The Giro d’Italia is my favorite Grand Tour for myriad reasons. Much of it comes down to having spent considerable time in Sicily and developing an appreciation for Italian backroads and the fervor Italian people have for cycling at the highest level. The enthusiasm is even stronger for Italian riders who dominate the Giro, most recently Vincenzo Nibali in 2016, whose hometown of Messina was in a Giro-specific craze even four months after the event. One of the most respected Giro winners of all time was Gino Bartali, a man whose efforts make the perfect foil to Memorial Day.
Gino Bartali, known colloquially as Ginettaccio, is known as one of Italy’s best cyclists. He won the Giro d’Italia three times in total, with two Tour de France wins under his belt as well. He was also the first to win three consecutive stages in the Tour; it took fifty years for someone to match that. All said and done, the Gazzetta dello Sport called Bartali “the greatest climber in Giro history:” more than Coppi, Gau, Binda.. And more than Pantani, who had petrol in his veins. That enough vaults Bartali onto the list of the best road racers ever.
With all of those achievements, it would be easy to imagine that your work is done. Not so for Bartali, whose individual efforts during World War II were for more than cycling, but to save Italian Jews from the Nazis.
World War II historians only recently learned of Bartali’s efforts. Soon after Mussolini was overthrown in the summer of 1943, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, and Germany invaded northern Italy. As Bartali was a messenger in the Italian Army, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, then working with the Assisi Network, worked with him to carry photos, documents, and messages inside of his bicycle for Jews needing counterfeit identification. His excuse? If Bartali were to be stopped by the Nazis, he would explain that as a pro racer his bike was perfectly tuned for racing and should never be touched or taken apart. Because he donned the Italian racing jersey, he was able to move around Italy without suspicion in a way that few others could under the premise that he was “training.”
Other accounts say that Bartali carried Jewish refugees to the Swiss Alps by hiding them in a small wagon pulled by none other than himself on his bicycle. Again, “training.” At one point he was even taken in for questioning, to which he refused to reveal what he had done even with his life on the line. Saving several allied soldiers left in the German camp to the Italian Resistance Movement might not be cycling related, but certainly is a part of his mystique.
One could point to Bartali’s efforts in a time of unease and heartache to his well-known piety; he was so devout to his religion that he had his honeymoon at the Vatican! Really, his work carries a common theme with what we celebrate on Memorial Day: sacrifice, unity, and commemoration of the fight for immutable human rights.
This Memorial Day, we celebrate personal motivation for good. Gino Bartali could’ve rested on his laurels as one of the best road cyclists ever, and he certainly didn’t need to do what he did for hundreds of Jewish refugees. But Bartali’s courage in the face of war is an opportunity few are given, an opportunity that even fewer will take advantage of.
Happy Memorial Day everyone!