THE BARTALI RIDE
I can’t actually recall when the idea for this adventure was first hatched. What I do remember was that it was launched by Michael Haddad, spurned on I think by reading a chapter from a biography of Bartali that I had translated. The book, written by Italian author Paolo Alberati, is entitled “Gino Bartali, Mille Diavoli in Corpo.” Published by Giunti of Florence in 2006, I had obtained permission to translate the book on the premise that I find an English language publisher. I wasn’t successful in that endeavour, however I still had the translated chapter, specifically the one that recounted Bartali’s incredible resistance activity during the long years of WWII. At some point I sent it to Michael because I knew he would enjoy reading it.
Michael and I had ridden the 2012 Eroica together, after not having seen each other in more than 22 years. That day on the dirt roads of the Chianti was quite an adventure and only whet our appetites for another epic ride, preferably tied in some way to the period of cycle racing that most captured our hearts and imaginations; the years between 1930 and 1960. When Michael wrote me proposing to re-trace Bartali’s courageous rides between Florence and Assisi I was hooked from the first lines in his email.
Bartali completed the 320 km round trip ride in one day, astounding when you see the terrain and try to imagine what it must have been like on mostly dirt roads. To say nothing of the Germans and Fascists on patrol, looking for any and all resistance activity, ready to haul in (and imprison and torture) anybody suspected of being a partisan or of aiding them. Though apparently no one can say with certainty on how many occasions Gino completed this ride between 1943 and the end of the war, logic would lead us to believe it was done numerous times. Informed accounts say upwards of forty times.
At the behest of the Bishop of Florence, Elia Dalla Costa, Bartali became the courier of forged documents that were supplied to hundreds of Jews and anti-fascists who were being hidden amongst the dozens of convents and monasteries scattered around the religious city of Assisi. Although the Pope and the Vatican were officially silent regarding the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their Italian Fascist allies, individuals within the Catholic church were moved to help the persecuted Jewish and dissident Italians attempting to flee round ups and deportations. An underground railway was created and a network of people painstakingly pieced together that would insure hundreds of people, using these forged identity papers, were able to flee Italy to safer havens around the world.
Michael, bless his organized soul, did all the research for this adventure. He pieced together the route that Bartali had ridden, discovered some of the names of people Bartali used to alert him to troop movements along the way as well as several of the stops he normally made on his way to Assisi.
It wasn’t long before our itinerary began to take shape. Using the surnames of people long deceased, he was able to unearth descendants who might be related to folks who had known and aided Bartali directly. Such as Bartali’s cobbler, the man who made his racing shoes and lived in the hills between Florence and Arezzo, Gennaro Cellai. Or, at the time a youngster now in his 80’s, Ivo Faltoni, who is from Terontola and lives right in front of the train station where Gino would stop on his way to Assisi. Faltoni apparently became one of Bartali’s mechanics as a young adult. Michael also found the street address of where Bartali lived during the war years with his wife Adriana and two young sons as well as the location of where Bartali picked up the material to be carried to Assisi in his bicycle frame. Daunted by his investigative attention to detail, I did little more than make follow up phone calls. I did manage to secure a visit to the Bartali museum, a structure that is run voluntarily just up the street from where Gino had grown up in the village of Ponte a Ema on the outskirts of Florence.
As summer drew to close a wrench was thrown into the works, I had a rather dramatic crash just kilometres from our house in Campiglia. I spent a night in hospital in observation after a battery of tests such as a CAT scan, ultrasound and X-rays. All of which proved negative, I had somehow managed to crash at speed while descending and come away with only road rash, banged up ribs and a serious concussion. Or so I thought. I did contract a nasty phlebitis in my right leg, a condition that was going to plague me for several months. I assumed that a few weeks would clear it up, October was over a month away and I couldn’t see how it could last that long. It did, despite blood thinners and not riding, it persisted. Plans went forward, it was too late to postpone or cancel and at worst I wouldn’t ride.
Another rider from Brooklyn just happened to be in Italy at the same time, John Pergolizzi. He and Michael are close friends from way back, I remembered him from when I too rode in Prospect Park 25 years ago. He was kind enough to volunteer to join us as driver/mechanic/support crew and it made a real difference. It also meant that I could suspend the blood thinners for a day or two and attempt to ride at least part of the route.
