road to valour. aili and andres mcconnon. weidenfeld & nicolson. hardback 317pp illus. £20

road to valour

'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.'

days have changed, times have changed and cycling has changed, at least it has changed from what it was in the years immediately prior to the second world war and those following. for all that we're behind bradley, mark and possibly chris, we were or are rarely ever at extreme odds with those who throw their support behind cuddles or nibbles. in the tour recently completed, the australian and the italian were the only two considered likely to challenge the yellow jersey of wiggins. as it turned out, neither had either the temerity or leg muscles to successfully dispute the sky train all the way to paris.

i doubt that's even still the case in italy or australia; or any other country for that matter. it could be entirely due to cycle sport being not the be all and end all that was once the case, particularly in the years referred to above. that position in modern society has likely been overtaken by football/soccer, where supporters of domestic or national teams have, in many cases, taken things to extremes, cultivating a sense of hate against those who prefer a team other than their own.

in hindsight, followers of gino bartali and those behind the young upstart, coppi were just as misguided as followers of glasgow celtic and glasgow rangers, for the activities in which they are respectively involved are categorised as sport. and sport is supposed to be enjoyable enetrtainment for those watching, and a demonstration of skill and athleticism by the participants.

gino bartali was born in july 1914 at ponte a ema, near florence italy, enduring the sort of childhood that has almost become a cliche nowadays. his parents were too poor to buy him a bicycle; his mother was very much against him racing in any way, shape or form because she considered it too dangerous an activity. he learned to ride on a bicycle that was far too large for him, fitting under the top tube and grabbing the bars from underneath. though not a great lover of school, his father insisted that he complete his education at the equivalent of sixth grade, but the local schoolhouse taught only up to fifth year, meaning bartali had to travel to florence. as his father said :To go to Florence, you need a bicyle, and a bicycle costs money. You will have to earn it."

the work he'd to undertake at the age of twelve years old involved mostly farm labouring. it is an endemic trait of these days of privation that cycling was viewed as a way out of such a life, and it is therefore of little surprise that young boys such as gino bartali looked to bicycle racing as a way out of the sort of lives their families had quite frequently to settle for.

road to valor

bartali became one of italian cycling's great pre-war heroes, but in those days the giro d'italia held greater sway over the cycling season than has subsequently become the case. though the tour de france had seemingly greater importance, that had not reached the almighty proportions that are obvious today. an italian travelling over the border to participate in le tour, generally did so in order to show his country's superiority over french riders, for in those days, the race was competed amongst national teams. it must be pointed out that the same arrangement worked for both the french and spanish riders, the french frequently hoping to demonstrate their prowess in the italian national tour.

bartali won the tour de france for the first time in 1938.

the years following this italian victory were beset with national politics involving nazism and fascism; hitler and mussolini. though the former had already made known his persecution of jews, in italy, they were celebrated members of society, after having fought alongside their gentile countrymen to unite the nation in the late nineteenth century. mussolini's partnership with hitler changed all that, and as the second world war started to destroy much of western society, the italian jewish community started to feel the thin end of the wedge of persecution, including many friends of the bartali family.

during the war years, any regular form of cycle racing life was desecrated. bartali was married and with children, but with no races to ride, he had little other activity in which to involve himself but that of training for the days when normality might return. during these years of heightened fascism, bartali's recognised need to train and celebrity status allowed him to assist hundreds of jews living in fear of their lives, by transporting false papers to aid their bid for freedom. these were rolled up and fitted inside the tubing of his bicycle. there is little doubt that had he been found out he would have either been imprisoned or shot.

little or nothing of these clandestine activities in aid of italy's jews was known for many years after the war ended. for many long years, bartali refused to discuss the part he played in saving hundreds of lives. road to valour is a more than worthy testimony to the greatness displayed by the italian on and off the bike. authors aili mcconnon and brother andres mcconnon have undertaken a considerable amount of research in the compiling and writing of this impressive tome, particularly considering almost all of those involved in the secret wartime activities are now dead, and most interviews were carried out with the descendants of those connected.

