What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Bookshelf: The Beautiful Race

As its 2019 edition has once again reminded us, the Giro d’Italia remains the race the ‘Cool Kids’ like because it is wild, unpredictable and exciting. Originally inspired by the Tour de France, its history has been rather different, through topography as well as culture. This is all nicely set out in Colin O’Brien’s “The Beautiful Race: The Story of the Giro d’Italia”.

In his introduction, author O’Brien captures the appeal of the Giro by calling it a herald of spring, with sunny days ahead. “There’s also the social aspect to it….The race’s history is littered with riders who were nailed-on to win it, right up until the moment when they didn’t, and that keeps it interesting, making every edition feel new.” Oh, yes.

From the beginning, the Giro was hugely popular with the Italian public. Here, enormous crowds gather in Florence’s Parco delle Cascine to welcome the first edition of the race in 1909

Like the Tour, the Giro began as a way to sell newspapers but was actually meant to head off a proposed Tour of Italy by a competing newspaper and the Italian Touring Club. The Gazzetta dello Sport was on the ropes financially and, throwing caution to the wind, in August 1908 declared the Giro d’Italia for the following spring, with 3,000 kms of racing and a whopping prize list of 25,000 lire, making it the richest bike race in the world. The new race director, Armando Cougnet, was 24 years old, and was to remain in charge until 1949.

‘3,000 kilometres – 25,000 lire in prizes.’ The front page of the Gazzetta dello Sport on 24 August 1908 announces the inaugural Giro d’Italia, promising improbable distances and a fortune for the winner

By September it looked as the race might have to be cancelled as finances were grim but the Giro was saved by one of the newspaper’s investors, a Milanese banker and cycling fan, who stepped in and undertook a successful fundraising effort. Money came flooding in, even from the competing newspaper!  By March 1909, with the encouragement of a gold medal from the King of Italy as added incentive, the coffers were full. The race route was revised to an eight stage event, covering a “mere” 2,500 kms.

A stonemason by trade, Luigi Ganna shot to national fame when he won the maiden Giro d’Italia in 1909, seen here with Carlo Galetti to his left. Known as ‘the Squirrel of the Canals’, Galetti would win the Giro in 1910, 1911 and as part of the Atala team in 1912

On May 13, 1909, 127 riders set out from Milan on the first stage of the first Giro—an epic ride of 397 kms to Bologna. But what kind of country were they riding into? Unlike France, as O’Brien points out, Italy was a new country, pieced together from various bits and where there was a major division between the north, with its developed cities and industrial heartland and the south, the famous Mezzogiorno of peasant farmers and grinding poverty. The Giro has had a function of uniting this patchwork, assuming a much more political role than the Tour ever has, and has been used by presidents and dictators to built the concept of Italy as a nation, as divided economically, culturally and even linguistically as it was.

Alfredo Binda, one of the most dominant riders in cycling history, pictured with Emilio Colombo, the editor of La Gazzetto Dello Sport. The pair had a difficult relationship, as Binda’s superiority often lead to boring races – and more importantly, poor newspaper sales.

Of course, as with all early races, there was a learning curve. With the primitive time-keeping and the possibility of chaos as masses of people appeared on the course, the organizers used as system of points, with 1 for the stage winner, 2 for second place and so on with the overall winner being the rider with the lowest number at the end, eventually being supplanted by the elapsed time measurement. One year saw the race contested by teams rather than having an individual winner. The race organization has historically been characterized by disorganization and confusion, taken in stride by all as normal, showing remarkable flexibility.

The Bersaglieri are a high-mobility unit in the Italian armed forces, famous for the long black plumage that decorates their hats, and for their distinctive, rapid marching style. At the turn of the century it was common for these soldiers to go to battle with a bicycle, and in 1912 they even entered an offical Italian Army team into the Giro.

