The Brave Cyclist

With a whole lotta grown-ups doing a whole lotta sucky things lately, kids could use some good stories about heroes, true heroes – the “helpers” of Fred Rogers’s wonderful quote (on which I myself lean quite often nowadays). Gino Bartali was one such helper. The Italian Bartali, an avid cyclist since childhood, won the Tour de France in 1938, but that wouldn’t actually be his greatest achievement. In 1943, he was asked by Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa to help with an effort to spare persecuted Jews. False identification documents were being printed for them in Assisi so they could flee to safety, and Bartali agreed to store needed paperwork and photographs inside the frame of his bicycle and deliver them to the men making the papers. He would then return to Florence with completed documents. He was stopped once by soldiers but used his fame as a champion cyclist to escape discovery. Thinking quickly to keep them from examining his bike, he said the position of his seat, handlebars, and pedals had to be left exactly as they were to prevent possible injury. The soldiers believed him and let him go on. He experienced several close calls including brief imprisonment in 1944 after Mussolini’s thugs found letters from the church in Rome, thanking Bartali for his “good work.” He convinced them he had only helped feed the poor and was released. While his fellow citizens celebrated the eventual end of the war, they also had to endure its lingering ravages, and Bartali stepped up again, thinking he might bolster his countrymen’s spirits with another win of the Tour de France. At 34, he was considered “old” by athletic standards, but he rode to victory in 1948, giving Italians another reason to cheer. Hoffman’s narrative is clean and simple yet tinged with tension, making this a good candidate for a read-aloud. Fedele’s illustrations feature rich earth tones and bold black, underscoring the somber times and grave responsibility that Bartali bore. The end material includes a photograph of Bartali and a detailed afterword that mentions an annual bicycle ride over part of his route between Florence and Assisi to commemorate his all-important role in saving Jews. Merviglioso! Include this book in a unit on World War II, as September 2 will mark the 75th anniversary of its conclusion. Or use it to start a discussion on the importance of being a helper in ways both large and small.

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