Melissa Hiller on July 8, 2016
For the next three weeks Le Tour de France will dominate all conversation in my household where race coverage will be blasting from every electronic device from sun-up to sun-down. Most discussions center on routes, team tactics, doping scandals and tour favorites. My thoughts every July, though, turn to Italian cycling champion and humanitarian Gino Bartali.
Italian cyclists have been crowd favorites since the Tour began in 1903. That country, which produces more cycling legends than any other, eats, breathes and sleeps the sport. Bartali is a legend who won the Tour twice; his most celebrated win occurred in 1948 in war-torn Europe. Unexpectedly, in 2013, 13 years after Bartali died, Yad Vashem credited him with saving the lives of about 800 Jews during the Holocaust. Very few people knew about it during his lifetime, but it turns out he was deeply involved with Italian Catholic clergy who had formed an underground network, Assisi Underground, to hide Jews from the Nazis. Appearing to be out training on the Tuscan roads he knew so well, Bartali was a courier hiding fake identity papers inside the frame of his bicycle that the clergy used to get Jews safely out of the country. Locals were so familiar with his rigorous training regimen that he never seemed suspicious. When he was stopped by officials for searches he asked that his bike not be touched because he had it perfectly calibrated to his specifications.
After the war Bartali refused to talk about his involvement, equating it to bragging and attention-seeking. Eye-witness accounts and written records eventually pieced together his efforts, and in 2013 Yad Vashem posthumously recognized him as a Righteous Among the Nations.
In his biography, Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation, Bartali is quoted as telling his son Andrea,
“If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.”
Vive le Tour and vive the humble honorable people among us.