Smell of the streets

December 13, 2013 § 77 Comments

My brother Ian always used to talk to homeless people. I think it’s because he felt like he was just a step or two away from being homeless himself, and also because he hurt so badly inside that he could relate to other broken people. When he lived in an awful little place in New York he became friends with a homeless guy who lived in a cardboard box.

One time Ian locked his bike up outside a neighborhood store. When he came back, someone had cracked the lock and stolen his bike. He was only in the store for about five minutes. The bike was his sole means of transportation, and he was barely making rent and couldn’t afford a new bike. He walked back to his apartment. His buddy Al was sitting in his cardboard box smoking a cigarette.

“Why the long face?”

“My bike got ripped off.”

“No shit?”

“No shit.”

“That black one with the funny seat?”

“That one.”

“Sucks, man. Want a cigarette?”

“Sure.” They sat on the curb and smoked a cigarette, taking turns puffing on it.

The next day Ian got up and went outside. Al was in his box. “Hey, man,” he said. “I got your bike back.” Ian’s bike was leaning next to the box.

Fear of filth

I’ve never chatted up homeless people. I’m afraid of them. I’m afraid they’ll hurt me or ask me for money that I don’t have. I also don’t like them because they’re dirty and they smell bad. They also look terrible, and they’re usually missing teeth, or their teeth are rotten, and a lot of them have weird shit going on in their eyes, not just the crazy look but actual clumps of blood or they’re wall-eyed or even blind in one eye.

Homeless people are great at reading faces, and they steer clear of me. My face says “I’m not giving you one fucking dime.” They never ask me for money or even try to make eye contact. When I’m striding to court in my suit and tie and my warpaint face the homeless people in downtown L.A. get out of my way.

There’s a side entrance to the Stanley Mosk courthouse, just down from the Disney Hall. Most people don’t know about it and use the main entrance on Hill Street, so there’s rarely much of a wait. In the outdoor covered walkway there’s a homeless guy who always sits on a mat with a paper cup and smiles at me. I’ve sometimes smiled back, and once I put a dollar in his cup. It always struck me what a cheerful guy he was.

History is never in the past

My eldest son Hans recently recommended a book to me, “Dispatches” by Michael Herr. It’s a journalist’s “journal” of the Vietnam War. Along with “The Things They Carried,” it’s one of the more real and disturbing accounts of that conflict.

On Monday I was charging to court and as I entered the walkway the homeless guy said, “Stay focused!”

He knew I was concentrating on court, and he was cheering me. I glanced over at him and flashed a grin.

“You got it, young man! You got this!”

In the courtroom there was a lot of waiting. I thought about that homeless guy. When the hearing ended, as I left the building I stopped next to him.

“Hey, man,” I said.

“Hey there, young fellow!”

“How’d you wind up on the streets?”

He took it as if it were the most natural conversation starter in the world. “Drugs. Heroin.”

“You still on it?”

“Oh, no. They got me off when I got out and put me on methadone.”

“Got out of what?”

“Vietnam. I was there four years. We was all on heroin. That’s the only way,  you know, we could fight and not be afraid.”

“You did four tours?”

He brightened at the word “tours.”

“Yeah, man, four tours. I liked it there. But we was all on heroin, you know the military wanted us on heroin because we could fight when we was high. We wasn’t scared of nothing.”

“Who were you with?”

“Rangers. 75th Battalion, Charlie Company. We ran convoy protection up the An Che valley. My gunship was called ‘Seven Shades of Soul.'”

I laughed. “Seven Shades of Soul?”

“Yeah, man, ’cause we was all brothers on the gunship. Marvin Gaye, baby, ‘What’s Goin’ On,’ you know?”

“Where did you serve, mostly?”

“Oh, here and there, but mostly Pleiku. That was some bad shit. They had the Vietnam regular army hitting us all up and down An Khe all the time. They wasn’t like the VC, they was regular army, man, they had the weapons and they fought like we did, you know, trained army. They dropped a mortar round in one of our convoy trucks one time, wasn’t nothin’ left but a pair of eyeglasses hanging on the rear-view mirror. Blowed every one of our boys into little tiny pieces.”

“You ever get hurt?”

“Oh, lord, yes. I got some shrapnel in my brain during a firefight. They sent me to Yokota for three months R&R, then they dropped me right back in Pleiku, just like I’d never left. But that was some good times in Yokota. That was a nice place.”

