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"That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere",
This review is from: Road to Valour: Gino Bartali: Tour de France Legend and Italy's Secret World War Two Hero (Hardcover)
This was a book which I was eager to read following its 2012 publication. As a long time fan of road cycling's Grand Tours and the many fascinating characters who've risen to the top of that sport over the years, as well as always having an interest in history, especially that of the 20th century which is within living memory (or at least perhaps only at one generation's distance), I thought that this intriguingly titled book would be a certain winner. Please forgive my lengthy comments here - I found it too difficult to sum this one up with much brevity...
Gino Bartali was already a hero of mine. He won the Tour de France in 1938, and then again - an almost professional career's worth of ten years later in 1948! To win cycling's greatest race twice is some achievement, but to do so after such a long gap between the victories is something extraordinary. It had never been done before and hasn't been done since. I doubt it ever will. No doubt, if it weren't for the war interrupting his career when at its peak, he would have won several more Tours. I had also heard a little about his anti-Fascist persuasion before and during WWII, but really knew nothing of it. And finally, there was his fierce rivalry with compatriot Fausto Coppi. Some consider Coppi the greatest cyclist of all time... their rivalry probably was.
Road To Valor tells the story of Gino's conservative and traditionally Catholic upbringing in the Florence district of Tuscany. Together with his brother he becomes an avid fan of cycling and loves the independence that owning his first hard-earned bicycle gives him. He has a job in a local bike workshop. Here he makes the acquaintance of a Giacomo Goldenberg. As the sibling authors tell of Gino's rapid rise through the ranks of Italian semi-professional and then professional cycling, we learn a little more of life under Mussolini's Fascist regime. Gino isn't particularly affected by it until he starts to compete in Italian national colours in the Tour de France. When in 1938 he is denied the chance to win his third Giro d'Italia in a row, the Fascist cycling authority insist he is kept back so that he will compete for the more international honour of winning the Tour. Honour for the regime of course - as seen when the Italian football team wins the World Cup in both '34 & '38, for which the Fascists claim an integral role in the success.
After his beloved brother's earlier untimely death in a car accident, Gino had devoted himself increasingly to the church and is quite involved with Catholic Action - one of the few non-Fascist organisations permitted at the time. He counts Bishops and Monsignors among his friends. Upon managing to succeed in the 1938 Tour with only the second ever Italian victory in that event, Gino's victory speech is seen in the Fascist press back home as a thinly disguised anti-regime attack - after all he thanks the church and of course God for his achievement, but neglects to praise Il Duce at all. Gino's card has been marked in some quarters.
As the war spreads, and Italy joins the battle against the western allies, professional cycling fizzles to a halt. In 1940, aged 26 and at what should have been his professional peak, the war is brought home to Gino when he receives the call-up notice:
As part of Gino's mobilisation, he was first required to undergo a routine medical checkup to determine his specific assignment...The military doctor listened to his heart and found it was beating irregularly, a condition that Gino was unaware of, but that had never seemed to impede his cycling. Still, the doctor was puzzled, and called in a colonel for a second opinion. The colonel looked at the heart rate and rejected Gino as unfit for military service, unaware that he was evaluating one of the nation's cycling stars.
The irony - a Tour de France winner only two years earlier rejected as unfit for active service in Mussolini's forces! Gino is assigned to serve as a bicycle courier rider in the Tuscany region where he lived. One could say this was a fairly cushy option, given that there were no longer competitive races, he could at least stay fit as he could carry on the lengthy training runs so crucial to maintaining his stamina and fitness.
The parallel story of the Jewish Goldenberg family in Florence is told over the same period. Giacomo had been kept in an internment camp early in the war, but subsequently released. As the war progressed, and Mussolini's regime eventually collapsed in 1943, the Nazi Reich took a direct role in controlling the puppet Salo regime - with the mighty Il Duce at its head of course. After his earlier release from the camp Giacomo no longer heard from his cousins and feared they'd been re-arrested by the newly revitalised German-backed police state. Fearing for his family's safety he arranged to split them up, and sent his 11 year old son to a religious boardinghouse which covertly cared for Jewish children on the Archbishop of Florence's request. But what for the rest of his family? After reaching out to his old friend Sizzi (the bike mechanic where young Gino had once worked) who wished to help, but lacked any resources, Giacomo was put in touch with Gino himself.
At a time when informing on Jews' whereabouts could be rewarded by four times as much money as could be 'earned' by doing likewise with an escaped Allied prisoner, it had become potentially punishable by death to shelter Jews. After a fairly lackadaisical attitude towards their Jewish citizens early in the war, the new regime was now actively deporting people to the death camps. With a young wife and baby son to support, Gino didn't know what path to take. He wanted to help, but the danger involved was certainly overwhelming. He sought counsel with his friend the Archbishop of Florence, and contemplated the choice before him in the peace he could only find at his brother's graveside. Without involving his wife, and without implicating her at all, he came to a decision: He would hide them in the cellar of a downtown Florentine apartment he was the co-owner of.
