“He had everything to lose. His story is one of the most dramatic examples during World War Two of an Italian willing to risk his own life to save the lives of strangers.”
Film director Oren Jacoby is describing Gino Bartali, one of the leading cyclists of his era – a three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, who also notched up two Tour de France victories, 10 years apart, before and after the war.
During his lifetime, Bartali didn’t talk about his wartime activities.
It was only after his death in 2000 that details began to emerge, and Jacoby fills in some remaining gaps in a Storyville documentary film about Italy’s secret heroes.
Bartali, a villager from a poor Tuscan family, was reaching the peak of his career as the war approached.
He won his first Giro d’Italia in 1936, retaining the title in 1937.
Then – to Italy’s delight – he won the 1938 Tour de France.
It was a moment the country’s fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, had been looking forward to eagerly. “Mussolini believed that if an Italian rider triumphed in the Tour it would show that Italians too belonged to the master race,” says Bartali’s son Andrea in Jacoby’s film.
“It was a matter of national pride and fascist prestige that my father won the 1938 Tour, so he was under real pressure.”
Bartali was invited to dedicate his win to Mussolini, but refused.
It was a grave insult to il duce and a big risk to take.