Fascism, Catholicism, communism — and an Italian cyclist

By  Frank Cosentino, Catholic Register Special
  • July 25, 2012

Road To Valour: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation, by Alli and Andres McConnon (Doubleday Canada, hardcover, 336 pages, $32.95).

If you were Italian or French and crazy about cycling you would know Gino Bartali’s name. But we are not a cycling nation, even if Victoria, B.C.’s Ryder Hesjedal, winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia, has nudged Canadians toward some kind of appreciation of the sport. Bartali won the Giro d’Italia three times and the Tour de France twice.
This true story of Bartali reads like fiction, so incredible are events and circumstances. The setting is mostly pre-war Italy under the rule of Mussolini but extends through the war and into the postwar period. Fascism, Catholicism and communism interject themselves into Bartali’s life.
What could be more normal than a young man who loved to ride his bicycle, who displayed his faith openly, who exulted in the joy of effort for all to see? Bartali was an advocate for Catholic Action. That wasn’t so startling. What was surprising was “how zealously and publicly the Church embraced Gino. He was described as a ‘magnificent Christian athlete.’ ”     
Sport can be a powerful instrument called upon to serve any purpose, personal or otherwise. In Road to Valour, Bartali and his cycling ability combine to create a national hero, admired by all. 
Mussolini’s Fascists wanted Bartali’s endorsement of their system of governance. The Christian Democrats wanted him to align his popularity with their party. The Church, aware of his Catholic Action participation, enlisted his support to help shelter Jews in the Tuscan area.
And then there was the case of Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party. It was 1948. The Tour de France was in progress. Togliatti was stabbed in an attempted assassination. He was left in critical condition and lapsed into a coma.
At this moment there is turmoil in the nation and Italy’s government. The Christian Democrats and Communists are vying for power. Italy is on the verge of civil war. Prime Minister Alcide DeGasperi of the Christian Democrates makes a phone call to his friend Bartali. There is still a week to go in the Tour de France. He has a simple request: “Try to make it happen...  it would be very important to all of us.” Bartali was also visited by a papal emissary and given a special medal. He was told “His Holiness wishes that you win the Tour as a loyal and athletic champion.”
Bartali did win the Tour de France. As if on cue, Togliatti awoke from his coma. His first two questions were: “What happened at the Tour? How did Bartali do?”
Bartali’s victory and Togliatti’s recovery, so close on the heels of each other, were summed up by the Le Monde correspondent in Italy: “No event in the world could have been as important as Bartali’s victory. This was clearly apparent on July 15 when the news of his exploits transformed the highly dramatic atmosphere into which Italy had been plunged following the attack on Togliatti.”
One Italian journalist wrote of the triumph: “Bartali wrote in these last two days — if one can write with pedal strokes and drops of sweat — perhaps the most beautiful page of his career.” As for Bartali, he was to express later that “Everyone in their life has his own particular way of expressing life’s purpose... I have my bicycle.”
Road to Valour is an excellent book that gives an informed snapshot of an era. In this case it was of Bartali and Italy, but it transcends that nation and could be descriptive of what happens in so many countries but is seldom recorded. Which is a shame because it leaves nations with nothing but cultural amnesia. The book is well researched and written, worth reading for pleasure, knowledge and a reminder of so many great stories waiting to be discovered.
(Cosentino is Professor Emeritus at York University.)

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