“One does these things, and that’s that…” -Gino Bartali
Gino Bartali (July 18, 1914 – May 5, 2000), known affectionately as “Gino the Pious,” was an international cycling champion. He won the Giro d’Italia three times, and the Tour De France twice (1938 and 1948) —the ten year gap between Tour victories being the largest in the history of the race. He was also personal friends with Pope John the XXIII, to whom he gave lessons on how to ride a bike.But what he did on and with his bike, was about so much more than athleticism.
Bartali was already famous for his racing success when the dark clouds of Nazism and Fascism began to shadow his world. Because of his standing as a national sports hero, though, he could have easily avoided the politics and suffering around him and waited out the war. But Bartali loved what was best about his country and humankind too much to avoid engagement. And when a friend asked him to become involved in the Italian Resistance, he agreed…aware that his choice would put not just him in jeopardy, but potentially his wife and newborn son as well.
He began using his cycling workouts as a cover for his new calling. He’d don his racing jersey with his famous name emblazoned across the back and ride hundreds of miles between Florence and Rome carrying secret messages and documents to the network of safehouses, churches, and convents in the resistance. This included counterfeit identity documents which Jews were able to use to hide their true identities and avoid deportation to concentration camps. His fame allowed him to ride without harassment by the fascist police and the Nazi soldiers, who didn’t want to face the potential public relations nightmare.
In addition, Gino Bartali also hid a Jewish family in an apartment he’d purchased with his cycling prize money until the end of the war.
In 1943, one of the Italian resistance groups was discovered, and Bartali was brought in for questioning by the fascists. He was interrogated and threatened with death, but admitted nothing and was eventually released. Soon after, he literally pulled a number of Jews to safety by attaching a wagon with a secret compartment to the back of his bicycle and riding for the Swiss Alps. He told patrols that stopped him along the way that it was part of his new training regimen.
Gino Bartali was a remarkable athlete who cycled for Italy…but even more for humanity. And that’s what made him not just a true champion, but an eternal champion.
He is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.