Alberto Toscano, A Champion Cyclist Against the Nazis (Pen & Sword, 2020)
As I write this review, the Tour de France is in full flow with commentators extolling in hyperbolic fashion the heroics of professional cyclists. Without denigrating those undoubtedly great athletes, however, a true hero of cycling was a pious young Italian Gino Bartali who saved the lives of eight-hundred Jews from under the noses of their fascist pursuers during World War II. In A Champion Cyclist Against the Nazis prominent Italian writer, Alberto Toscano, narrates Bartali’s remarkable story.
Gino Bartali was an extraordinary cyclist; a two-time winner of the Tour de France, three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, and a winner of over 180 other races. Born in Florence in 1914, Bartali, like so many other poor Italians, lived for his bike as almost an extension of himself. He bought his first one aged 12, won his first race at 16, and turned pro in 1935 aged 20. He also grew up deeply religious. Bartali’s anti-fascism was already on show in the 1930s, which brought him to the attention of the Mussolini regime; when he won the Tour de France in 1938, he refused to salute Mussolini from the podium. That was also the year everything changed with Italy’s racial laws aimed at Jews. Then Italy declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940, ending sport for the foreseeable future. Bartali was called up, but his role in the war was that of traffic policeman until Italy surrendered to the Allies in July 1943. The Germans invaded, reinstating Mussolini, and the transport of the Jews to the death camps began – 8,000 would go, but few came back. Bartali hid Jews in his house and engaged with the Catholic resistance networks to save more Jews. Under the guise of training, Bartali carried forged papers for Jews and money in the frame of his bicycle between monasteries, convents, and his home in Florence. When stopped, he told sports stories to the Nazi and fascist guards to distract them. He also had to avoid Allied planes that strafed the roads. After the war, Bartali returned to professional cycling. He won the Giro d’Italia in 1946, then the Tour de France in 1948 against a backdrop of political turmoil in Italy. He retired in 1954 after failing to overcome injuries from a car accident. Bartali became a minor TV celebrity in subsequent years and stayed close to cycling. He died in 2000.
Toscano writes with love for Bartali, often referring to him simply as Gino. However, while this is a biography about Bartali, he features less than you might think, especially in his work saving Jews. That is for the simple reason that Bartali refused to talk about it. What we have then is a light, enthusiastically written biography infused with political and cultural references, particularly movies, and some fascinating insights into Bartali’s cycling career and the politics of the professional cycling. Toscano also displays a deep hatred of fascism and sets his veneration of Bartali against that, highlighting optimistically the triumph of simple goodness over evil. In these times of re-emerging fascism, that is a comforting thought.