Monthly Archives: May 2020

Gino Bartali: How a cyclist’s key work saved lives

Gino Bartali

“I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.”

The world has been plunged into a pandemic. There are no sporting events for now, and governing bodies are working tirelessly to find a new time to get the show on the road – as our key workers battle to help saves lives.

Everyone else, athletes and non-athletes alike, have found themselves with time on their hands…

On this day 20 years ago, the iconic Italian cyclist Gino Bartali died of a heart attack. Nearly 80 years ago, the three-time Giro d’Italia and two-time Tour de France champion, too, found himself with time on his hands after cycling’s biggest events were interrupted by World War Two. The Giro was on a five-year hiatus, Le Tour on a seven-year break. It robbed him of his best years in racing.

Instead, Bartali saved the lives of more than 800 people – information which only came to light in the years following his death. This is how he did it.

Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi
Bartali and Fausto Coppi (right) – great rivals on the bike, opposing roles in war time

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer

Bartali remains one of cycling’s most heroic riders, and was fabled to be the second most popular man at the time in Italy after Benito Mussolini, the leader of Italy’s fascist party, following his first Tour de France win in 1938 – although the two were quite dissimilar.

But it was a bad time to be a professional cyclist in the era of Mussolini, particularly one who didn’t want to get involved with politics.

In the 1940 Giro d’Italia, the final one before the event was halted, Bartali was introduced to a man who would become his fiercest rival, Fausto Coppi – a skinny 20-year-old who came from a family of farmers in rural northern Italy.

The rivalry began when Coppi was bumped from domestique duties to team leader after champion Bartali suffered with his injuries from a collision with a dog on stage two.

Coppi shocked the peloton by taking the Maglia Rosa (pink leader’s jersey) during his first grand tour. But the big mountains in the Dolomites were yet to come. On Stage 16 Bartali found Coppi on the side of the road suffering with stomach problems.

A humble Bartali coaxed him back on his bike, convincing his team-mate and rival to continue. Success. The pair motored through the Dolomites tearing up the unforgivable mountainous terrain and teamed up for the remainder of the race with Bartali taking two stage wins and the overall King of The Mountains jersey, easing Coppi to overall victory with a lead of two minutes and 40 seconds.

“Some medals are made to hang on the soul, not the jacket,” he once said, albeit in different circumstances – but it is a fitting sentiment to helping his rival and being graceful in defeat.

Gino Bartali
Don’t look now: Bartali risked his life to deliver false documents on training rides and defy the Fascist Party

War horse

Coppi and many other riders had already been called up for national service, but were allowed time away to compete in the few events which continued through the war.

Bartali who was a devout Christian, continued his long training rides, bordering on daily audaxes around northern Italy. Later he was given a job to do by the Cardinal of Florence, the Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa.

Until 1943, Italy was a safe place for Jewish people until the Nazis began operating in the northern regions and sending them, as well as those who fought against the regime, to concentration camps. Bartali joined the underground Assisi Network run by the Catholic church, which protected those at risk.

On his long training rides he would deliver false identity documents in the handlebars and seatpost of his bike to families across Italy from a secret printing press, enabling them to escape their fate, in turn saving the lives of at least 800 people.

On occasion he was stopped and questioned by the secret fascist police, but since he was high profile – the equivalent of Chris Froome or Bradley Wiggins meandering solo on their bikes around rural areas in the UK – most were hesitant to thoroughly search him and his bike, fearing possible repercussions.

He asked that it not be touched as to disrupt his aerodynamic set-up, thus never revealing the real mission of his long rides.

Not only did Bartali deliver documents, but he harboured his Jewish friend Giacomo Goldenberg and his family in his home with his wife. It was risky business – anyone caught doing such a thing would be killed, as the Oscar-winning film JoJo Rabbit demonstrated.

Gino Bartali
Bartali inspects graffiti honouring him and other Tour winners

Gino the Pious

“To win the Giro-Tour double is the Holy Grail for stage racers. Very few achieve it and it goes without saying that those who do are freakishly talented,” Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour de France winner once wrote, and Bartali – or Gino the Pious as he was nicknamed – fits that mould perfectly.

All of those rides spanning hundreds of miles stood him in good stead for when the war was over and bike racing was back, though he was now much older, perhaps past his peak.

However, Bartali remains the only rider to win two Tours de France 10 years apart – either side of the war. In 1948, he won his second of La Grande Boucle by 26 minutes and 16 seconds.

As the Italian people had long suffered through fascism, a world war and a time of political unrest following the death of Mussolini, their hero was back. Triumphing in France was thought to be the morale boost the country needed, with historians claiming it averted a civil war.

