Title: Road to Valour - Gino Bartali, Tour de France Legend and Italy's Secret World War Two Hero
Author: Aili McConnon and Andrea McConnon
Publisher: Weidenfield & Nicholson
Order: Orion Books
What it is: Not quite the biography of Gino Bartali, focusing instead on his two Tour wins and his life during wartime.
Strengths: Highly readable with the cast of characters cut down to the bare minimum.
Weaknesses: Reduced to it's bare essence it's the story of Gino winning the Tour, Gino saving the Jews and Gino winning the Tour again.
A story of Gino ... In 1932 the young Gino Bartali turned seventeen and for his birthday the boy received from his father permission to ride his first race. For years the boy's parents had tried to dissuade him that bike racing was in any way a proper thing to be doing but now their resistance crumbled. The boy took the start line. And won. Until someone noticed that a boy who had just turned seventeen shouldn't be racing in an event for sixteens and under. The win was stripped from him and given to the next boy who had crossed the line. Cino Cinelli.
A story of Gino ... In 1935 the now twenty year-old Bartali took out a professional racing licence and took the line of the Milan-Sanremo classic, one of the many unsponsored riders who would be going toe-to-toe and wheel-to-wheel with the cream of Italian cycling, the men who were being paid handsomely to ride for the honour and glory of marques like Legnano, Maino, Atala, Bianchi. Fifty kilometres out from home the neo-pro independent was with the front group when he got an idea: now would be a good time to attack. Thought became deed and Bartali was away.
Following the race was Emilio Colombo, the head of La Gazzetta dello Sport, organisers of the race. Colombo had a problem. His newspaper was built on two revenue strands: circulation and advertising. A win by an unknown independent might help sell more a few more newspapers: people would want to know all there was to know about this new star of the future. But a win by an unknown independent would not fill the pages of Colombo's newspaper with advertisements championing the bike, the saddle, the tyres, the shoes and the whatnot used by the winner of la primavera. Colombo was torn.
But not for long. He had his car drive up to the young breakaway and started peppering him with questions. The questions lasted long enough for the chase group of Learco Guerra, Giuseppe Olmo and Mario Cirpianni to close the gap and, seven kilometres out from home, catch the would-be escape artist. Bartali claimed fourth in the sprint.
A story of Gino ... His ride in la primavera won the neo-pro Bartali a contract with the Frejus squad (still a decade away from becoming a part of the Legnano boss Emilio Bozzi's empire). In his first Giro Gino won a stage and the king of the mountains category, finishing seventh overall. Mostly he was let down by his poor performance in the time trial stages.
A story of Gino ... Legnano's direttore sportivo, Eberardo Pavesi, liked the cut of Bartali's gib. The boy was a winner. Pavesi and his boss Bozzi liked winners. When they rode in their colours. Pavesi did as he had done with Costante Girardengo, with Alfredo Binda, with Giovanni Brunero, with Pietro Linari: he signed Bartali for the Legnano squad. Not yet twenty-two Bartali then won the Giro at his second try. He rounded out his neo-pro season with wins the Italian championships and the Giro di Lombardia.
A story of Gino ... The following year, 1937, Bartali sealed back-to-back victories in the Giro. And was then ordered by the Italian cycling federation to ride and win the Tour de France, for the greater glory of mother Italy and all her citizens. Bartali did not want to ride the Tour de France. He was worn out after riding the Giro d'Italia and the wee chest infection he'd come down with before the Giro had left him not feeling the best. But he had had little choice in the matter. Bartali was just another cog in the well oiled machine that was Fascism and which ruled Italy with an iron will.
Italy's number one sportsman, the corpulent Benito Mussolini, was at this stage buddying up to Adolf Hitler, Il Duce being somewhat ostracised by England and France after his misadventures in Abyssinia. Il Duce was impressed by the performance put on by der Führer's boys at the Berlin Olympics the year before, and somewhat chagrined by the not-quite-so-good performance of his own athletes. A show of Italian sporting strength was required and the Tour de France was to be the stage for this show. Nothing less than an Italian victory would do.
