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”.


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