Gino Bartali

The early years of "Gino the pious"

Gino Bartali rides a lap of honour after the 1948 Tour de France
A lap of honour for Gino Bartali after the 1948 Tour de France

Gino Bartali, who died on May 5 2000, aged 85, was one of the greatest and most respected riders in the sport and also one of the last links back to the pre-war days of the sport, when the Tour de France was still ridden without gears, riders carried tyres over their shoulders and mountain roads were often little more than gravel-strewn tracks. In a career which spanned the Second World War, he rode against three generations of champions, starting with Learco Guerra and Andre Leducq, then against Coppi and Bobet, and finished his career as Jacques Anquetil was rising to prominence.

A solidly built rider, Bartali was born in Ponte a Enna, near Florence, on July 18 1914. After a promising amateur career, he turned professional in 1935 and soon made his mark: a stage in the Giro, plus the first of his seven climbers titles in that race; the Coppa Bernocchi, second in the Italian road championship and Tour of Romagna, third in the season-ending Tour of Lombardy. The following year the victories came thick and fast: his first Giro, the Tour of Milan, the Tour of Lombardy. Yet 1936 also bought tragedy, after his brother Giulio was killed in a racing accident, Bartali didn't touch his bike for two months and considered giving up the sport. His deeply held Catholic faith - he was nicknamed "Gino the pious" - dates from this incident. By 1937, he felt ready to race abroad for the first time in the Tour de France. It was a partial triumph: Gino won a stage and held the yellow jersey, but a crash eventually caused his retirement. For 1938, Bartali staked everything on the Tour, skipping the Giro even though he would almost certainly have won it for a third time. He was rewarded with a strong victory against the Belgians Vervaecke and Wissers, before returning to Italy for the close season.

The arrival of Fausto Coppi

1939 saw almost total domination in Italy: Milan - San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy, the Tours of Piedmont and of Tuscany, the Tour of Milan team time trial, 4 stages and the mountains in the Giro. Yet at the Tour of Piedmont, there was the first meeting with the rider with whose destiny Bartali was to become inextricably linked: Fausto Coppi. The meeting took place on the fourth of June. Coppi, not yet 20 and riding as an Independent, broke away with 40 kilometres still to ride. For a while, victory looked to be his before Bartali, then at the peak of his powers, arrived with Cesare Del Cancia, Adolfo Leoni and Olimpio Bizzi. Overawed by the company he was in, Coppi still assisted in the break before eventually cracking under the pressure. Bartali went on to win, with Coppi finishing a gallant third. In the velodrome at the finish, Bartali found the young unknown: "Bravo, you rode well", he said before setting of towards the winners podium. Later that night, Coppi sought out the hotel where Bartali and his team were staying, and emerged with a contract for the following year to ride as Bartali's domestique.

Their first major race together was the Giro in 1940. Things did not run to plan for Bartali, who crashed heavily early on. But Coppi was riding strongly and eventually, helped by Bartali, ran out the winner. "The Italian public has got wind of a new and forceful talent," wrote the Gazzetta della Sport the day after the race ended. Yet almost immediately the Second World War intervened, depriving both riders of almost all opportunities to race. When their rivalry was re-ignited in 1946, it was to burn with ferocity unknown in the sport before or since. But that is for part two of this story.

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