If you look at the race guide for today’s stage it will tell you it starts in Firenze (Florence) and in brackets is the name Ponte A Ema. Ponte A Ema is a small town just beyond Florence’s green belt to the south east. It is the location of the stages kilometer zero and has been chosen as the start for one reason, Ponte A Ema’s most famous son, Gino Bartali.
Bartali was the third in the line of the great Italian riders who dominated the Giro for periods. First there was Costante Girardengo, then Alfredo Binda and after that the Tuscan with the boxers nose, Gino Bartali.
His first Giro was in 1935 when he was aged 21 and strangely enough that edition included both Girardengo and Binda. Girardengo now aged 42 had once planned to retire after winning the 1925 Giro. Unfortunately he didn’t win the race in ’25 and chose to plough on to try and win his third Giro. He was now a shadow of his former self. The thirty three year old Binda was still a fine rider but had also seen better days.
Bartali finished a credible 7th but perhaps more significantly he won a tough stage 6 and the mountains classification. He returned the next year where his main rival was the time trial specialist Giuseppe Olmo. Olmo who had beat the world hour record at the at the Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan the previous October took time off Bartali in the races two time trials but Bartali was imperious in the mountains. On stage nine to L’Aquila, where he got his maiden stage win the year before, he went on a legendary solo win and finished over 6 minutes ahead of his nearest rival. The manner of his ride shocked his rivals who knew they would now be chasing greatness. He ended the race 2 minutes 36 seconds ahead of Olmo and retained the mountains classification.
1937 saw his most crushing victory so far and showed he was now the complete rider. He won his first time trial stage (His Legnano team also won the team time trial) and another three mountain stages. He now had a trio of wins in the mountains class and his second Giro was won by over 8 minutes. He seemed destined to win an unprecedented number of Giri but Italy’s fascist regime and world events ensured that this was never to be the case.
Bartali wasn’t allowed to defend his title in 1938 as his countries leaders, wanting the country to increase its international prestige, ordered him to focus solely on the Tour de France. Without much choice in the matter Bartali obliged and duly won the race.
He returned in 1939 and took part in a brilliant duel with Giovanni Valetti who had won the race the previous year in Bartali’s absence. Bartali went into the Maglia Rosa on the second stage before it was passed to Cino Cinelli (who founded the famous bike component company in 1948), Secondo Magni and then Valetti on stage 9b. Bartali won it back on stage 15 after putting nearly 8 minutes into Valetti over the Passo Rolle before the days finish in Trento. With only two more stages Valetti was seemingly out of contention in 4th place and 3 minutes 49 seconds behind the leader. The next day though was one one of Bartali’s most eventful in his 20 year career.
The 155 km run from Trento to Sondrio had two major climbs, the Tonale and the Aprica, and was played out in freezing cold weather with snow up to 20cm in places. The Tonale was the first challenge of the day and Bartali was over it first and had 5 minutes on Valetti but soon after had a puncture. Valetti and his team made Olimpio Bizzi passed him and started creating a decent gap. Bartali giving a desperate chase had another flat then crashed, damaging his wheel and had to wait longer than usual for his team car which had been held up down the road. Valetti finished on his own 5 minutes 32 seconds ahead of Bizzi and Bartali rolled in 11th an additional 1 minute 16 later. Valetti was back in the lead and with all the contenders finishing together the next day he had retained his title.
There was more to that 16th stage that met the eye though. It seemed Valetti’s Frejus team car driver had been taking part in some underhand play. He had seemingly purposefully skidded and blocked the road when Bartali’s car was trying to get to their man as he was trying to change a tire with freezing hands on the Tonale. That same Frejus car had earlier crashed into Valetti’s wheel, buckling it so the judges could agree to a wheel change meaning Valetti didn’t have to waste time changing a puncture. There has been some talk since that what was allowed to occur that day was down to fact that Valetti was a member of the Young Fascists while Bartali who refused to join the party belonged to Catholic Action (one of his nicknames was ‘Gino The Pious’), an organisation which was a thorn in the side of the regime.
Drama continued to follow Bartali in his career. Starting the 1940 Giro Bartali was 25 and about to enter his peak years as a cyclist. He was again favourite for the win alongside Valetti for but disaster struck on the second stage. On the descent of the Passo della Scoffera he hit a dog and came down badly. He continued to the finish, losing more than 5 minutes, and was advised by his doctors to abandon due to the severity of his injuries. As the race progressed and Bartali’s badly injured knee didn’t seem to be healing it became more and more likely that his role as team leader would be passed to a 20 year old in his first year as a professional called Fausto Coppi. On the 11th stage the Legnano manager Ebererdo Pavessi made the call and told Coppi to attack. Coppi listened and escaped up the road in the snowy, foggy weather seemingly flying up the mountains with ease to a stage victory. The conditions and manner in which he won that day would be repeated many times but would always be breathtaking. He took pink and with it the leadership of Bartali’s team. Gino and Fausto’s long and bitter rivalry had begun.
Bartali had had enough and wanted to quit but with the Dolomites coming Pavessi still wasn’t convinced Coppi at such a young age could hang on to the lead. He needed all the help he could get and his boss managed to convince Bartali to play the role of dutiful lieutenant. Bartali saved Coppi on a few occasions, pacing him back after the youngster had stopped with stomach problems or flat tires. With Bartali’s help Coppi held the lead all the way to Rome with Bartali in 9th 46 minutes behind.
In the years to come the two practically despised each other. Did their relationship start well then sour? Bartali had seem to be the younger riders perfect helper but after the race he sneered at this notion and declared he did his duty only for the team. And whats more he stated that he would have won if he didn’t need to keep coming to the aid of a weaker rider. Racing fans would have loved to see this rivalry progress in the coming years but the Second World War put paid to that. But what is one persons loss is another gain.
While Coppi spent half the war in North Africa with the Italian Army and later in a POW camp Bartali was thought to be the lucky one and was left free to carry on training in Italy waiting for the wars end. This was at least thought to be the case until it emerged he had been an important figure in the resistance movement. The whole story didn’t emerge until 2010 when the diaries belonging to a Jewish accountant called Giorgio Nissim were found by his sons. He was a member of DELASEM, an organisation which helped Italian Jews escape persecution during the war and his memoirs revealed Bartali to be among a number of cyclist who crossed the country with forged papers and photographs down their seat tubes, destined for Jews wanting to escape Italy overrun by Nazis and Mussolini’s men. As well as this Bartali had hidden a Jewish family in his cellar and led others to the Swiss Alps to escape over the border. Little was known about this brave episode of his life until recently because he was so reluctant to talk about it seeing it simply as his duty. All he is said to have told his son Andrea on the matter was “One does these things and then that’s that”.
After the war the Giro returned in 1946 and Bartali beat his now ex-team mate Coppi by 47 seconds to exact what he would have seen as some kind of revenge. However by the next edition Coppi had fully recovered from his experience in the war and Bartali now 33 had his best years behind him. He would still manage three more second places, two of those were behind Coppi, and the 1954 Giro which was his 14th and final one was the only one where he finished outside the top 10 (he has 39 and still managed to finish 13th). Of those 14 Giri he finished all of them, he finished 1st in the mountains competition in the first seven and won 12 stages. His tally of three titles is behind that of Merckx and Coppi but perhaps could have been more but for that period where he was on his bike but racing to save lives.