General Non-Fiction posted June 10, 2024

This work has reached the exceptional level
Zorro on two wheels

I am Just a Cyclist

by jmdg1954



During Italy's darkest time, a small glimmer of hope came in the form of a cycling champion, Gino Bartali. Born in Florence on July 18, 1914, he grew up to become one of cycling's greatest athletes. 

Gino started to work in a bicycle shop at the age of 13 and took up amateur level racing. In 1935, at the age of 21 he turned pro and one year later Gino won Italy’s top racing event, the Giro d'Italia. In 1937 he repeated this victory carrying a heavy heart due to his brother being killed in a racing accident the same year.

Because of his success in the Giro d'Italia, Bartali received a telegram from the Fascist Party Secretary. Instructions were that he leave for Paris immediately. Mussolini wanted to show the world that Italians also belonged to the master race* and a win by Bartali in the 1938 Tour de France would prove that to the world. 

*Race definition here was not referring to a cycling race but as in Nazi ideology of regarding white non-Jewish people, as a supposedly superior racial group. 

Bartali won the Tour de France, making Mussolini proud resulting in the Fascist party calling him their “Aryan Champion”. Bartali rebuked this title and support not wanting anything to associate him with this cult thinking. 

Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Prime Minister and Dictator, began to legislate and enforce antisemitic regulations declaring Jews had no place in Italy. When Gino returned to Italy, he like many Italians faced a moral decision. It was a decision that would have “grave” consequences if you went against the government decree and harbored Jews.

At the time, Germany occupied parts of central and northern Italy and started to round up all Jews sending them to concentration camps. Gino was approached by the Cardinal of Florence, (who also married Gino's parents) and asked him to join a secret network which helped Jews from being detained and sent to camps. Gino did not hesitate for a moment, though knowing that if he was caught he would be killed. The Jewish-Christian rescue network was established to hide Jews in convents, monasteries and homes of Italians who secretly were against the Nazi ideology. 

Bartali's role was that of a courier. He had the opportunity to travel the countryside under the guise that he was training. Because of his popularity and prestige no one would attempt to question him. He hid forged identity documents and photographs in the frame and handlebars of his bicycle. He took the documents to secret locations so that Jews in hiding could escape being captured. 

His journey took him through many cities, traveling thousands of kilometers. The people he helped escape never knew who the brave individual was. That was how Bartali wanted it. He was tantamount to Zorro, on two wheels. 

His heroic efforts of being a courier for the resistance was not his only role in saving Jews from persecution. At the risk again of his safety and that of his family Gino hid the family of his friend in the basement of his home. He kept them safe until the liberation of Florence in 1944.

World War II took its toll preventing Gino from racing during the war years, the prime of his career. After the war Gino began to compete once again. This culminated with his second Tour de France victory in 1948. After winning the first stage, Bartali found himself in trouble as he fell behind by over nine minutes. He  contemplated withdrawing from the race, but a phone call from the current prime minister of Italy, Alcide De Gasperi, helped him regain his focus. He came back to win the tour by over 26 minutes.

Note: Bartali's feat of winning three consecutive mountain stages (13, 14 and 15) in the 1948 Tour de France was a first. It is one of the most astonishing accomplishments in the history of road cycling. It would be 50 years before anyone again won three consecutive stages, when Italian cyclist Mario Cipollini did so in the 1999 Tour de France, winning four consecutive sprint finishes.

Gino finished his career winning five Grand Tour titles including the Tour de France twice (1938 & 1948) and the Giro d'Italia three times (1936, 1937 & 1946).

Gino was a hero. Not just for what he accomplished in the sport of cycling, but also for his courage to help strangers at the risk of losing his own life. Gino was a humble man and never wanted any recognition for what he had done. Little at a time he told his son, Andrea what he did and the people he helped during the war. He made him promise to not tell his story. Andrea would ask him why? Gino responded : “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." 

People called Gino a hero for his actions. Gino responded in a typical Bartali fashion: "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." 

After his death in 2000 his story of his wartime activities were finally told and in 2013 Gino was posthumously awarded the title, Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. This award is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from persecution during the Holocaust.


This is the first in a series of Italian born athletes. Some of little recognition, some of possibly world-wide recognition.

I am not sure where this will lead. I found it interesting,

I hope you do as well.
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