Saturday, September 1, 2012

"I have my bicycle."

"Everyone in their life has his own particular way of expressing life's purpose – the lawyer his eloquence, the painter his palette, and the man of letters his pen from which the quick words of his story flow. I have my bicycle." — Gino Bartali

It might be difficult to imagine a time before cars and airplanes made travel quick and easy, but in the earlier part of the century the bicycle was about the best many could hope for. It not only enabled them to go from place to place quickly but sometimes became necessary if you wanted a job. And with the rise of bicycles in Europe came cycling clubs and eventually races. One dominant Italian racer in the 1930s was Gino Bartali, whose incredible endurance on mountain slopes made him a formidable opponent and led to a 1938 victory in the Tour de France. But his racing career sputtered to an halt when war came, and he was put to use delivering messages on his bicycle... and later secretly transporting forged documents for Jewish families hiding from the police. That continued "training" helped when he later won the Tour de France again in 1948 at a time when he was thought "too old" (at 34!) and when his country was rocked by an assassination attempt and riots, and Bartali continues to hold the record for the most years between Tour victories.

Fans of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken will enjoy a similar story of heroism in the face of great danger and great odds in Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation by Aili and Andres McConnon. From the early history of European cycling and the tragedies Bartali faced, to his quiet anti-fascism and secret work with Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa to protect Jews, to his racing struggles in the Alps, this is an inspiring story of courage in the face of real and personal danger.

I am not a cycling fan and had never heard of Bartali before, but I found the story to be well-written and a compelling read. I wish there had been a little more detail about the Tour itself (for those of us who know so little about it) but the rest of the story more than makes up for any missing information. Photographs of Bartali and elevation maps of the courses help as well, but the real highlight for me was the wartime experiences and how he risked his life for Jews. But the authors also bring the world of cycling alive, and the human element is combined excellently with the sports world here. A very inspiring read.  (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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