Bartali saves Italy


"...overwhelmed by their hearty efforts one by one, each man ran out of energy and collapsed under Bartali's relentless pressure. He became once again the dazzling magician of the summits, flying on the mountains, reducing to nothingness all those who, moments before, were his adversaries. On this execrable planet his gracious pedalling couldn't help but elicit admiration."

- Jacques Goddet

Ten years after his last appearance in the race, Gino Bartali reappeared from Italy to give one of the most dominant displays ever seen in the race. Yet the significance lay not, perhaps, in the margin of victory, but the effect his win had on an Italian populace teetering on the brink of civic chaos.

Written off after a lacklustre display in the Giro, few people believed that Bartali, by now 34, could once again be a force in the race. Yet on the very first stage, Bartali gave first hint of his crushing all-round dominance by winning a sprint against such a notable scalp as Briek Schotte. Thereafter, the Italians were content to take a low profile in the race, which was enlivened by the emergence of a new talent: Louison Bobet, riding his second Tour, took the lead in Nantes, lost and regained it on the run down the Atlantic coast, and emerged from the Pyrenees with over nine minutes lead on his nearest rival. Nonetheless, Bartali was starting to show interest in the race. He won a second stage in Lourdes, fitting for such a pious Catholic *, then won again the next day in Toulouse. By Cannes, where Bobet won his second stage, Bartali was still about twenty minutes behind.

Lying in bed that night, the telephone rang for Bartali. A man of iron discipline, Bartali did not take such calls lightly. On the other end of the line was Alcide de Gaspari, a Deputy in the Italian Christian Democratic Party.

- "Gino", he said, sounding worried, "we need you".

Alcide seemed nervous: a few days earlier, Palmiro Togliatti, Secretary of the Communist Party had been wounded in a shooting, and Italy was on the edge of widespread civil insurrection, perhaps even a civil war.

- "Gino, we need you"
- "But what can I do? I'm here to race the next stage of the Tour de France, not to come home to Italy"
- "Exactly", said de Gaspari. "You can do a lot by winning a stage. If you win it, it will create a diversion. It will motivate people towards happier feelings. A distraction. Believe me - we need it."

Gino pondered what his friend had said. Earlier in the race his wife had telephoned him from Florence, after the assassination attempt on Togliatti. She had sounded deeply worried.

- "Listen", replied Bartali. "I will do even better than that. I will win the whole race."

The next day was Cannes to Briançon, 274 kilometres via the Allos, Vars and Izoard - the same Holy Trinity on which he had forged victory ten years previously. It took "Gino the Pious" just ten hours, nine minutes and twenty eight seconds to cover those 274 kilometres, crossing three passes over 2100 metres, and with a total amount of climbing of over 5300 metres. It was more than six minutes when Briek Schotte finished in second place; then came Fermo Camellini over nine minutes down; René Vietto at nearly eleven. When Bobet finished, in twelfth place, over eighteen minutes had passed, and Bartali had climbed to second overall, just 1' 06" down on his young French rival. "From snowstorm, water, ice, Bartali arose majestically like an angel covered in mud, wearing under his soaked tunic the precious soul of an exceptional champion. It took this day of apocalypse to express the total quality of this Italian champion" wrote Jacques Goddet in his Race Director's notes.

The following day saw more of the same: a softening up process on the Col du Galibier and the Col de la Croix de Fer before a final attack on the Col de Porte saw him finish in Aix-les-Bains once again six minutes ahead of his nearest rival, this time Stan Ockers. Despite finishing the stage in sixth place, Bobet's tenure on the Yellow Jersey was over; Bartali now led by over eight minutes from Bobet and a massive twenty-nine from Guy Lapébie, brother of the winner of the 1937 race, where a crash on these very same roads had prevented Bartali from winning his inaugaral Tour de France.

