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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Italian cycling champ became inspirational war hero

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GINO Bartali is not a household name in the English-speaking world, but should be. His story is truly amazing.

Born in 1914 in a small town outside of Florence, Italy, Bartali became a professional cyclist who twice won the Tour de France, the most prestigious bicycle race in the world.

His victories in 1938 and 1948 set a record for longest time span between triumphs at the Tour, a record that has not been equalled or surpassed.

Bartali's racing made him a national hero in Italy, but his greatest accomplishment was unknown to the public for decades.

During the Second World War, he risked his life in Nazi-occupied Italy to participate in a clandestine network, organized by his friend, the archbishop of Florence, that was aiding Jewish refugees.

Bartali served as a courier, ferrying documents in the hollow frame of his bike. He also sheltered a Jewish family.

The life of this courageous figure is recounted in this readable, workmanlike biography by Aili and Andres McConnon, siblings from Toronto. Aili is a journalist, while Andres is a filmmaker.

Bartali grew up in the idyllic countryside of Tuscany, a region of central Italy. His passion for cycling began in his childhood.

He and his brother and their friends would race on their bikes over the dusty rural roads, traversing hills. They were like "a herd of Tuscan horses that galloped in the grasslands nearby."

Bartali began working in a bicycle repair shop when he was still in Grade 6. An indifferent student who struggled to pay attention in class, he could focus for hours on repairing the bikes that came into the shop.

It was clear that Bartali was born to race. He became a professional cyclist in 1935.

He maintained a rigorous training regimen, developing his endurance and what he called his "capacity for suffering."

The authors depict Bartali's gruelling races, particularly the Tour de France, a course of several thousand miles, much of which is through mountainous terrain.

While Bartali's heroics as a racer are impressive, his greatest feat, the authors show, was his work on behalf of Jewish refugees during the Second World War.

Bartali retired from cycling in 1955. After his racing career, he was involved in some unsuccessful business ventures, and became a sportscaster. He died in 2000.

The McConnons are competent writers, although there is the occasional grammatical error interspersed throughout their narrative. They refer to "long sonnets" written about Bartali, apparently unaware that a sonnet is, by definition, a 14-line poem.

But their prose can become lyrical, as in this passage describing Bartali's victory lap after winning the 1948 Tour: "as he heads into the home stretch, the happiness he radiates is as clear as day -- it is the carefree pleasure of a boy on a bike, gliding effortlessly through the air, resplendent in the afternoon sun."

This biography is a fitting tribute to Bartali, a cyclist who displayed great courage on the race course, and even greater courage off it.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Road to Valour

A True Story of World War II Italy, The Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation

By Aili and Andres McConnon

Doubleday Canada, 352 pages, $33

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J8

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