The First Giro d’Italia

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Giovanni Cunioli winning stage 2 of the 1909 Giro

Today the 100th Giro ends in the same place where it all began back in 1909. On the 13th of May 127 riders set off at 2:53 from outside the Gazzetta dello Sports headquarters in Milan to tackle eight stages over a total distance of 2448 km. This is the story of he first Giro d’Italia.

Two riders were expected to compete for victory in the inaugural Giro d’Italia. They were the Italians Luigi Gana and Giovanni Gerbi who had excellent one day race pedigree but hadn’t done much stage racing. The organisers of the race would have loved an Italian to win but the start list also included former Tour de France winner Louis Trousselier and current Tour champion Lucien Petit-Breton.

The stages were going to be incredibly long, with some lasting over 14 hours for the best riders, but they would have at least one rest day between them. The race would be decided by a points system rather than time elapsed. It was thought that doing things this way would discourage riders from cheating to gain time on their rivals. A points based system was also much cheaper and easy to run. The rider who won the stage got one point, second place got two and so on. So after eight stages the man with the fewest points would be the winner. Other means to help ensure a fair race included checkpoints along each stage where riders would have to sign in to prove they were cycling along the whole route and photographs that were taken at the start and finish lines. They would be compared by judges to make sure ringers weren’t used by riders not keen on cycling the whole route.  The riders would either part of a team or be racing as independents (riding for themselves) and all but five were Italian.

The first stage set off from Milan and would eventually end in Bologna, a massive 397 km later. After only 2 km the Giro suffered from its first mass crash, probably not surprising as it was the middle of the night and streetlights weren’t what they are now. Giovanni Gerbi was the worst affected, his back wheel and fork were damaged but he was able get a mechanic at the local Bianchi shop, which had opened late to celebrate the start of the Giro, to repair his bike and eventually rejoin his rivals. This wasn’t the Tour de France where the tough taskmaster Henri Desgrange had outlawed any outside assistance like this.

There were further incidents along the way. Carlo Galetti and Petit-Breton both crashed with the later losing consciousness and dislocating his shoulder. Further along the route Luigi Ganna suffered from a puncture. 1909 was a long time before riders started not taking advantage from these types of incidents, any rivals wouldn’t hesitate to attack at these points. On most of these occasions the riders who were held up were able to join back with the rest who kept having to stop at level crossings. Towards the stage finish the lead group was down to twelve riders and it was Dario Beni who won the first ever Giro d’Italia stage. Due to the large crowds it was difficult for the judges to determine the rest of the placings but Galetti was given third and Ganna fourth.

Petit-Breton didn’t start stage two due to his injuries and it was Giovanni Cuniolo who won the 376 km run to Chieti. Ganna came in 2nd and took over the race lead while his fellow pre-race favourite Gerbi had already started to show signs of cracking. He had found the day so tough that he had stopped at a farmhouse to rest at one stage. It seemed that Ganna’s main rivals were going to be Galetti and Trousselier and they confirmed this by placing well on stage three to Naples and going into overall first and second places respectively. Before this mountainous run over the Apennines three riders, Vincenzo Granata, Guglielmo Lodesani and Andrea Provinciali, became the first competitors of the Giro to be removed from the race for cheating. On stage two they took a train for some of the way but were caught out by an unexpected checkpoint.

The race route in the South of Italy was lined with many passionate fans and in some parts the swell of people started to encroach on the road, getting in the way of the riders. The race organiser Armando Cougnet tried to encourage them to stay clear but when that didn’t work he resorted to whipping them. He must have been glad that stage 4 from Naples started heading back north to Rome but on these hilly roads the fans behaviour was even worse. Some were putting nails on the road to hamper unpopular riders and the Frenchman Trousselier was one that was worst affected by the sabotage. Ganna won that day and moved back into the race lead by one point over Galetti. Trousselier who managed to finish eighth after his troubles was third, a further four points behind.

The fifth stage was another tough undulating route, this time from Rome over the Umbrian hills to Florence. 63 riders started the day, less than half the number that set off from Milan. Trousselier’s troubles continued and he had a series of flats before his rear hub disintegrated. Ganna too suffered from a puncture and only 10 km from the finish but he managed to chase back on and win in the city’s velodrome. Galetti also repeated his result from the previous stage by finishing second meaning there were now two points between the two. Trousselier finished back in 28th and realising he was now out of the running he abandoned, meaning the winner of the first Giro would be an Italian.