On stage two Giovanni Valetti and Glauco Servadei abandoned. On stage five, taking in the Ballon d'Alsace, Bartali finished second, three forty-five of the stage winner and new maillot jaune and was now himself in third place, ten minutes off the lead. On the third part of stage five's three split stages Marco Cimatti and Walter Generati withdrew, reducing the Italian squadra to six riders. Bartali slipped off the podium and slid down the GC. On stage six, taking in the Aravais and the Tamié, he was back in third, twelve minutes off the lead. And then came stage seven. Over the Télégraphe and the Galibier Bartali ran rampant, arriving into Grenoble nearly two minutes up on his team-mate Francesco Camusso (the first man to wear the Giro's maglia rosa) and more than two and a half minutes up on the defending champion, Roger Lapébie. Bartali's lead in the shaken-up GC was more than nine minutes.
The following stage took in the Côte de Laffrey and the Bayard and should have been a relatively easy day. Bartali led the peloton over the Laffrey and then, somewhere past Embrun, as they crossed the Colau River, Bartali's team-mate Giulio Rossi went down. Bartali, hard on his wheel, took evasive action: he missed colliding with his gregario but couldn't miss the low wall of the bridge separating road from river. Over he went and down into the glacier-fed waters of the Colau below. The rest of the gregari began to arrive and Bartali was pulled from the water and put back on his bike. In Briançon he was nine minutes down on the day with his lead in the GC hacked back to two minutes.
On the next stage, taking in the Izoard, Vars and Allos on the road to Digne, Bartali fell like a stone. On the road to Nice, taking in the Braus and La Turbie, Bartali rose and led the bunch home, sprinting for fourth place, but nothing changed in the GC. On the flat roads from Nice to Toulon in the first part of stage eleven's two split stages nothing happened, as it so often doesn't in the Tour. But after the second, a long time trial to Marseille, the first and second on GC were the men who'd won the previous two editions of the Tour: Sylvère Maes and Roger Lapébie. On the first of stage twelve's two split stages the Italian team pulled Bartali from the race.
A story of Gino ... The Fascist state's desire for a victory in the French Tour did not diminish in the months after Gino's withdrawal from the 1937 race. The desire to land an Italian on the top step of the Tour's podium only grew. A host of stars of the Italian peloton were barred by their national federation from entering the Giro d'Italia. For the 1938 Italian cycling season it was to be all or nothing at all at the French Tour: bring home the yellow jersey or don't come home at all. (And you thought it was Greg LeMond who reduced the cycling season to just one race?). This time Bartali did the business and all of Italy enjoyed their first success in the Tour since the second of Ottavio Bottecchia's back-to-back victories in 1925.
A story of Gino ... Having shunned the invitation to field an official Italian squad at the 1947 Tour - leaving Jacques Goddet to cobble together a squad built with Italian emigrants - Italy was in 1948 fielding two official teams, Bartali leading the main squad and a team of Italian Cadets also taking the line. The Italians also had four of their number on the mongrel International squad.
On the regional Ile de France squad was a rider called Jean de Gribaldy and another called Maurice de Muer. On the Centre-Sud Ouest regional squad was a rider called Raphaël Géminiani. Not stars of the race but names you might recognise.
With Il Duce gone so too were his demands for an Italian victory. But there were other pressures calling for a repeat of the glory of 1938. Most particularly was the demand Gino, now Il Vecchio, placed on himself: that he show the upstart Fausto Coppi that there was life in his thirty-four-year-old bones yet.
The 1948 Tour once again put the Pyrénées before the Alps and once again very little of any great consequence happened until the mountains rose up. Il Vecchio did lay down a marker in the opening stage, sprinting into Trouville at the head of the peloton and claiming his first maillot jaune in a decade. And Italy again celebrated victory the next stage, down to Dinard, with Vincenzo Rossello escaping with Louison Bobet and Jan Engels and winning the sprint, the peloton a minute back and the bonifications helping Bobet take the yellow jumper. Through Nantes, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and into Biarritz little happened except for Bobet winning the last of these stages and tightening his grasp on the maillot jaune.
