The Maglia Rosa has been the striking symbol worn by the leader of the Giro d’Italia since 1931. In 1946 the organisers decided it was time bring out a second jersey which was to be worn by the ‘leader’ of a separate contest within the Giro. It wasn’t given, as you might expect, to the rider winning the mountains or points classification. The climbers competition has run since 1933 but there was no leaders jersey until 1974 when the Spaniard José Manuel Fuente was the first to wear the green maglia verde (It is now the blue maglia azzurra). He wore it through the whole race so also became the first to win it. The points competition was first run in 1958 then disappeared till 1966 and in 1967 the first maglia rosso (red jersey) was worn by Giorgio Zancanaro and eventually won by the then reigning Tour of Flanders champion Dino Zandegù. (In 1970 the maglia rosso became the maglia ciclamino which was mauve. It went back to red in 2010 but the maglia ciclamino returns this year).
The new jersey which arrived in 1946 was black and it was awarded to the man who was placed last at the Giro d’Italia. The colour of the jersey was chosen as it was a gloomy alternative to the leaders striking pink but there was also a possible political undertone to it. The 1946 race was the first edition since the Second World War. Fascism had been defeated and the fascist uniform, the black shirt, was something that no longer commanded respect, it was to be ridiculed. Those wearing black shirts were no longer the leaders at the top, they were the losers. The race director Vincenzo Torriani was known to have anti-fascist sympathies which may explain the colour but his reason for creating the icon of the black jersey was as much to do with marketing as anything else. Race fans would hang around the stage end for a lot longer to catch a sight of the black jersey coming in, perhaps spending a little money as they did so.
Another man who spotted the opportunities that the Maglia Nera brought was a rider called Luigi Malabrocca. The black jersey competition brought cash prizes and soon cycling fans started taking an interest in it. Money and fame were there for the taking so Malabrocca decided to become the first rider to try and ‘win’ last place. Malabrocca is an unusual name and considering his eye for a opportunity you could be forgiven for thinking he made it up. It ran nicely off the tongues of the radio commentators and if you break down his name Mala is similar to the Italian word for ill and brocca sounds like brocco a word used to describe someone who is bad at something.
Malabrocca didn’t have much competition in the first two black jersey editions. He had easy ‘victories’, in 1947 he finished 1 hour 14 minutes behind the second last rider, and had time to enjoyed himself. He would stop during the stages and have a drink or meal, usually paid for by one of his increasing legions of fans and, of course, he would be racking up the prize money.
He would confess though that it was often a lonely and solitary business. In that 1947 he took over 120 hours to complete the race and much of that would be on his own far behind the cavalcade and only small pockets of fans to cheer him on.
Trying to lose presented Malabrocca with plenty of problems to overcome too. Apart from making sure he beat the time cut each day there were things he had to deal with himself with no help from mechanics or teammates. He would have to sort out punctures and any other mechanical mishaps with his own hands, there wasn’t the opportunity to benefit from slipstream and if he had a hunger knock there would be no team car to help out. Malabrocca had to be mentally strong to finish last but also had to be a pretty strong rider.
1948 saw the closest competition yet and showed just how good you had to be to succeed. Aldo Bini ‘won’ by finishing only 7 minutes 52 seconds slower than Valeriano Zannazi. Bini had previously won five stages at the Giro, the Giro di Lombardia and had even worn the pink jersey for 4 days in 1936.
In 1949 Malabrocca was back and would take part in an epic duel with a new challenger Sante Carollo. Various tactics were employed in the quest for black. The riders would puncture their own tires on occasion and during one stage Carollo ‘broke’ his bike and finished the stage on a borrowed kids bike. Carollo wore two huge watches to make sure he got to the finish within the time cut and Malabrocca had a relative who was a policeman and could inform him of when he needed to cross the line. The best way of trying to finish last though was to simply hide. Nip into a restaurant and wait for your rival, thinking they are last, to pass while having a nice meal was Malabrocca’s favourite ploy. The riders would hide in crowds and bushes and Malabrocca was even discovered by a confused peasant wondering what a cyclist was doing in his water tank. In the end the younger and perhaps wiser Carollo won the duel by over 2 hours and Malabrocca decided to abandon the Maglia Nera competition and concentrate on cyclocross, winning the Italian Championships twice.
The classification ended in 1951. Many of the top riders saw it as embarrassment but perhaps they were just jealous of the fame and money that the winners got. There were also complaints from time keepers and commissaires who were getting tired of waiting every day for the black jersey to come in. The final winner was Giovanni Pinarello who went on to form a well known bicycle company the following year.
I got most of the information for this article from John Foot’s brilliant book Pedalare! Pedalare!