands.
We’ve talked about Alfonsina Strada before, and that’s because when it comes to challenging the norms of women and bicycles, few people have taken as brazen a stance as this fearless Italian. To this day, she is the only woman ever to have officially taken part in a men’s Grand Tour, and she did this during an era when individual stages could be more than 400km long. Racing with the top male talents of the day, her most famous achievement was taking part in the 1924 Giro d’Italia. She suffered a rough crash on stage 8 but refused to let even broken handlebars stop her. Summoning the ingenuity for which she is still remembered, she got hold of a broom and used it to cobble together a solution that would allow her to continue riding. Despite losing several hours, she went on to continue the race and had effectively reached celebrity status by the time she finally rolled into Milan and made history as one of the famous cycling legends.
As anyone who has had the pleasure of reading his memoir, One-Way Ticket, is well aware, Jonathan Vaughters could easily be considered the embodiment of the many paradoxes that have characterised cycling over the years. His tale involves a two-sides of the same coin approach to detailing the life of a misfit kid from Denver who rose to fame, only to succumb to the corruptive temptations of professional sports. Vaughters dealt with his outsider status in high school by taking long, lonely rides in the mountains and dreaming of racing in Europe. It was a dream he achieved, but that was also marked by a subsequent journey from corruption to redemption, which ultimately resulted in his becoming a leading force in the movement to clean up cycling.
One of the most unforgettable moments he recounts is an encounter he had with Lance Armstrong inside a hotel room at the 1998 Vuelta a España. Injecting himself, Lance said, “You’re one of us now, J.V. This is the boys club—we all have dirt on each other, so don’t go write a book about this about this s*** or something.” Suffice it to say, Vaughters made the executive decision that it was a story which, for the good of the sport he so loves, needed to be told.
A cycling legend of bravery, survival, and triumph, the life of Juliana Buhring already reads like a thriller and she still hasn’t hit 40 years of age. This now accomplished writer and ultra-distance cyclist was raised in a religious cult which she escaped as a young woman. She then travelled around the world, vagabond style, distributing food and medicine in civil war-torn Uganda and performing as a go-go dancer to pay the bills. After going through a number of personal challenges, she turned to cycling to provide herself with a sense of purpose and set her sights on becoming the fastest woman ever to circumnavigate the world by bike. She tackled the 18,000-mile, 152-day, four-continent, and 19-country journey in 2012, and she hasn’t looked back. One of the first athletes to take on such a challenge with little money and no sponsorship. Buhring continues to tear down barriers in ultra-distance cycling, confirming again and again that the rules were made to be broken.
The oldest Grand Tour winner alive today, Bernardo Ruiz has, by all accounts, maintained his reckless attitude and appreciation for the more ramshackle side of cycling. At 95 years old, Ruiz is still known to chain-smoke and sling vodka while he recounts his thrilling life story. Fit for the big screen, it involves an unlikely escape from Franco’s purges and abject poverty in Spain to go on to become one of the most decorated cyclists in history. On top of his remarkable backstory, Ruiz is one of the few riders to ever have completed all three Grand Tours in a single season, which he did on three occasions. His lust for life and his devil-may-care outlook was undoubtedly shaped by his early brushes with destitution, and it’s a fire that has burned strong in him throughout his extraordinary life. A road cycling legend indeed.
For anyone who feels that women deserve a spot at the Tour de France, look no further than the story of Marianna Martin. Martin’s biggest claim to fame? Her first-place finish in the first Tour de France Feminin in 1984—making her the first woman and first American to win the Tour. Although the future of the women’s iteration of this prestigious event is hotly debated, when it first emerged on the scene, it had a galvanizing effect for fans and athletes alike. With 18 stages, it was the longest women’s stage race ever held and captured the attention of many great riders. Martin almost didn’t get to race, however. After struggling with health problems earlier in the year, she only secured the last spot on the team after driving down to Colorado Springs and waiting for two hours to beg Eddie Borysewicz, the American national coach, to give her the spot. Thankfully, her persistence paid off and although she went it with firm instructions to look after the team’s captain, Betsy King, Martin soon started established herself as a force to be reckoned with in the mountain stages. She ended up winning the whole event and proving to the world that women were perfectly capable of racing Grand Tour-style stage races and become cycling legends.