Gino Bartali was a chain-smoking cycling superstar at a time when cycling was the most popular summer sport in Europe. In an era when many Americans were swinging for the fences, trying to be the next Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, Europeans were chasing fame on their bicycles. Bartali lived out this collective fantasy when he won the Tour de France in 1938. Though a decade older than most of his competitors, he returned to the Tour in 1948 where racers battled snow, sleet and rain. The following piece, adapted from Road to Valor by siblings Aili and Andres McConnon, explores the life of Gino Bartali, a sports icon and secret WWII hero.

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The physical and economic devastation of World War II crippled both Italy and Gino Bartali's career. Before the war, cycling had been the most popular summer sport in Europe and after winning the Tour de France in 1938, Bartali had become its crown prince. His face had become a mainstay of newspapers; fans hounded him for autographs everywhere. But after the world was divided in battle, "the triumphant years of the prewar period" as Gino put it, were "lost in that deafening uproar that had shattered nature and souls."

Finally, in July 1948, a decade older than most of his competitors, Gino Bartali was back in France at the Tour where he had so often dreamed of being during the war. Yet nothing was going as he had planned. Already midway through the race, he had fallen more than twenty-one minutes behind the Tour leader.

To make matters worse, on July 14, 1948, chaos erupted in Gino's homeland. On the morning of the 14th, a mysterious assassin shot Palmiro Togliatti, the magnetic leader of the Communist Party and Italy's second most powerful politician, as he left the national parliament in Rome. Emergency radio bulletins quickly spread news of the attack. After years of food shortages, rampant unemployment and a ferocious struggle between rival political factions, Italians reacted to Togliatti's shooting with breathtaking outrage. Across the nation, citizens flooded into the streets and formed angry protest groups. At a moment when Italy was considered an important battleground in the Cold War between America and the USSR, many Italians felt like the nation was spiraling toward outright civil war.

In Rome, the Prime Minister of Italy, a demure former Vatican librarian named Alcide De Gasperi, struggled to restore peace. As his government enacted emergency measures and mobilized police reinforcements, his political opponents began organizing a massive general strike. On the evening of the fourteenth, it was reported that De Gasperi made an urgent phone call seeking help. No one could doubt that the situation warranted it, but many would be surprised when they found out who he was calling. It wasn't Harry Truman in Washington or Joseph Stalin in Moscow. It wasn't even Pope Pius XII across the river in the Vatican City.
It was Gino Bartali.

"Do you recognize me, Gino?"

"Of course I recognize you, you're Alcide. Please excuse me, Mr. Prime Minister … we used to be on familiar terms," Gino responded, utterly perplexed. The two had known each other since well before the war but that didn’t explain why the Prime Minister was calling him during a rest day at the Tour de France.

"And we should continue to be. Tell me, Gino, how are things going there?"

"Well, tomorrow we have the Alps…"

"Do you think you'll win the Tour?"

"Well, there's still a week to go. However I'm 90 percent sure I'll win tomorrow," Gino responded, as he wondered why De Gasperi was worried about him and a bicycle race given the crisis in Italy.

"You're right, Gino. It's true that there's a week to go. But try and make it happen. You know that it would be very important for all of us.”

"Why?"

"Because there is a lot of confusion here," the Prime Minister responded.

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In 1983, Sally Ride’s trip to space took a giant leap for both women and young people at NASA. Ride, who died on Monday of pancreatic cancer at 61, became the first woman and at 32, the youngest American at the time to enter space.

One non-science interest in Ride's life almost blocker her career as an astronaut: Tennis. While in college, Ride nearly chose to pursue her tennis passion over her science passion.

Ride, a Los Angeles native, grew up with an interest in sports, especially tennis. And she could play. At age 10, Ride began being coached by Alice Marble, the former world No. 1 player who won the U.S. Open four times and Wimbledon twice.

