Bar­tal­i’s Bicy­cle: The True Sto­ry of Gino Bar­tali, Italy’s Secret Hero

Megan Hoyt, Iacopo Bruno (Illus­tra­tor)

By – September 13, 2021

Two qual­i­ties helped to make Ital­ian com­pet­i­tive cyclist Gino Bar­tali a hero: speed and courage. The first qual­i­ty was almost cer­tain­ly innate and the sec­ond may have been as well. Prac­tice strength­ened both attrib­ut­es. Under the dic­ta­tor­ship of Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni, Hitler’s ally, legal per­se­cu­tion of Jews was estab­lished in Italy, and Bar­tali was con­front­ed with a choice; would he remain silent while his friends and neigh­bors were sub­ject­ed to the new ter­ror or would he use his tal­ent to help them? This beau­ti­ful and infor­ma­tive new pic­ture book biog­ra­phy of Bar­tali encour­ages young read­ers to empathize with his dilem­ma and to under­stand the incred­i­ble brav­ery of this qui­et and mod­est man.

From the begin­ning of the book, Bar­tali appears as both ordi­nary and unusu­al at the same time. Lean­ing for­ward on his rac­ing bicy­cle, he is a smil­ing fig­ure, appear­ing almost awk­ward in his argyle socks and match­ing sweater vest, pop­u­lar in his era. His fea­tures are some­what exag­ger­at­ed and his thick, unruly hair blows in the wind. Megan Hoyt describes his train­ing rou­tine as eight long years” of endurance and moti­va­tion, rid­ing across every type of ter­rain in Italy. When he wins the ulti­mate cycling com­pe­ti­tion, the Tour de France, in 1938, his refusal to accept the des­ig­na­tion of hero” is pre­scient, in light of the cat­a­stro­phe soon to engulf the world: No, no, no! Heroes are those who have suf­fered. I am just a cyclist.”

The book is care­ful­ly cal­i­brat­ed for its tar­get audi­ence, pro­vid­ing essen­tial infor­ma­tion about the rise of fas­cism in Europe dra­mat­i­cal­ly, but with­out unnec­es­sary detail. Strong ver­bal imagery con­veys the sense of impend­ing cat­a­stro­phe for Italy’s Jews: Tanks belched out thick smoke onto Italy’s beau­ti­ful cob­bled streets. Sirens screeched. Bombs fell. And the strange new ideas became even stranger.” The book’s graph­ic design inten­si­fies these state­ments. Read­ers iden­ti­fy with a man like Bar­tali who admits he is fright­ened, but weighs his fears against the con­se­quences of inaction.

Iacopo Bruno’s glo­ri­ous illus­tra­tions allude to graph­ic styles of the thir­ties and for­ties. Each pic­ture is like a movie still or a poster, with the col­lec­tive effect a dra­mat­ic sequence of events unrolling. In one scene, Bar­tali and his ally, Arch­bish­op Elia Dal­la Cos­ta, face a wall of doc­u­ments, each one a false iden­ti­ty card with the poten­tial to res­cue Jews from cap­ture and depor­ta­tion to con­cen­tra­tion camps. Read­ers see Bar­tali and the arch­bish­op in half-pro­file. Bar­tali grips the han­dle­bars of his bicy­cle while Dal­la Cos­ta points to the iden­ti­ty paper, on which Bruno has drawn sketch­es sim­u­lat­ing pho­tographs. Each sketch rep­re­sents an indi­vid­ual although Bar­tali must view them col­lec­tive­ly. Anoth­er two-page spread shows Bar­tali, his face fur­rowed with anx­i­ety, dis­tract­ing fas­cist guards by sign­ing auto­graphs for his fans. The guards are almost mech­a­nized images of evil, their green-hued skin match­ing their uni­forms and their eyes obscured com­plete­ly by their caps’ visors. Mean­while, in the oth­er half of the pic­ture, “…resis­tance work­ers secret­ly ush­ered Jew­ish fam­i­lies onto dif­fer­ent trains.” Detailed real­ism and metaphor coex­ist in these pictures.

There are many sto­ries about qui­et heroes whose lives embody the ide­al of brav­ery as its own reward. After the war, Bar­tali returns to his fam­i­ly life and his career as a cyclist, win­ning the Tour de France for a sec­ond time. Good is some­thing you do, not some­thing you talk about,” is one of sev­er­al quotes cho­sen by Hoyt that suc­cinct­ly sum­ma­rize Bartali’s life phi­los­o­phy. Thanks to this won­der­ful pic­ture book biog­ra­phy, his enor­mous con­tri­bu­tion emerges from the qui­et back­ground, where he pre­ferred to keep it, and serves as a les­son to the world.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes a time­line, a list of sources, an author’s note, and a mov­ing after­word by Lisa Bar­tali, Gino’s granddaughter.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

In this action-packed biog­ra­phy, a bicy­clist uses his fame as a nation­al sports hero to cam­ou­flage his dar­ing work sav­ing Jews. Every­one knows the rid­er who twice won the Tour de France. No one knows about his Holo­caust hero­ism; he keeps it secret until he dies. His brave wartime deeds occur in Italy, Germany’s ally. Approached by the Arch­bish­op of Flo­rence to join a net­work, he becomes a right­eous gen­tile, deliv­er­ing forged doc­u­ments to help Jews escape. He places the papers in the hol­low bars of his bike. He rides 250 miles every day. Nazi guards pass him through bor­der checks think­ing he is prac­tic­ing for the next race. Bar­tali esca­lates to hid­ing Jews in his own home, help­ing Jews secret­ly board trains, and res­cu­ing impris­oned Eng­lish sol­diers. Sophis­ti­cat­ed illus­tra­tions deliv­er expres­sive faces in scenes viewed from cre­ative angles. Why his silence? Some medals are pinned to your soul, not your jacket.”