A Real Sports Hero

An Italian cyclist provides an inspiring antidote to the Lance Armstrong revelations

Every time cycling champion Gino Bartali swung his leg over the saddle of his racing bike from the fall of 1943 to July 1944, he knew the act could be a death sentence. Bartali, who won the Tour de France before and after World War Two as well as the Giro d’Italia and hundreds of one-day bike races, was part of an intricately organized but highly secretive circle in the Assisi area that smuggled false documents to Jews, allowing them to escape fascist-run and Nazi-controlled Italy. He carried the forged documents in the seat tube of his bicycle. If the hiding place had been discovered, it would have meant a mass execution of the Bartali family and possibly others involved in the smuggling ring.

I always knew of Bartali—you could not possibly not if you were a bike racer in Southern Ontario in the 1970s when many a race was called in Italian. He was, without question, one of the great Italian riders. But we never knew of his deep Catholic faith, his father’s socialist roots, the family’s poverty and Bartali’s commitment to help save the lives of as many Jews as possible (including one family, the Goldenbergs, whom he personally hid and found food for, no matter how scarce). The sister-and-brother team of Aili and Andres McConnon have done an excellent job of telling us the cyclist’s story in Road to Valour: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation. They get into his life so deeply that it feels as if the reader is sitting on the one chair in the sparsely furnished family apartment and later in the interrogation room of the vicious Major Mario Carità, where Bartali should have been executed.

Bartali came from a dirt-poor rural family in the tiny town of Ponte a Ema outside of Florence. Despite reassurances from Mussolini that the fascists would end poverty, the area did not receive electricity and plumbing until after World War Two. Gino was a thin little kid, an advantage in cycling. It was lucky that he loved the sport so much since small bodies, assuming they are equipped with the right hearts, lungs and legs, go up mountains very quickly. He swore his ability to scamper up the Alps was helped by eating a weirdly idiosyncratic choice of fuel such as raw eggs, rum and massive steaks, and he cracked the eggs on his handlebars while racing—one of the many ways he tried to psyche out his competition. But it was his ability to bear more suffering than his competitors that was the deciding factor in so many races.

While the McConnons have researched Bartali’s life and love of cycling, his friends and family, church, faith and town extensively, it is their ability to combine this dynamic story with a much needed analysis of how sport and sporting heroes play into nationalistic and military states that makes the book valuable and, unfortunately, rare.

Every day my inbox contains at least a dozen announcements telling me the Harper government or its minister for sport is pleased to support the women’s rowing team at the world championships or the Canada Cup softball tournament in Red Deer, or will announce the Olympic flag bearer, or flip pancakes with a hockey star. It is a never-ending parade—the pairing of politicians with the promise of the strong, athletic, seemingly immortal young body, a body ready to fight for its country.

Mussolini realized the potential of the hard body soon after he came to power in 1922. Road to Valour outlines how he manipulated Bartali and sport in general for propaganda purposes. Bartali came from a family that definitely did not embrace the blackshirts. His socialist father also worked for a socialist, and when Bartali was eleven, fascists broke into his father’s boss’s house and assassinated him. “Gino would come to understand politics as the elemental force that it is—singular in its ability to build up a man or tear him down, unify a country’s citizens around a common goal or turn them against one another in bloody persecution,” write the McConnons.

With extraordinary natural gifts and a work ethic created by necessity from living in post–World War One Europe, Bartali quickly became one of Italy’s dominant cyclists. Soon Mussolini was dictating where, when and how he would race. Bartali could have died if he had rejected fascist plans for him and not adhered to the race schedule Mussolini demanded.

At that time cycling had seized the western world. It was not just a sport, but a mode of transportation, freeing people to explore who had never moved beyond their village borders before. The bicycle had millions of supporters, and even though some were moving on to the automobile, in Europe cycling was the true sport of champions. Spectators would ride their bikes up mountains and camp out just to see their favourite star suffer and sacrifice himself to the gods of the Alps. There was a deeply physical and emotional understanding of what cycling greats accomplished because fans knew from their own experience how hard it was to reach such altitudes.

But this godlike status of athletes can be dangerous. There are no studies showing that athletic participation makes you a better anything except an athlete, but politicians like to use the shine of athletes as their own. The McConnons write “As [the fascists] rose to power in the 1920s, they latched on to sports as one of their central propaganda tools for creating a new Italy ruled by a healthy, athletic, and virile ‘warrior people.’” Schools made exercise mandatory and “teachers became ‘biological engineers and builders of the human machine’.” Mussolini issued his edict, “I don’t want a population of mandolin players, I want a population of fighters.” When Bartali rode his way onto Europe’s national stage, Mussolini seized the moment and clipped Bartali’s wings, dictating that his athletic performances coincide with the fascist propaganda machine itinerary.

Bartali had to bow out of the Tour de France more than once after receiving orders from Mussolini to do so, even though he knew he could take the race in the mountain climbs. He had crashed heavily at one point and Il Duce was afraid he could no longer win; Italian athletes under his regime could not lose on the world stage. Quitting, which was anathema to Bartali’s nature, broke his heart but no doubt saved his life. Cyclist Ottavio Bottecchia, who did not renounce his socialist leanings and ignored Mussolini’s dictates, was found with his cranium smashed in and several broken bones—dead beside his unscathed bicycle on a lonely country road he trained on regularly. (The story of Bottecchia hit me between the eyes. My first racing bike was a second-hand Bottecchia that a club member said I could have if I agreed to start racing. I am glad to know the legacy behind the bike.) Unlike Bottecchia, Bartali survived the fascists and the war and went on to win the 1948 Tour de France, an act, the McConnons argue, that united a violently divided Italy, possibly helping to avert civil war.

In Road to Valour we have a story that combines sport and heroism. It is a shining light this fall as countless Canadiana books waste trees to recount the 1972 Canada-Russia series on its 40th anniversary—as if telling that old myth is somehow new. It was a nationalistic piece of Cold War propaganda, styled straight out of Mussolini’s playbook.

I prefer the modest advice Bartali gave his son years after the war. “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.”