Sunday, December 23, 2012
Road to Valor- "A Must Read" book review
Are you a history buff? Cycling fanatic? Vintage bicycle enthusiast? Or just love an all around good read? Then you have to read the autobiography of the late Gino Bartali Road to Valor- A true story of World War II Italy, the Nazis. and the cyclist who inspired a nation. This is a well written documentation of the life and trials of this famous cyclist, who as it was later discovered, became one of the greatest humanitarians of his time.
The backdrop of this true story is set in pre-war and post war Europe, namely in the agrarian region of Italy known as Tuscany, from which Gino hails from. Tuscany as well as southern Italy can be described as a picturesque, paradisaical landscape which most of us only dream of seeing, especially in it's pre-war days. The book describes in great detail the rolling hills and lush vineyards that surrounded Bartali's hometown near Florence. But a dark shadow was looming over the country in the early part of the 1920's. With Mussolini in power as the country's dictator, a Fascist presence fully manifested itself during World War II and threatened to rip the country apart. Gino did not give in to the xenophobic demands of his government at the time. Rather, he used his fame and his talents in an underground life saving work. As part of a human rescue mission, he helped Jews fleeing for their lives to obtain false documentation during the Nazi regime, thus leading to hundreds of lives being saved. He would smuggle all these documents in the frame of his bicycle, using what was once his means of livelihood to save lives.
In 1938, Gino was in his prime of fitness. As the war escalated, Italy distanced itself from the Allied Nations. Italy did not partake of the Tour De France after Gino's Tour win in 1938. The Tour was altogether canceled for a number of years during the latter half of the second world war. After the war, Gino emerged a changed man. Having lost his prime racing years and a lot of his fitness during the war, a insurmountable task lay ahead of him, win the Tour De France of 1948. He would have to do this ten years after his first tour win. Despite the odds, Gino Bartali took victory in France in 1948, closing a ten year gap of virtual non-existence on the professional cycling level. He won the race on the mountain stages. He summited up gravel and mud roads in the middle of two freak snowstorms that left his opponents literally frozen. When it was all said and done, Gino won with a mind blowing 21 minute lead over the field, a feat that very few elite cyclists have achieved, even today.
During his racing career, Gino Bartali made many friendships and rivalries. His biggest rival was fellow countryman Fausto Coppi. While Gino was a clean racer, a man devoted to his family, and in his own way a deeply religious man, Fausto Coppi contrasted him in many ways. While many can identify with Fausto Coppi of being the secular champion of Italian cycling, I believe Gino Bartali deserves more merit. His accomplishments go far beyond the world of cycling as his cause was far bigger than himself. I would have to say I personally identify with Gino Bartali on many points, both as a cyclist and as a person. I guess, after reading this book, I am now a Bartaliani (read the book, see the reference).
Final thoughts-Today's cycling scene can greatly benefit from the examples of great cyclists like Gino Bartali and even the way the race was raced back in the day. Today people talk about a new cycling phenom called gravel grinding. This back then would be simply referred to as ciclismo. There were essentially no paved roads back then, and cyclists rode on vintage steel bikes with cottered cranks. Now that's hard core. I would like to see that in modern times. That would really level out the playing field, and no amount of steroids would be able to compensate for the pure skill and athletic ability one would need to have to do what these great masters did back then.
I will end this review with one of the most inspirational quotes that I have read, in Bartali's own words.
"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 quick words of his story flow.
I have my bicycle."