Explainer’s Greatest Hits: Milan-San Remo in the war years

Some of Italy's greatest races continued to thrive even during World War II.

Editor’s note: This column was originally published last year, but we thought it would be of interest during this week’s lead-up to Saturday’s Milan-San Remo.
Dear Explainer,
Last fall, I read with interest your column on racing in Belgium during World War II (see “Surviving in the hardest of times) and last week’s column on Paris Nice and its history.

Click for larger image
Gino Bartali (L), seen here at the 1938 Tour de France, was an Italian national hero before, during and after the war.

Like your “Uncle Max,” I had relatives in Europe during the war and my grandfather, an Italian draftee, has often talked about bike racing in Italy during the war years. Wasn’t the Giro d’Italia canceled during the war? Was my grandfather confused? Did the sport really survive under Mussolini’s reign?
— Alan Moretti
New York

A.Dear Alan,
I appreciate your question, largely because racing during the war has been a subject that has long interested me. For one thing, I find it amazing how people in the most extraordinary circumstances still try to hold on to those elements that made life seem normal.

You are right about the Giro, Alan. A young 20-year-old named Fausto Coppi earned the first of his five Giro d’Italia victories in 1940. Unfortunately, the race was then suspended for five years and he had to wait until 1946 for another opportunity, when he finished second to Gino Bartali. (One can only imagine the sort of — at the risk of relying on an overused word here — epic struggles we all missed in those years.)

Some, but not all, racing was put on hold for the duration of the war.

It is important to remember that Benito Mussolini’s time in power was not limited to just the war years. He became prime minister of Italy in 1922 when he and his fellow Fascists undertook the “march on Rome” and staged a coup. He joined the Axis in the late 1930s. While Italian troops were already fighting in Ethiopia in 1936, Italy didn’t actually enter the European war until June 10, 1940 (which, quite coincidentally, was the day after that year’s Giro d’Italia finished). One thing Mussolini tried to do after involving his country in WWII was to attempt to maintain a sense of normality. Aside from “making the trains run on time,” the Fascists did their best to keep major sporting events on the calendar.

While Italy’s national tour was suspended, there were other races that did manage to continue during at least part of the war. Chief among those were Milan-San Remo and the Giro di Lombardia, two of the sport’s oldest and most consistently promoted one-day classics. Even in World War I, Milan-San Remo only missed one year (1916) due to the conflict. Remarkably, Lombardia didn’t even miss a single edition during “the war to end all wars.”

Bartali won la classica di Primavera in 1939 and 1940. In those years, as the rest of Europe was already mired in war, the fields were largely composed of Italian riders. In 1939, for example, the only non-Italian to finish Milan-San Remo was German Wilhem Wudernitz (52nd at 58:00) and in 1940, the sole non-Italian finisher was Swiss rider Fritz Stocker (58th, at 24:00).

That pattern continued during the war years, with only Italian riders competing in both races. Coppi and Bartali did participate, although neither won Milan-San Remo nor Lombardia in the war years. The 1941 edition of Milan-San Remo was won by Pierino Favalli, Adolfo Leoni won it in 1942 and, in 1943, the victor was none other than Cino Cinelli, whose name many of us regularly see when we look down at our handlebars. Many of those cyclists, like your grandfather, were drafted into the Italian Army, but top riders were nonetheless allowed to continue to train and race.

Coppi did not ride in the 1943 edition of Milan-San Remo. That month his duties as a bike-racing soldier underwent a bit of a shifting with more emphasis suddenly placed on the “soldier” part. Coppi, along with the rest of Italy’s 38th Infantry, was sent to North Africa in mid-March of 1943. By mid-April, Coppi was captured by British forces near Majaz al Bab in Tunisia. He was returned to Italy in 1945 and released at war’s end. He then resumed racing that summer and came back to win Milan-San Remo in `46.

Bartali did compete in Milan-San Remo in `43, finishing fifth. Although racing, Bartali was also active in the Italian resistance — the Assisi Underground — and is often credited with smuggling dozens of Italian Jews out of Italy as Mussolini succumbed to increasing German pressure to deport them to death camps. One famous story describes how Bartali would ride through the mountains with a trailer on his bike, convincing guards that it was merely part of his training regime. The trailer contained a hidden compartment in which he would tow a refugee to the Swiss border and then ride home with a lighter load.

It was Bartali’s national following as a sports hero and his reputation as “Gino the Pious” that immunized him from the risk of arrest by Italian Fascists or even German troops. (Such was not the case with Ottavio Bottecchia, whose remains were found at the side of a road in 1927. While there has never been a conclusive resolution of his mysterious death, many continue to believe that Bottecchia, winner of the 1924 Tour de France, was murdered by Mussolini’s “Black Shirts” for his anti-Fascist activities.)

While Milan-San Remo, Lombardia and other races continued for three years during the war, even the pretense of normalcy ended when the Allies’ invasion of Sicily — “Operation Husky” — kicked off on July 9, 1943. The Allies first bombed Rome ten days later and Mussolini was then deposed at the end of the month. He was eventually returned to power with the help of the Germans in September of that year, but the Allied troops working their way up the Italian boot meant that no one was all that concerned about putting on bike races and the like. Lombardia was canceled in 1943 and `44. Milan-San Remo was shut down for 1944 and `45.

Unlike those in most other countries, Italian races resumed almost immediately at war’s end. The Giro di Lombardia returned in 1945, just four months after the end of the war. Milan-San Remo, the Giro d’Italia and a host of other races took up where they left off the following year.

Your grandfather, Alan, was probably quite correct in remembering that Italian cycling continued on for most of the war. It’s something worth remembering this weekend, when the world’s top racers line up for the 101st edition of la classica di Primavera.


Email Charles Pelkey

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