Stage six between Florence and Genoa was the second mountainous one and as with the previous day over such terrain, stage two, it was won by Giovanni Rossignoli. Galetti was a close second for the third stage running but importantly finished ahead of Ganna in third, cutting his lead back down to one point.

Two days later the penultimate stage set off from Genoa to Turin. By now the Giro had really caught the imagination of the Italian public and huge crowds gathered at the start and finish lines. It was becoming difficult to start each day so Cougnet came up with the idea of having a ceremonial start in Genoa followed by a neutralised section and then starting the race officially once the riders were clear of the crowds. This system happens at the Giro and Tour to this day. It was some excellent problem solving by the race organiser but he must have panicked and wondered what to do when he heard that the race finish in Turin had been invaded by 50,000 crazed fans. He decided to secretly shorten the stage by six kilometres so the finish line would be away from the throngs but the message didn’t get through to the officials. The finish was rather farcical but Ganna didn’t care and got another stage win. Rossignoli was second and Galetti third meaning they went into the final day with Ganna in first on 22 point, then Galetti on 25 with Rossignolli in a solid third with 33.

The final day would take the riders from Turin and back to Milan though due to the ongoing problem of the crowd sizes the exact finish line wasn’t yet known. Cougnet had decided to do things on the fly and set the end point as late as he could. Ganna knew he could finish at least three places below Galetti, if they finished on equal points he would be the winner due to his three stage wins. However within 70 km of the finish, which Cougnet had finally chosen and arranged for mounted police to line, he suffered from two punctures. It seemed victory was slipping away when a level crossing barrier saved the day. Despite Cougnet’s best efforts the race still ended in farce after a horse fell, causing a crash. Once everything was sorted out it was declared that Beni had bookended the race by repeating his opening day victory, Galetti was second and Ganna, sticking to him like glue at the finale, was third. That meant that Ganna had won the inaugural Giro d’Italia with Galetti and Rossignolli second and third.

Luigi Ganna after winning the first Giro d’Italia

Soon after the finish Cougnet, delighted at the success and popularity of his race, asked Ganna what it felt like to be the Giro’s first winner. After thinking about it for a moment he replied in dialect those famous words “My arse is killing me”.

 

Wilier Triestina And The Giro Of Rebirth

Picture from Glory Cycles on flickr

Today is the final mountain stage of this years Giro and just before the riders take on the Foza, which will be the last chance for the climbers to do something before tomorrows time trial, they will skirt the edges of Bassano del Grappa the birthplace of a famous bicycle manufacturer.

I have to admit I haven’t much knowledge of Italian bicycle brands. I know of Pinarello, Colnago and I can pick out a Bianchi from a distance because of it’s distinctive colour. I have also recently grown quite fond of the De Rosa brand and their beautiful machines. But I couldn’t tell you what bike such and such was on to win whatever race like a lot of people can. Growing up my favourite rider was Marco Pantani but I don’t even remember hearing of a Wilier-Triestina, the bike he was on during much of his career. My ignorance of Wilier changed when Femke Van den Driessche got caught with a hidden motor in her Wilier cyclo-cross bike during the World Championships in 2016. I heard that the company planned to sue the young Belgium rider for the damage caused to the brand but the affair got me interested in finding out more about them and I now have a respect and appreciation for their famous Italian bikes.

It all started in 1906 when a trader and craftsman from Bassano del Grappa called Pietro Dal Molin set up a company called Ciclomeccanica Dal Molin with the aim of producing bicycles. He was fascinated by them and understood their potential for becoming highly popular. When he bought over a small English bicycle company called Wilier and set up a small workshop he was ready to produce his first bike. Before long his company was producing some fine bicycles which were considered fashionable to be seen on in and around Bassano. Orders started coming in from other parts of Italy which meant the company had to move into a bigger factory. Now mass production was possible which drove the costs down meaning more people could afford their bicycles.

