Road to Valor: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation is the first book written in the English language about Gino Bartali, Italian cyclist champion and national legend. It is also the only book to fully explore Bartali’s war-time work.
The authors of the book are siblings Aili and Andres McConnon, Canadians who are not exactly in close proximity to the Italian region of Tuscany where Bartali was born. At the National Italian American Federation’s West Coast Gala held last month, they received the Mazzei Award in Thought Leadership for their outstanding contributions to research, scholarship and innovative thinking.
While attending the West Coast Gala held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to interview Aili and Andres McConnon together. We talked about the reasons and the processes that led them to write such a book about the man who is generally acknowledged to be one of the most important personalities in Italian sports history.
What is the reason that led you to be interested to the figure of Gino Bartali?
Andres: “Ten years ago I was in Paris for the Tour de France, as I am a big cycling fan, and I’ve seen American champion Lance Armstrong winning again this important race when he was already more than 30 years old. So I thought: ‘Who else did something like this?’ Gino Bartali did it, winning his last Tour with a time gap of ten years from the previous one, and I became more interested in developing this question. I spoke about it with Aili and she started to research further information online, trying to discover how he spent his ten years away from international success. We found out that it wasn’t just a sports story, but an important history of a secret.”
How did you decide to investigate the story behind this secret? Did you travel to Italy?
Aili: “Yes, we decided to move to Italy for several months, having the opportunity to research and interview many important persons, we could even interview former Italian President Luigi Scalfaro, to see the impact of Bartali in the history of Italy.
“We rented a house in Tuscany, not far away from Bartali’s hometown of Ponte a Ema in the Comune of Bagno a Ripoli. We enjoyed very much our time there; it was a wonderful experience as we realized that he was really a ‘cultural hero.’ We also discovered that he wasn’t a traditional sportsman; in fact he liked to smoke, he was very Catholic—actually he was called by the people ‘il Pio’—and most of all, he had a very strong temper. It was interesting to know about his sports rivalry with Fausto Coppi that divided opinions in Italy in the immediate post-war (period).”
Is there any personality with the same importance for the Italian-American?
Andres: “We’ve tried to imagine if there was a sportsman with his same popularity in the U.S. for Italian-American people, and we thought probably Joe DiMaggio back in the fifties in some ways is comparable to Gino Bartali for the way he was connected to his Italian roots and Tuscany.”
What did you find out about those ten years when Bartali had to deal with World War II?
AILI: “Gino Bartali became a household name in Italy after winning the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948, as well as three Giri d’Italia (races). But what few people know is that during World War II, Bartali used his cycling fame to help Jews being persecuted by the Nazis and Fascists. During our months in Italy for research we met and interviewed his wife, his son, several of his teammates and Italian-Jews survivors that were helped by Bartali. Risking his own life, he secretly sheltered a Jewish family in an apartment that he financed with his cycling winnings. In the late fall of 1943, Bartali accepted a request from Florence’s Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa to carry materials necessary to counterfeit identity cards and transport false identity documents, hidden in the frame of his bicycle, throughout Tuscany and Umbria to be used by Jews in hiding. We personally spoke to Giorgio Goldenberg, saved by Bartali, who was able to hide his family in the basement of the champion’s apartment.”
The new book, Road to Valor: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation was published in June
by Crown Publishers/ Random House.
The book showcases aspects of professional cycling, Fascist and Nazi-occupied Italy, the experiences of Jews in World War ll, and post-war Italian politics. Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and winner of the Noble Peace Prize, called Bartali’s story a “…moving example of moral courage.”
For further information about the book, as well as a video with interviews with some of the survivors Bartali helped during the war, and photographs of Bartali cycling during key points in his career, visit www.roadtovalorbook.com.