Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gino Bartali, Man of Valor

Italians are an emotional sort.  Thus it comes as no surprise at the many instances of that ultimate emotional release, tears, in the recent biography, "Road to Valor," of Gino Bartali, the Italian two-time winner of The Tour de France.  There were twelve, six times as many as in the last cycling biography I read, "Eagle of Toledo," about Spain's Federico Bahamontes.

The brother-sister authors, Aili and Andres McConnon, acknowledge the Italian nature.  They quote a Belgian newspaper as citing the "southern temperament" of Italians  as explanation for the behaviour of thousands of Italian workers in Belgium who had gathered in the main plaza of Liege outside the hotel where Bartali was staying towards the end of  the 1948 Tour to celebrate his impending triumph.  They went wild, dancing and tossing their hats in the air and embracing one another and crying tears of happiness.  The Belgians had never seen anything like it.

Bartali had overcome a 21-minute deficit before the Alps and had built an even greater margin as The Race neared its conclusion in Paris.  The cyclingnews website ranks the 1948 Tour as the fifth greatest Tour of all time. Bartali had previously won The Tour in 1938.  The ten year gap between victories is the largest in Tour history, largely thanks to The Race not being conducted for seven years during WWII, 1940-1946.

His 1948 victory is also noteworthy for saving Italy from civil war.  On July 14 during a rest day at Cannes, there was an assassination attempt on the leader of the Communist Party in Italy leaving him near death in a coma.  It sparked widespread rioting throughout the country.  The prime minister of Italy, a friend of Bartali's, gave him a phone call, hoping to inspire him to win the next day's stage into the Alps to divert his countrymen from their crisis. Bartali told him he would do his best.

He fulfilled his promise and then some, winning the next three stages through the Alps and taking control of The Race.  The entire country went delirious with joy and calm returned. At that time cycling stars were the most pre-eminent celebrities of their day, bigger even than movie stars are now. When the  shooting victim regained consciousness, his first question was, "What happened at The Tour?   How did Bartali do?"

The McConnons were inspired to write this book after Andres happened to witness a stage of The Tour in 2002.  He was so overcome by what a cultural phenomenon it was and what exceptional athletes the riders were, that he wanted to write a book about cycling.  As he and his sister researched some of The Tour greats, they learned the largely untold story of Bartali's involvement during WWII helping to save Jews by serving as a messenger riding his bike vast distances transporting documents hidden in his frame to make false identity papers.  Bartali seemed the perfect subject for a book.  Many had been written about him, but none in English.  Though Bartali had died in 2000 at the age of 86, he left behind three autobiographies and was survived by his wife and a son.  The McConnons meticulously researched their book interviewing the Bartalis three times and many others and reading widely.  There are over fifty pages of footnotes, though no index.

They recount with remarkable detail the Bartoli story, mentioning such things as the special blue dress his mother wore when she attended his victory celebration at the Turin velodrome after his first Tour win in 1938 and that she softly cried with happiness.  His father was so thrilled by his impending victory in 1938  that he came to France for the first time to pay him a surprise visit at his hotel.  He was so overcome by emotion, he cried as he embraced his son.

The first mention of tears are those of Bartali as a youth when he was reprimanded by his father for allowing a friend to put curved racing handlebars on his bike, as his father did not wish him to become a racer, similar to the parents of Eddie Merckx. Bartali also admitted to tears as an adult when he had to withdraw from the 1937 Tour de France after a crash. He had won the Giro d'Italia the month before and hoped to become the first person ever to win The Tour and The Giro in the same year.  It was so important to the Italians to have an Italian win The Tour, his national federation did not allow him to ride the 1938 Giro, even though he was the defending champion, so he would be fresh to win that year's Tour, as he did.

The McConnons also cite other instances of tears in 1938.  They report that Hitler's eyes moistened with tears during a visit to Italy that year when Mussolini told him "no force can ever separate us."  Later that year a six-year old Jewish boy, the son of friends of Bartali, cried when he and his fellow Jewish classmates were told they could no longer attend the school they had been attending.

Bartali's hard riding could drive his adversaries to tears.  Jean Robic, winner of the 1947 Tour, broke down in tears during the 1948 Tour on the Galibier when he could no longer keep up.  On the previous stage, the McConnon's quote "L'Equipe" as reporting that Louisson Bobet, who went on to win The Tour three times during the '50s, crossed the finish line eighteen minutes behind Bartali with "his face covered in mud, except for the tiny furrows where tears had fallen down his cheeks."  After the completion of the race in Paris, Bartali embraced another French adversary who was shedding tears of a different sort, proud and relieved to have survived The Race.

No biography of Bartali is complete without mentioning his smoking.  This is no exception.  A doctor actually advised him to smoke a cigarette or two before every race to speed up his heart.  American cigarettes were his favorite but hard to come by.  He saved them for moments of importance.  Among the many cultural asides the McConnons offer is that Bartali's wife Adrianna smoked as a young woman during their courtship in an era when it was uncommon for women to do so. The Macedonia Extra brand of the time advertised itself as "The Cigarette of Great Athletes."  During the war when tobacco was in short supply, Bartali made do with cigarettes of rice-paper cylinders filled with dried chamomile flowers.  One of the sponsors of The Tour was O.C.B. Rolling Papers.  Its float in the publicity caravan  preceding the racers carried a machine that demonstrated the cutting and folding of cigarette rolling papers.

Despite their exceptional research, the McConnons are typical of those writing about cycling who did not grow up with the sport, betraying occasional evidence of not thoroughly knowing or understanding the sport.  Even Samuel Abt, who covered cycling for over twenty years for the "New York Times," after being assigned the beat while in the paper's Paris bureau,  was guilty of such lapses.  From time to time they make erroneous assertions that would make any teen-aged European cycling fan cringe.

When describing the duties of domestiques, they cite the case of an unnamed Italian cyclist who would make his domestiques push him along as he relieved himself, not realizing that this is basic cycling protocol.   They make it appear as if this is a rare, obscure incident, when it is not uncommon at all. It is a favorite picture of cycling photographers.  Such a photo fills the back cover of Graham Watson's oversized "Visions of Cycling." 

In that same paragraph on domestiques they recount the reputed story of Rene Vietto's toe without mentioning his name.  They say that after "a French cyclist" lost a toe to sepsis, he demanded that one of his domestiques amputate his own toe to "better understand his pain."  They at least are journalisticly responsible to use a euphemism for "allegedly" ("was said to have"), in essence admitting that they don't know if this story is correct or not, but that it is too good not to mention.

They are dead wrong when telling the famous story of Octave Lapize calling race officials "Murderers" during the 19l0 Tour for sending the racers over the high mountains of the Pyrenees for the first time.  They are correct that it happened at the top of the Aubisque, but not that the Aubisque was "the finish line" for the stage.  It was years before The Tour had a mountain top finish and there has never been one at the summit of the Aubisque.

They are also wrong regarding the well-documented friction between Coppi and Bartali at the 1948 World Championships.  The two rivals were teammates on the Italian team, but refused to work together. Either one could have won the race, but neither wanted the other to win and refused to sacrifice himself for the other.  By focusing their attentions on each other, they allowed their rivals to escape so far up the road that the two abandoned the race.  Their actions so infuriated team officials they were both suspended.  This happened at the "Road" Championships, not the "Track" Championships,  as the McConnons have it.  They commit a few other minor mistakes that aren't much more than typographical errors.  Their mistakes don't much undermine the integrity of this fine biography. They are just further evidence that the editing of American cycling literature has a ways to go to catch up to its European counterparts and that one can't be fully confident of the accuracy of any American cycling book.


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