Despite the First World War the company grew from strength to strength. They even produced bikes for the Italian rifle regiment, a move which increased the prestige of Wilier bikes even further. After the war the factory was made even bigger and when one of Dal Molin’s sons Mario took over the firm he sought new and better ways to produce bicycles using chrome and nickel plating which ultimately led to a finished product with a higher standard.

By the 1930’s the brand was big enough for Mario Dal Molin to start considering sponsoring a bicycle team so his companies name could be seen alongside other brands such as Legnano and Bianchi in the top races around Europe. The Second World War put paid to any such thoughts but when hostilities officially ceased he had already decided that sponsorship was the way forward and he got ready to launch his team. The factory produced a high speck racing bike and riders were put together. So in the Autumn of 1945 a new racing bicycle and top cycling team were born and they both carried the name Wilier-Triestina. Dal Molin was a proud and patriotic Italia, the Triestina part of the name is a reference to the city of Trieste which lay on the border between Italy and Yugoslavia. Who the city belonged to was always often a dispute through history and this was now even more the case after the Allies won the war. Dal Molin must have been delighted when it was pointed out the Wilier was a kind of acronym for the well known phrase “W l’Italia liberata e redenta” which means Long live Italy, liberated and redeemed.

The city of Trieste, being a beautiful and prosperous trading port on the Adriatic Sea has been a much sought after territory throughout history. It was for long periods part of the Austrian Empire and when the Wilier bicycle company was founded in 1906 the Austro-Hungarian Empire was using it as a base for shipbuilding. During this period, just over 30 years after the unification of Italy, the Italian people were keen for new territories and Trieste would have been a fine place to take into their realm. At the start of the 20th century the city was a mix of Italians, Slovenians, Austrians and Jews. A proportion of this population were writers, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and artists. So when Italy was given land as a ‘reward’ for entering the First World War on the side of the Allies they were delighted that Trieste was included in the deal.

The majority population of Italians would have been happy with this outcome but the large number of Slovenians were now cut off from the newly formed country of Yugoslavia. Worse was to come for the minorities of Trieste from 1922 after Benito Mussolini turned Italy into a fascist dictatorship. There was a ban on non-Italian languages, ‘Slavs’ were forced to Italianise their surnames and Slovenian shops and offices were attacked by Black Shirts. Italians weren’t exempt from persecution though as free thinkers and those with socialist sympathies found their civil liberties began to get eroded. The repression reached its zenith during the Second World War when the Nazis set up their only concentration camp on Italian soil in the city. In a rice mill called Risiera di San Sabba Slovenian and Ialian anti-fascists were tortured and 5000 were killed, some being gassed and having their bodies burned in ovens. Many Jews in the area passed through the camp on their way to Auschwitz.

In May of 1945 Josip Tito and his partisans liberated the city from the Nazis and it was the Italians turn to find themselves being the wrong nationality. Many were deported or killed until the Allies took control of the city in June. Their reason for occupying the area was geographical, it stood by the soon to be established iron curtain, but the move brought some relative peace and safety to Trieste’s inhabitants.

By 1946 it was decided that the area around Trieste was to be divided into areas controlled by either the Anglo-American or Yugoslavian military. The Giro d’Italia organisers, planning the first post-war race, were keen to promote the idea of a new Italy for their 1946 edition. An Italy that was free from the shackles of fascism and was now looking forward to a better future but also one that was united. So the 1946 race was cast as ‘The Giro of Rebirth’ and would include a stage finish in the city of Trieste.

This was a perfect opportunity for the newly formed Wilier-Triestina team and Dal Molin set about assembling a strong squad for the race. Patriotically he chose riders only from Trieste or near Bassano del Grappa. The captain would be Giordano Cottur. He was born in Trieste when it was still in Austro-Hungarian hands. One day after his first birthday Italy had declared war on the Empire and he always considered himself Italian. Cottur was a very talented stage racer, he finished 3rd in the Giro three times during the era of Coppi and Bartali, and he kicked off the 1946 race in excellent fashion by winning the first stage between Milan and Torino. It seemed like he was in good form and would have every chance to take the twelfth stage into his place of birth while wearing his team kit emblazoned with the halberd, the symbol of his city.