The Pyrénées opened with a gentle start, the road to Lourdes offering up the Aubisque. Bartali took the stage, Bobet not even a handful of seconds back. The rider's legs loosened up, the road to Toulouse threw the Tourmalet, the Apsin, the Peyresourde and Les Ares in the path of the peloton. Il Vecchio again won the stage. Out of the hills and through Montpellier and on to Marseille nothing much happened. Then the Tour zipped across the Italian border, racing into San Remo, where one of the Italians on that mongrel International squad won the day. And then it was back to France, the Castillon and the Turini to be climbed before racing into Cannes.
In Cannes the Tour stopped to catch its breath and sport and politics, history and myth collided. In Rome, the leader of the opposition Communist party had been shot by a would-be assassin. Bartali was a supporter of the ruling Christian Democrat party and a friend of the prime minister. The two had already exchanged telegrams during the Tour. Italians took to the streets in towns and cities up and down Italy and rioted. Some say Italy was on the verge of Civil War. The prime minister phoned Bartali in Cannes. Some say he asked him to the win the Tour in order to help Italy avoid a Civil War.
What happened next in the Tour is the stuff of legend. On the first day in the Alps, over the Allos, Vars and Izoard on the road to Briançon, Il Vecchio pulled to within a minute and a quarter slashed twenty minutes off his deficit and was within a minute and a quarter of the yellow jersey. He rolled into Briançon alone more than six minutes ahead of the next rider home, the last of the Flandrians, Brieke Schotte. Behind him riders rolled in one by one. Fermo Camellini of the mongrel International squad was next home, nine minutes down. René Vietto - la roi René - was more than ten minutes down.
The next stage, to Aix les Bains, threw the Galibier, the Croix de Fer, the Porte, Cucheron and Granier at the peloton. Lucien Teisseire led over the roof of the Tour, Henri Desgrange's favourite mountain. Over all the rest it was Bartali all the way. Five minutes passed before the second rider followed him home at the end of the stage. It was seven minutes before Bobet rolled in. Il vecchio was back in yellow. And then he did it all again the next day too, the road taking the Tour into Switzerland and Lausanne, over the Aravais and Forclaz: another stage win, the third on the trot, his fourth in the Tour, and another five minutes padding on his yellow jersey.
Up to Mulhouse, over the Vue des Alpes, Bartali relented, but not before taking the climb. The polka-dot jersey was still nearly three decades away, undreamt of yet by Félix Lévitan, but the king of the mountains competition already existed and Bartali wanted it for his palmarès.
In the super-long hundred and twenty kilometre individual time trial between Mulhouse and Strasbourg Bartali surrendered eight minutes but still led by more than twenty, his hold on the yellow jersey not really threatened. Into Metz Il vecchio's gregario Giovanni Corrieri took the stage, breaking away with a small group and winning the sprint. The next stage, across another border and into Liège it was another breakaway and another sprint victory for Italy: Il Vecchio himself, taking his fifth stage win. Over to Roubaix nothing changed and then on and in to Paris, over the cobbles of the Hell of the North, Corrieri made it another stage victory for Italy with a win in the Parc des Princes.
* * * * *
Aili and Andrea McConnon's Road to Valour (or, if you're in America, Road to Valor) tells the story of Gino Bartali's life, with most of the emphasis put on his two Tour victories and his actions during World War II. In boiling the story down to these three tales the McConnons have no doubt made the story they tell accessible to all. This is both the book's strength and its weakness: it reads like a three act screenplay - Gino wins the Tour, Gino saves the Jews, Gino wins the Tour again. Before turning to the issue of Bartali's List let's first consider the cycling side of the story.
