May is — was — traditionally the start of pro cycling’s Grand Tours. Not so this year. Everything cycling, like so much else sporting, is canceled or postponed. At this time, however, on the anniversary of his death, 20 years ago this month, one man comes to mind  — a devout Catholic, a champion cyclist and an unexpected war hero: Gino Bartali.  

Born into poverty in 1914, the young Gino was not interested in schooling in his native Florence. What did interest, and later come to obsess him was cycling. Initially, his parents begged him to forget about cycling and to get a proper job. It was no use. Soon Bartali was entering cycle races and, perhaps more importantly, winning them.

Before long, Bartali had turned professional. In Europe at that time, the world of a professional cyclist was a glamorous one — more glamorous even than that of a movie star. The young Tuscan fitted the bill, and his face fitted the front cover of magazines as well as the sports pages. Soon he had so many fans he had to hire a press secretary to answer his mail. Women, in particular, were fans.

The Giro d’Italia was, and still is, the premier cycling race in Italy. By 1936 Bartali had won his first title. He did so again the next year. From his winnings he moved his parents from their tiny apartment to a house the size of the apartment block they had left. He went from being one of Florence’s poor to walking around its streets dressed in a tailored three-piece suit; the world was at his feet. Then tragedy struck.

Bartali’s brother, Giulio, also a professional cyclist, was badly injured during a race while descending a wet downward mountain course. Bartali rushed to the hospital where his brother had been taken. He arrived only to hold the dying man’s hand. That death changed everything for Gino Bartali.

He left cycling and retreated into himself, looking for answers. Eventually, he became involved in Catholic Action. Using his celebrity, he spent his time urging young Catholics to live their faith. Soon he was to wed. His wife, Andrea, urged him to see his cycling ability as a gift. Soon Bartali was racing again, and winning.

In 1938, he triumphed at the Tour de France, becoming only the second Italian ever to do so. The joy of the victory was short-lived, however. The Tour and all professional cycling across the Continent would shortly be suspended due to war. Bartali was conscripted into the military as a cycle dispatch rider; his fame saved him from the battlefield. His posting meant that he stayed in Florence. It was from another city, Rome, however, that he was to receive an altogether different task — one that was to involve great personal danger.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Florence, Elia Dalla Costa, asked to see Bartali. The initiative behind the meeting came from the Vatican where Pope Pius XII had specifically asked the Cardinal to escalate his secret operation that was helping countless Jews flee and hide from the German SS. This operation was centered on a Franciscan friary in Assisi and consisted of forging travel documents and passports to allow Jews to travel from danger or to remain where they lived but with new identities. Bartali was asked to be one of the chief couriers of these documents — concealing them in the inner tubing of his handlebars. His sporting status meant that no one would think anything of his cycling long distances on a regular basis. It was a perfect ruse.

The work was not without danger though. Bartali had already hidden a Jewish family in one of the properties that he owned. Soon the local Fascists, at the behest of their Nazi masters, took an interest in Bartali and began questioning him about his movements. There was another cost, however, as he felt obliged to hide his activities from his wife. She was already suffering from nervous tension at having to live in a war zone — Italy by then had been invaded from the south by the Allies — and now she was pregnant.

When the Allied bombing started, there was an explosion near to where the couple were hiding. Andrea gave birth to a stillborn child soon after. As the raids continued, Bartali cycled alone to the graveyard where he had buried his brother. This time he carried with him a small box. In that same plot where his brother was buried, he laid to rest the child that had not lived.

Eventually, in August 1944, Florence was liberated.

Competitive cycling did not begin again, however, nor did it look as if it would for some time to come. In any event, now aged 30 years old, Bartali was deemed by many too old to race. These next years would be bleak for Bartali. One night he cycled to the graveyard that held the graves of his brother and child; there he prayed alone for some time, seeking what to do next. When he rose from his knees, he mounted his cycle, confident he had his answer.

Bartali started racing again. Soon the slurs that followed his return were not just about his age. His opponents now openly mocked his Catholic faith. From the start of his career, Bartali had regularly attended Holy Mass before races; in addition, he would exhort his fellow Catholic riders to practice their faith. And in Paris, at the end of the 1938 Tour de France, Bartali had taken his winner’s bouquet to the church of Our Lady of Victories, laying it before her altar there — dedicating his win to the Mother of God.

Although Bartali was competing again, he was not winning. Nevertheless, in 1948, he entered the Tour de France. Ten years earlier he had won it; no rider had ever achieved the prize again with such a time lapse between attempts. No one gave him a chance of winning.

To everyone’s surprise, Bartali rode that 1948 race with almost preternatural strength. The climax of the year’s race came in a mountain stage. Riding drenched in sweat, his body shivering in the unseasonal snowstorm that had awoken he raced through the frozen Pyrenees for more than just the victor’s crown.

Because on that July day in 1948, as the snow and sleet continued to pelt the by then solitary cyclist far ahead from the chasing pact, little did anyone realize that what Bartali was really racing against was the hardest adversary of all, one directly opposed to his earlier act of faith at the graveside, namely, a “voice” that kept telling him to quit.

Crowds, rivals and organizers looked on in astonishment at the figure racing through the snow on treacherous mountain ridges. Even so, they could have not known how hard it was for the former champion, who, by then, was suffering from severe hunger pangs so great that he felt that he couldn’t go on. Then, suddenly, a hand came from the crowd and offered him some fruit. It was to prove enough for him to continue. No one knows who performed this act of charity. Later reports claimed that it was someone dressed as a priest, but whoever it was this kindness changed everything. Bartali was later to say that, from then on, he felt as if he was being picked up and carried to the finish. On that day, he vanquished his opponents in the race — the victory was his. On what was the eve of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, he had ascended the mountain, and won.

Bartali retired from cycling soon after to lead a quiet life in his native Florence. In May 2000, after a Requiem Mass, he was laid to rest dressed in the robes of the Carmelite Third Order, wearing the Scapular of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It was not until many years later that what he had done for so many during the war became public knowledge — only after he had been dead 13 years was he declared by Yad Vashem: “Righteous Among the Gentiles.”

Bartali was as self-effacing about his many sporting triumphs as he had been about his wartime heroics. On being asked by one reporter about his medals and trophies, he replied simply that the only “medals” worth winning were those received in Heaven.