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H E R B I E

S Y K E S

MAGLIA ROSA Triumph and tragedy at the Giro d’Italia

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Contents Foreword 5 The Red Devil 7 Giro d’Italia 13 1914 And All That 21 Campionissimo 29 Giuanin 35 A Trumpet Blower from Cittiglio 43 The Human Locomotive 53 L’Uomo Di Ferro 65 The Race for Trieste 73 Orfeo 85 On Passo Stelvio 101 The Third Man 119 The Angel of the Mountains 127 Tino Coletto is Coming to Tea… 133 The Stage of the Century 153 The New Fausto Coppi 161 Merckxism 187 The Worst of Times 207 Viva l’Italia 223 The Saviour of the Maglia Rosa 235 Moser – at last 245 The Perfect Crime 253 Organised Crime 265 The Pirate 277 Dopatissimi 287 No More Heroes 297 E Quindi? 307 Duty Now for the Future 319 Winners and statistics 332 Bibliography and acknowledgements 336

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Maglia Rosa

A seminal day at the Giro; Andy Hampsten flies down the Gavia Š Olycom

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Foreword

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eedless to say I greatly enjoyed the six giri I rode. I was fortunate enough to meet many of the racers who had preceded me, and who remained a part of the Giro family. The great Gino Bartali drove himself around the entire race, and loved nothing more than talking to the racers. I was thrilled to be able to listen to his stories as he evoked the golden age of the sport in Italy. I am eternally grateful to my parents for my racing career, and for the timing of it. My first Giro was in 1985, when I joined the American 7-Eleven team as a hired hand on a one-month contract. The Giro was my first race as a pro’, the biggest chance I was ever going to have to make it as a cyclist. I was the climber on the team, my instructions apparently straightforward: ‘Try to get in the top ten on GC, and win a stage if you can.’ I was living the dream… Pro’ racing back then was more nationalistic than it is now, and as an American I needed to adapt quickly to each country I raced in. None was more fun to discover than Italy. The Giro is everything for Italian racers, and in the mid-eighties they cared not one iota for any other races, the Tour de France included. Italian professional cyclists realise that the Giro offers them a chance to become national heroes and, more importantly, to become idols in their hometown. They can talk to any girl, gain respect from everyone, get free cappuccino at the bar, jump the queue at the butcher’s... They’re brought up on stories of Coppi, Bartali, Magni and Guerra, and they want nothing more than to emulate them. Italy isn’t a large country, but its cultural divisions are massive; the north and south often seem to exist in isolation. Most racers are from the north (and most of the Giro takes place there), but I always loved the culture and people of the south. As a foreigner I always appreciated the industrial north, but my rationale for going to Italy lay overwhelmingly in the warmth of the culture-soaked south. Most editions of the Giro trek south for a week or so, then head back to the mountains and big cities of the north. Italian racers hate the dry heat of the south, and are filled with dread about their southern cousins. For all that, the crowds down there are huge, the Giro a celebration of local cultures and values. The spectators at the Giro are tifosi, loosely translated as fan, with a firm emphasis on ‘fanatical’. In Italy the hours spent waiting for the Giro aren’t wasted, because the race is above all a social gathering, building inevitably towards a crescendo of voices. Each is determined to ensure that their corner of the peninsular loves the Corsa Rosa. The effect on the riders is chilling. Racing a bike is the most exciting thing I have ever done, and the tifosi never failed to provide the stimulus to push the limits. Often as a Grand Tour cyclist your body is screaming at you for sleep, not to push yourself on in the hope of achieving glory. And yet doing precisely that is what grand tours are all about. In that sense racing in Italy, with the tifosi as a backdrop, makes all the difference in the world. They provide a compelling reason for the rider to dig deeper, to look for an opportunity to attack, to make a hero of himself. The Tour de France is a ‘bigger’ race than the Giro. It has more media, more commotion, more people making demands on the cyclist’s waning energy. What it doesn’t have is the tifosi. The Giro d’Italia is all about a unique passion for bike racing. It’s also about enjoying Europe’s best hospitality and food, and her most generous spirits. I think you will love the racing history this book will take you through. Andy Hampsten 5

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“La storia è un po’ lunga, ma credo che valga la pena di raccontarla tutta. È una storia complessa e, per certi aspetti, interessante sia come documento umano, sia come rivelazione di tanti retroscena…” “The story is a little long, but I believe that the telling is worth the effort. It’s complex and, in some respects, interesting; both as a human document and in revealing much of what goes on behind the scenes…” Gino Bartali

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The Red Devil

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Giovanni Gerbi, the first professional cyclist Š Olycom 7

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hirty two-year-old Eugenio Camillo Costamagna, the director of La Tripletta, thought himself in possession of an extremely good idea. Rather than launching yet another cycling magazine into an already overcrowded marketplace, why not produce a newspaper covering all the sports, ergo attracting all the sports fans? Common sense really…

