November 22, 2017 Comments Off on Birdsong
David Vogel came to Vienna in 1912, perhaps by train, and I came to David Vogel in 2016, most definitely by bicycle. I was loitering in one of Vienna’s bookstores, gazing longingly at the memoirs of Stefan Zweig, and calculating how many euros I had left and how many books I could buy and still have enough cash left for the train ride to the airport.
Next to Zweig’s book was Vogel’s “Eine Wiener Romanze,” A Viennese Romance. The title sounded cheesy, and the photo, alas, caused me to judge the book by its cover. I bought Zweig’s book, hopped on the rental bike, and hurried back to the hotel.
A year later I was back on a rented bike, back in Vienna, back in the bookstore, and back in front of “A Viennese Romance.” This time money was no object; I had an extra twenty euros burning a fiery hole in my pocket. This time the title no longer sounded cheesy and the photo had become enticing, and I pulled the book off the shelf to read about it.
It didn’t escape me that “Vogel” means bird, and after only a few paragraphs it was clear that this bird could sing.
Although Vogel’s book had been written in the 1930’s, the manuscript had only been discovered in 2012 and published in 2015. The fact that it was a posthumous “find” made me like it even more, John Kennedy Toole-like, and I bought it. Then, I hurriedly pedaled over to a coffee shop and greedily began to read.
Vogel was an outsider, a wanderer, a dreamer, a daringly bold thinker, and a revolutionary writer all wrapped up in shabby formal clothing and hidden beneath a broad-brimmed black hat. He failed during his lifetime as a writer, but his time in Vienna was a dream. Drenched in poverty and introversion, he loitered at the Viennese coffeehouses, dodged starvation with subsistence jobs, lived a Bohemian existence not too far from Bohemia, and did so in the decidedly non-Bohemian, frugal, inward looking, spiritual, quiet life of a mostly ignored poet.
Vogel’s book, “A Viennese Romance,” is a cascading series of powerful pulses coming from the hilarious and observant and wry mind of the protagonist, who, like Vogel, is driven by lust, love, maddening desire, and the grinding conflicts that erupt like geysers as a result of a three-way love affair, which is the book’s central plot. It is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud even as it saturates you with the imagery and beauty and bustle of Vienna before the First World War, the epicenter of culture and thought and science and art and the place that bound those things together to make them flourish, the Viennese coffeehouse.
If there is something more brilliant and fine than reading a great novel about old Vienna in an old Viennese coffeehouse, I haven’t experienced it, to say nothing of the unspeakable pleasure of having gotten there by bicycle.
Despite his enduring gifts to world literature, Vogel himself had a life that was somewhat less expansive, something more truncated. He left Vienna for Paris in the 20’s and like an entire generation of scientists, artists, writers, and geniuses, was later murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
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October 10, 2017 § 16 Comments
There I was, sitting on the sold-out 5:00 AM from LAX to Denver, wedged between the wildebeest and the sweating bald accountant with the hacking, sputum-laden cough of a Cat 1 smoker, when I innocently pulled out my copy of Phil Gaimon’s latest book, “Draft Animals.”
The plan of the entire cabin was the same: Sleep until Denver. My plan? Get through as much of Draft Animals as I could before reaching Houston, my final destination. The two plans would turn out to be irreconcilable, like Sunnis and Shias.
First, let me get a disclaimer out of the way. Phil Gaimon is a close personal vague acquaintance of mine, a guy I have known for many long months who is a year older than my oldest kid. We have shared many Twitter hearts and lols as only close socmed friendies can, so don’t think I’m going to be objective about this book which was free to me but won’t be to you.
Second, understand that I would heartily encourage you to read this book and would rate it ten out of five stars even if it were a steaming pile of shit, which it is because in the footnote on page 296 it says “complement” instead of “compliment.”
Anyway, I would still urge you to buy it, read it, and buy another copy as a Christmas gift because it is worth its weight in guffaws, snickers, chortles, snot-bombs, wheezes, hacks, gasps, screeches, snorts, and howls. Phil and his copy editors and their Word grammer chek and the whole fucking editorial apparatus of Penguin Books may stumble over “complement,” but if you don’t laugh yourself hoarse you are probably getting injected with formaldehyde and being prepped for the viewing.
