The Giro d’Italia – one of the greatest races of all

The Giro d’Italia takes place each May and it’s history is one of passion, politics and bravado…

Velocipedes and Automobiles

At the end of the 19th century road racing was confined to single day events – albeit extremely long and gruelling events such as Paris–Brest–Paris (PBP)! From the start, these bike races were used as a vehicle for sponsorship and advertisement. PBP for example was run with all riders using Michelin tyres, and the following year Michelin promoted a race from Paris to Clermont to demonstrate that its tyres were superior to Dunlop.

Le Vélocipède Illustré in 1869 was the first newspaper to promote a cycle race – Paris-Rouen, but it wasn’t until 1891 that further publications ventured into the realm of organising bicycle races. In that year Véloce-Sport and Le Petit Journal organised Bordeaux-Paris and PBP respectively, but the logistics of the latter were so daunting that Le Petit Journal didn’t organise another PBP until 1901. Others however quickly followed suit and events such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, first organised by L’Expresse in 1892, started to pop up.

As the century came to a close the trend for tourism and travel started to increase, boosted by the recent invention of the motor car. Ironically it was the newspaper “L’Auto” that, under the tutelage of Henri Desgrange and Géo Lefèvre, founded the Tour de France as a publicity stunt to increase the paper’s circulation and to showcase France over multiple days of racing in one event; the stage race was born! It was a great success, almost tripling the circulation of the newspaper by the end of the race so it of little surprise that other publications soon followed suit.

Pretty in Pink

In Italy, a 4 page bi-weekly newspaper, ‘Gazzetta dello Sport‘ was launched on the 3rd April 1896, three days in advance of the first modern Olympics in Athens.  Printed on vibrant green newsprint, it sold well to a nation of Italians hungry for news of their favourite sports of cycling, rowing and boxing, later covering athletics, weightlifting, and the then ‘curious’ game of ‘football’!  In January 1899 the newsprint was changed to pink, a colour that, since its adoption as the colour of the race leader’s jersey in 1931, has now become as iconic in the Giro d’Italia as yellow has with the race’s French counterpart.

Gazetta della Sport

The famous “Maglia Rosa” – the Pink Jersey- is synonymous with the Giro d’Italia. It epitomises Italian chic. Like the Tour de France, this jersey has become integral to the history of cycling, worn proudly on the back of every champion of the Giro since.

The Red Devil

Cycling in Italy was becoming increasingly popular and new races were appearing all over the country, such as the 15 hour epic Tour de Piedmont. As in France many of these races were organised by newspapers as a means of attracting readers from their competitors. ‘Gazzetta dello Sport’ wanted a piece of the action.

Gazzetta journalist Tullo Morgangni enlisted the help of Giovanni Gerbi, the world’s first professional cyclist and a genuine superstar of the age, to develop a race of their own. Riders such as Gerbi, nicknamed the Red Devil by his fans because of the crimson jersey he always wore when racing, were keen to escape the poverty of the Milanese slums. He blazed a trail in Italian cycling, winning major races as young as 17 and becoming the first Italian to race in the Tour de France. Unfortunately that first Tour ended badly. On the Col de la Repbulique, club-wielding French spectators attacked him. The Red Devil escaped, but with two broken fingers his Tour de France was over and he wasn’t keen to return to France any time soon, but he continued to race and win in Italy. His second win in the Giro di Lombardia (a race that continues to this day, but at that time was known as Milan – Milan) in November 1906 boosted sales of Gazzetta dello Sport to over 100,000. It transpired, however, that Gerbi, after having taken an early lead had crossed a railway line and “persuaded” the signal man to close and lock the gates (aka has having a gang of associates tie up the signalman!)  The other 54 riders had to take a detour whilst Gerbi enjoyed an afternoon tea before re-joining the route and riding back to the finish some 40 minutes ahead of the second placed rider. When his cheating was exposed he was stripped of his top place on the podium and banned for two years but on announcing this the Gazzetta office was besieged by an angry mob demanding his reinstatement.

Like more recent instances of cheating in the sport of cycling Gerbi polarised the opinion of fans and the public, but he was great for the business of selling news!

The First Giro d’Italia

It wasn’t until 1908 that the same journalist, Tullo Morgangi, met with Micio Gatti, a former manager at the bike builders Bianchi, to discuss the organisation of the inaugural Giro d’Italia. The 25,000 lire cost of putting on the race was a massive amount and threatened the collapse of the newspaper if they couldn’t pull it off, but they boldly went ahead and declared the event “one of the biggest and most ambitious races in International Cycling”. At 2.53am on the 13th May 1909, 127 riders set off from Milan to cover 1,521 miles over 17 days before finally returning back to Milan. The winner that year was the Lombardian, Luigi Ganna, who had won the race on points, a format that would continue for the next two years. If the race had been calculated on overall time taken, as it is now, Ganna would have lost to third placed rider Giovanni Rossignoli by 37 minutes.

Il Campionissimo

The title Champion of Champions (Il Campionissimo) is usually recognised as the moniker given to the great Fausto Coppi, but in 1919 (the year that Coppi was born) the first Campionissimo was about to be christened.

Constante Girardengo was one of 86 starters in that year’s Giro. He had previously won a stage and finished sixth in the 1913 Giro and in 1914 won the longest ever Giro d’Italia stage of 430km (yes, 430km!). He was already twice National Champion and twice winner of Milan-Turin and in 1918 had won Milan-San Remo. At the 1919 Giro, Girardengo dominated the race and won by 52 minutes. The Gazzetta editor of the time, Emilio Colombo, wrote of Girardengo’s performance and bestowed upon him the title Il Campionissimo. He had not only won the Giro, but was also victorious in stages 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10!
He won another Giro d’Italia in 1923 and in a career that lasted 20 years, picked up numerous high-profile wins including 6 wins in Milan-San Remo, a record that was only eclipsed by Eddy Merckx 50 years later.