Over an espresso he pitched the idea to his friend Eliso Rivera, editor of Il Ciclista. Liking it a great deal, Rivera said he wanted in, and thus the Gazzetta dello Sport, a four paged biweekly, was conceived. The perfect launch date, they reckoned, would be April 3, 1896, three days in advance of the first modern Olympics, held in Athens. The first edition, perfectly timed and printed on vibrant green newsprint, would sell upwards of 20,000 copies. Buoyed by their astonishing success, they would preview the weekend’s sporting action on a Friday, then on the Monday provide detailed accounts of cycling, rowing and boxing, the nation’s favourite sports. As demand grew they added further pages and featured athletics and weightlifting, among others. ‘Foot-ball’ wouldn’t feature for a further two years. A curious sport involving the kicking of a pig’s bladder around a field, it was pretty much exclusively practised by a group of Genoa-based English expatriates and eccentrics. At 6ft 3in Costamagna was a giant of a man, in every sense. As a 17-year-old he’d assumed the nome d’arte ‘Magno’ and had set sail for the Orient, there to compose poetry and study the stars. When not driving the Gazzetta forward commercially with the force of his personality, and creatively with his expansive prose, he would practise the violin and attend classical music recitals. In 1898 Eliso Rivera, who was a militant socialist, was imprisoned for suspected involvement in the riots sparked by the great Milanese famine. Costamagna started casting about for a replacement and, in Tullo Morgagni, found one right under his nose. Creative and extrovert, Morgagni was brimful of good ideas. He started to use the Gazzetta to promote the burgeoning market for spectator sports and, as such, to generate additional advertising revenues. They experimented with yellow newsprint, then white, before settling, in January 1899, on pink. Organised cycle racing had been introduced to Italy in 1870 – a 33 kilometre time trial between Florence and Pistoia. Six years later eight masochists would be fool enough to race over the white roads and cart tracks between the two great cities of the north, Milan and Turin. The winner, one Paolo Magretti, would set out at 4am and would finish in the late afternoon, his average speed a breakneck 13.3kph. Shortly after a Frenchman named Sergent (or an Englishman named Lawson, as you will) invented the bicycle chain, then a Scottish vet, John Boyd Dunlop, sold the manufacturing rights to his pneumatic tyre. Mass production commenced in Belfast in 1890 as bicycle races began in earnest throughout western Europe. In Milan, forward thinking bike maker Edoardo Bianchi reduced the diameter of the front wheel and adopted Sergent’s chain idea, giving Italians their first glimpse of the ‘safety bicycle’. In 1895 the Queen consulate Margherita, a huge sports fan, sent for Bianchi. Informing him that she rather fancied a go at this cycling caper, she had him make her a bike with a crystal chain cover, and teach her to ride the thing in the royal gardens at Monza. All of which meant that Bianchi, framebuilder to the discerning, got to add the royal seal to his stationery. More importantly, though, Queen Margherita was an enormously popular figure (so much so that they named a pizza after her) and as such the bicycle became the must have accessory; a status symbol for the aspirant classes. Now Bianchi and his like couldn’t build the things quickly enough. As well to do Italians saddled up, framebuilders became fabulously, obscenely rich. 8

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The Red Devil

Tullo Morgagani (left) and Armando Cougnet © Olycom

The early years of the new century found Italy, a nation of peasant farmers, in transition. In 1871, ten years on from unification, the Fréjus tunnel had dissected the Alps to the west of Turin, and now a similar marvel of engineering at Semplon connected the great lakes north of Milan with Switzerland. A nationalised railway system linked Bolzano in the north to Naples in the south, affording freight (and the moneyed few in a population of 34 million) the option of long-distance travel for the first time. The second half of the 19th century had seen some five million Italians emigrate, but now the north west, particularly Turin, Milan and Genoa – the so-called Golden Triangle of commercial powers – enjoyed unprecedented material growth. Though united politically with their northern brethren, the impoverished denizens of the south believed themselves ever more isolated culturally and economically. As the starving, arid badlands of Sicily, Puglia and Basilicata continued to haemorrhage huge numbers to North America, Argentina and northern Europe, so Italy came to resemble three countries in one. The evolved north and the untameable, unemployed south were united only by their mutual loathing of Rome. Heavily taxed northerners felt cheated to be obliged by the capital to support their feckless southern cousins. Those in the south, outraged by the imposition of a government that didn’t represent them, rejected the very idea of a united Italian state. Elsewhere the Vatican urged Catholics to not involve themselves in politics, and women were still deemed unfit to vote. At the 1904 elections the governance of Italy was decided by three per cent of its citizenship. Cycle sport – free to watch, colourful and dazzlingly quick – started winning the hearts and minds of northern Italians and, slowly but surely, of their cousins further south. In Milan in particular, new events seemingly sprung up every weekend as they raced south to Florence, west to Alessandria and Asti, as far east as Verona. They created the Tour of Piedmont, another 15-hour epic for the new adventurers of the road to get stuck into, while in deepest, darkest Tuscany an insane 500 kilometre single-day marathon, the King’s Cup, captured the public imagination. In 1905 a new Milanese paper, Gli Sports, organised a bike race in the hope of poaching Gazzetta readers. Now an embattled Tullo Morgagni engaged Giovanni Gerbi, the world’s first professional cyclist, to help in developing an event of their own. The 230 kilometre Giro di Lombardia race would to be run off the second weekend in November, and would become known as the ‘World Championship of Autumn’. Fifty five took part as Gerbi triumphed following a 199 kilometre lone breakaway. His average speed, a shade under 25kph, left Italians awestruck that such a feat might be possible. 9