Gino didn't stop there. His unique position as a friend of the Archbishop and other high ranking church officials, as well as his privileged courier role in the Army, allowed him the rare opportunity of acting as a valuable go-between. He was carefully brought in by other brave men of the church to act as the courier of vital papers and photographs for the purposes of forging life-saving identification cards and other documents. With the confidence of a local Florentine family printers' firm, Gino would collect the valuable papers from a given safe house or other location, stash them inside the frame tubing on his bike - beneath the saddle post - and then (via the forger's printing press to produce the required items) ride several hundred kilometres (as only a Tour de France champion could!) cross-country to the ring's HQ at the Abbey in Assisi where the other end of the operation would pass the documents on to the desperate Jews waiting to get out of the country to safety.
For Jews in Italy like the Goldenbergs, life had entered a new nightmare phase. The Germans and their Fascist collaborators ratcheted up the intensity of their persecution, even as it became increasingly clear that they would be defeated in the war. In addition to raiding convents and monasteries, Nazis invaded old-age residences and hospitals looking for Jews. The numbers soon illustrated the results of their murderous zeal. By the spring of 1944, little more than six months into the occupation, more than 6500 Jews (both foreign and Italian) had been carried by train from Italy to Auschwitz alone.
Gino Bartali was directly responsible for saving at least three Jews from certain death, and was indirectly responsible as an integral cog in a machine of brave and selfless individuals for saving up to eight hundred other Jews who were in hiding. Think of that - eight hundred of whom presumably many went on to have families and roles in society in various different ways...
This alone would be enough material for many a fine book, but Gino's story didn't end there. With his resurrected career in seemingly terminal decline
after the war's end, Gino was beaten by the younger Fausto Coppi at the 1947 Giro d'Italia (although Gino was King of the Mountains and won two stages - even dismounting once mid-stage to punch an anti-Catholic slurring spectator, before remounting to claim the day's victory!) and did not even enter that year's Tour de France - the first since the end of hostilities. In the build-up to the '48 Tour his chances were written off by the press.
Post-war Italy was a very volatile place, and the country was split down the middle in support for either the Communists or the more conservative Christian Democrats. This at the time of Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech, and the fast-emerging Cold War, Italy's role in Europe was central in more ways than one. When in July 1948 an unstable Fascist shot the Communist Leader of the Opposition the country, and all of Europe, held its breath. There was even a bomb threat at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. There were riots and demonstrations in the big northern Italian cities. With that year's Tour at it's most crucial stages in the mountainous Alpine passes, the Christian Democrat Prime Minister rang Gino in his hotel, and begged him to win the Tour if he could - for Italy.
What follows in the book is a very well written passage of chapters concerning the dramatic victory Gino achieved, against the odds, in the worst cold and wet altitude conditions that the notorious Col d'Izoard and Col du Galibier passes could throw at him. The glory was his, and back home in Italy the country collectively exhaled, the wine was brought out, and everybody danced!
The Tour director, who had also doubted Gino, offered his own poetic account of all that had passed. "From snowstorm, water, and ice, Bartali arose like a mud-covered angel, wearing under his soaked tunic the precious soul of an exceptional champion."
In the calmer years following the end of his glorious career Gino would avoid discussing what had happened during the war for much of his life.
Gino justified his silence as a matter of respect for those who had suffered more than he had during the war: "I don't want to appear to be a hero. Heroes are those who died, who were injured, who spent many months in prison."
Overall, I enjoyed this book tremendously, though I admit I am a tiny bit disappointed that certain aspects weren't given more pages. For example - much of Gino's career was either not ever mentioned, or possibly edited out. Apart from the early rapid rise to the top, we only really get discussion of his two Tour wins and little else. Not enough was made of his great rivalry with Coppi. It would seem that the authors made a conscious decision to focus on the wartime exploits of this fascinating man, and that is understandable. On the whole, it is very well-written, and a truly enthralling story of a genuinely impressive man.
Some of his associates during the war, who'd helped orchestrate the rescue/escape of hundreds of Jews-in-hiding, have since been given the highest honour by the State of Israel - each made a 'Righteous Among the Nations'. There is an avenue of the righteous at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust Memorial, where beautiful trees commemorate those brave souls who risked their lives to save others. In 2012 a Cycling News article reported that Yad Vashem was now formally investigating the evidence, and considering awarding the honour of 'Righteous Among The Nations' to Gino:
Gino Bartali would tell his son Andrea -
"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."