You should buy this book because it is cheap and funny and I’m a fanman because I once got Phil to nod at me from across a dimly lit room, or maybe he was nodding at the model who I was standing next to, but the other reason I’m bound to praise it no matter what is because he talks about so many people I know or have stalked. Matt Wikstrom, Rahsaan Bahati, Hrach Gevrikian, “Joanna,” and others get honorably mentioned, and a really good review here ups the odds that in his next book, “How Seth Davidson Made Me Famous,” I will at least get a mention.
Speaking of butthurt, fuck Phil Gaimon for not mentioning Tony Manzella and that day on Mandeville when courtesy of Phil, Thorfinn Sasquatch’s tainted KOM on Mandeville Canyon was ripped away and returned to its rightful owner. I can’t believe he wrote about competing at the highest echelon of human endeavor and Paris-Roubaix and stuff and left that out.
But back to my story about spraying phlegm all over the cabin en route to Denver and the murderously enraged passengers …
“Draft Animals” goes far beyond Phil’s last book, “Ask A Pro,” which was hilarious and a polished gem in its own right, and far, far, far beyond his first book, “Pro Cycling on $10 a Day,” a book I never read but which Penguin described as a “cult classic,” which I think means “funny book about a weird niche that sold way more than the fifty copies we expected,” and anyway, who doesn’t like a good cult?
This post-cult effort of Phil’s goes super deep, like any good blowjob, into the inherent contradictions wrapped up in chasing your dreams. Not limited to sports, many try and almost all fail. Why bother? How do we justify the risk? What does success taste like and is it salty?
Phil plumbs the depths of an underpaid journeyman pro with the sophisticated literary devices of poop jokes, dick jokes, pee-pee jokes, and a strange mix of poignant stories and jagged edge realizations that are as moving as they are unexpected. And he remembers to toss in a couple of metaphors and similes to show his college English prof that the A- he got in creative writing was a miscarriage of justice.
Everyone knows that life is hard and failure is the wages of birth but “Draft Animals” itemizes the paystub in the poverty, injury, fear, pain, shock, privation, gnawing physical hunger, betrayal, and disappointment of “clawing his way to the middle” as a pro cyclist. It doesn’t all suck, as he abundantly makes clear. Despite the ten-year grind, he once won a big race. Another time he got to eat a whole bar of dark chocolate and only felt slightly guilty about it. Amazing highs.
Like any great writer, Phil tries to make sense out of absurdity without doing us the indignity of pretending that it all makes sense, that the circle can be squared, but without the nihilism, either. He reserves a polite decency for those he cares about, and he boils the objects of his ire in scathing derision without ever pretending that he’s better. Even in the awful and despicable character of Jonathan Vaughters, he finds, if not redemption, at least a death penalty commuted to a life sentence of douchebaggery.
Phil’s protesting lady of modesty retains its reminders of success: He may have sucked as a pro, but lots sucked worse and don’t even think you’re his equal. He may never have struck it rich like Thomas Dekker, who waltzed out of his career as a failed doper and into the budoir of a multimillionaire Beverly Hills heiress, but he has three fine books published by Penguin, he owns two homes, and he rode two years on the World Fucking Tour.
That may not be success measured against Warren Buffett’s finances, but it sure doesn’t smell like failure to me. And anyway, as the book makes muddily clear, what in the world does success even mean?
If you love good writing, you need to buy this book. Where else can you find Thoreau jokes next to dick jokes next to ruminations on good and evil interspersed with ridicule of Jens Voigt and the Schlecks? Nowhere but in “Draft Animals,” that’s where.
When we touched down in Denver my sides ached. The cabin was sullen. I couldn’t help giggling about Thomas Dekker’s giant foreskin, allegedly long enough to cover ten quarters. As I walked up the jetway puffing white balls of water vapor and thinking about the day’s schedule of airports and connecting flights while simultaneously smiling at this guy’s funny stories, interesting life, and fine writing, I knew that the long day ahead wasn’t going to be so grueling after all.
