Gino Bartali,WWII and his "Missing Years:" Was he the World's Best Cyclist during that era?
Updated: Oct 9, 2021
The Missing Years
Gino Bartali slots in at #4 in the Peloton Legends Top 10 Professional Cyclists list. Part of that scoring system involves assigning extra points to cyclists for what I call the “Missing Years.” These additional points were added to a cyclist’s raw score, which are all those points which were earned in the all races that are included in the scoring system. Those Missing Years point adjustments were added to compensate those cyclists who lost two or more years from their palmarès due to injury or war. The most obvious recipients of these “bonuses” would be those cyclists whose careers were interrupted by WWII. Those names include all the following: Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Marcel Kint, Ferdi Kübler, Fiorenzo Magni, Alberic Schotte, and Rik Van Steenbergen. Again, it’s not something that will be covered here but the math behind the calculations, and the resulting points earned, were included in the final ranking of The Top 100 Cyclists. My belief is that had WWII not robbed him of his peak/prime years Gino Bartali would have been the cyclist who ended up closest to Merckx in point totals. Bonus points aside, there's no questioning that Gino should be counted among the best cyclists in history.
“Gino the Pious” - Palmarès and Missing Years
Over the course of his amazing 20-year career, Gino Bartali amassed the following legendary palmarès:
4 Milan - San Remo
3 Giro di Lombardia
3 Giro d’Italia
2 Tour de France
5 Additional GT podiums
9 Grand Tour Mountains Classifications
4 Season Long Competitions
4 Week-long stages races
19 Classics and Semi-Classics
Remarkably, all this was accomplished with the vast bulk of his prime years lost to WWII. Bartali’s birthdate was July 18, 1914, so he would have turned 27 in the summer of 1941. There were no editions of the Giro from ‘41 - ‘45 and there were no editions of the Tour de France from ‘40 - ‘46. Yet, after an unbelievable six-year hiatus from the Grand Tours, Bartali would win the Giro again in 1946 - defeating none other than Fausto Coppi. He also won the Tour in 1948, a full decade after his last victory in La Grande Boucle in 1938. It is a record gap between Tour victories that stands to this day. It's also worth mentioning that he won three consecutive Alpine stages in that Tour, another accomplishment that has yet to be equalled. It’s mind blowing that he won nine (9!) Mountains Classifications between the Giro and Tour yet did so without the inclusion of his five most productive years. Unreal.
Think about the ramifications of that last paragraph for a second. If Miguel Indurain had lost his prime years (age 27-31), he would not have won a single Grand Tour; gone would be all five of his Tour wins and both of his Giro victories. If we were to remove Merckx’s prime years, Bernard Hinault would now be occupying the #1 slot. If Hinault had his prime years removed, he’d drop out of the Top 12. I could go on and on. I’m not at all suggesting that if Bartali had competed in a full calendar of races throughout his prime years, that he’d have surpassed Merckx in point totals. No way. I do think he would have finished ahead of Hinault and would have been a lot closer to Merckx. One thing I am willing to say is that I don’t believe there has been another cyclist who has scored as many points both in those years before and after their prime years.
Gino and Fausto
For a period of time in the late '30s and late '40s, Bartali was arguably one of the world's best cyclists, but I know what some of you might be thinking. Yes, Gino would have been a lot closer to Merckx in point totals, but so too would Fausto Coppi. Yes, that is true, but there is one significant difference between “Ill Campionnisimo” and Gino - Gino’s Missing Years were in his prime years and Fausto’s weren’t - he was five years younger than his greatest rival. There’s no doubt that Coppi would have racked up many significant victories during the war years, but in the two head-to-head Grand Tour battles between the two legends, when they were both in their peak years - the 1946 and 1947 Giro - they were very closely matched. Gino defeated Fausto in the ‘46 Giro by a slim 47 second margin and Coppi returned the favor by narrowly defeating Bartali in the ‘47 Giro with a small gap of 1’43”. It must also be mentioned that Fausto was often injured and very prone to breaking bones, so there’s a very good chance he would have seen some down time during the war years.
Bartali turned 34 in July of 1948, yet still won that summer’s Tour by a whopping 26’16” (Fausto was not present); that winning margin is the second largest after WWII next to Coppi’s 28’17” buffer in 1952 Tour. That ‘48 Tour win would be Gino’s last Grand Tour victory, as the inevitable slow decline had finally begun. Yet, even at the age of 39, “The Man of Steel” won the prestigious Italian semi-classic, the Giro dell'Emilia in 1953.
I know I’m going to be in the minority on this one, but again, it is my conviction that if Gino Bartali had been able to race a full calendar during the war years, that he would have slotted into the second spot on the Top 100 list, ahead of both Coppi and Hinault. Am I saying he was “better than” both of those guys? It's an unanswerable question since his peak years were lost, but what I am saying is that I think he would have scored more points in my ranking system than either cyclist. Take that for what you will.
Fans of Gino Bartali can buy one of kind merchandise like t-shirts, hats, beanies, and coffee mugs at my Peloton Legends store. Lastly, my book is available through Amazon Prime (this is the US site, but it is also available through your local Amazon marketplace if you are not in the US).
(This article originally appeared in The Podium Cafe in August of 2020)
Illustration copyright © CorVos