13 June 2012

Heroism and Determination

It would take a majorly good book to get me interested in any tale of a bicycle racer. He raced and won, or he lost, who cares? But this particular rider was a hero in more than one way.

During Italy's turbulent and dangerous WW II years Gino Bartali saved a number of Jewish refugees from certain death, risking his life as he pedaled past Fascist road blocks with forged identity papers hidden in the frame of his training bike.

The book that tells his story is The Road to Valor, A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation, written by the brother and sister team of Aili and Andres McConnon.

Brothers and sisters have started tea companies together, made movies and climbed mountains, even written books and created a literary magazine, but no other team has the experience, talent and perseverance to write such an impressive book. Aili is a Canadian journalist; her brother an historical researcher. Perfect.

The book gracefully blends factual narrative with novel-like effects.

"At the steep foot of the Vars, on a windswept slope high in the French Alps, Gino Bartali lost his temper. The two cyclists following him were drafting, riding so close to his back wheel that he was forced to be their shield against the icy wind and drag them along... Ahead of the trio, a lone figure was getting smaller as he cycled away along the muddy road, a coagulated laceration zigzagging its way up the barren escarpment, winding around craggy pinnacles, stunted fir trees, and piles of rock debris until it vanished into the cold mountain mist. Gino had to make his move now if he would have any chance of catching the leader disappearing into the fog before him."
This is how the book begins and ends – with a thrilling account of the unexpected triumph of Italian champion Gino Bartali winning the Tour de France in 1948 for a second time – ten years and a world war after his first victory.

Born in the first year of the first World War, Bartali grew up poor, riding his beat-up bike over the hilly, dusty roads near Florence. The popularity of the bicycle in Italy "opened up a new world of opportunity – and speed" at a time few could afford any other means of transit. When riders like Bartali raced, everyone knew from personal experience what it took to ride and win – Italians everywhere felt it in their bones and in their sore legs.

Gino Bartali first realized he could win races when he and his friends encountered amateur racers training along the steep Tuscan roads. "...On many climbs with me, they would lose," Gino recalled. "At first, even I was astounded and embarrassed by this discovery."

Mussolini's fascist government coopted Bartali's fame and directed his career in order to promote political goals. "Their training methods were transformed from ordinary preparation into a de facto showcase of all the advances of Fascist theory and planning."

With a young family to protect, Bartali could not overtly resist this unwelcome attention. But in private, and almost by accident, he fell in with the underground resistance and an ad hoc network of brave and sympathetic priests and nuns.

Bartali discovered that his fame made a perfect cover for these activities. He had every apparent reason to be riding roads in wartime. At German or Italian checkpoints he would sign autographs and kid around, all the while carrying life-saving forged documents from a print shop in Assisi to wherever they were needed. He also served a covert military function for the partisans, reporting on troop movements and the location of check points.

After the war Bartali resurrected his riding career. When all believed he was too old and exhausted by the war years, he convincingly, heroically, won the Tour de France one last time. His victory stunned Italy and incidentally helped quell the crisis brought on by the attempted assassination of the leader of the Italian Communist party. Italians about to fight each other unexpectedly found themselves sharing a drink and bragging about this marvelous rider and his astounding victory.

Like other heroes who survived the war years, Bartali rarely talked about his exploits. It took ten years of research and interviews to find new evidence and piece together this authentic and thrilling story. The Road to Valor is an unforgettable tale of heroism and determination.


The Road to Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon. Crown hard cover $25. ISBN 9780307590640.

The authors' website for the book...

The publisher's website for the book...

Other brother-sister writing teams... and here... and here... just to prove it can be done.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Great review, inspired me to get the book just before a visit to Florence. I passed it on to my host family who were quite excited to see their local hero in a new light. Moto gratzie Tony!

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