GINO Bartali was born dirt poor, and the odds in Italy at the time said he should have stayed that way.
His school results were so bad his teachers struggled to say something positive on his report cards. They settled for the only attribute they could find: ''Good personal hygiene''.
The social order of the day also said Bartali should have remained more or less where he was at about 14: a part-time apprentice to a man who fixed bicycles.
But Bartali chose instead a career as a cyclist that would make him as famous as a rock star, winning gruelling races such as the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France.
He was the ultimate endurance athlete, like a goat on wheels in the Tuscan hills. He was 24 when he won his first Tour de France and, in an extraordinary comeback, he won the race again 10 years later - a record that still stands.
But Bartali also kept a dangerous secret: he was, according to a book just published in Australia, a wartime resistance hero who saved many lives.
Bartali the cyclist inspired a nation. He was mobbed when recognised on the streets. He was married by a cardinal and on his honeymoon in Rome, he met Pope Pius XII, who was a fan.
He also ran some terrible risks in an explosive political environment that did not tolerate dissent. Bartali disliked Mussolini's Fascists. And they made him pay by hindering his opportunities to race.
During a decade of research on the first book in English about the legendary cyclist, Road to Valour, Canadian authors Aili and Andres McConnon say they have uncovered new details of Bartali's wartime exploits, for which he would probably have been executed had Italy's Nazi occupiers or the Fascists found him out. Bartali not only hid Jewish friends but also used his fame and his bicycle to smuggle forged documents, mostly between Tuscany and Umbria, to enable Jews - hidden in monasteries, convents, private homes and on farms - to escape the Nazi death camps...
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