Road to Valor: Book Review

I had never heard of Gino Bartali before picking up Road to Valor, but Bartali was an impressive Italian cyclist who attained legendary status in his country, according to the book’s authors Aili McConnon and Andres McConnon.  Accomplished journalists both, the McConnons have written a book whose lively style kept me wanting to read more:

“When we race together, let’s each win a little!  This time you, and the next time me,” Gino shouted ahead to his younger brother, Giulio, and they pedaled up the steep, sun-drenched hills surrounding Ponte a Ema.

This opening sentence quickly shows Gino Bartali’s love of racing while also providing a quick glimpse of person behind the legend.

According to the authors, Bartali had the misfortune of peaking as a professional cyclist just as World War II consumed Europe. He has the distinction (still) of having the two Tour de France wins that are the furthest apart; he won the 1938 and 1948 tours. An amazing accomplishment indeed.  The book does a good job of detailing Bartali’s rise as a cycling star in Italy and abroad, introducing readers as well to the rivalries that existed so one gets a good overview of some of the early developments in professional cycling in Europe.

Just as impressive, however, are Bartali’s accomplishments in the years between those two Tour de France wins.  In 1943, Roman Catholic Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa asked Bartali to help him produce and distribute false identity documents for Jewish people living in Italy as well as those arriving from more dangerous parts of Europe.  The account of Bartali’s adventures, including his being arrested but released before being tortured, shows him to be humane and makes one more sympathetic to his loss of years of professional cycling.

The McConnon’s account of the 1948 Tour de France is exciting.  Bartali was identified by everyone, including the international media, as the old man of the tour that year, so he was not given any hope of winning.  Other riders, including Jean Robic, were portrayed much more positively, and Robic clearly expected to win that year.

Bartali’s win, therefore, is the stuff of legend.  According to the McConnons, at one point when Bartali was on the verge of bonking, a spectator reached out and handed him three bananas.  He quickly consumed this food that allowed him to beat Robic and others on a key mountain stage.  Another important part of the legend is that Bartali had become even more motivated to win after a phone conversation with Italian Prime Minister De Gasperi who suggested that a win by Bartali would redirect civil unrest in Italy in a more useful and positive direction.  Bartali’s tenacity is clearly demonstrated in his win of the 1948 Tour de France.

Road to Valor is a great story and will interest not only cycling enthusiasts but also those more generally interested in sports history, World War II history, and narratives about the human spirit.

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