“And now you’re homeless, living on the streets. That’s what it got you?”

“Oh, I don’t regret nothin’. I learned lots of things in Vietnam I couldn’t have never learned in college. I learned about doin’ what you have to do, you know? And I learned you can’t take nothin’ for granted, and I learned after I got out to love god, god is always gonna take care of me, there ain’t no use worrying’ about that. You know and I also learned I better be grateful for every day. You know why?”

“Why?”

“‘Cause man I made it through four tours and one of the brothers he did too but he died a month after getting’ home, workin’ on a construction job diggin’ a ditch and the ditch fell in on him. So he made it through the war but he didn’t make it through the peace, you follow? So I’m grateful every day, just like I’m grateful talkin’ to a nice young fellow like you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Elliott. What’s yours?”

“Seth.”

“That’s a good name. That’s a name from the Bible.”

“Can I take a picture of us?”

“That would be fine, indeed it would.”

I squatted down next to the pad he was sitting on and squeezed up against him, shoulder to shoulder. A pair of lawyers walked by, leaving the courthouse. The one nearest me was wearing three thousand dollars of wool and cotton and silk and leather, and another five thousand dollars of metal and gold on his wrist. “Excuse me,” I said.

The guy stopped and looked down. “Yes?”

“Would you take a picture of me and my buddy here?”

“I most certainly would not.” He marched away, disgusted.

“Don’t you care none about that,” said Elliott. “There’s good lawyers and there’s evil ones, too.”

I reversed the camera and took the photo myself. “I’ll see you around, Elliott.”

“Yes, sir, you certainly will,” he said, and as I walked away he added, “Young man, thank you!”

“Sure,” I said.

“You know what I’m thanking you for, young man?”

“The five bucks?”

He laughed. “No, young man. I’m thanking you for stopping to talk. For acknowledging that I exist. God bless you.”

“I’m the one who owes the thanks,” I said, as I thought about the lawyer who had refused to take our picture and scornfully walked away. That lawyer was me.

War Hero

War Hero

True thanks

November 29, 2013 § 31 Comments

It’s hard for people to understand the kinds of relationships that we build on bicycles. Let me try to explain.

This story really began with a belt tied into noose and looped around a light socket, dangling from a ceiling in a cheap motel room in Mexico. One friend found the other friend before it was too late. The affair put something of a damper on what had started out as fun three-day bicycle tour south of the border.

They took the guy who was almost on the clinched end of the belt back home to Texas. He promptly went to bed, and refused to get up. After two days of lying there, deep in the black place, there was a knock at the door. He never moved, except to open his eyes and stare blankly at the ceiling.

The ham-fist rapped again, then jiggled at the doorknob, which was locked. The hand hesitated, then twisted hard, stupid hard. The lock snapped and the door opened. He walked in from the brilliant sunshine to the gloom of despair.

“Hey, pal,” he said.

Nothing.

He pulled a chair up next to the bed and sat there, unmoving, for a full hour.

“What do you want?” asked the muted, angry voice.

“I want you to get your ass out of bed and make yourself something to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I didn’t ask if you were hungry.”

The next silence lasted almost two hours. The big guy never budged from his chair. The sick man pushed back the covers and went to the bathroom. When he came back, the big guy said to him, again, “Go make yourself something to eat. Just a bowl of cereal. Then I’ll leave you alone.”

The slim man went into the kitchen while the big main waited in the bedroom. When he had finished the cereal, the slim man came back in and crawled under the covers. “Now go away, please.”

“Okay,” said the big man. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The things that matter

The big man had a wife, kids, and a job that started every day at two and finished at eleven. Every morning at nine o’clock you could find him at the slim man’s house, sometimes on the porch reading a newspaper, sometimes inside watching the TV. He never left his post before noon, and every day before he pedaled off he said the same thing. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

After three months the slim man would be up and out of bed when the big man got there. After four months he was showering every day and getting dressed. By the sixth month he was back in front of the computer in his study, working.

By the seventh month, the big man stopped coming around. The slim man had been pulled, inch by miserable inch, out of the pit. It’s a pit so deep and black and hopeless that only those who have fallen into it can even begin to understand. It’s a pit from which many never get out.