“The Beautiful Race” does not follow a chronological order but rather focuses on specific riders and, in shorter chapters, notable climbs. The Giro reflects professional cycling’s attraction to some pretty colourful characters. It is striking how many great riders came from dire poverty, becoming cyclists because they were working as delivery boys on heavy cargo bikes. Some of them were employed in hard physical labour: stonemasons and bricklayers surface often. Bike racing offered an escape from this environment and is less noted for its sportsmanlike tendencies than its encouragement of avarice. Ottavio Bottechia, “the Bricklayer of Friuli,” was the second youngest of nine children who managed a single year of schooling and had a hard life even before he became a pro in 1926. He said: “I don’t race for sport or for the cheers of the crowd or the flowers from beautiful women, and even less for glory. I race for the money, to earn as much as I can, and there will never be enough suffering or fatigue to take my mind off of this aim. I race for my family, they’re poor and I’ll do everything possible so that they don’t have to live in misery.” He came fifth as a solo rider in the 1923 Giro, atracting attention and became the first Italian winner of the Tour de France (1924 and 1925), he met a mysterious and violent end in 1927.

Giovanni Brunero was the first rider to win the Giro three times, in 1921, 1922 and 1926. He died a young man, aged 39, after being ill for the final few years of his life

Although the first rider to wear the sobriquet “Il Campionissimo” was Costante Girardengo (and one of the first professional athletes to become a rich man), Alfredo Binda was the dominant rider of his era, winning the Giro five times and so superior to other riders that Giro organizers actually paid him the equivalent of the Giro’s top prize money to simply stay away one year and give others a chance, the inverse of today’s appearance money. His best competitor was Learco Guerra, “the Human Locomotive,” a genial Mantuan who included in his palmares the crazy 1931 UCI World Championships in Copenhagen, a 170 km individual time trial on a flat course, as well as the even crazier Predappio-Roma race, from Mussolini’s hometown to the capital, which ran 470 kms and required a start at nine in the evening. It took 18 hours to complete.

Alfredo Binda was by some margin the more successful, but the tifosi preferred Learco Guerra, the man they called ‘The Human Locomotive,’ because he was the only rider capable of competing with the Campionissimo

There is so many great stories in the book, of larger-than-life personalities, petty tantrums, superhuman feats of endurance, rule-bending, and, well, some cheating, as well as titanic rivalries, such as the famous one between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi and the less-known conflicta between Francesco Moser and Giuseppe Sarroni. Bartali vs. Coppi was something that was totally Italian: it represented the division of the country between the conservative past and the modern future as the two protagonists were so unalike. Much has been written about this relationship but it is neatly described here. And the story of the 1987 win by Stephen Roche, battling with his own team, is also set out.

Alfonsina Strada competed in the 1924 edition of the race, making her the only woman to ever ride the Giro. She was so popular that along the route she stopped to sign autographs and hand out photographs of herself

And who does not love the story of Alfonsina Strada, who rode as the only female Giro participant ever when she took part in 1924 because, as the race organizers noted, there was no rule against it. She did quite well until being outside the time limit on the eighth stage due to a series of flats and crashes. While officially disqualified, she was allowed to continue to the finish in Milan, stopping along the way for photos and autograph moments. It was a win for everyone as it sold lots of newspapers and Strada was able to build a subsequent career from it for decades afterwards.

No rivalry before or since has captivated the tifosi quite like Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. The pair were polar opposites in terms of riding style and personality, and in many ways represented the contrasting faces of a rapidly changing country

After World War II, the Giro began to take on a more international flavour and the unbroken list of Italian victors was ended by Swiss rider Hugo Koblet in 1950, and other countries in the winners’ list have included Luxembourg, France, Belgium, Sweden, Ireland, Spain, Russia, the USA, Canada and Colombia. Andy Hampsten’s win in 1988 is famous not only as he was the first non-European to win but also for the epic Gavia stage, fought in atrocious winter conditions. Bernard Hinault entered the race three times—and won three times.

There’s tough, and then there’s Fiorenzo Magni. Italy’s ‘Third Man’, the Tuscan spent much of his career as the runner-up to either Bartali or Coppi. Here he can be seen steering his bike with his teeth, having refused to retire from the 1956 race with a broken clavicle

Five time winners besides Binda were Coppi and the unstoppable Belgian, Eddy Merckx. Since 1993 and Miguel Indurain’s second successive win, there have been no back-to-back victories, although several riders have managed to win it twice. This compares to the Tour de France, which often sees stretches of domination by a particular rider or team.

