Cycling champion a quiet wartime hero
Extraordinary journey makes gripping read
Let’s begin with the title: Road to Valour. Only three words long, all in capital letters. At first glance, the book’s subtitle, in much smaller type below, works harder to persuade the reader to pick this one up: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation.
The front cover is intriguing too, with the green-white-red tricolore of Italy’s flag framing a blackand-white photo of cycling icon Gino Bartali hoisted on the shoulders of grinning fans after winning the Giro d’Italia race in 1946.
And yet, 316 pages later, the book devoured, I am drawn back to the simple title, moved by all that it summarizes. Bravery is a journey, it says. Courage is acquired one step at a time, or as in Bartali’s life exemplified, one pedal stroke after another.
It took nearly 10 years of rigorous research for co-authors (and siblings) Aili and Andres McConnon to piece together Bartali’s extraordinary journey to valour, reconstructing his life against the backdrop of Italy in the Second World War.
They chronicle the ups and downs of an athlete penalized for coming of age during Europe’s mad rush to war — Bartali managed to win the Tour de France twice, first in 1938 at age 24 and again in a startling comeback in 1948 at 34, a gap that earned him the still-standing record for the longest time span between victories.
He became a national hero in Italy, despite losing “his most fertile years” to the war, he is quoted as recalling.
Yet the most compel-
by Aili and Andres McConnon (Doubleday Canada, 316
pages, $32.95) ling moments of the book recount a lesser-known fact — that at the height of the war, Bartali couriered falsified identification papers from Florence to Assisi to aid Jews targeted by racial laws newly enacted by Mussolini’s Fascisti. He did it cleverly, by hiding the IDs in the hollow frame of his bike and pretending that the 110-mile trek was part of his training regimen.
One scene shows Bartali stopping for a break in the Tuscan town of Terontola, which served as a transfer point between Italy’s north-south rail lines. Jews were in danger there because they had to transfer trains on their escape route south. Bartali timed it so he entered the station’s bar as a train arrived. The soldiers recognized him and asked for autographs – just enough of a distraction to keep them from scouring the train for Jews.
Bartali never talked to anyone about what he did, not even his wife. She didn’t know that in a spare apartment they owned just down the street from their home on the outskirts of Florence, the Goldenbergs were hiding: Giacomo, his wife, Elvira, and their six-yearold daughter, Tea. Their 11-year-old son, Giorgio, had been sent to live at a nearby children’s boarding house.
Later in the war, as Fascist raids increased, Bartali moved the Goldenbergs to the underground cantina, or cellar, of a nearby house. Giorgio joined his family in that dark, cold, windowless 10-by-10-foot space and they all waited, praying for deliverance.
If it only managed to tell this much, the book would earn high praise.
But the McConnons reach higher yet, and in quiet moments of astounding detail, they piece together a larger story of heroism.
We learn of Rufino Niccacci, a Franciscan monk who transformed Assisi into a counterfeiting centre; Luigi Brizi, the printer who created authentic-looking IDs; and “Mamma Cornelia,” a nun at Giorgio’s boarding house who quietly encouraged the 10 or so Jewish boys hiding there “to say the prayers of their own faith.”
And what of Cardinal Dalla Costa, the archbishop of Florence, who coordinated the resistance effort? He’s the one who asked Bartali to get involved.
It’s not easy to cobble together the past, even after years of extensive interviews with people like the Goldenbergs, who moved to Israel after the war. As the authors reveal, Bartali never wanted to discuss the role he played during the war and when he died in 2000, so did the details of his story.
He once confided to his son: “If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.” The justification for his silence? “I don’t want to appear to be a hero,” he said.
Since “we will likely never know the full scope” of everything Bartali did “or the risks he endured,” as the authors lament in their epilogue, it is better then to look to Bartali, the cyclist, for answers.
In his Tour de France performances, Bartali outdistanced competitors in the mountain stages. In 1938, his relentless pace up and down the Pyrenees gave him the edge.
In 1948, he overtook his rivals in the Alps and charged ahead at the foot of the Col d’Izoard, despite its 20-mile climb “steep enough to stall all but the most rugged cars.”
It’s obvious that Bartali was strongest when faced with the starkest challenge. So let’s end it on that note — the image of one man, his bicycle and the road he chose to follow. Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It by Gail Carson Levine, illustrated by Matthew Cordell (Harper, 80 pages,
How often are kids told by their parents: “Say you’re sorry” when they do something wrong — and how often is the resulting apology less than sincere?
Along comes a writer who understands perfectly well that a “forgive me” can mean anything but, and that there’s an art to the false apology. What’s more, she’s willing to teach kids just how to phrase those apologies — using the words of famed poet William Carlos Williams as a template.
Humorously illustrated by Matthew Cordell’s scratchy line drawings, they tackle various topics, ranging from sibling rivalry and annoyance (“This is just to say / While you were buying / doll dresses / I sanded off / your Barbie’s face / which / you constantly / patted / and praised / Forgive me / her beauty / was only / skin deep”) to folk and fairy tale subjects (“This is just to say / I have shortened / my nose / with your saw / because / honestly / telling lies / is so much fun / Forgive me / I don’t care / about becoming / a real boy”).
Levine cites Williams’s poem This Is Just to Say and breaks it down as a guide, but notes that “you can abandon the form completely and write false apology poems in your own cruel way.” Just as long as you “have fun and save your poems!”
The Goldenberg family — from left, Elvira, Giorgio, Tea and Giacomo — was saved by Italian cycling champion Gino Bartali during the Second World War.
Road to Valour: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist who Inspired a Nation