Book recalls Bartali's feats on and off the bike

NEW YORK Thu Jun 21, 2012 10:32pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - For Italians of all generations there are few mysteries about Gino Bartali, one of the country's best known and most successful road cyclists.

Bartali is a symbol of a different era, when Italy was poorer, more naive but much more confident in its future.

But now, a new book, the first in English about Bartali, chronicles his victories before and after World War II and his role as a courier who helped countless Jews during the conflict to a whole new audience.

"Bartali's story fascinated us because it combined this incredible comeback story with an untold tale of wartime heroism," said Aili and Andres McConnon, two brothers who spent 10 years researching "Road To Valor - A true story of World War II, Italy, the Nazis and the Cyclist who inspired a nation".

Bartali has a long list of success - he won the Tour de France twice, in 1938 and in 1948, and the Giro d'Italia three times in 1936, 1937 and 1946. Because of the war, he holds the records for the longest time span between victories.

Born in 1914, Bartali faced an uphill battle from the beginning. His life-long love affair with the bicycle started when he bought a second-hand bike from the savings of a summer job and rode it to school, up and down the hills around Florence.

Despite an unquestionable talent, he had to fight his parents' fears for his safety before being allowed to start racing.

His younger brother Giulio died in 1936 in a bike accident and when the first victories arrived, he had to face the Fascist regime's attempts to use his success and fame for political propaganda.

A RARE EXAMPLE

Then there was the war. And Bartali showed extraordinary courage.

Hiding forbidden papers in the frame of his bicycle, Bartali smuggled counterfeit identity documents past Fascist and Nazi checkpoints.

He fooled the soldiers, who assumed he was in training, and helped save Jews from deportation to death camps.

In 2006, six years after his death, Bartali was posthumously awarded a medal from Italian President Carlo Ciampi for his acts of bravery during the war.

When the conflict was over, returning to professional cycling was not an easy feat. Winning against competitors ten years younger seemed implausible at best.

But he defied the odds to win a second Tour de France.

In 1948, he won three consecutive mountain stages, an unprecedented feat that has still not been matched.

The news of his wins helped ease political tensions in Italy after a failed assassination attempt on Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti had left the country on the brink of civil war.

Eating, drinking and smoking in a way that would be unimaginable today, Bartali managed to succeed against all odds at times when substance abuse was not even a topic of discussion.

Bartali retired from cycling in 1954, aged 40. He died of a heart attack in 2000.

(Editing by Julian Linden)

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