Ride was awarded a partial scholarship in tenth grade to Los Angeles' prestigious Westlake School for Girls to play tennis. By her junior year of high school, Ride was the eighteenth-ranked girls junior player in the United States. The Ride family spent weekends taking young Sally across the country to compete in tournaments. According to Tamra Orr's "Sally Ride: The First Woman in Space," Ride even received personal encouragement to turn professional at age 22 by Billie Jean King (they are pictured together in 2006 at the California Hall of Fame).

After high school, Ride enrolled at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. She won the Eastern Intercollegiate Women's Tennis Championships in both her two years at the school. Swarthmore did not have indoor courts at the time, causing Ride, hoping to make one last run at a tennis career, to leave the school before the end of her sophomore year.

Ride went back to Southern California, where she began training for a professional tennis career. Her tennis dream quickly returned to base before it could blast off. “I had a change of heart and decided to give tennis a serious try, and fortunately, that only last a couple of months,” Ride said in 'Portraits of Great American Scientists.' "I went back to school and that was pretty much it."

Ride's mother, Carol, believed Sally's will to be the best forced her to quit tennis.

"Sally simply couldn't make the ball go just where she wanted it to," Carol said in Sue Hurwitz's 'Sally Ride: Shooting for the Stars.' "And Sally wouldn't settle for anything short of excellence in herself."

Thus, she looked back to science for a chance to pursue excellence.

Ride returned to college life by transferring to Stanford. To remain in shape, she ran five miles a day, played rugby and participated in casual sporting events on campus. She graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in English and physics. Ride stayed in Palo Alto to be a graduate student and earned a master's degree and a Ph.D in physics. She joined NASA in 1978 and traveled to space on June 18, 1983, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger for mission STS-7.

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When it comes to sports, fireworks have become as much of a part of the landscape as overpriced beer and painted faces.

If you live anywhere near a baseball stadium, major or minor league, you'll be hard pressed to not see, or at least hear, those booming lights and sounds that remind you that, "Oh yeah, Wednesday is July 4th."

While it all seems as American as ice cream sundaes in a helmet cup, that flammable powdery mixture of charcoal, sulphur and potassium nitrate actually dates back to an accidental concoction in 10th century China (a fact that makes the faux fireworks scandal of the Beijing Olympics all the more disappointing).

Fast forward more than a few centuries, and you can hardly separate fireworks and sports. On May 24, 1935, the Cincinnati Reds were hosting the Philadelphia Phillies at Crosley Field for the first Major League Baseball game held in the moonlight. Even President Roosevelt symbolically turned on the lights from the White House in honor of the first night game.

It was also the inaugural major league baseball fireworks display, produced by John Rozzi of Rozzi's Famous Fireworks, a company still lighting up the skies for the Reds, the University of Kentucky and the University of Cincinnati, to name a few.

From that day in 1935, fireworks at sporting events have just gotten more bombastic. Can you imagine a Super Bowl without fireworks? The Olympics? What about a grand slam? Of course not. Unfortunately for some, sparks don't always fly according to plan.

A thorough outline by Doug Williams on ESPN.com tells of the Mets' Vince Coleman injuring three fans in 1993 when he threw a firecracker in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, resulting in his suspension.

There was 1979's Disco Demolition Night, which turned into a fire at Chicago's Comiskey Park. The small blaze was ignited by anti-disco DJ Steve Dahl while attempting to use miniature fireworks of sorts to blow up a crate of disco records.

The turf at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis went ablaze in 2009 during game against the Patriots when fireworks were set off to celebrate a Joseph Addai touchdown.

The Houston Astros drove visiting fans bonkers with their extravagant display, while the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz played a game of dueling fireworks and laser lights.

Think the well-lit disasters only happen at the games? Think again. Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli (also of Manchester City fame) set his Manchester home aflame after he and some mates were lighting fireworks through an open window and, bollocks, his bathroom towels lit up like Guy Fawkes Day.