Racing continued, and Coppi, now 10 years older and closer to his peak long after returning from Africa as a British prisoner of war, was gathering as much fame as Bartali with their rivalry. As told to The New York Times in 2009: “In Italy the rivalry of Coppi-Bartali is a religion… your heart is either with one or the other.”

“You learn about them at home, at school. They are more famous than almost everyone in Italian history because they gave the country hope.”

Their rivalry became so strong, in the same year as Bartali’s successful post-war Tour, the pair represented Italy at the World Championships in Holland.

It’s reported that both were determined to not let the other win. They fiercely marked one another and despite being two of the greatest cyclists in the world at the time, they did not follow the breakaway group and Briek Schotte of Belgium won. The two did not finish, and were reprimanded by team managers, and various miffed sponsors.

Coppi went on to win a total of five Giro d’Italia and two Tours, but died in January 1960 after contracting malaria. However, in 2002, the BBC reported Italian authorities were looking into claims that Coppi was poisoned. The case remains a mystery.

Andrea Bartali
Bartali’s son Andrea visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem in 2013, where his father was recognised as Righteous Among the Nations

Humble endings

“You must do good, but you must not talk about it. If you talk about it you’re taking advantage of others’ misfortunes for your own gain.” Late into his life, Bartali finally detailed to his son the feat he had undertaken during the war which had been a secret until then. He even urged Andrea to continue to keep the information under wraps.

Today, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Italians sing from balconies in locked-down homes to keep morale up. In the UK we stand on doorsteps applauding our key workers.

Bartali wanted to be remembered for his sporting career on his bike, but when asked about his wartime excursions, he used to say: “I did the only thing I was good at, I cycled.”

Sometimes, that’s enough.

Gino Bartali

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Tour de France to start in August as Giro & Vuelta overlap

Tour de France
This year’s Tour is scheduled to start in Nice and finish in Paris

The Tour de France will start on 29 August, with the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana overlapping during October, the UCI has announced.

Cycling’s three Grand Tour races are part of a packed schedule across just over three months from 1 August.

The Tour de France – pushed back from June – had been cast into doubt when the French government said it was “not sure” the country would be ready.

France last week extended a ban on mass gatherings until September.

That was because of the coronavirus pandemic, and French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu cast questions over the Tour de France’s viability for 2020 when she said on Tuesday: “We do not know what the epidemic will be like after lockdown.”

The Tour had been scheduled to run from 27 June to 19 July originally; that start date was pushed back last week by the UCI, world cycling’s governing body.

It will stick with that adjusted schedule, starting on 29 August and ending on 20 September.

La Course by le Tour de France, the women’s race, was initially scheduled to take place over one day on 19 July on the Champs Elysees in Paris. It will now take place on the opening day of the men’s Tour.

The Giro d’Italia will run from 3-25 October, and the Vuelta from 20 October to 8 November, seeing two of the biggest races of the season run concurrently.

The cycling calendar has been affected significantly by the pandemic.

The men’s season is set to begin with the Strade Bianche one-day classic in Italy on 1 August and end on 8 November with the Vuelta, which has been reduced by three days.

Other major races include the ‘monument’ classics Milan-San Remo on 8 August, Liege-Bastogne-Liege on 4 October, Tour of Flanders on 18 October, Paris-Roubaix on 25 October and Il Lombardia on 31 October.

The Road World Championships, which will be held in Switzerland, remain in their 20-27 September slot.

The women’s calendar runs from 1 August with the Strade Bianche, and ends with the two-day Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta on 8 November.

The eight-day Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile is set for 11-19 September. And the first women’s Paris-Roubaix will take place in October.

“Paris-Roubaix is an iconic race, one of the races that attracts most fans in cycling and if we can attract those same fans to women’s cycling, I think it’s a really positive thing,” said Britain’s Lizzie Deignan, who won the world title in 2015.

Many large-scale sporting events scheduled to take place this summer have either been called off, such as Wimbledon, or pushed back by a year, such as football’s European Championship and the summer Olympics.

UCI president David Lappartient said: “We have drawn up a solid, attractive and varied new calendar that is as realistic and coherent as possible.

“The recommencement of our activities will remain dependent on the evolution of the world health situation,” he added.


Matt Warwick, BBC Sport

The UCI is nothing if not determined. It has outlined almost a season’s worth of racing in just 12 weeks, set to take place across some of the countries worst affected by the coronavirus, in a sport which cannot be self-contained in sanitised, empty stadia.

As if the frantic schedule is not enough, it will have to constantly analyse any given territory’s lockdown rules and wait for them to be relaxed enough to allow a peloton through.

