How Bartali’s Tour victory helped avert civil war in Italy

The remarkable Dutch film, Tour of Legends was  a sell-out at the Riverside Studios cinema in Hammersmith, London, on Sunday.

And no wonder. For this film by Eric van Empel  provides a unique and captivating insight into how Gino Bartali’s historic 1948 Tour de France victory is said to have helped avert civil war.  It provided a fine   climax to an enjoyable afternoon’s feast of cycling films organised by Bob Davis, and included Ray Pascoe’s “Notebook on the  2009 Tour” – a real gem.

The audience were treated to the  Tour both ancient and modern, plus the home cycling scene from the 50s to the 70s, and we were even taken on cycle a tour of Copenhagen’s  remarkable cycle lane infrastructure – eat your heart out, Boris Johnson, London’s cycling Mayor.

The programme began with a tribute to the late Albert Beurick, of the Cafe Den Engel in Ghent. Over the decades Beurick befriended countless British riders who tried their luck in the tough Belgian school of bike racing.

Most notably they included Tom Simpson, pro road champion in 1965 and Graham Webb, amateur world champion in 1967, the year of the great British double when Beryl Burton also won the women’s crown.

Two of those youngsters  – now mature gentlemen of the peleton – were  in the audience. Former Giro stage winner Vin Denson and former international team manager John Morris recalled Albert’s generosity, referring to him affectionately as  “Fat Albert”.

The selection of films depicting the British racing scene  included speedy shots of 1950s pro road record breaker Eileen Sheridan and road and time trial legend from the 1970s, John Woodburn, breaking comp record for 12-hours. Both were at the show, and warmly applauded.

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We saw British Pathe Newsreel of  the 1951 and 1952 Daily Express Tours of Britain which attracted massive crowds and were won, respectively, by Ian Steel and Ken Russell.

The programme leapt forward to 1979 and the junior “25” title race and the national hill climb championship, all great stuff. Amusing, too!  There was laughter as the commentary informed us how events were filmed – from the boot of a car. You could see the look of surprise  on some of the competitors faces as the vehicle drew level with them!

Traffic was comparatively light, but there still near misses at the turn which today would give  “Health and Safety” nightmares.

Bikes had those stick up cables and riders struggled on huge gears and spectators wore flared trousers.  Sweaters tended have a huge black squares all over them, as demonstrated by TV commentator Phil Liggett,  interviewing new hill-climb champion Jeff Williams.

Ray Pascoe’s 2009 TdF notebook brought us up to date. This was a beauty – catching the very essence of the Tour, as good if not better than TV, I thought.  The scale of it, the chaos,  and he got some nice candid shots of all the guys, Cav, Wiggo, Armstrong and Alberto.

But the piece de resistance was the Tour of Legends – examining the many stories of how Gino Bartali’s 1948 victory saved Italy from civil war. Of how the Italian president pleaded for Bartali to win, to lift the his countrymen’s spirits.

Of how 10 years after his first Tour win in 1938 – two years after the end of the Second World War – Bartali endured a fierce struggle with French favourite Louison Bobet to win decisively. Bartali mesmerised Italy – indeed the entire Continent – with his three consecutive Alpine stage wins: stage 13 of 274km; stage 14, 263km and stage 15, 256km!

This was the age before TV, when often all you had to go on were the reported anecdotes.  Exploits on the road were viewed by few, unlike today’s wall to wall  tv’ coverage which purports to tell all!

The task before Van Empel was to investigate the old fading newspaper stories, the stories behind the  glass plates from Equipe’s extensive photographic archive. His quest, to  separate fact from myth.  

He did this by tracking down and interviewing many of  Bartali’s compatriots, riders like Belgian hero Briek Schotte, who was second to Bartali in 1948.

These old guys told it like it was, first-hand stuff about Bartali and his two legendary opponents, Louison Bobet, the gentleman, and Jean Robic, not so gentlemanly, apparently. And their stories, although recalled with humour, recalled the terrible weather conditions on the Alpine stages held over far greater distances then today.

The snow and rain, plunging temperatures.  We learned of Bartali’s impassive expression which gave not a hint of suffering, even when  21 minutes behind Bobet. And then, as fortunes reversed and the  gap was closed, of Bartali’s chosen method of attack. There would be three attacks. And three times he would wait. Then at the fourth, he’d be gone for good.

The film climaxed with nice bit of camera work showing veteran Schotte at the wheel of his Mercedes, retracing an Alpine route. Suitably enough, it was snowing, sleeting, as it was in ‘48.

The film leaves Schotte and his memories there,  to fast forward and suddenly refocus on another Alpine scene,  54 years into the future,   to witness another heroic ride, this time by a modern Dutch gladiator.

Emotional scenes greet Michael Boogerd’s lone victory at  La Plagne on stage 16 of the 2002 Tour.
In conclusion, and perhaps to illustrate how the cult of Le Tour continues, a perfect still of Boogerd  fades into black and white dots of newsprint as if to say, one day his epic ride will also become the stuff of legend.