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Giovanni Gerbi, the first genuine superstar of world cycling, was an innkeeper’s son from the Piedmontese town of Asti. Home to the region’s rich wine making heritage, Asti hosts Italy’s oldest Palio, the great, insane barebacked horse race first held in 1275. Asti’s history is one of almost relentless feudal bloodletting and the first Palio took place around the city walls of neighbouring Alba, days after the Astigiani had conquered her for the umpteenth time. As a boy Gerbi, the Astigiano archetype, was, quite simply, trouble. A destructive, wayward wrong’un, he was expelled from school aged 12 for ‘persistent brawling’. His father handed him a bicycle in a last-ditch attempt to find an outlet for his aggression, to keep him out of mischief. The boy, mesmerised by the beauty of the thing and by his own brute strength, fell head over heels in love. Bullying the machine around the vineyards, he found that cycling suited him perfectly. It suited the local community too; gave the horrible, spotty little monster an outlet for his genetic rage… Three years later, set to work in a weapons store (surely an odd choice of career for an obnoxious, testosterone fuelled teenager apparently predisposed to acts of violence), Gerbi had saved up enough to buy a racing bike. Wearing his trademark crimson jersey he steamed his way to the regional championship and so they christened him, appropriately enough, The Red Devil. He’d carry the nickname throughout an extraordinary career. In 1901, reckless with ambition, he left little Asti for the great metropolis of Milan. As the good people of Asti breathed a huge collective sigh of relief, Gerbi immediately found work in a bakery, then set about becoming the undisputed ruler of Italian cycling. Milan at the turn of the century was the epicentre of Italian cycling, a hotbed of talent. Gerbi, Luigi Ganna, Eberardo Pavesi and Carlo Galetti, keen to escape the poverty and privations of the slums, blazed a trail towards professionalism. Aged 17 Gerbi won the King’s Cup and finished fifth in the 540 kilometre Corsa Nazionale, the precursor to the National Championship. Done now with baking bread for ungrateful Milanese housewives, he became the first genuine professional cyclist. He would meticulously study the route before each race and would make ready by training furiously on the climbs. In 1903, riding for money in the colours of the bicycle manufacturer Maino, he astounded the cycling world by winning Milan-Turin, his advantage over half an hour. The following year he became the first Italian to ride the Tour de France. He was well placed as the race left Saint-Étienne, home of second stage winner Antoine Fauré. On the Col de la République, however, Fauré’s club-wielding fans set about Gerbi in the misguided belief he was Maurice Garin, the great French champion. The Red Devil escaped, but with two broken fingers his Tour was over. He wouldn’t be rushing back any time soon… In October 1906, Costamagna sold half his stake in the Gazzetta to Armando Cougnet, the paper’s cycling specialist turned administrator. Costamagna had been known to holiday in Sanremo, a swanky Ligurian coastal town. With its temperate climate and beautiful liberty architecture, Sanremo was establishing itself as the destination for the great and the good, a byword for exotica. The town had recently finished construction of a lavish casino, the first of its kind in Italy, and was keen to garner publicity. In conversation with Costamagna, the mayor had let it be known that he was prepared to offer substantial prize money in return for the exposure a great sporting event would bestow. The Gazzetta set to organising a car rally; far more sophisticated than a bicycle race and as such more appropriate. Run over two stages from Milan, it was an unmitigated disaster, only two of the 31 starters making the distance. Back to the drawing board. By now cycling was so popular that Cougnet, recognising enormous profit-making potential, offered Sanremo a second bite at the cherry – this time using matter of fact, reliable bicycles. The mayor acquiesced but only on condition that they could attract the French stars and by extension fill the 10

