The incredible war-time story of multi-champion Gino Bartali didn’t come to light until a long time after the second World War was over. Chuck Peña reviews the story behind the hero of the road and his exploits saving the lives of hunted Jews in Italy during the 1940s in “Road to Valor: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation”.
When you think of Gino Bartali, it’s hard not to think about him in terms of his rivalry with Fausto Coppi. In the 1940s and 50s, if you were the Italian tifosi, you were either Coppiani or Bartaliani – and in many ways, that is still true today. The country was divided between Coppi and Bartali. The rivalry began when Coppi was brought on to the Legnano team to ride for team leader Bartali in 1940. Instead Coppi won his first of five Giro d’Italias – at the age of 20, still the youngest winner the Giro. Their most infamous row was the 1948 World Championship in Valkenburg, Netherlands when both riders quit the race rather than help each other win. And the two are forever linked in the iconic picture of Coppi passing a bottle of water to Bartali in the 1952 Tour de France.
But it would be unfair to let Bartali be defined only by Coppi. Indeed, Bartali won the Giro three times and the Tour de France twice. He bookended wins of both Grand Tours across a span of 10 years – the Giro in 1936 and 1946 and Le Tour in 1938 and 1948. The ten years between his two Tour de France wins is the record for the longest gap between victories of La Grand Boucle. He also won the Milan-San Remo four times and the Giro di Lombardia three times. And who knows what more Bartali might have accomplished if not for World War II, which deprived him of his prime racing years.
Those war years are the backdrop that brother-and-sister team Aili and Andres McConnon use in Road to Valor: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation to chronicle the life of Gino Bartali, the racer and the man. Even if you are Coppiani (for the record, Fausto Coppi is my all-time favorite bicycle racer), Road to Valor deserves to be read and Gino Bartali given his fair due.
Road to Valor traces Bartali’s life – both as biography and history lesson – as a trilogy. Part I is the story of his youth to winning the Tour de France in 1938. Interestingly, there is nothing in the book about Bartali’s first two Giro d’Italia wins in 1936 and 1937.
It should come as no surprise that Bartali was captivated by bicycles and cycling as a young boy. But how he learned to ride a bicycle is probably unlike most of the rest of us. He had to sneak rides on his father’s bicycle that was much too big for him.
- “Standing one foot on the left pedal, he slid his right leg under the crossbar to reach the right pedal. Balancing precariously, and much too short to reach the bike seat, he stretched up to grip the handlebars from below. Crooked and wobbling, he learned painstakingly to maneuver the unwieldy contraption.”
Eventually, Gino would get his own bicycle. And he and his younger brother, Giulio, would ride up and down the steep hills of Ponte a Ema outside of Florence – portending Gino’s prowess as a climber (he would win the mountains classification in the Giro d’Italia seven times and twice in the Tour de France). Gino was sure he and Giulio would be a cycling dynasty. “When we race together, let’s each win a little! This time you, and the next time me.” Tragically, Giulio would die in 1936 as the result of wet roads and a car that shouldn’t have been on the course in a bicycle race.
Gino’s father, Torello, however, disapproved of the idea of Gino becoming a bicycle racer. One day when he came home from work, Torello discovered that a friend of Gino’s had replaced the flat touring handlebars on his bicycle with curved racing handlebars. If Gino didn’t immediately remove the curved handlebars, his father threatened to reduce his bicycle to scrap metal in five minutes. Ultimately, Torello relented and allowed Gino to race. The rest, as they say, is history.
Part I of Road to Valor culminates with Bartali’s 1938 Tour de France win. But it is somewhat bittersweet. After winning the Giro in 1937 but forced to withdraw from the Tour after a crash, Gino wanted to be the first to win the Giro-Tour double in 1938 – a feat accomplished by only seven riders: Fausto Coppi (twice and the first to achieve the double in 1949), Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault (twice), Stephen Roche, Miguel Indurain (twice), and Marco Pantani (the last to do the double in 1998). However, the Facist regime and Italian Cycling Federation Authorities deemed that an Italian had to win the 1938 Tour de France for the glory of Italy and believed that racing the Giro would jeopardize Bartali’s chances of winning the Tour. So he was not allowed to ride the 1938 Giro and we’ll never know if Gino Bartali instead of Fausto Coppi would have been the first to win the Giro-Tour double.
Part II covers the war years. Gino was called to active duty military service. It was during this time that Gino married Adriana Bani, who he had met after his brother’s death and who urged Gino to continue racing to honor Giulio’s memory. His proposal to Adriana was less than romantic: “Better a widow than a girlfriend.” It was also during this time that Gino and Adriani started a family – their first son, Andrea. But in the waning years of World War II, their second son – who they intended to name Giorgio to honor Adriani’s brother who was lost at sea at the beginning of the war – was stillborn.