The big man has deep blue eyes, dark hair, and the warmest handshake you’ll ever get. He could crush your small hand in his bear’s paw, but he holds it gently so that all you feel is the warmth. He carries a lot of the world’s worries on his wide shoulders, uncomplainingly, hidden behind his smile.

Every year the slim man gives thanks, true thanks. The big man doesn’t hear it. He doesn’t need to.

Belgium. Bike racing. 19-fucking-87.

November 20, 2013 § 10 Comments

 How the hell did they pick me to drive? Oh, yeah — I was from California, so I must be an expert driver, so they convinced me to rent the car at the airport. The airport gave these Irish drunks fits, because it wasn’t in Brussels but in some ‘suburb’ called Zaventem.  Compared to any city in California, Brussels was was a fairly small city, almost a sprout. It only had  million people. But the Paddies stared out the window like a Jayhawk farmer on his first trip to New York City. I turned on the wipers because, yeah, it was raining. DidI even need to add that? I fuggin said I was in Belgium.

It was March 12 and still winter, the northern Euro winter that ends sometime in August for a week or two. “What the fuck am I doing her?” I wondered.

One thing these Irish lads were good for was the money. They paid their share of the car rental and gas, and then some. Insurance?  These were bike racers.

I pushed the envelope and rented an Audi 400. It was six years old, and easily big enough for four men who were used to cramming themselves into the crevices of econoboxes. The Audi cost  $16 a day instead of $11 for the VW Golf, but we were living large.

Seamus had a decrepit PreAlpina rack, and we shipped it as baggage, tied together with four bungees.  Ot came rolling down the luggage belt at Zaventem, and from the stares and glares, we might as well have been bringing in an elephant. The bikes came next, in  cordura nylon cases, and shit howdy, they looked Euro-fesh.

The Paddies checked out the bikes, put on the pedals, seats and bars while I went off to the car rental counter, speaking English to a girl who countered in Flemish. Flemish was hard to understand, unless you were fluent gargling marbles. Fortunately, with a couple of pound notes as a bribe, I was whisked off to the Audi. I drove it around to the curb and Seamus whipped out a spanner and put the rack on. I could actually see the paint chip from the roof rails as he defaced it. I was about to say something, but I got ahold of myself … another day maybe … not.

The bikes were not damaged. They went up top, along with a spare pair of wheels and the tool box. It was fucking cold outside, at least 20 degrees colder than when we left Dublin, and it was starting to rain harder. Belgium in March is about as pleasant as Belgium in September, October, November, December, January, February, April, and June, which is to say it’s a wet, frozen shithole. Oh, and it’s great for bike racing, but only if you actually know how to race your bike.

Our destination was a little town called Tienen, but all the towns in Belgium are little, and cold, and wet, and cobbled, and this was where the race started the following day at noon. Tommy said that if I was going to get a ‘big’ car, I should have hired a Mercedes, and that the Audi was a ‘girl’s car.’ I told him to bugger off.  After six months, I already knew how to speak English, if that’s what they speak in Ireland.

I had no qualms about driving a girl’s car, of course. When I was just out of college, I had a 1979 Peugeot 504 finished in a color the French charitably called “Hibiscus Pearl,” even though it was actually a dirty shade of white. This was a pure girl’s car, verified every time some guy in a pickup would pull up next to me and stare inside, hoping to see some hot North County chick coming home from the gym. Instead, he got me, which taught him a crucial lesson: if you want to ogle women in cars, stick to the Fiats.

But most bike racers didn’t mind driving a girl’s car, or getting ferried in a girl’s car. Some riders, mainly like Boyer, wanted their cars to be manly and tough, so they bought a pickup or had their rich girlfriend drive them around in a Mercedes. I liked the guys who went to races in a pickup, jacked up so high off the ground that no one under six feet could get inside the cab, because nothing said “manly” like cruising to the bike race in tight wool shorts and a 4-wheel drive mudder.

We got to the hotel, which was really a cave with a roof. For Seamus and Tommy the mere thought of a night away from home was like heaven to them. They had no idea how to travel. The room was on the third floor, we walked up the stairs, and the beds were maybe six feet long, so I opted for the floor and left the other three to fight over which two got the “beds.” I was asleep by ten, and they were still bickering.

