Siblings Aili and Andres McConnon have produced a genial, if slightly eccentric, account of the exploits of Gino Bartali, the feisty Italian cyclist who still holds the record for the longest span – 10 years – between Tour de France victories. Born in 1914 of modest Tuscan roots, a teenage Bartali caught the cycling fever then gripping Europe. He proved to have a natural gift for the sport.
After turning professional in the mid-1930s, Bartali became an immediate sensation, winning competitions all over the continent. Despite some personal tragedies, including the death of his brother and second child, he won the Tour – then, as now, the most prestigious race of all – in 1938. It was his bad luck that the war, which saw the cancellation of most major races, should hit during his physical peak. The flipside was that the token military service Bartali performed thanks to his celebrity might also have saved his life.
But Bartali’s racing victories were arguably his least important accomplishments. No great fan of Mussolini’s Fascists, the cyclist was part of a wartime secret network organized by Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa aimed at helping Italian Jews. As well as sheltering a Jewish family in a home he owned, Bartali cycled all over the country to deliver forged identity papers, which he hid inside the frame of his bicycle. Bartali’s second Tour victory, which came despite a habit of chain-smoking and drinking 20 espressos a day, was credited with easing civil unrest that arose around the attempted assassination of the Italian Communist Party leader.
Road to Valour is written in lively, if occasionally ungainly, prose (for example, Bartali’s birthplace is described as having “a short litany of establishments common to any small Italian town”). The McConnons have approached their subject with scholarly rigour (the book includes more than 50 pages of notes), yet by never taking their readership’s historical knowledge for granted, they wisely allow for the broadest possible audience. Road to Valour should appeal as much to high-school students as to cycling devotees and history enthusiasts.