the major triumph is that the astounding level of research is all but transparent throughout the narrative. the book transcends its subject matter, adding greatly to the historical knowledge of the era over and above its value as a biography of one of cycling's greats.

it is, however, not without its faults. in 1948, bartali was again competing in a revitalised tour de france, but riding less than impressively. the newspapers had him confined to an old folks' home, regarding him as past it, paying no heed to the war years that had slipped by taking with them, any opportunity the italian might have had to add to his palmares. as the tour entered its latter stages, bartali sat twenty-one minutes, twenty-eight seconds behind the leader, louison bobet.

on july 14th 1948, palmiro togliatti leader of the italian communist party was shot by a lone would-be assassin. the shooting threw italy into utter confusion, desperation, violence and turmoil. to shorten a lengthy story, a phone call was reputedly made to bartali, imploring him to try and win the tour de france and save italy from what many feared may become civil war. he duly did so. this incident has entered the annals of history as one of the greatest exploits of post-war cycling, and is described as such in road to valour without any critical comment from the authors.

however, in his mammoth work pedalare! pedalare! italian historian john foot casts serious doubt on whether any such phone call as described above, was ever made. in a chapter entitled the bartali myth foot pours liberal amounts of cold water upon the chain of events that have, over time, become a seamless invention that may, or may not be true. the mcconnons are, to be fair, not the only authors to have perpetuated this story, but in view of the impressive bibliography annotated at the back of the book, it seems surprising that they failed to even mention that others had cast uncertainty upon the affair. there is little doubt that they extensively researched this part of bartali's biography, but seem to rest their results on much of bartali's writings about the tour, writings that foot maintains may hve been the result of the rider himself wishing to perpetuate the saga.

in my review of pedalare! pedalare! i mentioned that i thought foot was guilty of over thinking the affair, and that he should have perhaps let sleeping myths lie. i have not altered that opinion, but i think it remiss of the present authors to either not mention an alternative viewpoint or, even worse, be unaware of its existence.

at the risk of being a pot calling the kettle black, i also found the mcconnons occasionally guilty of over dramatising affairs. describing the stage that followed that phone call they continue thus: 'Gino awoke well before dawn. Giovanni Corrieri, his roommate, watched him. There was something strangely reassuring in what he saw. Gino was silent and lay calmly in bed, in striking contrast to his frenetic banter the previous evening . His bike rested nearby, propped against one of the hotel room's walls. Like the cowboys in his favourite movies, Gino had insisted on spending the night beside his horse.'

the chapter's opening continues in similar fashion, and it seems as if much of this is pure conjecture, for i doubt that so much detail could have been committed to memory by any of those present sixty four years ago. the authors seem to have invested more literary devices in the description of this historical tour stage than were expended on bartali's brave wartime activities. though i have no specific discontent with their melodramatic scene-setting, it presents a partial and avoidable imbalance to the story of gino bartali.

that said, however, this is a work of truly magnificent proportions, of great import to any scholar of italian cycling or those possessed of an enthusiasm for this portion of cycling heritage. there are relatively few words spent on the bartali/coppi rivalry, the principal thrust of the book ending at that 1948 tour de france. this is no serious ommission however, for the rivalry between the two riders has been more than satisfactorily dealt with in many other writings on italian racing history, such as that of herbie sykes' maglia rosa as well as foot's pedalare! pedalare!. road to valour is a well paced and highly engaging narrative that is of great credit to its writers.

however, i would seriously question what on earth the uk publishers weidenfeld & nicolson were thinking in commissioning an alternative cover to the original as published in the usa? obviously enough, the american spelling of valor may grate with british readers, but the alteration of spelling is simply a cosmetic treatment, for none of the text has been altered to that of a more uk orientation. the result is an unmitigated disaster of a cover, unlikely to lead to any sales to those who judge a book by this albeit inadvisable method. surely it would not have been outwith the bounds of possibility to simply reproduce the american cover with a change of spelling, or easier still, leave it as it is? we don't care. (i have reproduced the american cover above by way of comparison.)

"When we were poor and weary, he gave us back our honor."

monday 30th july 2012


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