But would he even get the chance to go for victory? On the eve of the race the Allies declared that they would not allow the race to enter their territory. The situation in the city was still very tense. Football matches were banned and it was felt that the gathering of big crowds to watch the end of a Giro stage could ignite into riots and violence. So as it stood after Cottur’s opening stage victory the Trieste stage would actually be ending in Vittorio Veneto. Cottur’s stage one victory and the organisers insistence to the Allies that the Giro d’Italia would be a unifying force rather than something that would provoke disorder meant that the Allies eventually caved and a week before stage 12 they said that Trieste could stage finish after all.

The 228 km route started from Rovigo and things were going along as a normal stage would until the race entered into the Allied controlled territory, called Zone A. From here the race was far from ordinary. The 46 riders (of the original 79 who set off from Milan) had to carry special passes to get through checkpoints and near the town of Pieris, around 40 km from Trieste, their lives suddenly were at risk. They came across an obstruction in the road which forced them to stop and when they did they were bombarded by stones thrown from the surrounding fields. The riders, including Coppi and Bartali, took cover in ditches and cars and one of their number, Edigio Marangoni of the Milan-Gazzetta team, was quite seriously injured and even feared dead.

Accounts of the incident are patchy and sometimes contradictory. There were reports of shots being fired at the attackers by the people guarding the route and some even said the riders had to dodge bullets themselves. Nobody claimed responsibility but the blame was put on Slovenians and ‘Slavs’ and when news of the event reached Trieste Slovenian shops were ransacked and set on fire and riots broke out. The attackers managed to escape through the fields and were never caught and the motive was unknown but there was evidence that some Italians were involved.

The outcome of the event was the cancellation of the stage. Many of the riders understandably didn’t want to continue but a handful were still keen to get to the finish in Trieste. The organisers compromised and decided to call a halt to the stage in Pieris with all the riders getting the same time but would allow those wanting to race to the city to do so to create some kind of symbolic gesture. So seventeen riders, including the entire Wilier-Triestina team were picked up by an American army truck and transported under armed guard to Barcola only seven kilometers from the finishing line and the race was back on. It was unsurprising that Cottur broke free towards the end and entered the packed Trieste cycling stadium alone to claim victory. Some of the banners which the fans were holding up read ”Sporting Trieste welcomes the girini’ and most of those present were delighted to welcome a local rider whose shirt and bike held the name and symbol of their city. Cottur would later remark “The Giro was associated with Italy and Trieste wanted to be Italian.”

A few days of rioting in the city followed but the City and the rest of Italy soon wanted to get back to normal living and perhaps it was the Giro d’Italia which showed how that could be done.

 

 

Giro 100. Cima Sappada And The 1987 Giro.

Italy along with France and Belgium are steeped in cycling history. They are the places where it all began and the experiences of the many riders and races from there have left their mark on the population. Football has taken over as the dominant sport but cycling still has a huge following. In some areas people can watch a few top races every year without traveling to far from home, fan clubs can be joined and there are plenty of like minded folk to chat to about the sport.

Being a fan of cycling in Glasgow is very different. If you mention the sport in a pub people will often look at you with confusion. When they do respond it will usually be to say “Ach they’re all on drugs anyway”, as they watch Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte’s latest teams play each other. When they do take an interest you tend to explain things with footballing analogies. Seemingly futile breaks up the road are like small teams entering cup competitions. It seems pointless but once in a blue moon there is a moment of glory, and there are financial incentives. Froome and Wiggins time together at Team Sky is like the Scottish National team in the old days when Celtic and Rangers players would supposedly not pass the ball to each other. It would be difficult to explain though, even in a city of Old Firm hatred, what was going on in the 1987 Giro.

Just after today’s first sprint in Sappada the road goes up slightly and over the Cima Sappada before dropping down for a long descent. Tackled the opposite direction the Cima Sappada is a pretty difficult climb and it was the finish of tough stage in the 1987 Giro d’Italia. The winner on that 15th stage was Johan van der Velde but it was the soap opera which unfolded behind him during the day which everyone was talking about.

