Who is Ted?

I'm the father of two beautiful daughters and an amazing wife. For fun, I enjoy the long hours of seemingly endless suffering that endurance sports (mostly running, cycling and triathlon)provide. During my "down time" I'm an avid beer snob and self-described gourmet chef (in other words I like to burn things on a stove or grill).

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: Road to Valor

This Saturday will mark the start of the 100th Tour de France.  I first became captivated by this race as a teenager back in the 1980's.  I remember following the race and the likes of Greg Lemond, Bernard Hinault, and Laurent Fignon as they battled throughout the second half of the decade.  And although I never had the chance to attend, each summer the Coors Classic bike race came to Colorado and generated excitement and enthusiasm for the sport.  I remember what it was like to be a "real" cyclist after purchasing a used Trek road bike from a neighbor. 
Lemond vs Hinault
 As I grew older, I took a long break from cycling (like nearly 20 years), but I remained interested in the Tour de France.  Like most everyone else in America, I felt a great sense of pride as Lance Armstrong raced to so many tour victories, and then a sinking disappointment as his pervasive cheating was uncovered.  When his multiple victories in the tour were vacated this past year, and no new winners were named (based on the fact that so many of the top riders were doping, it would be difficult if not impossible to say they had won cleanly), the whole endeavor seemed a farce, and hollow.  The Tour de France is arguably the toughest endurance race in the world, but what honor does it hold if the participants win fraudulently?
Lance's "confession" on Oprah
 It was with this frame of mind that I sat down to read Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, The Nazis, and the Cyclist who Inspired a Nation by Alli and Andres McConnon.  It is a story about endurance not only in athletics, but also of the human spirit.  The backdrop for the story is Italy in the late 30's and early 40's.  In this environment, a rising superstar Italian cyclist named Gino Bartali, born to a poor family on the outskirts of Florence, tries to pursue his dreams as a professional cyclist.  Standing in his way is the growing fanaticism of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.  And as Italy falls deeper under the influence of Nazi Germany, Bartali, a non-fascist, finds his opportunities slipping away.  Before long, the shadow of World War II is cast across the land, and shortly after his victory in the 1938 tour, any meaningful racing stopped.
Mussolini's Italy
Gino, like many other young men of that era, was conscripted into military service.  Even after leaving the service, with little to no racing in the country, and despite being a major "star" in Italy, his time was dedicated primarily to making ends meet for his small family. 
Gino Bartali in the 1938 Tour de France
 Bartali was a religious man, and a dedicated Catholic.  As a result, he was regarded with suspicion, and at times, downright derision, by the ruling fascists.  Following his father's advice, he did his best to stay out of the political arena, choosing to remain silent rather than choosing sides.  That changed however as the war continued, and he witnessed the ever increasing tyranny of the Fascists.  When Mussolini was returned to power later in the war, Gino was entreated by his friend Cardinal Della Costa, to assist those Italians who were helping Jews to hide their identity.  Gino agreed, and worked as a courier, using his bicycle to deliver photographs and other materials around Tuscany to be used in creating falsified documents.
When the war finally ended, Bartali was able to return to cycling.  However, he was no longer a young man, and many speculated that his best years were lost to the war.  His temperament had changed as well, and he was considered by many to be aggressive and rude.  During the 1948 tour, the media criticized him tirelessly, and as he fell behind by more than twenty minutes, it looked like his days as a professional cyclist were coming to an end.  What happens next . . .well, if you don't already know, you'll just have to read the book.
Anyone who follows cycling knows that riders can be quite arrogant, self-centered, and having an magnified sense of importance (in truth, the same can be said of athletes in many sports).  At times Gino Bartali demonstrated many of these same characteristics.  But his story is a reminder that there is much more to any individual than just that which appears in the media.  Bartali reminds us of the indomitable human spirit, and the endurance to overcome any challenge.  
Bartali with rival and teammate, Fausto Coppi, in the 1949 TdF
 Now the Tour starts back up again on Saturday and riders will battle one another, along with nearly 3500 kilometers over three arduous weeks. And while it may be impossible to watch the Tour de France nowadays without at least some level of skepticism, I'll also be watching it with a little more faith.

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