Italian Underground Railroad
- Q: Where have the What’s New updates been for the last two months?
A: Off the back, obviously. The last eight weeks have been a blur dominated by two things. One fun, and one not so much. Together they devoured any discretionary hours for diary-keeping.
Fun came in the form of summertime riding. A lot of it. And even a bit of racing. In case you’re trying to figure out where your next bike riding vacation should be, make it Park City. One summer here has confirmed for me that it’s paradise, whether your fancy is road or mountain.
Not so fun was the act taking the final big step in our acquisition by Backcountry. In mid-June we integrated our backend systems into Backcountry’s, confirming the cliché that ‘data is a four-letter word.’ Our challenge was to completely unwire the way we manage all of our content, inventory, buying, planning, distribution, and customer service, and then re-wire it into an all-new platform. On top of that, we had to do this during our peak season but with zero disruption to our customers and vendors.
We spent nearly seven months preparing for the cutover. Once we flipped the switch we were gratified to see that we got 98 percent of it right. The bummer is that the flawed two percent brought seismic chaos to our business. Working through the issues was perhaps the ultimate team-building experience to bring together Competitive Cyclist and Backcountry people. Finally, now, we’ve arrived.
- The Tour de France came and went. My abiding memory is asking myself every day why in the heck Team Sky jerseys have such long sleeves. Where have you gone Acqua & Sapone? The tifosi turns its lonely eyes to you…
- And lest we forget Cipo’s years on Team Saeco, this is a tribute I’d like to forget. The title of the photo is as troubling as the photo itself.
- In the pantheon of Italian cycling heroes, a handful rank ahead of Mario Cipollini. Among them is Gino Bartali, the two-time winner of the Tour de France and the subject of a new book titled ‘Road to Valor.’ It’s written with seemingly two purposes. On the one hand it’s the first full-length English-language history of Gino Bartali’s short-circuited bike racing career. His legend was cemented by winning le Tour both before and after World War Two, in 1938 and 1948. He was denied what should have been the prime of his career when professional racing all but vanished from 1940-1946.
Before reading the book, I knew nothing about Bartali except for his rivalry with the famously glamorous Fausto Coppi. ‘Road to Valor’ fills in the void of Bartali’s youth, his devotion to his Roman Catholic faith, and most importantly his racing career. Yet, for a book that purports to be biography, the authors Alli and Andres McConnon persistently walk a fine line between historical documentation and florid storytelling. The scenes they describe have a richness of detail that verges on fiction. For example, in describing one of Gino’s boyhood bike rides with his brother in the 1920′s, they write --
‘Their tires kicked up clouds of grit, and it was all Gino could do to avoid swallowing a mouthful. He rubbed a sweaty palm against his shorts, trying to brush off the stubborn rust flakes from his bike frame, and tucked his elbows in alongside his body, the way his idols did…’
The McConnons’ level of narrative detail -- the mouthful of dust, the sweaty palm, the flakes of rust -- often treads into a descriptive zone exclusive to the art of fiction. It inevitably begs questions about what ‘Road to Valor’ really is. Biography? History? The product of sober fact-finding, as might be expected from its 50 pages of endnotes? Or is it in a genre of its own?
The question of whether it’s history or something more puffed-up weighs heaviest in the middle of the book. Here the McConnons tell the story of Bartali’s heroic involvement in the Italian resistance during the war. He used training rides as cover to transport forged identity documents used by Italian Jews. Those documents were crucial in helping them elude capture by the fascist Italians and, later, the Nazis themselves. The story of this Italian Underground Railroad, the way in which it was organized by the Catholic church, and the way Bartali used his celebrity as a means to move freely amongst the fascists and Nazis is fascinating.
The McConnons’ writing style and use of language, however, creeps far beyond the standards of typical biography. Another prime example is a mid-war scene where Bartali strategically stops at a train station café during a training ride. This leads to a raucous, impromptu autograph session --
‘All this extra commotion attracted the attention of several of the soldiers in the train station, some of whom likely hoped to get autographs of their own. And for those refugees and dissidents hoping to avoid the Germans and Fascists as they switched trains, it is believed that this planned distraction bought them a few precious minutes of cover.’
That paragraph comes almost halfway through the book. And it was here that I surrendered any final hope that ‘Road to Valor’ was first history, and secondarily entertainment. For writers with such overripe with academic credentials and a history of writing for the finest newspapers, this use of passive voice was a bridge too far. ‘…it is believed that this planned distraction…’
Nothing is more disingenuous in writing than the strategic use of passive voice. This ‘distraction’ was ‘believed’ by whom? There is no endnote to clarify. Rather, in looking back there the McConnons admit that ‘Gino never wrote a detailed account of what happened…and spoke about it only in passing.’ Additionally, ‘Much less is known about this episode because only one direct eyewitness…is still alive and none of the deceased witnesses left written testimonies.’
As ‘Road to Valor’ reaches its crescendos -- first in the form of various close calls with the Nazis, then later in Bartali’s against-all-odds 1948 Tour victory -- you can hear the dramatic orchestral music playing in the McConnons’ ears. The imperative of the historian to interpret the past gets windblown by something decidedly different. Unlike William Fotheringham’s seminal biography of Fausto Coppi, a work that will prove to be timeless thanks to its discipline on its subject matter, ‘Road To Valor’ reads like prep-work for a screenplay. While I have no basis to doubt its underlying factual basis, in the breathlessness of its prose it satisfies most with the guilty pleasure of all things merely ‘Based Upon Historical Events.’