The winner from the previous year, Roberto Visentini, was one of the favourites before the race start along with Moreno Argentin and Robert Millar. Visentini’s Carrera team mate Stephen Roche was probably the form rider after good early season wins at the Tours of Valencia and Romandie and a decent second at Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Visentini season had been pretty insipid in comparison but as the reigning champion he believed that the issue of team leadership wasn’t in question. Roche would ride for him at the Giro in return for his help at the Tour. In reality the Carrera team management would allow the issue to play out on the road but still chose a team of riders deeply loyal to the Italian. In the squad there was only the Belgium gregario Eddy Schepers who Roche could call a friend. Roche wasn’t happy at this imbalance and when he found out that Visentini had booked a holiday for July, when he would apparently be helping Roche at the Tour, the Irishman decided he would be going for the Giro, no mater what team orders dictated.

Visentini started off the better of the two by winning the prologue only for Eric Breukink to take the Maglia Rosa off him on stage 1A. Roche won stage 1B, another prologue distance time trial, but the Dutch rider stayed in the race lead until the team time trial on the third stage. Carrera showed their supposed strength that day by beating the second placed team Del Tongo by 54 seconds which meant it was now the turn of Roche to go into pink. He lead his teammate by 15 seconds and the tape holding the strong unit together was starting to come undone.

Over the next few stages Roche began getting more and more annoyed with Visentini, who instead of protecting him as race leader was glued to his back wheel. Even so, Roche managed to increase his lead slightly to 25 seconds by the end of stage 12 which was the eve of another time trial, this one at 46 km.

Visentini was excellent that day and beat Tony Rominger, an expert in the race of truth, by 1 minute 11 seconds but Roche by contrast was awful. He blamed a crash three days earlier on his performance but the thing that mattered was that he lost almost 3 minutes to Visentini who was now back in the Maglia Rosa and lead the Irishman, in second, by 2 minutes 42 seconds.

The Carrera team manager Davide Boifava made his decision and told the team, as if it needed to be said, that Visentini would be the leader for the rest of the race. It seemed the civil war was over but Roche and Schepers were planning a mutiny and they decided it would take place on the fifteenth stage which finished on Cima Sappada.

The day included the Monte Rest then the Valcalda before the finish and it was clear early on what plan the two Carrera renegades had concocted. On the descent of the Monte Rest Roche went on the offensive and along with Ennio Salvador and Jean-Claude Bagot he managed to force a gap from the bunch. Roche had made his move and was trying to put distance on his team leader. Both his breakaway companions weren’t on his team but seemed keen to help. Usually trying to escape with such a high profile rider would be a futile task but earlier on in the race Schepers had helped Bagot win a stage. The wily Irishman was calling in favours from other teams as his own couldn’t be counted on.

Boifava had clocked Roche straight away and drove up to him to tell him to drop back to the bunch or he would get the team to chase him down. Roche said if he was allowed to continue and the team held back he would gain so much time in the stage that he would win the Giro for Carrera. His manager disagreed and ordered the team to start a ferocious chase. The team pushed itself to the limit trying to bridge up to Roche and eventually Visentini who was having an off day started to crack.

Roche and his two companions were burying themselves too but his plan soon came to fruition as Visentini and the Carrera boys ran out of steam and couldn’t keep up with the chasing pack who would eventually catch up with Roche. Among those who joined him at the head of the race was Robert Millar of the Panasonic team, another rider who he could count on for a little support up the final climb. At the end of the day after expending so much energy the Irishman finished only 56 seconds behind the stage winner Johan van der Velde.  Visentini was down in 58th spot at 6 minutes 50 and tumbled to 7th in the GC. Roche was back in the Maglia Rosa but only had a slender 5 second lead over Rominger in 2nd while Breukink was 3rd at just 38 seconds.

Italy went into meltdown. Roche hadn’t only attacked a teammate in the Maglia Rosa, he had attacked an Italian teammate in the Maglia Rosa. He needed police protection after the stage finished (and for the next few days and would get spat on and punched from the road side). Boifava was also incensed. Not only had Roche disobeyed him but the outcome of his madcap plan was that Carrera had gone from being 3 minutes 12 seconds ahead of their nearest rival to only 5 seconds. He threatened to stop Roche from riding the Tour if he didn’t come into line while Visentini told the press that Roche would be going home that night.

