He was a boy who came from a relatively poor family living in a small town near Florence. He was able to go to a school in Florence, but had to buy a bicycle for transportation. He worked and saved his money, and was finally able to buy a fourth-hand bike.
It changed his life. The boy became Gino Bartali, one of the great cycling legends. In Road to Valor: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation, Aili and Andres McConnon tell Bartali’s story.
Actually, they tell three interlocking stories.
The first is Gino Bartali the great cyclist, who won the Tour de France twice – with each win separated by a decade – a record for time in-between wins that’s still unbroken.
The second is Gino Bartali the Italian resistance messenger, who at the behest of the Archbishop of Florence smuggled fake identity documents all over northern Italy, hidden in his bicycle. What he did saved the lives of hundreds of Jews. He even hid a Jewish family from the Nazis in his basement in Florence.
The third is Gino Bartali, the man whose impossible victory in a Tour de France stage in the Alps helped to stop exploding violence in Italy between the Communist and Christian Democratic parties. As one observer pointed out, men who had been trying to kill each other suddenly turned their attention northward, and celebrated Bartali’s victory together. Bartali had been 21 minutes behind the Tour leader, and in one stage erased the difference. He powered on to win the 1948 Tour, despite all of sports journalists and cycling fans who considered him a “washed-up old man” at 33.
The story of helping the Italian resistance and saving the lives of Jews was learned only fairly recently. Bartali, who died in 2000 at the age of 85, never talked about until late in life, when he told his oldest son some of what happened. Others, especially the Jewish families he helped to save, corroborated his story. His cycling around Tuscany, Umbria and other Italian locales could always be explained as “training.” But secreted in the tubes of his bicycle were false identity papers, to help protect Jews and also to help many escape.
The McConnons tell a riveting, wonderful story. Bartali wasn’t a saint; he had his human frailties like the rest of us. But he had great courage, and he acted on that courage – to save lives, and to win an impossible race. Even if you’re not a cycling fan, Road to Valor is an inspiring, moving account of a terrible time in human history.
Photograph: Gino Bartali cycling in a road race.