Francesco Moser’s muscular build meant he was never fast enough to dominate in the mountains. Even though the Trentino native only won one Giro, during the 1970s and 80s he was the favourite of Italian cycling fans everywhere.

The Giro is also set apart by its landscape. Italy is much smaller than France and riders can find themselves going from coastal beaches to flat plains to high mountains in a very short space of time. It is said that the flat stages are not really flat, more like Classics courses, while the mountain stages are insanely difficult. The Colle delle Finistre, with its 45 hairpin turns, was in consideration for the Giro from 1995 but saved up until the 2005, when what the director of the Giro called “an impassable goat track” was improved enough to race on, although it upper stretch of sooty gravel was retained. It has again figured prominently in the 2018 race as Chris Froome launched the kind of long-range attack that would have impressed Fausto Coppi.

Giuseppe Saronni was a talented sprinter and an accomplished classics rider. He was also one of the dominant Giro stars of his generation. More than anything though, Saronni was Moser’s great rival. Their constant feuding delighted race fans and drove them both to incredible levels of success

Looking at the Giro’s popularity today, it is easy to forgot that only a decade ago the race was falling into the doldrums, rocked by doping scandals, the tragic death of a cycling icon, the fatally-flawed Marco Pantani, and an apparent lack of Italian up-and-comers. Pro cycling has also, by its very structure, suffered from unstable finances over the years. Italy has not been the only country to see a decline in races but there is hope as new races, such as the reinvigorated Strade Bianche put on by Giro owner RCS, are creating a new generation of fans and earning the enthusiasm of riders.

Ireland’s Stephen Roche, the only man other than Eddy Merckx to win the Giro, Tour and World Championships in the same year, pictured after his emotive Giro triumph in 1987, with Roberto Conti, Johan van der Velde and Robert Millar

The author writes: “The deeper I went with my research, the more tempting it became to deviate from that idea [of an overarching narrative] and mention every single detail of the race’s 108-year history, but it was never my intention to write an encyclopedia of the Giro d’Italia, because I would never want to read one.” This is a surprising admission because, after reading the highly entertaining “The Beautiful Race,” this sounds like a pretty good idea, Mr. O’Brien! Our criticism of the book is that perhaps at 238 pages there was insufficient space for a lot more great stories. But I was gratified to learn that Carlo Galetti, winner of the 1910 and 1911 editions, was nicknamed “Il Scoiattolo dei Navigli,” or “the Squirrel of the Canals”.

7-Eleven’s Andy Hampsten won the 1988 Giro with a classy overall performance, two stage wins and an unforgettable ride in appalling conditions over the Passo di Gavia

There is nothing more fitting that to conclude with these words from the book:

  • The first edition of the Giro was an audacious publicity stunt, cobbled together on the fly by a handful of ambitious young journalists at the Gazzetta dello Sport….A lot has happened in the subsequent 108 years. It has grown from an eight-stage war of attrition, where brute endurance was the order of the day, to a 21-stage battle of wits and tactics, played out at breakneck speed.

To which we at PezCyclingNews can only say: Viva il Giro! Viva Italia!

The Beautiful Race: The Story of the Giro d’Italia
by Colin O’Brien
238 pp., illustrated, hardcover
Pegasus Books, New York, 2017
ISBN 978-1-68177-664-4
Suggested retail price: US $26.95/GBP £19.95

The Beautiful Race: The Story of the Giro d’Italia by Colin O’Brien is available at AMAZON.COM.

The other greats won more in a year than Marco Pantani managed in his lifetime, but it was always more about quality rather than quantity with Il Pirata. Pantani was loved for his impulsiveness, his daring, and his sense of the theatrical

When not concerned about how to fare una bella figura, Leslie Reissner may be found riding bicycles whose makers’ names end in vowels at www.tindonkey.com.

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