The next day on a stage with five climbs Visentini gave Roche a taste of his own medicine by constantly attacking the pink jersey but Roche was equal to every move and the two finished on the same time. Rominger lost over a minute though and his plan seemed a little more justified. Over the next few days Roche had to rely on Millar for protection in the mountains and Schepers the rest of the time. Visentini was still seething and even tried to make Schepers crash at one point.

However, it seemed Roche’s Carrera ‘teammates’ were slowly coming round to the thinking that the Irishman was stronger than Visentini. By the end of stage 18 the Italian was 3 minutes 24 seconds behind in 7th. The second placed rider Eric Breukink was only 33 seconds back and if they were to get a decent bonus they would have to unite behind Roche. His extra support showed on the penultimate stage when he finished second behind that years winner of the mountains classification Robert Millar but over 2 minutes ahead of Breukink and six ahead of Visentini who had crashed and broken his wrist.

Visentini wouldn’t start the final day time trial but Roche cemented his overall victory by winning the stage.

He would go on to win the Tour and the World Championships that season becoming one of only two riders, the other being Merckx of course, to win the ‘Triple Crown of Cycling’. Visentini wouldn’t have a major victory again and retired in 1990, hardly discussing the sport again. However the tifosi still talk angrily of the Irishman for his betrayal on their soil.

Giro 100. Fiorenzo Magni And The Pordoi.

Over the history of bike racing there have been a few exceptional riders who have been unlucky to arrive on the scene at the same time as a truly dominant force. Felice Gimondi has an impressive looking palmarès and was the first Italian to win all three Grand Tours . Perhaps he would have been the first and only Italian to win all five monuments if he wasn’t racing alongside Eddy Merckx throughout his career. Giuseppe Saronni won two Giri and could have added to that number and been confident of having an assault on the Tour de France if it wasn’t for Bernard Hinault.

The man with the unluckiest birth date in cycling though must be Fiorenzo Magni. He was around at the same time as not one but two of the greats. Born six years after Gino Bartali and one before Fausto Coppi meant Magni’s career was usually spent fighting with everyone else over the scraps tossed away by the two. These battles would more often than not end in victory. Despite being in the shadows ‘The Third Man’ still managed to win the Giro d’Italia three times. He could also have won the Tour in 1950 but as usual he had to defer to one of his superiors. During the race when Magni was in the yellow jersey Bartali got the Italian team to abandon in protest after supposedly getting attacked by some French fans.

Magni was immensely strong. He thrived in long stages and was powerful on flat or hilly terrain, using those skills to win three Tours of Flanders in a row between 1949 and 1951. He was never the best going up the high mountains but being an expert descender he could usually make up any time he lost on them. His biggest asset was his courage, he would never give up. But for Bartali and Coppi, he would have been a superstar.

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Giro 100. Charly Gaul

Just after the midpoint of today’s stage the race goes over the category 3 climb the Giovo. Just to the the south is Trento, a city visited by the Giro many times for stage starts and finishes. Trento is also where you would start the climb of Monte Bondone which in 1956 was the end point of one of the most epic stages in Giro history.

Stage 20 was to be the final mountain stage of the 1956 Giro d’Italia and with only two flat days to come it would be clear who the winner of the Maglia Rosa would be atop the Bondone. Only 9 seconds separated  Pasquale Fornara and Cleto Maule in 1st and 2nd and anyone down to Giuseppe Buratti in 8th and 3 minutes 38 seconds back would have been in with a chance of snatching the lead. The day was a long 242 km from Merano and would go over Costalunga, the Rolle and the Brocon before the final climb so there would be plenty of opportunity to put time on rivals.

The pre-race favourites hadn’t been having a good race. Fausto Coppi had crashed out on stage 6 and Fiorenzo Magni, the defending champion, suffered two horrendous crashes. He had broken his left collarbone on stage 12 but decided to doggedly fight on. Before stage 15, a short uphill time trial, the muscles in his left arm were in agony making it almost impossible for him to steer his bike. So his mechanic came up with the crazy idea of tying and inner tube to Magni’s handle bars and getting the Italian to stick the other end between his teeth and steer by yanking his head back at the right moment. I don’t know what is the most surprising, the plan, the fact that Magni went along with it or that it worked. The next day he went down again, broke his upper arm, fainted, came to in an ambulance before getting back on his bike to continue. At the start of stage 20 he was only around 7 minutes behind the leader, remarkable given the circumstances.

