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.
The longest ever stage was the third one of the 1914 edition which ran from Lucca to Rome. It measured a total of 430 km and was won by Costante Girardengo. The race that year is considered to be one of the toughest challenges in cycling history. The shortest stage of the eight that year was 329 km and the average stage length was 395 km. The shear length of the stages were not the only thing which made it difficult. All but one would be considered a high mountain day these days. (Stages weren’t classified as such until later in the race’s history). The first day eased the riders into the race gently by sending them over La Serra and Sestriere but it is the sixth stage between Bari and L’Aquila which was the toughest of them all. 428 km long and containing five tough climbs it took the stage winner Luigi Lucotti 19 hours and 20 minutes to complete with Eberardo Pavesi rounding out the top 10 a further 3 hours back. Many of the riders abandoned the Giro that day including the race leader Giuseppe Azzini who was found the next day sleeping in the barn of a country house, though he may just as easily been hiding. The next and penultimate stage only had eight riders complete it. It took almost 18 hours to complete but the first seven rolled in together with only 41 seconds separating them. They seemed to have thought enough is enough. The eighth and final day seemed to reinforce this idea as the eight remaining riders stuck together all day helping each other reach the finish rather than racing each other (1st and second were separated by nearly 2 hours but there was ‘only’ 7 minutes between 2nd and 3rd) and only 4 seconds separated the group after 429 km. The finishing time for the winner Alfonso Calzolari was just over 135 hours and the average speed 23.4 km/hr is perhaps unsurprisingly the slowest in Giro history.
The photo of Calzolari at the end of the race shows a haunted looking man exuding relief rather than elation.