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PS: Don’t forget the Wanky’s. As if you could. And I may have forgotten to mention that there is free food and beer for the first 350 guests, so get there early.
April 17, 2016 § 18 Comments
Although regarded by discriminating readers as the greatest novel of all time, and regarded by less discriminating readers as gibberish, “Ulysses” by James Joyce is unquestionably one of the greatest books in any language about cycling, better even than “Positively False” by Floyd Landis.
After recently completing this mammoth read from Mammon at the pace of 25 pages per day (est. 2.6 minutes per page), I realized that far from being a modern allegory about Odysseus, “Ulysses” is in fact a book about bicycling.
In the spirit of the freshman English class that I failed, what follows are my textual references to support my novel thesis about this most novel novel. After 782 pages of careful analysis I discovered that Joyce writes movingly and with passion, depth, and understanding about bicycling exactly thirteen times. Here they are.
- “They passed from behind Mr Bloom along the curbstone. Beard and bicycle. Young woman.”
- “His eyes followed the high figure in homespun, beard and bicycle, a listening woman at his side.”
- “Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle.”
- “As per usual somebody’s nose was out of joint about the boy that had the bicycle off the London bridge road always riding up and down in front of her window.”
- “W. E. Wylie who was racing in the bicycle races in Trinity college university.”
- “But he was undeniably handsome with an exquisite nose and he was what he looked, every inch a gentleman, the shape of his head too at the back without his cap on that she would know anywhere something off the common and the way he turned the bicycle at the lamp with his hands off the bars and also the nice perfume of those good cigarettes and besides they were both of a size too he and she and that was why Edy Boardman thought she was so frightfully clever because he didn’t go and ride up and down in front of her bit of a garden.”
- “His right hand holds a bicycle pump.”
- “He smites with his bicycle pump the crayfish in his left hand.”
- “Love on hackney jaunt Blazes blind coddoubled bicyclers Dilly with snowcake no fancy clothes.”
- “He had sometimes propelled her on warm summer evenings, an infirm widow of independent, if limited, means, in her convalescent bathchair with slow revolutions of its wheels as far as the corner of the North Circular road opposite Mr Gavin Low’s place of business where she had remained for a certain time scanning through his onelensed binocular fieldglasses unrecognisable citizens on tramcars, roadster bicycles equipped with inflated pneumatic tyres, hackney carriages, tandems, private and hired landaus, dogcarts, ponytraps and brakes passing from the city to the Phoenix Park and vice versa.”
- “of course hes mad on the subject of drawers thats plain to be seen always skeezing at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels even when Milly and I were out with him at the open air fete”
- “pretending to read out the Hebrew on them I wanted to fire his pistol he said he hadnt one he didnt know what to make of me with his peak cap on that he always wore crooked as often as I settled it straight H M S Calypso swinging my hat that old Bishop that spoke off the altar his long preach about womans higher functions about girls now riding the bicycle and wearing peak caps and the new woman bloomers God send him sense and me more money”
- “can Milly come out please shes in great demand to pick what they can out of her round in Nelson street riding Harry Devans bicycle at night”
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May 11, 2015 § 39 Comments
In 1995 I started writing a novel about a Japanese family. I was living in the city of Utsunomiya at the time and had tired of all the zen-like, mystical, and reverent books about the inscrutability of life in Japan.
The polite, sophisticated, ambiguous, homogeneous Japanese apparently lived somewhere else, because my daily reality smacked up against people who were as rude, crude, obnoxious, funny, compassionate, hilarious, outrageous, subtle, overt, lying, thieving, honest, honorable, humble, prideful, and contradictory as people I’d seen in every other part of the earth I’d ever been.
For ten years I worked on the novel, then put it aside. A few years ago a good friend who had seen the very first draft asked me how it was going. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t have it anymore.”
“I think I have the copy you gave me,” she said, and a couple of weeks later she had scanned it and sent it over. I looked around on the Internet for a copy editor, but balked at the $2k price tag, so I began the laborious process of editing my own work, something akin to hearing your own voice on a recording for the first time, only much more repulsive. Each edit was slower than the one before, but after a dozen careful reads I was finished. The final proofing step on Amazon’s publishing platform picked up two more typos — not bad for 100,000 words — and I hit the “publish” button and was done.