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French press with reports of the town’s splendour. Four transalpini signed on and Milan-Sanremo, to this day still Italy’s biggest single-day event, was born. Given the rich pickings on offer, 33 riders rocked up under a deluge in the capital. Gerbi’s Bianchi team offered him two and a half lire per kilometre in the event that he won. Though no great scholar, he was bright enough to realise that, with a kilo of bread costing 40 centesimi, 720 lire was a monumental amount of money. As the racers blasted through Pavia, young Giovanni Rossignoli – quite new to this cycling business – found his way blocked by an irresistible force, his mother. She’d borrowed an umbrella and insisted, not unreasonably, that he take it along. Towards the finish Gerbi, having ridden alone for 200 kilometres, was caught by Gustave Garrigou, the French hardman. The Devil, fast running out of steam, sought to buy time by engaging his cofugitive in a little transalpine chit chat. A smart move even by Gerbi’s standards; he knew he’d not a prayer in a two-up sprint with Garrigou. Meanwhile Gerbi’s new Bianchi team-mate, Lucien ‘Petit-Breton’ Mazan, thundered across the gap to join the fun. Petit-Breton, it transpired, was on an outrageous 15 lire per kilometre for the win, his earning potential bolstered by the Sanremo Tourist Board. And so now Giovanni Gerbi put his thinking cap on. With Armando Cougnet indisposed – his car had broken down – big hearted Gerbi, purely in the spirit of Italo-French entente, shoved Garrigou off his bike, enabling Petit-Breton to steal a contentious victory in a shade over 11 hours. Rossignoli, presumably minus his mum’s umbrella, rolled in 12th almost three hours later as one of the 14 desperados who managed to wade through the mud to the finish. Garrigou appealed to the jury – without success, since the race, and in particular Gerbi’s antics, generated huge public interest. Everyone a winner (except Garrigou): Petit-Breton confirmed his class, the French their sporting and ethical superiority, Gerbi his reputation for chicanery. He wouldn’t let it bother him unduly. He’d persuaded Petit-Breton to split his winnings 50/50 in exchange for the nudge he’d given Garrigou. Milan-Sanremo, later dubbed La Primavera – the race of the springtime – was a spectacular triumph. In 1907 Gerbi would ‘win’ a second Giro di Lombardia. So popular was he that his latest conquest saw Gazzetta break the magic 100,000 circulation barrier for the first time. That afternoon, however, it was revealed that The Red Devil had been up to his old tricks. First he reached a gentleman’s agreement with two associates, Luigi Chiodi and the Swiss, Henri Rheinwald. He had them follow his wheel until he attacked, whereupon they simply watched him go. Worse still, he’d detailed them to create pandemonium within the bunch as he sped off up ahead. Having extended his lead to five minutes, he proceeded to cross a closed railway line, which a group of his associates ‘persuaded’ the signalman to keep locked. When the rest arrived they were detained by Gerbi’s supporters club, just for good measure. Later on, as Garrigou threatened to bridge across, his progress was impeded by a liberal sprinkling of nails. The best, however, was still to come. Seventy kilometres from home, Gerbi happened to catch up with three of his training partners, all of them very good, and all, miraculously, headed back to Milan along the same percorso. As such he was able to enjoy an untroubled afternoon in their wake and to gallop home some 40 minutes before poor Garrigou. When on the Monday it was announced that Gerbi was declassified for cheating and banned for two years, the Gazzetta office was besieged by an angry, newspaper burning mob demanding his reinstatement. Cycling, they claimed, was as much a game of stealth as physical endurance, and Gerbi had shown initiative and guile, prerequisites both for a champion racer. Unsavoury it may have been, but Giovanni Gerbi did wonders for business. Like all great sportsmen he polarised opinion and, better still, he shifted a hell of a lot of newspapers. The ban was reduced and the Tour of Lombardy took its place alongside Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix and Bordeaux-Paris among Europe’s most prestigious races. 11

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“Lo sport è necessario a tutti.” “Sport is a necessity for everybody.” Gino Bartali

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The ‘road’ to Chieti © Original author

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n the white hot morning of August 5, 1908, 28-year-old Tullo Morgagni, working at his desk at the Gazzetta, received an unexpected visitor. His good friend Angelo ‘Micio’ Gatti, former commercial manager of Bianchi and now owner of the new Atala bicycle factory, blustered into the office. Gatti breathlessly explained that he had it on good authority that the Corriere della Sera, a rival newspaper, was in talks with the Touring Club of Italy and Bianchi, his erstwhile employer. Their idea, he claimed, was to replicate the Tour de France, to create a cycling race taking in all of Italy, a ‘Giro d’Italia’. The Touring Club already ran a similar event for motor cars and the organisational structure was fairly well advanced. So if the Gazzetta wanted to get the drop on them they’d do well to get cracking sooner rather than later. Gatti had fallen out in the grand manner with his former bosses at Bianchi. He therefore explained that he’d like nothing more than to construct a team to take part and to help in any way possible to get the project off the ground. Morgagni immediately posted two identically worded telegrams: UNAVOIDABLE NECESSITY TO LAUNCH THE GIRO D’ITALIA IMMEDIATELY. RETURN TO MILAN. TULLO. He had them dispatched to Costamagna, who was composing poetry in Mondovì, and to Cougnet, holidaying in Venice. The following morning the three convened at the office, and on August 7 the paper dedicated its front cover to the announcement of the race.

