Friday, September 07, 2012

Road to Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon

I’m rarely intrigued by sports biographies, but I was hooked when I saw the subtitle of Road to Valor: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation.

Road to Valor is more than a sports biography and Gino Bartali was more than an athlete. It is the story of a man who won the Tour de France in 1938 when he was 24, and again in 1948, when he was 34—an old athlete for the sport at that time. No one has ever won the race twice with that much time between victories. But even more, Road to Valor is also about courage and honor. It is also about the amazing power of celebrity and sports fervor to change and calm a nation thrown into chaos by a single act of violence.

The story is in three parts: Before World War II; during the War; and the effort to win the Tour de France after the war. It was fascinating to read about training and preparations for a three-week bicycle race over thousands of miles and several mountains. The descriptions of war in Italy and Gino’s part in helping Italian Jews to hide from the Fascists and Nazis were mesmerizing. But the chapters about Italy and bicycle racing after the war were amazing.

Gino was determined to win the Tour de France in 1948, but several factors were working against him: his age, vicious rivalry between cyclists, and the weather. His fans were losing enthusiasm, and journalists were predicting he would lose. Even his coach said he was through. This was DURING the race.

Back home in Italy, the country was on the edge of chaos, if not civil war, after the attempted assassination of a political leader. Riots, demonstrations, injuries and deaths ensued. Then the Prime Minister asked Gino to win the Tour to help settle the country. He did. Italians united in joy at this example of Italian superiority. Tempers cooled, and thus Gino Bartali, a sports icon, inspired the country.

To think that a single sports hero winning a sporting event could have this much power is, frankly, mind-boggling to me. Could this happen today?

If you, too, are intrigued by this story of an athlete whose determination to win may have stopped a civil war, look for Road to Valor at the library.

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