All the races which are usually scheduled as perfect preparation events for the three-week Grand Tours are now a quick-fire mish-mash which will surely bring about some unexpected winners and losers. The iconic Stelvio pass in the Italian Dolomites is surely going to be getting seriously chilly in late October. And at the same time cycling’s toughest race of all, the foreboding Paris-Roubaix, could be the mother of all mud-baths on the freezing cobblestones of northern France.

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Elynor Backstedt: British cyclist breaks leg in training crash

British cyclist Elynor Backstedt taking part in the women's junior time trial at the 2019 Road World Championships
Elynor Backstedt’s father Magnus won Paris-Roubaix in 2004

British cyclist Elynor Backstedt has broken her leg in a training crash.

The Welsh 18-year-old, who is based in Belgium, suffered a spiral fracture of the tibia on Sunday.

Her team Trek-Segafredo said a decision on whether surgery is necessary will be made on Monday.

Backstedt, who won bronze in the women’s junior time trial at the 2019 Road World Championships, is in her debut season as a professional on the women’s World Tour.

She had only competed in two races in Belgium before the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The women’s World Tour is set to resume with Strade Bianche on 1 August, running until the Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta on 6-8 November.

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Anna van der Breggen: Olympic champion to retire next year after rescheduled Tokyo Games

Boels-Dolmans team-mates Chantal van der Broek-Blaak (left) and Anna van der Breggen (right) smile on a podium
Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (left) was the 2017 world champion, Anna van der Breggen (right) succeeded her in 2018

Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen will retire next year and become a coach with Boels-Dolmans.

The Dutch rider, 30, will try to defend her road race title at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics next summer before ending her racing career.

Compatriot Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, 30, has announced she will retire in the spring of 2022 to take up a coaching role with the team.

“I want to end my career with a great, full season,” said Van der Breggen.

“Especially after this year, which was largely lost due to the coronavirus pandemic, I am enormously motivated to continue for one more year.”

Former world champion Van der Breggen – who has won the Giro Rosa twice and 12 one-day classics, including three ‘monument’ wins – has signed a three-year deal as a sports director and coach, starting after her final year of racing.

She told Dutch broadcaster NOS that part of her decision to race for only one more year is because she “really feels motivation for the Olympic Games, but that feeling is less for all the other competitions”.

Tokyo 2020 is now set to run from 23 July to 8 August, 2021 after being postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

SD Worx will take over from Boels-Dolmans as the title sponsor of the team from next season.

Van den Broek-Blaak, who won the 2017 world road race title, will also stay with the team in a coaching role until the end of 2024.

“I’ve been riding for this team for six years and I feel completely at home here,” she said.

“In women’s cycling, it is not common for cyclists to make this step into coaching after their active career. We know that we need to grow further as a team.”

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David Smith: British Para-cyclist could race at Glasgow 2023 for Jamaica

David Smith
Smith has been dropped by British Cycling but wants to compete at the world championships in Glasgow in 2023

Paralympic gold medallist David Smith is prepared to compete for Jamaica at the 2023 World Cycling Championships.

Smith, 42, has been dropped by British Cycling but – with a spine tumour that has plagued him for a decade responding to radiation – his “ultimate dream” is to compete in Glasgow in three years.

The Scot, whose girlfriend is Jamaican, can transfer allegiance to any country.

“I’ve been out there a lot and I’ve been speaking a lot to the Jamaican cycling team,” he told BBC Scotland.

Smith last completed for Great Britain in 2018 – and has not ruled out continuing to compete for them should his times improve enough to be selected – but he can register with cycling authorities to switch nations after three years.

“They don’t have a para-team,” he said of the Jamaicans. “They have one para-rider – Marloe Rodman – who competed at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games as an able-bodied rider, but was subsequently injured.

“I’ve talked with him and the coaches about setting up a team and I could end up actually racing for Jamaica.”

Smith was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, however the tumour on his spine is now finally stable.

He battled back from his first diagnosis to compete at London 2012, and won gold for Britain as a rower before transitioning to cycling.

But as he prepared to compete on the bike at the Glasgow 2014, and the Rio Olympics two years later, his tumour returned.

The Scot has endured six rounds of surgery, with an operation in 2016 leaving him paralysed down his left side.

And on the same day it was announced the 2020 Tokyo Olympics had been cancelled, Smith received the news that the tumour had been neutralised having once again returned.

“To have that phone call was amazing, it was such a great relief,” said Smith, who is currently studying an online degree in positive psychology from Harvard. “The tumour is obviously still there, but it’s not doing anything.

“I have a pain in my neck but it’s been cut open six times, so that’s understandable. And I get frustrated with having to carry my my left arm everywhere – that’s pretty tiring work.

“But on the whole I feel mentally, emotionally and physically in a good place, which is nice to be able to say that.”

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