GIRO D’ITALIA 3,000 KILOMETRES, 25,000 LIRE OF PRIZES THE GAZZETTA DELLO SPORT, PURSUANT WITH THE GLORY OF ITALIAN CYCLING, ANNOUNCES THAT NEXT SPRING WILL SEE THE FIRST ‘GIRO D’ITALIA’, ONE OF THE BIGGEST, MOST AMBITIOUS RACES IN INTERNATIONAL CYCLING. Costamagna’s headline piece spoke of “an invincible wave of enthusiasm, carried on the wind”. Meanwhile Cougnet, already tasked with running Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Lombardy, now found himself charged with duplicating the success of the Tour de France in his homeland of Italy: “Launching it was the easy part. We drafted an approximate outline of the stages, and proudly proclaimed the Giro would be the richest bike race in the world. I wasn’t particularly worried about the technicalities of running it either. We already ran bike races and I knew the organisers of the Tour de France, having followed the races of 1906 and 1907. Financially though I was absolutely terrified. I was 28 years old and I had a young family to support, so if the thing collapsed it would threaten the newspaper and all our livelihoods. “To put 25,000 lire into perspective, Costamagna got 150 lire per month, while nominally I got 120, and we considered ourselves very, very well paid. Sometimes we got a good deal less, depending on circulation and advertising revenues; ours was a hand-to-mouth business. But our great project was announced and we resolved to make it happen, by whatever means. We wrote about it in every issue, effectively begging for sponsorship, and the more we wrote the more the public became interested. Costamagna was right about the tidal wave but somehow the money just wouldn’t come in. When we still didn’t have any by September we started to realise we were in big, big trouble. We were so panicked that we announced a suspension of the Giro project, 14

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and went back to our work. We were glad of a break from the stress but saddened that our grand plan looked for all the world like it would never materialise…” Primo Bongrani was an influential banker, a Gazzetta shareholder and secretary of the Italian Olympic Committee. Reading, upon his return from the London Games, that the Giro was in peril, he offered immediately to take time out to put some weight behind the fundraising. Once the money started to flow, he assured them, there would be no stopping it. First he persuaded Corriere della Sera to stump up 3,000 lire on the pretext that, as saviours of the Gazzetta’s floundering project, they would garner excellent publicity while simultaneously occupying the moral high ground. Next Vincenzo Lancia, the motor car manufacturer, pitched in with 1,000 lire, as did the Sanremo Casino. The UVI, the Italian Cycling Federation, provided a further 1,000, and so it went on. In January, Italy’s royal family, the House of Savoy, offered a gold medal to the winner “if we can be convinced that the initiative is serious and worthwhile”. Convinced they duly were and with the royal seal of approval bestowed, Italian industrialists started falling over themselves to sponsor the event. On March 26 the paper published a definitive eight-stage route map covering 2,500 kilometres – less than they’d envisaged but a good deal more than the man in the Italian street could begin to conceive of. The Giro d’Italia was up and running. They enlisted the world’s first travel agent, Thomas Cook, to sell the adventure to wealthy sports fans. The super rich would pay a meaty 205 lire to follow the stages in one of the eight Lancia cars provided for journalists, mechanics and race jury members. Costamagna ramped up circulation as Italians, even those not predisposed to following sports, fell in love with the idea of a bicycle race from Milan to Naples, over the Apennines and back again. Now the riders – Gerbi, the Milanese bricklayer Luigi Ganna, the great Roman sprinter Dario Beni – became household names. They were on their way… The first Giro, awash with prizes, attracted a truly international field. In addition to the Italians there were French (among them the Tour winners Petit-Breton and Trousselier), an Austrian, even a Luxembourger. The eight stages would be run off over 17 gruelling days with the Gazzetta, now printed every other day, publishing the gory details the following morning. Just before sunrise on May 13, 1909, a massive crowd, estimated by a hysterical Gazzetta to be almost the entire population of Milan, gathered in the city’s Via Monza. In reporting the partenza, Costamagna would come over all hyperbolic: “What an unforgettable night! All of Milan stayed up to watch, cheering and stamping their feet. What great joy! Long live Italian cycling!” At 2.53am the flag was waved and 127 moustachioed lunatics made off, destination Bologna, the small matter of 397 kilometres to the south east. For all that Gerbi, Petit-Breton and their like were richly decorated stars, the vast majority of the starters were unemployed and hungry. They’d absolutely no intention of making a career of cycling, given that by common consent it was a ridiculous, masochistic undertaking. Most of them had borrowed bikes in the hope of earning enough simply to feed themselves and their loved ones for a time. A Giro finish brought with it a minimum of 300 lire, money enough to put bread on the table for several months. And so they set off, armed with wine, water, grappa, tools, bread, tyres, a panoply of ‘stimulants’ and, bizarrely, photo ID. Cycling was already establishing its noble tradition of attracting bandits and ne’er-do-wells, and one of the oldest tricks in the book was the train ride. The riders would stop at the station and have a helper take their place on the bike while they bought a ticket to the next stop. With this in mind the Gazzetta, one step ahead of the game, had set up checkpoints along the way to ensure competitors did the full stint. A motley crew they may have been but to a 15

