From 1943 to 1944 a lone cyclist whizzed through the countryside of German-occupied central Italy, ostensibly training for races. But concealed in the frame and handlebar of his bike were forged papers that the rider distributed to Jewish families hiding in houses and convents across the region.
That daring courier was cycling legend Gino Bartali, a multiple winner of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia races, but also an athlete recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations, the honor given to gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
On March 20, 2016, Israel’s first and only professional cycling team set out on a tribute ride to retrace the main route that Bartali took when he shuffled photos and documents to and from a clandestine printing press.
“As an Israeli team we have a special connection to Gino’s story,” said Ran Margaliot, the manager of the Cycling Academy team. “We wanted to increase the knowledge in our riders and the general public of what he did – it’s a beautiful symbol of how sports can be used to do good.”
The one-day ride set out from Bartali’s home in his native Florence and end in the town of Assisi, which was the base of the so-called Assisi Underground, one of the resistance networks that helped thousands of Italian Jews hide or flee from the Nazis and their Fascist allies.
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The event covered 186 kilometers (115 miles), which, Margaliot says, would have been an easy jaunt for the Italian champion, who often rode up to 400 kilometers (248 miles) in a day, mostly on unpaved country roads, to accomplish his secret mission.
Bartali’s courier work is believed to have helped save some 800 Jews. He also personally hid and supported a Jewish family in an apartment he owned in Florence, according to Yad Vashem.
Italy’s Jews fared relatively better than those in other Axis nations, as German troops only directly occupied the central and northern regions of the country in September 1943, after Benito Mussolini was overthrown. Shortly thereafter, when deportations began, many Italian civilians, soldiers and clergy helped shelter Jews, so that around 85 percent of the country’s 50,000-strong community survived the Holocaust.
Bartali was a devout Catholic and worked for a Jewish rescue network run by the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa (himself recognized as Righteous Among the Nations), and later for the Assisi Underground, which was run by local priests.
Bartali had already gained fame by winning the Giro in 1936 and 1937 as well as the Tour in 1938 (he would win those prestigious races again after the war, in 1946 and 1948, respectively). So, he enjoyed some freedom of movement during the war and could legitimately claim that his long rides were part of his training. His son Andrea has said in interviews that Bartali was stopped and searched several times, but was never found out, possibly because he insisted that his bike not be touched as it had been calibrated for maximum speed.
Bartali is mostly remembered for his sports achievements and his rivalry with the other Italian cycling legend of his time, Fausto Coppi. He rarely spoke about his wartime activities, reportedly telling his son that “you do good deeds – you don’t talk about them.” After he passed away in 2000, it was Andrea who spread the word about his father’s heroics, and Yad Vashem recognized Bartali in 2013.
The Cycling Academy’s tribute was led by the team’s 13 athletes, who hail from 10 countries and include Israel’s national road race champion, Guy Sagiv, as well Canada’s and Namibia’s leading cyclists.
Margaliot, speaking to Haaretz on Thursday, said that “it’s important for us that our riders, and other young people who joined, have an opportunity to take the same roads that Gino travelled and understand the huge risks he took to do what he did and why he did it: not because he had anything to gain, but because it was the right thing to do.”
This story was originally published on March 10, 2016 and updated on July 18, 2018, the 114th birthday of Gino Bartali