Smuggle Documents Like a Tour de France Champion

By Scott B. Wilson

Italy’s greatest cycling superstar, Gino Bartali, is best known for winning the 1938 Tour de France, then huffing cigarettes and downing chianti for ten years before winning again in 1948. It’s considered one of the most unprecedented comebacks in sports history, but recently historians and journalists discovered Bartali’s involvement in a far more dramatic plot – rich in clandestine subterfuge and unsung heroism – that took place between his two epic wins, at the behest of World War II.


It’s a story that defies plausibility: a priest and forgery expert, Father Niccacci, and an atheist printer, Luigi Brizi, enlist professional cyclist Gino Bartali to use his celebrity status and the ease of movement that comes with it to transport fake passports to Italian Jews and other at-risk populations hidden in monasteries and safe-houses throughout Nazi/Fascist-controlled Italy. By rolling documents and stuffing them in his handlebar and seat tube, Bartali personally saved hundreds of people and kept it a secret (he didn’t even tell his wife!) until making a meek admission on his deathbed.


Now as harrowing as the current worldwide political flavor may be for believers in democracy, things aren’t quite as bad as they were in Bartali’s time. Nonetheless, it might do the cycling contingent of a republic well to take a few tips from the Italian champion’s heroism.

So, should anybody ever need to their adapt their training routine to double as a covert messenger service, here are the best places to hide documents on la bicicletta.

Level I:

As an international celebrity bike racer, Bartali enjoyed more freedom of movement around the countryside than regular citizens, though he still had to stop and submit to searches at road barricades. Apparently,  the authorities didn’t think to unplug his bar ends.


But I would like to point out that underneath the bar wrap is a great spot to hide documents, provided you bring along some finishing tape for re-wrapping.


Level II:

Because it’s slightly less obvious than inside the handlebars, the hollow of a seat post conceals a rolled parchment nicely. Depending on the tube’s internal diameter, a bar plug or wine cork will work to keep the docs from falling into the bottom bracket.


Level III:

Here’s a secret hiding spot that has only come about since the advent of threadless headsets: behind the handlebars. The modern stem has about thirty cubic centimeters of wasted space inside, might as well use it for smuggling.


Shimano users might also want to take advantage of the watertight space behind the Hollowtech II crankset’s preload bolt. Just make sure to clean out the grease first.


Level IV:

It is said that as Bartali became increasingly nervous of his frontline role in the plot to undermine the Nazis and the Fascists, he took greater precautions to hide docs in ever more challenging locations. But one of the hardest storage spots to find on a bike is also the one with the greatest capacity: the downtube. On most –but not all– bicycles the downtube can be accessed by removing the crank and bottom bracket. On a steel frame, sandwiching the docs to the inner tube with a powerful magnet will keep them in place.


A nefarious reader might see this article and draw certain felonious conclusions. But to be clear, Bicycle Times and all its affiliates do not condone the use of bicycles to smuggle narcotic contraband, and this article is in no way intended to be a guide on how to turn a cyclist into a drug mule (we’ll save that discussion for an article on Pablo Escobar’s continental racing team). This is a work of speculation designed to entertain and provide historical context to the life of Gino Bartali during WWII. So, we will be extremely disappointed if dozens of drug-totting bikers show up to the after parties of any Bicycle Times or Dirt Rag sponsored events, and start passing out “freebies.” That would be, like, very uncool.


Want to learn more about Gino Bartali and his wartime efforts? I suggest starting with Pedalare! Pedalare! by John Foot, followed by Road to Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon. The 2014 film My Italian Secret also provides some excellent first-person accounts from individuals saved by Bartali, though I take issue with the anachronistic bicycle they use in the cut-away scenes to represent Bartali ([Caution: nerd alert ahead] it has a parallelogram-style derailleur, which Bartali famously refused to implement on any of his racing setups). Still, it’s a nice movie.


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