There was still bicycle racing in Italy during the war years, but professionals such as Gino had to donate their winnings to the war effort. And the races were more for propaganda than anything else. The Facist regime resurrected the Giro in 1942, but instead of a multi-week stage race it was reduced to a series of six one-day races.
Ultimately, Part II is about Bartali having to make an impossible choice based on two events in 1943. The first was when the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa – ardently anti-Facist and a leader of a Jewish rescue network and resistance effort – asked Gino to be a messenger. The second was when Bartali’s cousin, Armando Sizzi – a bicycle mechanic who introduced a young Gino to local bike racers in Florence – asked for Gino’s help to find a place to hide for Giacamo Goldenberg – a family friend who Gino first met as a young boy through Sizzi .
It would have been easy for Gino to heed his father’s admonition, “Politics is a trap. Remember that. Keep your distance.” After all, he had a wife and young son to think about. Instead, Bartali chose to become part of Dalla Costa’s network and made an apartment he co-owned in Florence the Goldberg’s new home.
Gino had the perfect cover for his bicycle messenger duties. After all, he was a well known bicycle racer so it was only natural for him to be training on the roads in Tuscany. Documents and photographs were rolled up and hidden in his seat tube. He was searched at checkpoints, but soldiers were more interested in meeting and talking to a national sports celebrity.
Bartali’s celebrity played another role in the rescue network. One of the counterfeiters making fake identity cards, Trento Brizi, was almost discovered by the Germans, became unnerved, and was ready to quit the effort. But when he went to tell Father Rufino Niccacci, who had been recruited by Dalla Costa, he saw Father Niccacci talking to a stranger: “He was a young man with dark hair, combed back, and leaning against the handlebars of a bicycle. He was wearing shorts, and the muscular build of his legs was obvious.” Instead of quitting, Brizi was starstruck: “The idea of taking part in an organization that could boast of a champion like Gino Bartali among its ranks, filled me with such pride that my fear took a back seat.”
Finally, Part III is about both Italy and Bartali rising from the ravages and rubble of World War II. Bicycle racing would resume, but – at least at first – it wasn’t the same. Especially in terms of prize money and being able to make a living.
They survived on prizes that were as ad hoc as the races themselves. The victors won chickens, pigs, furniture, wine, and – most useful of all – cash, gathered in a hat from fans along the route. Racers often shared their spoils of their victories with their teammates, families, or even hometowns. During one competition, Gino arranged to be paid with gas pipes. Bombs had destroyed many of the gas lines in Florence, so Gino asked for pipes if they won to donate to a gas company in Florence. “We were all really hard up,” he said.
In 1946, Milan-San Remo was back on the calendar after a two-year hiatus. And the Giro was resurrected after five years. The winner? Gino Bartali by just 47 seconds over Fausto Coppi.
But the centerpiece of Part III of Road to Valor is the 1948 Tour de France interwoven with the events and politics of post-war Italy. This is best read rather than reviewed. Suffice to say that Bartali wins – despite Coppi refusing to ride on the Italian team and race the Tour in support of Bartali, and after twelve stages, Bartali having to overcome a 20 minute deficit to Louis Bobet – who would go on to win the Tour in 1953, ’54, and ’55.
Just like that, it was all over. After almost 150 hours in the saddle, the race ended. Ten years after his first triumph, Gino Bartali had won the Tour de France once again and set a new record – the longest time span between victories – that remains undefeated to this day.
In the final analysis, however, Road to Valor is less about what Gino Bartali accomplished racing a bicycle and more about what he accomplished in life that was more important than bicycle racing. There was no record keeping, but he probably helped save hundreds of Jewish lives during World War II – including the Goldenbergs, who would migrate to Israel. Sadly, the Goldenbergs never saw Gino Bartali after that. But according to Giacomo Goldenberg’s son, Giorgio:
- “There is no doubt whatsoever for me that he saved our lives. He not only saved our lives but he helped save the lives of hundreds of people. He put his own life and his family’s life in danger in order to do so… In my opinion, he was a hero and he is entitled to be called a hero of the Italian people during the Second World War.”
We will probably never really know how much Gino Bartali meant to the Italian people who suffered through World War II, but in the words of one fan: “When we were poor and weary, he gave us back our honor”. We all have our cycling heroes, but Bartali was more than that. Thanks to the research and writing of Aili and Andres McConnon, we learn that Gino Bartali was truly a hero. Salute, il Ginettaccio!
“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
316 pages, Broadway Paperbacks, 2012
# Photos here are not from the book, apart from the cover. #
PEZ contributor Chuck Peña is a former weekend warrior racer who now just rides for fun, but every once in a while manages to prove Fausto Coppi’s adage true: Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill. He lives in Arlington, VA with his wife (who is his most frequent riding partner), his daughter (an aspiring junior golfer who takes great joy in beating him all the time), and their dogs. You can follow him on Twitter @gofastchuck.