At 9:00 AM I could only think “Holy mother of god, I am hungover and haven’t had anything to drink in a month.” I went downstairs and out the door, relishing the quiet and the fresh air, then walked over to a little café and asked for breakfast. One thing you needed to know is that they didn’t eat waffles in Belgium for breakfast. They ate cheese, that stinky white soft cheese that masquerades as Brie, but is really from an unknown animal of unknown origin.

I also got some coarse wheat bread, honey, and jam. I ate everything I could and washed it down with coffee, a universal beverage that all countries have in some fashion or another. After I tipped the waiter, he looked at me as if I was an idiot who didn’t know how to count. “That’s the tip, asshole,” I wanted to say, but I didn’t.

I went home to the wretched room and arrived to find the others feasting on breakfast with bread and crackers and sausage and all sorts of vile shit spread all over the room and spilled upon the floor. Obviously, they had brought food with them, because, of course, they were poverty stricken bike racers. It smelled so bad in there, like four bike racers and four bikes had spent a night in a room designed for one clean person.

Dressed, we rolled out at 11:30, signed in, and warmed up. I was back at the start after finishing one of three 45 km laps, already shelled two minutes into the race. I stopped and was greeted with what John Muir would have called “The Enormity of Silence.” They just couldn’t fathom why I was there and not back in my luxurious hotel if I had been so badly dropped. I reached over onto the table where the organizers had a microphone, and grabbed a pastry and a cup of coffee. I rode off. I figured that if I had to be miserable for three more hours, at least I was going to enjoy a cup of coffee and a sugar bomb. They said nothing and looked at me like I was from Mars.

We had more road races Saturday and Sunday, and you can fill in the blanks. The rest of the trip was miserable, cold, wet, and I got punched out the back about a third of the way into every race. They went fast there, and it was really hard to sit in when it was 40 degrees and sleeting.

No one else was anything more than pack filler. But we were rollin’ it, baby, and nobody quit, at least until we finally gave up.

– By Dean Patterson, more or less –

Book review: Fallen Angel

November 12, 2013 § 22 Comments

“Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi,” by William Fotheringham, suffers from that most terrible of flaws, a colon in the title. It’s as if the author is so afraid of the weak title that he has to further explain with more weakness, further weakening it. Imagine “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: The Things That Happened to a Young Boy and an Escaped Slave on Their Quest for Freedom.” Or what about “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: The Tragedy of Fate.”

What’s most damning about the colon-in-the-title is the fact that you can’t even think of publishing a book in academia without having at least one, if not two. “Global Warming Factors: The Isolation of Dependent Variables: An Analysis by Team Festersore.”

Once you leave the title, though, Fotheringham does solid work, as he’s wont to do. This book is well worth the read, and certainly a better investment of time than another book on Lance, or a dope-and-tell worst seller by some recently retired drug addict. It is not, however, a better investment than, say, a pint of Atticus IPA. But what is?

The book goes like this: Coppi was a stud. He stomped lots of dicks. He got married to a very nice country girl. He stomped more dicks. A Yoko Ono-type crazypants set her sights on him. They fell in lust. Coppi ditched the nice girl. Later, he died from malaria. In between the crazypants and the lust and the ditching and the malaria, he stomped even more dicks.

After he died everyone loved him.

A real book about cycling

Despite the trite and rather boring story line, “Fallen Angel” is a brilliant book about cycling. It’s not about what we call cycling, however, because what we call cycling Coppi would only dimly have recognized. What we do he might have called “froo-froo,” or “poseuring,” or “hopeless wankage.” He would never have called it cycling.

This is because the thing we do when we straddle our bikes is primarily an activity that involves pedaling the bicycle. For elite professionals like Chrissy Froome and the current (i.e. last forty years) of crop of roadsters, it really has been all about the bike.

When Fausto got up in the morning to go out and stomp some dicks, it was not all about the bike. In the beginning, it was mostly about finding a bike. The next time you look at some punk-ass 13-year-old with a $4k rig, think about Fausto and his first “bicycle.” It weighed forty pounds and didn’t work. Electronic shifting? It had one fucking gear. That didn’t work.

Once the bike finding had been accomplished, Fausto and his compatriots had to conquer something almost as formidable as obtaining a broken, single-geared bicycle. They had to ride it. This required roads, and in the pre-war years, Italian roads were unpaved donkey carts littered with rocks and chugholes, which meant flats. A shit ton of flats.