Barely more than a year ago Road to Valour would have been seen as a major addition to any cycling bookshelf, there being so little written in English about Italian cycling. But in the past year we've have the two volumes of Bill and Carol McGann's The Story of the Giro d'Italia, we've had John Foot's Pedalare! Pedalare! and we've had Herbie Sykes' Maglia Rosa. Suddenly we know a lot more about Gino Bartali than we did before.
The McConnons do add to the picture in Road to Valour. But they don't add much on the cycling side of it. Consider, for a moment the 1937 Tour Bartali abandoned. Reading Road to Valour you might get to thinking that that was a disastrous Tour for Italy, that Bartali was pulled from the race partly to save face (quite why he was pulled form the race s one of those issues the authors leave hanging, the suggestion being it was not a sporting decision). But at the moment that Bartali exited the Tour another Italian, Mario Vicini, was climbing up the GC. With the race barely half run, Vicini was actually in with a shout of the overall. While he ended the race second, more than seven minutes off Roger Lapébie's pace, Vicini had come within three minutes of the lead before Lapébie fought back. Earlier in the race Vicini had actually come within half a minute of the yellow jersey. The problem with Vicini though was he wasn't on the Italian squadra: he was one of that Tour's thirty-some individuals. How he fits into the story of Bartali's departure from the Tour isn't really considered.
While I am somewhat critical of the manner in which the McConnon's have overly simplified the main story there is no denying the research they have carried out, and fans of detail can find much of it in the book's thirty or so pages of end-notes. Fans of Benjo Maso will also be glad to know that his Wij Waren Allemaal Goden (two extracts from the as yet unpublished English-language translation, We Were All Gods, you'll find on the Cafe Bookshelf) is a much-quoted source.
So to Bartali's List. That, certainly, is how some might view the story of Bartali's war, he an Italian version of Oscar Schindler and this an attempt to pull off what Thomas Keneally did with Schindler's Ark. Thankfully the story is quite different and no attempt is made to over-play Bartali's contribution to the counterfeiters' ring that produced fall identification papers for those fleeing the Nazis. The wider issues of what was happening in Italy - before, during and after the war, is well covered by the McConnon's - Road to Valour is as much about the politics as it is the cycling - and that makes it a book worth reading.
What is missing in this part of the story though is some context on what it was that Bartali actually did. Ok, we can take it as read that in all the occupied territories there were those who resisted and that that resistance took various forms. So Bartali, far from being (as Road to Valour's sub-title dubs him) "Italy's Secret World War Two Hero," was in reality just one among many. So what sets him apart? His sporting success. But was Bartali really unique among cyclists?
If we look to France, we have stories of resistance from Louison Bobet's brother, Jean (in Tomorrow We Ride) and from José Beyaert (in Matt Rendell's Olympic Gangster). We know that Émillien Amaury - who would go on to own the Tour de France - was quite an active resistant and used the presses of l'Auto to do some of his printing. And, if memory serves me rightly, Raphaël Géminiani discussed his own war as part of Marcel Ophüls' documentary film Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity). They are just some of those involved with French cycling whose stories put some context on Bartali's tale. What was happening in Italy? That's not much spoken off, Italy having had a rather complex war. But it's hard to imagine that Gino Bartali was the sole Italian cyclist who got involved with the cause. Some exploration of this issue would have helped Road to Valour.
Overall, the McConnon's have done a fine job in telling a part of Bartali's life, a decade so bookeneded by his two Tour wins. Road to Valour reads swiftly, the story has been cleared of a lot of detail which might slow you down and the McConnons stick very much to the bare essentials of the tale. What Road to Valour is not though is the definitive English-language biography of Bartali. He may be a decade in the grave but, as with Coppi, Bartali's memory is still well protected, meaning that the the biography that really moves beyond the myths is still a few years in the future. In the meanwhile then, enjoy The Road to Valour as the next best thing. And enjoy it too as a tale of two Tours and one man's war.