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man they were as stubborn as mules and as hard as nails. They rode fixed-gear steel bicycles over massive, callous distances, and did so with no freewheel. On the descents they just pedalled the things, each weighing upwards of 15kg, with the brakes applied. The first drama took place before the race had reached the city limits. A little girl stepped into the road, bringing down a group of riders. Among them were Milan-Sanremo winner Ganna and, you guessed it, The Red Devil. Ganna was fortunate – he got straight back on – Gerbi less so. Three hours of painstaking DIY repairs later, he had his machine sufficiently patched up to enable his long, knee crunching pursuit of the pack to commence. Up ahead 20-year-old Beni, riding for Bianchi, sprinted to victory in double quick time, a little over 14 hours. Not that the time was at all relevant. The outcome would be determined according to the penalty points system adopted by the Tour de France following the farcical second edition. (The timekeeping had failed so disastrously that the first four had been disqualified for cheating as the riders traded identities at stage finishes. By the time the various miscreants had been rounded up and summarily ejected from the race, only 15 were deemed fit for classification. A bemused teenager named Henri Cornet found himself crowned winner of the Tour de France, his winning margin apparently two hours and 16 minutes.) As stage winner in Bologna, Beni ‘earned’ only one point, while second placed Pesce took two and so on and so forth down to 50th, with the stragglers each awarded 51 penalty points. Giovanni Cuniolo, the Tour of Lombardy winner and hot favourite, won stage two into Chieti before crashing out two days later. On the train home he spotted a sheepish looking Camillo Carcano, caked in mud and still in full race attire. Carcano claimed that he too had abandoned and was heading home. His civvies had been stolen, he said, and he’d nothing left but the clothes he stood up in. This struck Cuniolo as a little odd given that the train they were on was headed south west towards the stage finish in Naples, while Carcano’s accent was unmistakably northern Italian. The following day Carcano found himself on another train, this one travelling emphatically north, having been cordially invited to leave the race. Stage four, an easy 228-kilometre trundle from Naples to Rome, saw Luigi Ganna and his tree trunk like thighs stamp their authority on the Giro. In claiming the first of his three wins in a trifling eight and a half hours he assumed the overall lead. Two days later he repeated the trick on the man-sized leg into Florence, 346 kilometres in a shade under 13 hours. So physically ruinous were the conditions that by the stage finishes they would be barely able to walk, let alone contemplate another day in the saddle. The alternate day method therefore suited the riders, who spent their rest days by turns gorging themselves and sleeping. By the conclusion of the race, young Beni, winner of the first and last stages, was so shattered that they carted him straight off to another bed for a fortnight, this one in a hospital. On the eve of the penultimate stage Ganna led second placed Carlo Galetti by just three points. When the leader punctured 75 kilometres from the finish, however, Galetti and five others attacked. Ganna, nicknamed The King of Mud, initially lost four minutes on the fugitives but caught up when a guard refused to open a railway crossing for the escapees. In Milan he finished third on the stage behind Beni and Galetti to seal a famous GC victory amid a near riot. Overall he accumulated just 25 points, his average speed a rapier like 27kph. Third overall with 40 points was another of Italy’s strong men, Giovanni Rossignoli; his aggregate time some 50 minutes quicker than that of Ganna. He would finish second again in the 1911 edition, his time on the road again over half an hour less than the overall victor. Rossignoli, the iron man of the Italian peloton, paid heavily for his inability to sprint – it cost him the Giro on two separate occasions. He would give up trying in 1927, aged 45. 16

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The ninth son of a farming family from the same village as one Benito Mussolini, Luigi Ganna had started his bricklaying career aged eight. He always claimed his principal reason for choosing it in preference to working the land was that the shorter working day, ten hours, afforded him more time to train. He’d finished third at his first professional race, the 1905 Tour of Lombardy, and had been astounded to receive the princely sum of 18 lire. His parents, sceptical about his choice of career, were dumbfounded. Eighteen lire? For riding a bike? Later he’d sign a contract with Bianchi worth 200 lire a month, which Atala trumped by adding a further 50. For his win at the 1909 Milan-Sanremo they paid him 1,450 and, by the time he’d finished totting up his earnings for the season, he had a whopping 24,000 lire. For winning the inaugural Giro d’Italia he got 5,300 lire, ten months’ wages for Tullo Morgagni. He promptly opened a bike factory. Some 42 years later another Ganna, this one a bicycle, would once more conquer the Giro. When Morgagni politely enquired how Ganna felt after such a breathtaking feat of endurance he replied, in broad Milanese dialect, that “Me brüsa el cü” – “My arse is on fire.” In light of the success of the inaugural Giro, the Gazzetta added two further stages in 1910. The aim was to bring sport to more of the third estate or, more specifically, to that of central and northern Italy. The economic and cultural wastelands of the untameable south – Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily – had to wait a little longer for the great race. Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot but in truth long considered the very cesspit of the peninsula, wouldn’t host the Giro until 1929. Elsewhere poor Sardinia, larger but even less evolved than neighbouring Sicily, would wait fully 50 years. The Gazzetta, with no commercial imperative and no distribution in the illiterate Passo della Cisa © Original author

