Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tour legends and legends of the tour; stage 4 - 1948

Bobet chats with the Pope

The great Italian, Gino Bartali entered the 1948 Tour for the first time since he won it a full decade earlier. After twelve stages of racing, it didn't look like he would repeat his victory, as he languished over 21 minutes behind the leader, Frenchman Louison Bobet.

Bartali leads

Indeed, most thought the Tour was won, or at least fnished for the Italians, and a majority of the Italian press abandoned the race and went home from San Remo at the end of stage 11. Bartali contemplated quitting himself. Two days later, however, an assassination attempt in Italy would indirectly alter the course of the race.

On July 14th, a rest day for the riders, a Sicilian by the name of Domenico Pallante shot the chairman of Italy's powerful Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, three or four times, depending on who you believe. The shooting caused a political crisis in Italy, including a General Strike and large-scale protests from Italy's Leftists.


Fearing the problem would spiral into Civil War, the Italian prime minister, Alcide De Gasperi, rang Bartali. One version of the conversation has it that De Gasperi said, "Everywhere's in chaos here. Do you think you can still win the Tour? It could make a difference, and not just for you." Another variant has it that De Gasperi simply asked Bartali to win a stage, to which Bartali replied that he would not just win a stage but win the whole race.

Whatever was said, it worked. The next day, on the Col de la Croix de Fer, Bartali rode away from Bobet and everyone else. He flew up the Col d'Izoard and by stage's end had clawed back all but one minute of the deficit. The next day, Bartali and Bobet duked it out for much of the stage until the latter cracked.  On his arrival in Aix-les-Bains, Bartali took the yellow jersey with a nice buffer of 8 minutes. He won the next stage too and stage 19 for good measure.

A postal stamp for every start and finish town of the '48 Tour, signed by Bobet and Bartali. Found here .

Back in Italy, everyone was glued to their radios. On July 17th, the General Strike was called off and Palmiro Togliatti was recovering in hospital. By the time the peloton reached Paris, Bobet had slipped to fourth, Bartali had won by over 26 minutes and Italy was a little more stable thanks to his efforts.

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