For us, the road is a thing we actively choose. “Hmmm … shall I pedal forth on the tarmac today, or perhaps saunter out onto the trails de mountain bike? Mayhap an admixture of the two, and a bit of ‘cross practice? That way I could practice my road and my off-road skills.”

Coppi’s rides were all ‘cross rides, as in, the flats and the rocks and the holes and the dirt and the donkeys and the rattling trucks made him cross as shit and want to stomp dicks, which he did. But there was no froo-froo choice of “where to ride” or “which bike shall I pedal today?” It was all gnarly as shit, and when it rained, which it also did a shit ton, Coppi got covered from head to toe in grime, muck, and cold. This would piss him off and make him stomp even harder on the dicks he’d just finished stomping.

After the war, it went from awful to Lubbock. The roads were a shadow of their former selves, which even in the best of times had been wraiths. Cycling was such an awful, painful, terrible proposition and so filled with danger, discomfort, and obstacles of every kind that the only reason people like Coppi persevered is because real life as a farming peasant was ten thousand times worse.

In addition to horrible equipment, horrible roads, training regimens that included cigarettes and powerful drugs that were chosen based on the color of the particular pill, “Fallen Angel” recounts the numerous bad spills that were a part of professional racing. Coppi was continually crashing horribly, breaking major bones, hitting his head, and of course losing his younger brother Serse to a fall that resulted in a subdural hematoma and death.

Unlike the smooth paving that now merely grinds away skin and flesh and breaks perhaps a bone or two, the jagged, cobbled, rough and awful roads of Coppi’s era were made more terrible by the fact that no one wore head protection of any kind save hair and skull. Clothing was lumpy, woolen, baggy, and rough on the nuts. Brakes worked badly at best, and gearing was so limited that riders had to tackle hors categorie climbs with nothing bigger than a 21-tooth cog.

The Velominati … really?

A small cult of foolish people sprang up a few years ago pretending, however tongue-in-cheek, to honor the principles of the “hard men” and the “golden age” of cycling. What began as a lark has now become its own form of cycling lore, as dolts in cycling caps bark out nonsense in Facebook battles like “Rule No. 5!”

The foolishness of the Velominati, of course, is that they are really nothing more than fat slow people on bicycles who would be ground under the very first mile of the very first stretch of the very first wet cobbles they hit at speed. Far from being the hard men they idolize, what “Fallen Angel” makes clear is that the horrendous conditions of post-war cycling were endured by necessity, not out of macho adherence to some silly notion of “harder is better.”

Riders like Coppi were driven over frozen mountain passes on endlessly inhuman stages to the very edge of human endurance. The Velominati are driven no further than the DVD replays of “A Sunday in Hell” or a sunny Sunday pedal followed by a double macchiato with whipped cream. Rather than appreciate cycling for what it is today — a lark for people with tons of free time and the luxury to buy costly toys — the real lessons of Coppi’s era are not so much forgotten as they are unlearned. Pain and suffering and misery to make a buck is only done when the alternative is something worse.

Coppi died in the twilight of his professional career, egged on by the need for money, the desire to avoid his shrewish second wife, and the inability of a human legend to come to terms with the waning of his power and the ascendancy of the new generation. What some call the golden age of cycling, Coppi would have called a back breaking job that he pursued because it was the only one he knew.

A good read. And it beats the Velominati any day.

Buck Davidson, Superhero

June 30, 2012 § 8 Comments

Everybody needs a hero.

When I was growing up in Houston, I used to walk a lot. In summer I walked to the pool or the library. It was always long and hot and boring, so when I walked I imagined I was a superhero.

Buck Davidson was one righteously badass dude. His outfit was a leather suit with lots of buckskin fringe and big, pearl-handled six-shooters. He had long red hair and huge muscles. He was handsome and stronger than a hundred men. Buck Davidson was always saving the world or the galaxy or the universe from all kinds of shit.

Sometimes he’d pick up a bus and throw it at a skyscraper, knocking off an alien who was gnawing the tip off the Empire State Building. Another time he’d use his genius laser brain ray to look at bacteria and figure out how to cure cancer. Other times, handsome and super as he was, he’d run off to a quiet place and have awesome sex with Penelope Watkins, the beautiful actress who followed him everywhere and who he was always rescuing.