So it was that we found ourselves sandwiched into a Fiat rental car heading up the motorway from coastal Tuscany where I live, to Florence. There were five of us, Michael, his wife Celie, daughter Sarah, John and myself. Plus two bikes on the external bike rack, this too a product of Michael’s incredible attention to detail. The real fun began once off the motorway and onto the urban streets of the city. In my 22 years of living in Italy I thought I’d witnessed creative, improvised city driving. I had forgotten how New Yorkers drive, Italians have nothing on them when it comes to negotiating intricate city traffic. Florentine traffic intimidates even hardened Italian drivers, not Michael from Brooklyn. With nonchalance he performed U turns and blasted through round-a-abouts while simultaneously interpreting the nonsensical directions of the Garmin navigating system. Somehow we managed to find our way through mid-day rush hour chaos to their hotel. More on that Garmin later…
After an improvised lunch we began the itinerary, first the visit to the museum. But not before managing to find “Piazza Gino Bartali,” an ugly modern square with nothing denoting the name of its bearer. Once at the museum we met the custodian, Marcello Santini, a living encyclopaedia of cycling history. His idea of conducting a visit was to explain in exhausting detail each and every piece displayed. We might still be there if the man responsible for the museum’s existence, Andrea Bresci, hadn’t showed up. The museum really is impressive, their collection of bicycles and paraphernalia went well beyond what I expected to find. It’s truly a labour of love, for they receive no help financially or otherwise from either Ponte a Ema or Florence. Much of what is displayed comes directly from Bartali’s personal collection. He bequeathed it for this purpose before he died. In fact he insisted they cart it away from where it was stored, knowing that once he was gone a battle would ensue over ownership. Bartali knew that his quarrelsome family would try to lay claim to it and in fact several lawsuits have since gone to court. The museum has managed to see them off, so far.
After several hours spent in the museum we obtained good directions to the cemetery where Gino and his brother Giulio are buried. Giulio was the younger brother and, according to Gino, was the more gifted of the two. Tragically he died from injuries after crashing in a race just outside of Florence, the Targa Chiari, at the age of 20.
Once back at the hotel we established a meeting time for the following day and I walked to my friend Goffredo’s house on the other side of the River Arno where I was staying. At 7:00 AM however I was back and changing into riding kit for the first time in five weeks. I was both excited and intimidated, riding again was going to be wonderful but how long would I last? I didn’t know the route out of Florence nor the terrain towards Arezzo but I knew it was going to be hilly. Though Michael had programmed every step of the way into his Garmin and appeared infinitely confident that it would guide us, I began to have my first doubts when it couldn’t deliver us to the Eugenian Chapel where Bartali had picked up the documents he smuggled to Assisi. None the less it was exhilarating riding through the early morning Florentine streets over damp flagstones. Michael was resplendent in a yellow wool Bartali jersey that matched his Bartali bicycle of the same colour, he looked as though he had just stepped out of a sepia photograph from the mid 1950’s. I had opted for a more modern machine, not wishing to add additional challenges to what promised to be a long day. Things went smoothly enough until we were well outside of the city and climbing to San Donato. At that point the Garmin began taking us off course, determined to deliver us to the Autostrada somewhere to the west. My instincts knew better and I was kicking myself for not having brought a map with me, a cardinal sin for a professional guide. Even a guide though can ask directions and I did so repeatedly for there is nothing more frustrating than feeling lost on a long ride.
Eventually, after stopping to insure we were on course several times, we arrived at our first meeting point with John in the “team” car, the town of Reggello. This sleepy berg was where the cobbler Gennaro Cellai had lived, the man who was able to supply Bartali with up to date information on Nazi roadblocks and troop movements. It is also where the beautiful road named “Via Sette Ponti” begins its curvy journey towards Arezzo and the plains. By now it was late morning and we had covered roughly 50 kilometres, we were behind schedule and I could sense the pressure mounting. Normally it wouldn’t have been a problem but my body was feeling the exertion of having climbed most of those 50 km at a lively pace. The great form I had enjoyed until my crash in late August was going to carry me only so far on this day. My stomach was also beginning to protest (I was riding without breakfast) and while streaking through a village I caught sight of a small store out of the corner of my eye. I yelled that I was stopping, I needed something to eat or I was going to wilt. I had begun to recall the 2012 Eroica ride, being amazed that Michael never ate anything except what he had brought with him, bars, gels and an energy drink that he mixed copiously at every water stop.
