Gino Bartali, the cyclist who inspired a nation

October 4, 2012

Road to Valor: A true story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the cyclist who inspired a nation, by Aili and Andres McConnon (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012)

Gino Bartali, writes Elie Wiesel, was “a simple citizen and great athlete [who] chose to oppose a cruel and racist dictatorship by saving Jewish victims in Italy.”

In this one sentence, Wiesel provides the plot line for a book that portrays the destructive character of World War II, the radical evil of the Nazi/Fascist movement in Germany and Italy during that period of time, the aggressive persecution and genocide of Jews across Europe, and the efforts of a few Gentiles to help Jews escape.

All of this is in the biography of Gino Bartali, an Italian cyclist who won the Tour de France two times—once before the war and again afterwards. In the lost decade between these two tour wins, he quietly and at great personal risk joined a secretive venture organized and maintained by the Cardinal Archbishop of Florence. On his bicycle, he became a courier transporting forged ID papers, stuffed into his bicycle’s seat tube, that enabled hundreds of Jews to escape the death camps.

Bartali came from a working class family as did most cyclists of his era. His first bicycle was a rusty fourth-hand machine, but on this decrepit mount he soon began to challenge the racing community and quickly moved into competitive status. Although his father strongly opposed Gino’s racing, he persisted and soon was joined by his younger brother who also showed great promise as a cyclist.

Their father’s opposition seemed to be justified when the brother died of injuries suffered in a racing accident. Gino kept on racing and soon became one of the most celebrated young athletes in the nation.

At this point Mussolini was coming into power and wanted to use sports as a way of establishing national pride and connecting it with his fascist movement. This meant that Gino and his cycling companions were swept into politically controlled processes over which they had no control.

The political maneuvering poisoned cycling, and major events like the Tour de France were suspended during the war. During this period, ordinary life activities were increasingly stressful as people lived with food shortages, lawlessness, destruction of their communities because of wartime conflict, and constant personal danger.

With someone like Bartali, already in the public eye because of his remarkable activities as professional cyclist, the danger was even greater. Thus, he was placed in a very difficult position when Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa asked him to join in a special venture that he and others in the Church were developing. From early years, Bartali had been a devout Catholic and the Cardinal had been his father in the faith. He could not easily turn down the request.

Despite the personal danger to himself, his wife, and son, Bartali decided that he had to do it. In part, it was because some of his close friends were Jews who lived in a secret hideout in constant fear of discovery. Moreover, Bartali was one of many Italians who opposed the anti-Semitic policies which seemed to become ever more intense as the Allied forces gradually moved northward up the Italian peninsula.

When the war was over and the national bicycle tours were started up again, Bartali wanted to return to racing. Despite having cycled thousands of miles as courier, his training methods were erratic, and he could no longer count on explosive strength as a way to win races. An ever-growing part of the cycling community decided that he was too old to win any more. Disappointing performances in races seemed to confirm what they were saying.

In the Tour de France of 1948, however, a tour marked by terribly severe stages and snow storms in mountain passes, Bartali found new reserves of emotional power and physical strength. He won the tour in one of the most remarkable races in the century-long history of this most demanding of athletic events.

Road to Valor is a fully and carefully researched historical narrative, written in a style that is suitable for serious biographical literature, but told in a way that reveals the dramatic character of the people and events of this important period of time.