Although I was pretty clear on the bus-throwing stuff, the sex thing was kind of fuzzy. I knew that Buck had a penis, and that it was a honking one, and I knew from the one or two times I’d seen my mom naked that there was a furry bush to which the penis was somehow supposed to connect, but the actual mechanics were a mystery.

Having an active imagination, though, I didn’t sweat the details and just made it up, same as with curing cancer. I didn’t need to know jack about Stage 4 or metastasis in order to heal the world. Buck just stared with his brain waves and pow! Cancer was fucking dead. Then he’d flop his big ol’ penis towards Penelope’s bush and pow! They’d do sex, whatever that was.

Fake-believe heroes

Buck Davidson was real to me. As soon as I walked out the door he’d get involved in every kind of escapade and death-defying heroic act I could imagine, and let me tell you, I had an imagination that just wouldn’t quit.

One time Buck was tied up and about to be dipped in a vat of plutonium. Snaxellander, the evil villain from Dorskabenixx, got up close to Buck and gloated over his imminent demise. “Prepare to die, Buck!” he snarled in his alien dialect, which, because he was so fucking smart, Buck could understand perfectly.

Unable to move his superhumanly strong arms or legs, he opened his mouth and knocked the shit out of Snaxellander with his super strong tongue. Snaxellander was knocked out cold and fell backwards into the vat of plutonium, starting a chain bomb reaction that, if not defused, would detonate and explode the planet.

Buck then craned his neck and used his super strong tongue to snap the chains that bound him. Once free, he stretched his super-stretchy leather shirt with the cool buckskin fringe over the vat, revealing hugely massive and powerful muscles that were awesomely strong, and which made Miss Penelope Watkins faint, as she had also been tied up by Snaxellander. The buckskin cover deprived the plutonium of the oxygen it probably needed to start blowing up.

Then Buck lobbed the whole fucking mess into outer space, where it hit an asteroid, which then got knocked off course and wound up smacking into Dorskabenixx, killing all of the Hoganimms (the race of aliens to which Snaxellander belonged) and making the galaxy safe again. Then Buck untied Penelope and they a good ol’ sex together.

He did all that shit just walking to the pool.

The absence of super-villains isn’t the absence of villains

The thing that bummed me out, though, was that no matter how hard I wanted to be Buck Davidson, superhero, by the time I got to the library I was still just skinny little nerdly Wankmeister Jr. Almost as bad, I couldn’t help but notice that we didn’t have any super-villains or aliens or ticking plutonium vat bombs.

Most depressing of all, there was no one remotely like the devastatingly beautiful Penelope Watkins, with the possible exception of Doris Scrantly, the sixteen year-old babysitter who called me and my brother “little disgusting creeps.” I was pretty sure if I ever tried to show her my penis she would tie it around my neck until I choked to death.

Even though Snaxellander never reared his four heads on the way to the library, the world in 1972 did have plenty of villains. One of them, cancer, is still around and still killing people. No Buck Davidson has appeared on the scene to zap the fuck out of cancer with his genius laser brain waves.

There is, however, one globally renowned athlete who has made “curing cancer” his mantra. He has touched the lives of thousands of cancer patients, stumped for cancer awareness, and reached out personally to countless people struggling with the disease.

For this, he’s been called a hero.

Let’s accept his narrative as true, for a moment, and push all of the scandal and grand juries and witness testimony and the impending USADA hearing off to the side. Instead of weighing his heroism against accusations of cheating and foul play, let’s weigh his heroism against something else.

Let’s weigh it against the heroism of a cyclist a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The Chosen

In 1938, Gino Bartali won his first Tour. Hailed by Mussolini’s Fascist government as proof of the genetically dominant Italian race, this devout Catholic and distinctly apolitical bike racer found himself used as a symbol of racial superiority just as the Fascists had allied with Hitler and adopted the basic German social framework for Italy that the Nazis used to plan, organize, and implement the extermination of the bulk of European Jewry.

In an extraordinary book by siblings Aili and Andres McConnon, “Road to Valor,” we have been given that rarest of things: instead of a bike book about a bike racer written by half-literate bicycle fanboys, we have a beautifully written history that took ten years to write and research by two Princeton grads, one a journalist and the other a scholar.

The Italian Jews were first stripped of their property, fired from their jobs, booted from the schools, and ripped from the fabric of the society they had been a part of for hundreds of years. Most importantly, their citizenship was essentially revoked, and along with it the all-important identification cards upon which life itself depended. Without a card, you couldn’t get food rations, rent a home, or work.