Reluctantly we all stopped. John was in the car and Michael astride his bike, as they waited for me to have a panino made. Once that was out of the way we began again, keeping a decent pace mostly downhill, slowly drawing Arezzo closer. The cramps that had started to make themselves felt earlier were returning with a vengeance, I knew my kilometres on the bike were numbered. My biggest concern was not slowing the pace too much. Once I was certain that I could no longer lend a hand in the pacesetting nor hold Michael’s wheel without struggling, the time had come to climb into the car. Disappointed but realistic, at our next pause to check the map I told them of my decision. Michael hardly broke stride and was off, I got into the back seat of the car and changed out of my riding gear.
Pergolizzi drove as though he’d been behind the steering wheel of a team car for years. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Using a map in the car and trying to decipher the Garmin’s crazy instructions, we followed Michael from a distance. The next time we saw him he was towing a group of Italian riders. I wanted to roll down the window and tell him to sit on and work less but I knew he was on the front of the group because they were going too slow for his liking. Waiting for him at an intersection that required a change in direction, we saw the group go straight as Michael turned to follow our route.
At a certain point, coming upon him, as he pedalled Michael told us that he was having problems with the bottom bracket. We soon found a place to pull over. After he was stopped he explained that the fixed cup was coming loose and causing the crank arm on the left side to hit the chain stay on each pedal stroke. The left side? I didn’t realize that on older bikes the fixed cup was on placed on the drive side, making any adjustments very awkward indeed. We had precious little in the way of tools, basically what would fit inside a saddlebag. This was going to require a bike shop, one well equipped with tools that would function on an antique bike. As I mulled over where we could look for one, John was pulling the rental car’s tool bag apart looking for something. He came up with a jack for changing flat tires. Wondering how this was going to work, I watched spellbound as he took the end of a screw driver, placed it in the notched cleft of the fixed cup and gave it some resounding whacks with the jack. He looked up smiling, “try that, it should hold for while” and put the makeshift tools back in the car. In less than five minutes he had solved what had appeared to be an insurmountable problem. Needless to say, the fixed cup didn’t budge the rest of the ride.
Our next rendezvous was the train station in Terontola, just across the regional border in Umbria. We also had an appointment with Ivo Faltoni, an elderly man with the energy of a despot. I soon discovered what Andrea Bresci, our friend the museum curator had meant when he’d told me that Faltoni was a tireless self-promoter. All in good faith mind you, he was indeed a true believer, in Bartali first and foremost. We were looking for the marble plaque in the station dedicated to Bartali’s role in the resistance. Ivo took us right to it and we snapped several photos. He explained that Gino would wait at a nearby bridge that spanned the tracks until he saw the train coming from Perugia. He timed his pre-arranged arrival at the station so that his presence would cause just enough of an uproar amongst the local populace that the Fascist gendarmes would be distracted, allowing fleeing Jews and dissidents to board the train while the authorities’ attention was diverted. Ivo explained that he himself, a youngster at the time, gave Gino the signal to ride down to the station from the bridge.
Michael hadn’t waited around for the long-winded stories. After a few quick photos he was back on the bike and had disappeared up the road. Our next meeting point was to be in the village of Passignano, nestled on the shore of Lake Trasimeno. John and I drove straight there thinking that Michael would be along shortly, the distance wasn’t great and the hills were behind us for the most part. We found out later, quite a bit later, that once again his impertinent Garmin had directed him off course. It was determined to get him onto a nearby four-lane highway, and it wouldn’t be satisfied until it did. Driven to distraction, Michael eventually shut if off. Perhaps the wisest move of the day. This meant however that we would be guiding him with the car from Passignano until we reached Assisi. Which wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it hadn’t been necessary to ride through the city of Perugia. Or more precisely, the chaotic hinterland of Perugia. He needed to see us frequently, at each traffic round-about, intersection and interchange. Once again John’s ability as a driver saved the day, because for the next hour and a half he found a way to pull over, slow down just enough and stop completely in the most impossible places in order for Michael to keep us in sight and stay on course. With me giving John directions, we negotiated Saturday afternoon meltdown traffic through some of the ugliest mall ridden urban outskirts you could hope to find in central Italy. Ghastly is the term that comes readily to mind. I couldn’t help but wonder what the diabolic Garmin would have had Michael doing had it been turned on. Or what Bartali would have thought had he been able to see what a mess the once bucolic Umbrian countryside had become over the decades since he had ridden there.
