We call our triumphant athletes heroes, even legends. When they succeed after they’ve failed, we say they have achieved redemption.
ROAD TO VALOR: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation
Most of the time, we’re full of beans.
But every once in a while, along comes somebody worthy of this sort of hyperbole. Such a character was Gino Bartali, though if you had told him so, he’d probably have said he didn’t want to talk about it.
In “Road to Valor,’’ journalist Aili McConnon and her brother, historical researcher Andres McConnon, unfold the inspiring and remarkable story of Bartali, an Italian cycling legend, and of his untold secret role in a successful scheme to save Jews from the Holocaust during World War II.
The book is divided into three parts: Bartali’s early impoverished years in rural Tuscany through his first Tour de France victory; his courageous work during World War II; and finally his second Tour triumph, which set a record for the longest span between wins in the iconic race.
As a child, Bartali first practiced his sport by climbing under the bar of a bike he was too small to ride, putting his feet on the pedals, reaching up over his head to grab the handlebar, and desperately bumping down a rutted road in Ponte a Ema, the small Italian town where he was born. Eventually his passion for biking fueled a will to train and win. He learned to find “solace, even nourishment, in the sport’s most perverse pleasure — the suffering of others.” In 1938, he won the Tour de France, which “sent the Italian press into happy hysterics,” but put Bartali in an uncomfortable position. The same press that celebrated his victory wanted to tout him as an exemplar of the virtues of Mussolini’s fascist regime. Bartali preferred not to cooperate.
Under normal circumstances, Bartali would have returned to France in 1939 to defend his Tour title, but circumstances in Italy were not normal in 1939. Relations between France and Italy were so strained that the Italian government would not send a team to compete.
During the war years that followed, Bartali found himself limited to regional races or no races at all. But when the authorities in Italy began to carry out Hitler’s insane and murderous policies, Bartali put his talent to a more significant purpose. A devout Catholic, he partnered with local priests who’d established a humble but effective counterfeiting operation to provide Jewish families with identity papers so they could avoid deportation to the death camps.
Bartali’s role was to hide the papers in the hollow bars of his bicycle and transport them from town to town. At checkpoints where anyone else would have been stopped and searched, he was waved through by soldiers who knew him as a champion. Before departing on rides that would sometimes keep him away from home for several days, Bartali would tell his wife he was off to do some training. She must have wondered what he was training for, since there were no races, but Bartali knew that if he was caught, champion or not, he’d be executed, and that the less his wife knew, the safer she would be.
The McConnons found evidence that Bartali had saved at least hundreds of lives, perhaps many more.
By the end of the war, Bartali was around 30 and had blown through his savings. So he started trying to make a little money by traveling around the country and staging small races, to mixed results. When Bartali announced he would train and compete in the Tour de France in 1948, he was ridiculed, even at home, as an old man. French cycling fans, who assumed he’d been a collaborator during the war, jeered and threw snowballs at him. He won, anyway. As one journalist put it then, he “defeated everyone and everything, nature and man.” That account didn’t mention Bartali’s heroism during the war. The McConnons have told the story of his great and greater victories powerfully and well.
A Game” from WBUR in Boston. He can be reached at blittlef