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Mezzogiorno, chose instead to include the far northern corners of Italy; dreamy Mondovì to the west, Udine to the east. Thus the percorso was significantly extended, to 2,987 kilometres. In addition to the professional riders, the Giro featured the so called isolati – individuals riding for themselves, for bread and for board. Given the huge time gaps between the two groups the points format remained unchanged, much to the chagrin of the trade teams. Bianchi, having invested heavily in a talented bunch headed by Rossignoli, abandoned without obvious cause on the second stage. There followed a bizarre turn of events as the next day Gatti’s entire Atala team, Bianchi’s rival-in-chief, went down with diarrhoea amid a strong suspicion of foul play. Following a thorough investigation, the police station at Teramo declared that there had been no dirty tricks campaign. Rather they concluded that Ganna, the reigning champion and self-proclaimed champion chef of the Italian peloton, had poisoned his muckers with his sugo di pomodoro, his tomato sauce. All of which contrived to hand the initiative to another Milanese framebuilder, Legnano. They’d hired a bunch of French mercenaries headed by Petit-Breton. Depressingly, though, he snapped a fork and retired the following day, the first in a long, risible series of racing disasters to befall the Legnano team at the Giro. Thus The Squirrel, Carlo Galetti, deeply unattractive and deeply unpopular among cycling fans (they had him down as a wheel-sucker) won the Giro d’Italia for Atala. Carlo Galetti had been born in Milan’s canal side slum dwellings in 1882. Aged 11, he’d found work in a print works owned by the Azzini brothers, keen cyclists who would later participate in the inaugural Giro. The job afforded him ample time to hone his skills and pretty soon he was supplementing his income by winning copiously. Now he, Ganna and Eberardo Pavesi, close friends and training partners, became known as The Three Musketeers. In 1911 Bianchi paid Galetti a king’s ransom to switch camps, for now there was much more at stake than a mere bicycle race. Atala and Bianchi, the big two, were to go toe to toe later that summer for an even bigger prize, a contract to supply 63,000 folding bicycles to the Bersaglieri, the Italian military’s cycling regiment. The Giro would once more test the mettle and the metal of the two, as Bianchi claimed to have produced a bike under the magical 14kg barrier. Once more Galetti prevailed ahead of Rossignoli and Gerbi, and the contract was theirs. The Giro, its appeal boundless, celebrated 50 years of the Italian Republic by beginning and concluding in Rome. Again the route was extended, this time to 12 stages and a mind-boggling 3,500 kilometres and the race ventured into the Alps for the first time. Only 24 desperate souls hauled their ruined bodies to the finish. The athletes, the so called girini, were tasked with a truly monstrous undertaking. They were to climb, on bicycles, to Sestrière, 2,000 metres above sea level on the French border. Problem was that by the time they arrived it was snowing so heavily that the road had become a quagmire. The Giro’s great showpiece became a tortuous procession as, forced to dismount, they pushed their bikes over the top. On the penultimate stage to Naples the whole thing descended further into farce as the group containing Ganna, Gerbi and Galetti was charged by a herd of buffalo. The three incensed the crowd by arriving two hours down on the others. The Neapolitans, famously direct and evidently unaware of their near death experience, hurled insults and, worse still, rotten fruit. The foreigner Petit-Breton, riding for the new Fiat team and lying a close second, suffered his customary mechanical. His fancy new reversible rear wheel, with different sized sprockets on either side, snapped on a dirt road near Potenza. So much for innovation… By 1912 Italy was at war with the Ottoman Empire. (The country all but bankrupted itself in wresting control of Libya, using aerial bombs for the first time in military history.) The Gazzetta 18

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formulated a plan which it hoped would enable the peninsula’s soldiery to compete. A great many cyclists had found themselves conscripted to the Bersaglieri and the Giro, patriotic to the last, thought it a good idea to give them a morale boost. They settled on a team classification, as distinct to an individual one. Each squad would comprise four riders and, assuming they got round, the first three of them count towards the classification. The Bersaglieri regiments were invited to form teams of their own but the initiative, though well meaning, was woefully misguided. Everybody, very obviously, would choose to ride the Giro d’Italia in preference to risking his life in the horrendous dry heat of north Africa. ‘Expert’ bike racers emerged from all corners of the battlefield, waving their (invented) palmarès for all they were worth and, in so doing, undermining the unity of the regiments. The plan to include the Bersaglieri was hastily dropped and a single, symbolic military outfit, made up of four genuine bike racers, was invited. In the lead up to the race Gerbi famously tried to buy off Galetti. He offered him a sack load of cash to join his team as a gregario, a support rider. The Squirrel first agreed but, counselled by his great friend Pavesi, changed his mind at the last minute. He’d ride the Giro for Atala, alongside Pavesi, Ganna and Giovanni Micheletto, a posh kid turned bad nicknamed The Count of Sacile. Mortally offended, The Devil challenged Galetti to a duel – a 300-kilometre, 10,000 lire out and back time trial along the Tour of Lombardy route. Given that he didn’t have 10,000 lire to lose and that Gerbi was as mad as a box of frogs, Galetti refused to have anything to do with it. Now Gerbi stormed into the Gazzetta office demanding that they let it be known that Galetti was a fraud, a coward and a charlatan. Presented with a gift horse, the paper immediately emptied its pockets and the race of the century was officially on. The Devil set off first and an hour later the Squirrel was on his way as Italy held its collective breath. At the turnaround Gerbi led by five minutes but, compelled to play straight by the presence of the UVI commissaire in a following car, he started to lose ground. With nothing up his metaphorical sleeve he suffered like a dog in the big hills around Bergamo. Meanwhile Galetti, bawled at throughout by wife Vincenzina in a following car, couldn’t wait to make it back to Milan. He redoubled his efforts in the final third to eclipse Gerbi by 4’40”, for him a highly productive day’s racing; for the Devil nothing but drat and double drat. He’d have his revenge, he fumed, at the Giro… Only 54 riders (six trade teams, a bunch of cobbled together independent outfits and a team of soldiers) started the 1912 Giro. The soldiers, riding in the colours of bike maker Stucchi, had been forced to reshuffle at the last minute when one of their number was refused leave by an over zealous corporal. A telegram was sent to Tripoli requesting that Carlo Oriani, a 24-year-old former bike racer turned Bersagliere private from Milan, be returned immediately from the front. He made it in time and the Giro, shortened once more to eight stages, was on its way. In the event the race was as confusing for the riders as for the public. Worst of all, half of the peloton disappeared down the wrong road on the stage to Rome, predicating a riders’ mutiny which compelled Cougnet to annul the stage, pay them their fees for having ridden it, and to bolt another on to the end of the race. For the record it should be noted that Galetti, riding for Atala, won a third consecutive Giro, alongside Pavesi and Michelotto. The war ended on October 18 and nine days later a demobbed Carlo Oriani celebrated by winning the Tour of Lombardy. The following May he added a Giro to his palmarès, notable mainly for the fact that the team formula was jettisoned in favour of a return to the points system. On the farcical fifth stage to Bari, the great port city in Puglia, Pavesi was attacked by a dog. Poor Ganna fared even worse, disappearing down the wrong road for 85 kilometres. When finally he made it home he’d been in the saddle for over 20 hours. 19