All of that not withstanding, we eventually found ourselves on the long, straight run-in towards Assisi. We could see it there, perched on the side of Monte Subasio in all its glory, with the magnificent Franciscan Cathedral resplendent in the fading afternoon sunlight. This leg of the journey then was done and dusted. Michael wound his way up the final climb, riding through the arched gateway and into the ancient walls of Assisi, just meters from where the German HQ had been during the war years. The sun was slowly setting into the horizon as we finally found our hotel, though the Garmin in the car did its best to lead us astray even there.
After we had unpacked our few belongings and put the bikes away, we turned our attention to where we would eat. A decision that is never taken lightly in Italy. Once that was cleared up thanks to a recommendation of the hotel concierge, I called my sister Kathy who was joining us for dinner. She lives in Perugia and did me the favour of driving over, I hadn’t seen her since June.
By coming to Assisi I was in a sense, returning to the spot where so much had taken place in my life. Together with a childhood friend, Hugh White, I had lived in Assisi for over two years when just out of High School. My family was living in Rome then, my father worked for the UN, those years in Italy would make a good story, but for another time. Kathy had remained in Umbria ever since, making a good life for herself and her two children. On the other hand I had returned to the USA and had never been back to Italy. Until 1991 when Hugh and I made plans to meet in Milano and ride our bikes south, all the way to Perugia. Naturally we stayed with Kathy, we even rode our bikes to Assisi for a visit. Far too soon it was time to leave, I only hoped it wouldn’t be another 15 years before I came back again. Little could I imagine what was in store for me. In the days prior to our departure I met Kathy’s best friend Donatella, who grew up not far from Assisi. As in many good stories, fate intervened on my behalf. She and I have been married since 1993.
With those thoughts going through my head, I stepped out for a walk through the quiet streets of Assisi after dinner. Unfortunately neither John or Michael joined me, they were too tired. While I lacked the energy to walk very far, I did make it over to the Franciscan Cathedral and marvelled at its beauty as I had done so many times over the years.
The next day we set off early, Assisi was still sleeping as we rolled out of town. The crisp autumn morning held a promise of good cheer, the green countryside of Umbria appeared vibrant and luxurious below us. No longer riding,I was now officially part of the support crew. I had wanting to complicate my recovery from the pesky phlebitis I was back on blood thinners. It wasn’t long before we came upon Michael, again going around in circles trying to decipher the Garmin’s instructions. We had covered 15 km since leaving Assisi. Thankfully, I knew these roads from having lived in Perugia for 5 years before moving to Tuscany in 1997. After guuiding him from the car for a while, his Garmin apparently decided to behave and we settled into a rhythm, the villages of the Tiber River valley clicking by. It became apparent that we were making good time, the predominantly flat terrain, not to mention Michael’s sustained pace, meant progress.
After we had passed the town of Umbertide we pulled alongside our rider and told him we were stopping for a café at the next available place. He said that was fine, he needed to fix a slipping seat-post anyway. Soon we found a roadside café and went in. Full of Sunday morning locals, it was a typical country establishment. I ordered two espresso cafes, we decided not to wait for Michael as we knew he wouldn’t want one anyway. To my dismay it was one of the worst espressos I’ve ever had, truly vile. Wondering how I was going to get the awful taste out of my mouth, I went outside to wait for Michael as John lingered in the cafe. Soon Michael was pulling up to the car,. I brought him water and as he mixed more of his magical energy drink, we spoke of the seat-post. He had already had to tighten it twice, he said, and was afraid of snapping the seat-post bolt, a mishap that could potentially end the ride. “No sweat,” said John, walking up to us, taking out the seat-post and glancing around. Watching him keenly, for by now I was aware of his talents as a problem solver, I saw him bend over. After sticking a finger in his mouth to moisten it, he tamped the same finger in the fine dust on the ground. Standing back up, he began applying the dust carefully all around the seat-post. Michael and I exchanged a look, at that point John inserted the seat-post back into the frame, finding the exact height from a mark he had made on it before pulling it out. After tightening the bolt very carefully he turned to Michael and said that in his opinion it wouldn’t move again. Of course it didn’t, not one millimetre. In almost 30 years of riding it was the very first time I’d seen that done. This was a trick to be filed away for future use.