People who once led prosperous lives were forced into beggary in a matter of months. By 1943, when Hitler took direct control over the part of Italy that the Allies hadn’t yet conquered, Himmler’s SS arrived and began arresting and deporting Jews to the northern death camps in earnest.

The real suitcase of courage

Bartali, whose fame had allowed him to avoid combat, was recruited by a Catholic cardinal from Florence for a horrifically dangerous mission: to carry forged identification cards from Assisi back to Florence, where they would be distributed to Jews who could use them to either flee Italy or to obtain jobs, food, and housing.

With the cards rolled up and secreted in the seat tube of his bicycle, under the ruse of “training” Bartali regularly made the 170-mile one-way ride to Assisi, met clandestinely with his conspirators, and rode back to Florence. Along the way he ran the constant risk of detection. The stress of being discovered at the numerous military checkpoints led to such fear and anxiety that he eventually developed PTSD.

At one point he was interrogated in one of the most infamous torture chambers in Italy, and only escaped because the inquisitor’s assistant vouched for Bartali’s honesty, as he had previously been Bartali’s commanding officer. As a result of heroism that saved the lives of hundreds of Jews from the Nazis, Bartali was recognized poshumously by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

Come together

After the war, Bartali tried to resurrect his career but was far past his prime. He took up smoking as a way to improve his performance, and put in the huge miles of a younger man, with no time for his older body to recover. Moreover, he had lost virtually all of his fitness over the course of the long war, which for all Italians was an extended exercise in malnourishment.

Adding to the challenge, greats such as Fausto Coppi and Louis Bobet were much younger and in the early, rocketing trajectory of their legendary careers even as Bartali was at the end of his own. In 1948,  Bartali returned to the Tour with virtually no chance of winning. After Stage 12, Bobet had a lead of more than twenty-one minutes, and Bartali knew his campaign was hopeless. He was prepared to quit the race and go home in defeat.

That night, Bartali received a phone call while he was in bed. Alcide De Gasperi, prime minister of Italy, told him that Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the opposition had been shot, and Italy might be on the edge of a civil war. De Gasperi asked Bartali to do his best to win a stage in order to distract people from the impending conflict. Bartali replied that he would win.

Against all odds and prognostications, Bartali set out on Stage 13 of the Tour with an attack almost from the gun, an audacious and incredible tactic considering the stage’s 170-mile length and the fact that it traversed five of the worst cols in the Tour, finishing with the legendary Izoard. From the very first serious ascent the heavens unleashed freezing rain, sleet, and snow that continued for the entirety of the race. Frozen to the core, Bartali attacked each climb until none could follow. He took back virtually all of his 21-minute deficit.

The following day he clinched the lead with a devastating win on the 163-mile mountainous stage to Aix-les-Bains, and the next day won the 159-mile Alpine odyssey to Lausanne. No rider would again win three consecutive stages until Mario Cippolini took four sprint stages in 1999. The ten-year gap between Bartali’s first and second win has never been matched, and only three riders have ever won a Tour at his age or older. Bartali won the 1948 tour by more than 26 minutes, put more than 32 minutes on Bobet, and finished more than an hour up on the tenth place finisher.

This incredible victory convulsed Italy into celebrations, such that it temporarily forgot its divisions and drew back from civil conflict due to the exploits of this singular, indomitable man who had reclaimed his position as victor of the Tour a decade after his first win.

But he never made a yellow wristband about it

Like so many others who lived through the war, Bartali never spoke about his participation in this heroic resistance to fascism and the Holocaust. When asked about his silence, he would say only this: “I was no hero. Those who gave their lives, they were the heroes.” Others–particularly the Jews who owed their lives to Bartali’s heroism–disagreed.

Today is the first day of the 2012 Tour de France. We’re at the edge of our seats, waiting to see who will be crowned our newest Tour hero. Which man will conquer the field? Which one will conquer the clock? Which one will conquer the mountains? Which one will cross the finish in Paris wearing yellow?

We’re right to call them heroes in the limited sense of “champions.” We’re right to admire their heroic exploits in the physical sense.

But heroes cut from the same cloth as Gino Bartali, a man who combined physical prowess with profound courage? Heroes cut from the same cloth as…Buck Davidson?

No.

Never.

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