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It was a long day. Two support cars for a dozen riders, staring at 200km of rolling road ahead, punctuated with a handful of brutal climbs.

The cars were some comfort. The rain bags in the back had extra clothes and plenty of food. The mechanic was never far and always right on hand when you needed him, with a wheel or a water bottle. But it was still a gruelling prospect. And this, of all days, was not a day for quitting, because this ride had a purpose. We were there to pay respect.

Perhaps more than any other sport, cycling lives through its history. The greatest champions achieve an almost mythical air among fans, and are cheered long after their last race. The greatest roads, meanwhile, are spoken about in hushed, reverential tones, not only because of where they are or how they look; more than anything they’re worshipped because of what they’ve seen.

Northern Italy’s great mountain passes are temples to the sport, but in April, we chose a lesser known route in Tuscany, a road that never saw any epic battles, that never even held a race, but that instead bore witness to something far more heroic, a victory more important than any classic or grand tour will ever be.

InGamba Tours is an American company that operates in Italy and offers some of the most unique, and enjoyable, cycling holidays available anywhere. Every year, in spring, a bunch of their regular clients get together in Chianti to get the season off the the right kind of start, with long days in the saddle and longer evenings at the table. This group of regulars is lovingly referred to as “The Donkeys,” even though the pace is definitely more thoroughbred.

This ride was something special added to the itinerary, just for the Donkeys. A salute to Gino Bartali, along the same Tuscan and Umbrian back-roads that he used to train on and that carried him to his most remarkable personal triumph.

It’s an odd thing to say about a three-time champion at the Giro d’Italia and a two-time Tour de France winner, but the world never got to see the best of Gino on a bike. When he raced, the Tuscan was a dominant force the likes of which has been seen rarely before or since, but il Uomo di Ferro was robbed of his best years, like so many others, by World War II.

He lost what should have been the most fruitful part of his career, and his legions of fans across Italy missed out on seeing just how good he could have been. But when I talk about never seeing the best of Bartali on a bike, I don’t mean all the races that he missed, because though the victories would undoubtedly have been impressive, riding solo across the hills of Tuscany,  he fought for something far more valuable than any trophy and put himself at the heart of a struggle more treacherous than any Giro.

Bartali was 25 when the fighting started, dragging Europe into chaos and putting an end to all major sporting events. He could have trained, and waited for his second chance, a triumphant return to the Tour de France and to the top of the podium, but instead he chose to risk his life for the good of others, ferrying documents around Italy, hidden inside his bicycle, so that Jewish families might be saved from the relentless savagery of the Nazis. Even with his fame and fortune, discovery would have spelled certain death for Bartali, and yet, he did it anyway.

For a bunch of cyclists, blessed to live in peaceful and prosperous times, both the importance, and the danger, of Bartali’s selflessness is impossible to comprehend. He was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice so the most vulnerable might be saved from it, when so many others like him would have chosen to look after themselves and abandon the helpless to Hitler’s great evil. That altruism provided plenty of food for thought during our little tribute to one of Tuscany’s greatest heroes.

We followed his tracks, but the ride couldn’t have been any different. We had new equipment, the car, a mechanic, and not a care in the world. So much has changed since his time, but we passed the towns he passed on the streets he used, saw the train station where he met the resistance and were, thanks to him, so many Jews were able to escape to the Allied-controlled south and to freedom. We met his mechanic, and heard affectionate tales about Bartali the man, rather than the cyclist, and fittingly, we finished in Assisi, a spiritual place that the ever-pious Gino would surely have approved of.

Looking back now from farther down the road, it was that special kind of ride that’s both draining and fulfilling. A life-affirming experience with just the whirr of freewheels and a small group of friends for company. It wasn’t easy. And we all suffered. But like I said, giving up wasn’t an option. Admitting defeat was the one thing Bartali would never have done. And so, like him, we kept on pedalling.

For more info on InGamba Tours visit http://ingamba.pro/

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Colin O'Brien
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