Cy­cling cham­pion a quiet wartime hero

Ex­tra­or­di­nary jour­ney makes grip­ping read

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - ENZA MICHELETTI

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!”

Gior­gio Gold­en­berg

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

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