Now we were into the meat of the ride, Michael was well warmed up and pushing that old Bartali as it hadn’t been pushed in decades. If yesterday I had been wondering how on earth Gino Bartali had ridden this route round-trip in a single day, now I was beginning to understand. Thus far we had encountered only one or two short climbs, most of the morning’s terrain had been flat to rolling. There was also an absence of wind. This too was making the endeavour easier, not to mention the balmy temperatures. However, I still couldn’t quite figure out how things would go when all the climbing started. I’d ridden the roads between the Tiber River valley heading west, both to the south as well as to the north of Arezzo and knew those climbs. They are long and challenging and again I started to worry about sunlight, as we were still a long way from Florence. What I didn’t know was that the road towards Arezzo, which follows the Sovara River, a tributary of the larger Tiber, doesn’t climb above 575 meters. As we turned onto this road, which passes alongside the town of Anghiari, it began to climb. Here we go I thought, now it’s starting. The road did climb, for a brief stretch it looked as though it would be serious. We discovered it was only for a few kilometres, then it began levelling out and continued at an easier gradient. We were gaining height but gradually, which meant that Michael’s pace didn’t slow very much at all. Was this a temporary reprieve or had Bartali made this his route because it flowed smoothly, without the leg sapping climbs thatI knew?
Some time later I managed to talk John into stopping for a sandwich in a small village, at one of those country cafes that have offer good bread and cold cuts. We kept our eyes peeled for Michael so that he wouldn’t ride straight by without seeing us. I can’t recall if he actually ate anything but knowing him, he probably didn’t. After roughly 30 minutes we were back in the car keeping an eye on our rider, both of us instinctively looking for signs of fatigue. I know I would have been suffering had I been riding, good form or not, two days back to back like this would have stretched my limits. Michael however seemed to be fine, John and I marvelled at him, he was riding as though he were on a mission. We were also far enough along at this point to realize that the return leg of the route was less challenging in terms of terrain, than the outbound portion.
Now we were just to the north of Arezzo, about to reach the same road we had descended yesterday, the Via Sette Ponti. This was one of those winding country roads that belong in a film highlighting the wonders of Tuscany. I had enjoyed it immensely yesterday on the bike, sitting in the car it was possible to really look around and I was quite impressed. We would pull over every now and then to wait for Michael to come by, just in case. He was on a 62 year old bike that he barely knew with more than one potential mechanical issue. Each time he would thunder by, smiling and give us a thumbs up, after which we would clamber back into the car to set off in pursuit.
Much sooner than I anticipated we reached Reggello, the village where we had stopped the previous day to get water and look for the team car. I directed John back to the same water fountain and we got out to drink and stretch our legs, waiting for Michael. Still looking good upon arrival, he mixed more of his energy drink and we discussed strategy for the next segment of the journey. From here to San Donato it was going to be strenuous for there were some real climbs ahead. Michael also knew what was coming. By now however, we knew that daylight was not going to be an issue. It was early afternoon and once in San Donato it would be a long descent to Florence. One less thing to worry about, it lent an air of having this in the bag, so different than yesterday’s angst over the approaching dusk.
In the end it did become a test, of stamina, determination and character. The sun was exacting a price as well, Michael was sweating bullets as he muscled over the steeper sections, exerting himself to push the heavy Bartali upwards. I had the impression that his Bartali weighted twice as much as my modern steel Tommasini. Sitting the in the car, John and I knew exactly what he was going through. Not much later the payoff arrived as the descent started. I noticed that on day 2 Michael was more at ease with the Bartali going down hill. He was a quick study, he’d already learned its quirky nature after a few scary moments in front of me the previous day while I was still riding. He told me afterward that the bike would not tolerate being corrected once a trajectory had been established. But since it wanted to under steer it meant correction was essential. True to Gino’s nature, the Bartali bike was a stubborn, irascible Toscano with a well-defined character.
Then, soon enough, we were back in the streets of Florence. Far different than the chaotic situation of Friday, Sunday afternoon traffic wasn’t bad. Sure, Michael’s crazed Garmin got him turned around several times, we even managed to lose him until he called us. We had an actual map of the city in the car so I was able to direct him to the Arno River, the only landmark he needed. I felt as though a welcoming committee with a large banner should have been at their hotel, waiting for our arrival. Along with a small brass band perhaps, playing Fratelli d’Italia, the national anthem. There was none of that however, no fanfare, not even his wife and daughter. We unloaded and put the bikes away, realizing that this great adventure was concluded. Thankful that we would have time to compare notes and impressions in the coming days back in Campiglia, we simply shook hands and congratulated ourselves. Knowing that we’d done something special, shared unique moments that we would reflect on for many years to come. With that, I walked into the sunset, marvelling at the light and how it played on the stucco facades of Florentine buildings.