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Giro 100. Cima Coppi And La Neve.

Aldo Moser on the Passo dello Stelvio during the 1965 Giro d’Italia

Today is the Queen stage of this years Giro d’Italia. Running for 222 km from Rovetta to Bormio it includes three monster climbs, the Mortirollo, the Umbrailpass and between them the Stelvio where this years Cima Coppi prize will be awarded.

The Cima Coppi has been the name given to the highest point of the Giro since 1965 and the first rider to go over it is given the Cima Coppi prize. The list of winners over the years is pretty eclectic and includes the greatest Grand Tour riders from history such as Eddy Merckx, Laurent Fignon and Miguel Indurain. Others may regard getting the Cima Coppi prize as the high point of their careers. The French rider Yoann Le Boulanger crested the Colle dell’Angelo first in 2007 to add the award to his top stage wins at the Tour de L’Avenir and Tour de la Somme and Vladimir Miholjević of Croatia, first over the Gavia in 2004, perhaps only considers his national titles to have greater worth. The rider who has had most success with the prize in the sky is the Spanish climber José-Manuel Fuente who won three Cima Coppi’s in a row over three different summits (the Stelvio, Giau and the Tre Cime di Lavaredo) between 1972 and 1974.

There is one mountain which if it’s in the Giro route will be the Cima Coppi no mater where else the race goes. The Passo dello Stelvio, the first Cima Coppi in 1965, is the highest point that the race has ever reached at 2758 metres. It has been climbed ten times in the Giro since its debut in 1953 and that number would be higher if wasn’t for the weather. Because it is so high up the area can be effected by heavy snowfall, even during May when the Giro is run.

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Giro 100. The First Foreign Winner

Today’s stage is has the perfect terrain for an escape artist, slightly undulating with a couple of climbs at the end to gain an advantage then descend to the finish. The 6th stage of the 1950 Giro had a similar profile and would have passed through Valdengo, today’s start town.

Until 1950 the Giro d’Italia had always been won by Italians but as time passed it was inevitable a foreign rider would eventually win the Maglia Rosa. It would have been no surprise if he had come from France or Belgium but the emergence of two fine riders, Ferdinand Kübler and Hugo Koblet, meant the nationality would be a little more left field, and Swiss. Switzerland had produced a few decent cyclists in the first half of the century, Oscar Egg was perhaps the best with stage win in both the Giro and Tour to go along with his more famous World Hour Records. There was nothing ever to suggest though that two Swiss riders would dominate the top two stage races in the world for two years running. And it all started on that sixth stage of the 1950 Giro d’Italia.

The two had a few things in common apart from their nationality. They had both been national pursuit champion and their personalities were outgoing, friendly. Both also had a love for America, Kübler collected Stetson hats and was known as ‘The Cowboy’ and Koblet loved driving across the US, emulating his favourite American films. Their similarities didn’t go on though. Kübler and Koblet couldn’t have been any more different to look at on the bike. Kübler, older by six years, had a pointy nose and bony face while his riding style was clunky and sluggish. Koblet pedaled effortlessly over all terrain and always with perfect hair to complement his boyish good looks and playful smile. He always carried a comb and bottle of aftershave with him while racing and would use both before crossing the line while blowing kisses to any girls in his vicinity. He soon gained the nicknames ‘Le pédaleur de charme’ and ‘Beautiful Hugo’.

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Giro 100. The Cycling Capital Of The World

Biagio Cavanna and Fausto Coppi

Today’s stage starts in Castellania, the birthplace of Il Campionissimo (Champion of Champions) Fausto Coppi. He was born in September 1919 just a few months after Costante Girardengo, known as Campionissimo no.1, won his first Giro d’Italia. The fact that Girardengo comes from Novi Ligure only a few kilometers away makes this area highly significant in the history of Italian and world cycling. But perhaps both riders wouldn’t have been able to reach the heights they without a third character from this otherwise unassuming little area on the Piedmont and Liguria border.

