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?