A grand departure: Italy gears up to host start of Tour de France for first time

The Tuscan capital of Florence is no stranger to tourists, but they are usually more interested in frescoes and Michelangelo than yellow jerseys and Tadej Pogačar.

On Saturday, however, an estimated 800,000 cycling fans are expected to gather in the city for the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, the first time Italy has hosted the start of the world’s most famous cycle race in its 121-year history.

For local authorities in Tuscany and Emilia Romagna it is a fitting way of showcasing a part of Italy that has produced some of the country’s most legendary cyclists, from Marco Pantani, the maverick climber, to Gastone Nencini, the chain-smoking Lion of Mugello, and Alfonsina Strada, the only woman to have participated in the men’s Giro d’Italia in 1924.

For Gioia Bartali, however, the first stage brings particular poignancy. Her grandfather, Gino Bartali, was a two-time Tour de France winner, born in Florence, who was discovered posthumously to have saved the lives of hundreds of Italian Jews during the second world war.

Gino Bartali rides in the Pyrenees during the 1950 Tour de France stage between Pau and Saint-Gaudens. Photograph: STF/AFP/Getty Images

This is a truly extraordinary event that pays tribute to my grandfather but also to Ottavio Bottecchia [the first Italian to win the yellow jersey] and other great figures like Gastone Nencini,” she told the Guardian this week.

“They belong to an historical era of cycling that practically doesn’t exist any more … they are cyclists who truly wrote pages of history and who brought prestige to Italy throughout the world.”

On Saturday, after setting off from Piazza della Signoria and parading through the centre of Florence before the race’s official start, the Tour peloton will pass in front of the Gino Bartali museum in Ponte a Ema, where the champion was born.

It is not far from the home of Cinzia Otri, an ice-cream maker who has created a special flavour dedicated to the Tour de France, which is being served at her Gelateria della Passera in the Santo Spirito area of Florence.

Named Bartali Bartali, she said the yellow ice-cream with a dash of purple is a tribute to both the yellow jersey of the Tour winner and the colours that represent Florence. She said: “We have always felt very affectionate towards our champion and wanted to dedicate an ice-cream to him … but we are also very proud to be hosting the start of the race. There’s a lot of excitement.”

Gino Bartali, who also won the Giro d’Italia three times, clinched his first Tour de France victory in 1938 and again exactly a decade later. But it was not until after his death in 2000 that his family learned that during the war he had used his bike to courier counterfeit identity documents, hidden in the frame and handlebars, to Jews hiding out in towns and cities in Tuscany and neighbouring regions, saving hundreds of lives.

Marco Pantani of Italy waves a clenched fist after winning the 10th stage of the Tour de France in 1995. Photograph: Marco Pantani/AP/Press Association Images

Not even my grandmother knew,” said Gioia Bartali, who attended a tribute to her grandfather at the synagogue in Florence on Wednesday. “He hid an entire family in the cellar next to their home. He needed to preserve lives so did not tell anyone. He would go out on his bike early in the morning and would tell my grandmother he was training. But even later in life … he used to say: ‘Good [deeds] are done, but not spoken about.’”

He did, however, speak of the challenges of performing in major races. “There was none of the kind of assistance there is today,” said Bartali. “The roads were of poor quality and there were moments when they didn’t even get a drop of water.”

The devout Catholic, who during the 1937 Tour de France fell from a bridge into a river, and used to pray not to fall off his bike, rather than win. “As he knew that could be the end of his racing,” she said.

This year’s race officially departs at midday on Saturday from Viola Park, Fiorentina FC’s sparkling sports hub inaugurated last year, with the first stage taking the peleton eastwards to the coastal resort town of Rimini.

2024 Tour de France route

Tour de France map

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