Biagio Cavanna, born in Novi Ligure in 1893 was a boxer and track cyclist turned trainer and masseuse whose reputation reached legendary and even mythical status. Based in Novi Ligure throughout his life he built up stable of riders, champions and gregari alike mentoring them in all things from training to sleeping. Cavanna was a guru much like the Maharishi but instead of rich hippies going on a pilgrimage to seek his blessing and find themselves it was poor young men travelling from all over Italy, wanting to escape the drudgery of a lifetime working in the fields or factories, hoping Cavanna would accept them as  cyclists of merit. And just like the yogi claimed transcendental power it seemed like ‘The Wizard of Novi’ held magic in his hands as he got to work at his massage table.

Cavanna’s relationship with his riders was similar to the master-disciple relationship in a religious sect. He was an all or nothing type of trainer who demanded strict discipline and obedience. The riders would be woken up before five every morning for coffee and bread and then get sent off on a 200 km ride, partly timed and partly riding as a group. This happened no matter the weather, Cavanna’s philosophy was: ride each and every day. After the riders came back he would check their muscles to see if they had ridden all the way and hard enough, which they usually did as he was prone to fly into terrible fits of rage. Each evening all the riders and their master would sit together at a large table to eat and inevitably the conversation turned to cycling. They all literally lived and ate cycling. After the meal everyone was expected to have an early night and it would be a rare occurrence for a young rider to sneak out late at night to have some fun as Cavanna would have found about it from one of his spies in the small town and he was even known to knock on doors late in the evening to make sure everyone was tucked up in bed. He was so strict that even the focused Costante Girardengo, Cavanna’s first star pupil, who abstained from sex around races found his creeping around town checking up on what he was doing to be too much at times.

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Giro 100. Tappa, And The Toughest Giro.

Luigi Ganna and Carlo Durando on Sestriere in the 1914 Gito d’Italia.

Today’s stage of the Giro travels between Reggio Emilia and Tortona stretching for 162 km. The length is a little below the average of a typical stage in the race these days and and quite a bit shorter than this years longest stage which was yesterdays at 237 km. That distance though would be considered short in the first edition of the race. Since then the formula of the Giro, in terms of the number and length of stages, has been tinkered about with. In general there are now more but shorter stages. More is being done to make the days interesting and varied rather than planning the route in terms of getting from one city to the next. It took a while to get to what we are used to today, 21 stages of varying length but nothing much more than 250 km and about 3500 km in total.

The very first stage of the Giro d’Italia was a mammoth 397 km slog between Milan and Bologna and stages in excess of 300 km were the norm in the formative years of the race. The finishing time of that first ever stage was 14 hours 6 minutes and 15 seconds and the average speed was 28 km/hr which is not bad considering how uncomfortable it must have been on those early racing bikes going over rough roads for so long. It must have been disheartening for the riders to know that the next stage was going to be 376 km.

Fortunately there were at least one rest day between stages back in the early Giri. There were also only 8 stages in 1909 but the total distance of 2447 km meant an average stage length of 305 km. In 1911 the number of stages had gone up to 12 and so did the overall distance. At 3530 km it was as long as this years centenary edition which has 21 stages.

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Giro 100. Alfonsina Strada.

After an undulating start to today’s stage with two categorised climbs the route heads north towards Bologna before swinging west to join the SS9 towards Modena. Instead of staying on the state highway though the course takes a detour through the town of Castelfranco Emilia before rejoining and finally ending in Reggio Emilia. The reason for this deviation in the one hundredth Giro is clear. Castelfranco Emilia is the birthplace of Alfonsina Strada who in 1924 became the only woman to ever ride the Giro d’Italia.

The 1924 race took place during a period of hostility between riders, teams and the organisers. Some of the stars of the day wanted appearance money from their teams simply to ride the Giro, as well as the usual prize money. The teams agreed but insisted that the money should come from the organisers of the race and not them. Not wanting to look soft and encourage future demands the organisers point blank refused all appeals for such payments. After getting their rebuff the top riders, and consequently their teams, decided they would boycott the race. They hopped to show the Giro that it wouldn’t be able to cope without them.

To deal with this problem the organisers decided they would open up registration to individual riders instead of teams saying they would pay for their food and accommodation during the Giro though the racers wouldn’t have any help from team cars. Some of the top riders not involved in the dispute didn’t fancy those conditions but this opened up the way for some lesser known riders to enter.

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