Sometimes when fireworks happen in the offseason, it can be a beautiful thing. Then-Los Angeles Clipper Chris Kaman needed entertainment at his Western Michigan home for July 4, 2010, so naturally he spent $10,000 on fireworks for his front lawn. The result? Worthy of a Los Angeles New Year's Eve party.

What is it that makes sports and fireworks such loving companions? Perhaps it's the magic in the making. Simple ingredients (a ball, a stick, a glove ... charcoal, nitrates, sulphur) that, when placed in the right hands against the right backdrop with the right timing, combine to make something rather extraordinary.

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Meet the screwballs in charge – pitchers Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette of the Milwaukee Braves, a righty and a lefty joined at the hip, both who felt Casey Stengel tried to railroad their careers as young pitchers. Meet the sluggers -- Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews, two teammates whose opposites were extreme, but whose differences brought them closer together instead of ripping them apart. And meet the beer swiggers -- Milwaukee, the town, the team and the time -- the first team to relocate in the 20th century, the first team to come to a new market, move into a new stadium and draw 2 million a year -- led by a visionary owner named Lou Perini, a construction man whose blueprints for baseball's future were liberally imitated by young Bud Selig, who grew up in Milwaukee during the High Life years of the Braves.

This is the story of baseball's greatest underdog -- the team that stopped the New York City baseball dynasty, when the Big Apple wore the World Series crown for eight long years. The rest of the country wanted a piece of the action, too, and Milwaukee's heartland tailgating, fan base and hometown support proved that small markets can win, too, if you build it right. In 1957, the Braves beat Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and the rest of the Yankees in seven games, with Burdette and Aaron leading the way, upsetting Stengel's baseball machine, and making him regret the moment he came to Milwaukee and dared utter the phrase, "This place is bush league." Author John Klima tells this fascinating story in Bushville Wins! Here is an excerpt:

Milwaukee sportswriter Lou Chapman caught a cab from the Commodore Hotel in New York City to Yankee Stadium. It was a miserable, murky October day and the city was in a lousy mood. The Yanks were trailing the Series and now the news that had been anticipated for months was finally official -- the Brooklyn Dodgers were outta here, off to Los Angeles. The cabbie was beside himself. First it was the Giants now it was the Dodgers. This had all started when the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee. He couldn't imagine New York City as a one-team town. Who would the Yankees beat up on?

Tough break, Chapman said, but everyone knew it was coming. The ballplayers had all day to think about it. Tarp covered the field and a steady rain wiped out the workout before Game 6. Manager Fred Haney confidently predicted the Braves would win in six while Yogi Berra assured New York this thing was going seven. The big question for manager Casey Stengel was if Mickey Mantle could play. "I dunno," he said. "We sure need the kid but if he ain’t fit to play, nothing we can do."

One thing was for certain: the Yankees weren't so worried that it got in the way of a good time. Lou Chapman caught another cab back to the hotel later that night. While at a stoplight, he glanced at the cab next to him. There was Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford ----faced in the backseat and having a blast. It became one of Chapman's favorite war stories. "They exchanged greetings," Chapman's son Richard said. "But then again, those guys probably told him to ---- off." But they probably had a smile on their faces while telling Chapman off.

Mantle liked Chapman enough that he allowed him to visit his hotel room for an interview. Chapman wanted to know if Mantle could play. Mantle, laid up in bed, several sheets to the wind, was blurry, bloodshot, and hung over, but he was a helluva guy. Mantle respected how Chapman went the extra mile to get the story. They didn't call Chappie "Gumshoe" for nothing. Mantle mumbled a vow that he would be ready to play. Then his eyes glazed closed and he blacked out. Chappie, sport that he was, made sure that the photograph taken of him interviewing Mantle while he was completely hammered was never published. He saved the photo for the rest of his life. That was the way of the world then. Good writers and good ballplayers trusted each other.

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