Stage 15 to Lausanne: once again Bartali was a solo victor, though concerted work by his rivals limited his gain to a scant two minutes. At Mulhouse, Bartali was content to finish in the bunch, but Bobet had cracked (as had, incidentally, both 1947 Tour winner Jean Robic, who rode a largely anonymous Tour to finish 15th, and the aging René Vietto, who finished one place behind). Bartali's lead was now bordering on the ridiculous; from twenty minutes behind in Cannes, he now had a lead of 32' 20" over Schotte and 35' 16" on Lapébie. Even after losing ten minutes to Lapébie in the Strasbourg time trial - held over a distance of 120 kilometres - could not threaten his lead. It only remained to outsprint such Flandrian hard-men as Schotte and Ockers in Liège to notch up stage win number seven, and Bartali was home and dry after one of the most dominant displays ever seen in the Tour.

Across the Alps, Italy watched enthralled and by time Bartali arrived victorious in Paris, the political heat had noticably cooled. De Gaspari's instincts had been right: Bartali had won the Tour, and in doing so, saved his country. Never can a race have mattered so much.

Footnote

* Bartali's deeply held Catholic faith stemmed from the death of his brother, Giulio, in 1936.

Stage winners

 StageWinnerOverall Leader
Stage 1Paris - Trouville, 237kmGino BartaliGino Bartali
Stage 2Trouville - Dinard, 259kmVicenzo RoselloJean Engels
Stage 3Dinard - Nantes, 251kmGuy LapébieLouison Bobet
Stage 4Nantes - La Rochelle, 166kmJacques PrasRoger Lambrecht
Stage 5La Rochelle - Bordeaux, 262kmRaoul RémyLambrecht
Stage 6Bordeaux - Biarritz, 244kmLouison BobetBobet
Stage 7Bordeaux - Lourdes, 219kmBartaliBobet
Stage 8Lourdes - Toulouse, 261kmBartaliBobet
Stage 9Toulouse - Montpellier, 246kmRaymond ImpanisBobet
Stage 10Montpellier - Marseille, 248kmImpanisBobet
Stage 11Marseille - San Remo, 245kmGino SciardisBobet
Stage 12San Remo - Cannes, 170kmBobetBobet
Stage 13Cannes - Briançon, 274kmBartaliBobet
Stage 14Briançon - Aix-les-Bains, 263kmBartaliBartali
Stage 15Aix-les-Bains - Lausanne, 256kmBartaliBartali
Stage 16Lausanne - Mulhouse, 243kmEdward Van DijckBartali
Stage 17Mulhouse - Strasbourg, 120km TTRoger LambrechtBartali
Stage 18Strasbourg - Metz, 195kmGiovanni CorrieriBartali
Stage 19Metz - Liège, 249kmBartaliBartali
Stage 20Liège - Roubaix, 228kmBernard GauthierBartali
Stage 21Roubaix - Paris, 286kmCorrieriBartali

In a nutshell

Results

Overall

1st: Gino Bartali, Italy, 4922km in 147h 10' 36" (33.443km/h)
2nd: Briek Schotte, Belgium, @26' 16"
3rd: Guy Lapébie, Centre - Sud Est, @28' 48"
4th: Louison Bobet, France, @32' 59"
5th: Jean Kirchen, Luxembourg (Netherlands - Luxembourg combined team), @37' 53"
6th: Lucien Teisseire, France, @40' 17"
7th: Roger Lambrecht, Belgium (International team), @49' 56"
8th: Fermo Camellini, Italy (International team), @51' 36"
9th: Louis Thiétard, Paris, @55' 23"
10th: Raymond Impanis, Belgium, @1h 00' 03"

(44th: Vittorio Seghezzi, Italy B (Cadetti), @4h 26' 43")

Mountains

1st: Gino Bartali, Italy, 62
2nd: Apo Lazaridès, France 43
3rd: Jean Robic, France, 38

Team

1st: Belgium 443h 58' 20"
2nd: France @28' 40"
3rd: Paris @56' 49"