The novel is called “Blossoms on the Family Tree,” and I hope you will buy a copy. My good friend Jack Daugherty has posted the kindest and most flattering review imaginable on Amazon, and if he’s even 1/1000 on the mark, then this is a book I can be proud of. And even if he’s not on the mark, I can say this: This is the best thing I’m capable of writing, and it’s got nothing to do with bikes!
Though the novel is hardly autobiographical, every single thing in it is true except for the parts I made up. And one of the parts I didn’t make up is that the Japan of the late 1980’s is gone. I still remember arriving on January 15, 1987, heading out into the provinces two weeks later for my first job, and getting mobbed by elementary schoolkids who had never seen an American and wanted to touch my hair.
I remember the hundreds of bicycles stacked up and around the Utsunomiya JNR station, a time when bikes were everywhere and used by everyone, all the time. Most of all, I remember the young people and what a young country it was, and how, in only that way perhaps, I blended right in.
My relationship with Japan began then and has continued unbroken for almost thirty years, and if I had to say that there is one thing above all others that has molded me in my adult life it has been the Japanese women around me. My wife of course but also the women in her family: Mother, grandmother, aunts, sisters in law, cousins, nieces … women who in a myriad of ways taught me firsthand about strength, resilience, determination, frailty, humanity, and love, and who gave me a Japanese cultural lesson every single day for each of the ten years that I lived there. It’s not a lesson that you’ll find in mainstream writing about Japan and the Japanese.
This novel, after twenty years’ gestation, is as fully formed as anything I’ve ever written or hope to write. The era it encompasses is gone forever, but the women who populated it are still here, some still present in the flesh, all still here with me in spirit.
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March 26, 2014 § 1 Comment
I met Bruce in 1988. He doesn’t remember it.
Roger and Jimbo, fellow bike racers, had suggested that we do a “little run” along Town Lake. I reminded them both that I only ran after a bad Mexican meal. Neither cared; it was a set-up. Roger ran regularly and Jimbo did, too.
Bruce met us and we started out on our “little” 10k. Exclusively a cyclist, I was amazed at how my biking fitness translated into running. I left those turkeys in the dust before they’d even warmed up. After the first mile I felt funny. After the second my legs seized up. Everything hurt so badly after that I could barely walk.
Bruce, an actual runner, blew past. Roger, a crappy runner, roared by a bit later. Jimbo, who gave jogging a slow name, lumbered by as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other. By the time I reached the end of the run they were conferring, I suppose, about whether or not to send out a search party.
That’s the first time I had ever run two miles, and the last time I ever ran anywhere, and like the rest of my life, that moment was tied and twisted and nailed down through some vague connection to a bicycle.
Through Roger I met Dave, and a few weeks ago I posted some musings on Dave’s music. Dave, through all these years, is good friends with Bruce, and forwarded him the link. From there Bruce, perusing the blog, ran across Cycling in the South Bay, my epic book which is now ranked #697,843 on the Amazon bestsellers list. Bruce bought a copy, pushing this seminal work relentlessly higher on its inevitable surge to #1.
And as things turn out, Bruce is a writer. Not a bloggy, scratch-your-ass-in-the-morning-in-between-bong-hits while trying to think up some way to fill up the screen type of writer, but, you know, like, a real writer. A person who does plots and characters and dialogues and climaxes and settings and novels that are so damned real they will scar the hair off your hot parts.
He wrote a book called “Sour Lake.” It’s not about how to mix whiskey cocktails.
What it is, is a book you should read. What it is, is a book you should read in paper, not digital format. What it isn’t, is a book you should read alone, or late at night. Especially don’t read it late at night.
I recommend reading this book in the paper format because there will be less damage to your e-reader from your terrified clutch as you move through the harrowing tale. The book will also suffer less from the sweat that pours off your forehead. How gripping is this story? It reminded me of “The Shining,” which I read during the summer in broad daylight during the algebra class I’d failed in the regular school year. I still remember being scared witless reading that book in the afternoon surrounded by people.