Italian Domination

In 1950 the Swiss rider, Hugo Koblet, was the first non-Italian to win the Giro d’Italia; a notable feat as by now the race had been held on 32 occasions since 1909 (WWI and WWII meant that the race missed 9 editions). Since then Italians have not held so much of a strangle-hold on their home event, but they have still managed to win (as of 2016) 69 out of 98 editions of the race.

Alfredo Binda and Learca Guerra

Italian Alfredo Binda was the first to win 5 overall titles at the Giro d’Italia. Binda dominated the race so decisively that by the time of his 4th overall Giro win in 1929, ‘Gazetta dello Sport’ offered him 22,500 lire not to race in 1930!  His 5th and final overall win was in 1933, by which time he had taken 41 stage victories (a record broken by Mario Cippolini in 2003).  The rivalry that developed between Binda and Girardengo (and Girardengo’s prodigy Learco Guerra, who incidentally in 1931 was the first wearer of the pink leader’s jersey, the Maglia Rosa) at the time would be echoed in later years with the duels between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. In reality these rivalries were symbolic of the state of the Italian economy, its politics and religious beliefs and were more products of the making of the media and amplified by the fans themselves rather than the riders, but they represented clear divisions in Italian culture at the time.

The only other rider to have ever equalled Binda’s 5 overall Giro d’Italia victories was the incomparable Eddy Merckx who also currently holds the record of 77 days wearing the Maglia Rosa.

The Giro is as illustrious in its history as the Tour de France and the list of winners includes the giants of the sport. For English speaking fans the overall Giro wins of Irishman Stephen Roche (1987) and American Andy Hampsten (1988) are notable. Hampsten, who took the leaders jersey after an epic ride in snow blizzard on the climb of the Gavia, and Roche who won the Tour de France and World Road Race Championships that year to complete an historic “triple” were following in the footsteps of American Greg Lemond who had won the Tour de France in 1986, in that they were ushering in a new world order to the old guard of professional cycling.

Giro Rosa

This new world order of professional cycling still has some way to go before equality catches up!  Sadly the representation of women in professional cycling is tokenistic at best and at times downright misogynistic. The women’s equivalent of races such as the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia are haphazard and under-supported by media, sponsorship and by cycling’s governing body, the UCI (in 2017 the women’s Tour de France La Route de France Féminine has been cancelled due to race scheduling conflicts). The Italian version, the Giro Rosa (previously Giro Donne) doesn’t fare much better. Originally a ten day event started in 1988; it was shortened to eight days in 2013. It has at least continued uninterrupted since its inauguration!

The Giro d’Italia however does have the distinction of being the only men’s professional road race that has had a female entrant!

Alfonsina Strada loved to ride bikes fast and won her first race at the age of 13. She continued to race, much to the consternation of her parents, and won most of the races she entered, beating many boys on her way to success. She became great friends with Constante Giardengo and set an “hour record” in 1911 of 37.192 km that stood for 26 years.

In 1924, Giro race director, Emilio Colombo, was struggling to attract riders to his event after a disagreement with professional riders of the time. To encourage entrants he offered places to “anyone who would ride”.  When Strada entered she omitted the final “a” from her first name making her gender ambiguous, something that wasn’t discovered by race organisers until the day before the race start, by which time they deemed it too late to exclude her.

Strada raced the first two stages finishing 74th and 50th respectively, but on Stage 3 the weather turned nasty with strong winds and rain washing mud and rocks onto the road. She was one of many who crashed that day, snapping her handlebars in the process. Managing to continue after a local villager gave her a broomstick to use as a part handlebar, she unfortunately finished outside the time limit and was disqualified.

Colombo had made the rules, but the commercial impact of sales of Gazzetta dello Sport boosted by stories of Strada, swayed his official stance, his sentiments getting the better of him, so he allowed her to race, albeit without being part of the prizes.

His decision wasn’t popular politically with fascist supporters at the time that saw her inclusion in the race as an affront to male dominance and machismo. The fans however loved it and the next day Strada, in tears, was carried on their shoulders after she crossed the finish line.  She was 25 minutes outside the time limit and exhausted, but the motivation from the fans gave her the boost to carry on riding all the way to the finish in Milan.  She was one of just 38 finishers (90 had started) who raced the 3,530.3 km (2,194 mile) route and although she finished 28 hours behind the winner, Giuseppe Enrici, she was 20 hours ahead of the last placed rider Telesforo Benaglia.

Strada was never allowed to race in the Giro d’Italia again, but she continued to race throughout Europe and Russia. She died in 1959. Her bicycle can be seen at the famous cycling museum at the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel at Lake Como.

The Giro d’Italia ranks alongside the Tour de France in the pantheon of great bicycle races.  To some it may seem a lesser race next to its Gallic cousin, but to consider it such would be to neglect the long and colourful history that the Giro celebrates. The Tour de France may be commercially bigger and be one of the few races known among non-cycling fans, but those characteristics are not what define greatness. Instead, the majestic challenge of the route and the epic tales of derring-do and character of the participants make a race and in those traits the Giro stands shoulder to shoulder with the Tour.

Giro - Sestriere ClimbHowever, what perhaps gives the Giro d’Italia and Italian cycle racing in general the edge above all other races is the passion of the fans, the “tifosi”. Through political turmoil and allegiances they have supported their heroes of the road with the spirit and ardour that only the sport of cycling can engender. It is infectious and it is why I never miss watching a stage the Giro d’Italia every May and why I am so excited to be guiding with Marmot Tours in the Dolomites this year.

Scot Tares