The plot of “Sour Lake” I’ll leave to you. If you’re interested in scary-ass stories, you will like it plenty.
What I won’t leave to you is the inner mechanical beauty of this book. I’ve never read a novel that so completely blurs the lines between fact and fiction. In the beginning it seems like a historical novel, almost real in its verisimilitude. Then it clearly becomes fictional. Then it drifts into the science-fiction genre. So far, so good, unless you begin reading it a bit too closely (this tends to happen late at night when you’re good and scared).
By the end of the book you will, I promise, be wholly uncertain as to whether you just read a spectacularly scary book or an objective primer on the demise of the human race. This midwifery between novel and journalistic account is so well done and so unnerving that it is only by the light of morning and a hard coffee-toast-butter-jam-coffee scrum that I can confidently push the thing over into the “fiction” pile.
The Big Thicket
The second beauty of this book is its portrayal of the Big Thicket. I’ve floated the Neches down through the heart of that thing. I’ve hiked the deep trails and been surprised by wild hogs and their piglets. I’ve seen pitcher plants, pileated woodpeckers, and have watched hooded warblers flitting through the trees. And I will say this: Bruce McCandless has woven the primeval nature of the Thicket as the background for his story with hardly a thread out of place.
I say “hardly a thread” because early on he remarks that a “crane flew up,” or some such ornithological nonsense, and at another point he makes a comparison to a whooping crane. These missteps aside, his rendition of the Big Thicket as a force for evil and as a place that has eternally thwarted the efforts of men is done with incredible skill. You know he’s spent time there, and that he’s well versed in the history and character of one of the last great wild places in Texas.
Since it’s a novel that features gore and terror galore, the Thicket is a perfect setting perfectly matched to its subject matter. But let me say this in its defense: the Big Thicket is no fear-filled place of goblins and demons. It’s one of the last pieces of wild left in America and has been under assault for decades by timber and other interests. It is a gentle and beautiful outdoor wonderland where the confluence of biological time zones has produced an amazing variety of life, especially plant life. Still, if you’re tramping it at night …
The Sears Craftsman
The final beauty of the book is the way it is crafted. If you love writing where every word has been selected with care from a million others and placed perfectly in series, you will be blown away by the prose in this story. The words fit the story like the perfect jigsaw puzzle. Not a single anything is out of place. The careful mix of letters, news clips, and prose make for page-turning reading at its best.
You’ll also love the dialogue and Bruce’s feel for the way people speak. He’s a connoisseur of bad Texlish, which is some of the most expressive language anywhere. In short, the book doesn’t read. It runs. I suppose from a guy who used to race 10k’s at the head of the pack, I should have expected nothing less.
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July 4, 2012 Comments Off on The unread Turdy France
“The Unknown Tour de France” by Les Woodland is ranked #47 on the Cycle Sport All Time List of Greatest Cycling Books Ever in the History of Anything. Putting in the category of great books is so wrong. Putting it in the category of “factoidal compilation” is so right.
The book is a themeless, random romp of Tour trivia and well-known Tour tales despite the alluring title, which kind of suckers you into thinking you’ll get to read about behind-the-podium blowjobs and cool shit like that. Unlike some of the other execrable publications on this list, though, it deserves a read, especially if you can get a copy for .99 at Alibris.com, which I did. Undeserving a proper review, I’m listing the following factoids about the book below.
- Easy read, hence good for the book-lazy cycling public.
- Misprint: “television programed” instead of “program.” (p. 86)
- Observes that fanboys don’t make good cycling journalists (p. 87). Or good book authors.
- Modern cycling? “The riders, the teams, are all the same.” (p. 90) Bravo!
- Misprint: “dark-hared” rider. (p. 102). Silly rabbit! Spellcheck is for kids!
- Proper and awesome use and correct spelling of “time-trailing.” (p. 110)
- One stage of the 1928 Tour, a time trail, was 387 km long. Har!
- Misprint: “farm workers followed suite,” (p. 157.) I hope it was the Presidential one.
Badly written book, hardly “great” or even “good,” more like “half-assed” or “fanboy pabulum,” but better than TMZ. Barely.
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.
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…
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.
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?