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“Quelli che vanno in bici per mestiere sono meno accaniti di una volta…” “Those who ride a bike for a living are much less robust than back in the day...” Gino Bartali

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03

Unknown rider Š Original author

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B

y the autumn of 1913 Italy was to all intents and purposes bankrupt. Six years earlier a huge earthquake (and a consequent tsunami) had devastated Sicily and Calabria. At Messina alone 100,000 lost their lives and Italians contemplated the biggest, most expensive clean-up in European history. Next the war in Libya had spiralled out of control, further crippling an already moribund economy. Their families starving, angry workers went on strike, paralysing Florence, Brescia and Turin and visiting outright anarchy upon Palermo and Naples. Armando Cougnet had bought out Costamagna in 1911 and retained sole proprietorship of the Gazzetta. Cycle racing remained hugely popular but the fortunes of the business inevitably mirrored those of the newspaper buying public. Cougnet was sucked into the vortex. Sales seemingly in terminal decline, he found himself confronted with the very worst case scenario – sell up or go under. A cash rich publishing house named Sonzogno bought Cougnet out, and pumped money in. Costamagna was replaced as editor in chief, as a committee headed by Arturo Mercanti and Edgardo Longoni set about reviving the Gazzetta’s fortunes. Bristling with new ideas, Longoni first saw to it that the paper would be published daily. He reasoned that, in order for it to have a chance, reading Gazzetta need form part of the life quotidian of Italy’s literate 52 per cent. People started to buy it out of habit, whereupon a weekly magazine, the revolutionary Sport Illustrato, was launched. Next Longoni tasked Cougnet, retained as administrator, with reinventing the Giro. The brief, simple enough as he saw it, was to fire the public imagination as had the first race, back in 1909. Make it long, make it brutal, but most of all make it dramatic. Make it impossible to ignore, and above all give them a Giro they dare not miss. Oh, and reduce the running costs, we’re running a business here. Cougnet counted to ten, then resolved to give big mouth Longoni a Giro he – they – would never forget. The points system had been simple enough to administer but the speeds had been pedestrian. Given the prodigious distances covered, many of the participants had viewed the Giro not as a race in the traditional sense but rather as an odyssey, a series of adventures. It wasn’t unusual for them to rest up for hours at a time because time made no difference per se. What mattered was that they survived another day, because just by getting round they put food on the table. Keen to produce more dynamic racing (and, by extension, to sell more newspapers) Cougnet jettisoned the points methodology, replacing it with an aggregate time system. Another novelty was the time limit, conceived to ensure that participants raced, as distinct to twiddled, their way round. Cougnet reasoned that an hour’s deficit per 100 kilometres was reasonable and so if the winner completed a 400-kilometre stage in, say, 16 hours, the rest need be home in under 20 to stay afloat. A nice idea. In theory… The all new Giro would be engineered exclusively to wrench the public’s attention. As was standard practice the stages would be run off over alternate days but beyond that the race would be barely recognisable. Not only was the percorso extended to a whopping 3,162 kilometres, but the ten stages of the previous year would be condensed into just eight. All well and good in that the costs were indeed reduced but for the poor cyclists it would be a massive task. One of the stages, from Lucca to Rome, would weigh in at 430 kilometres, while the first would see them climb to Sestrière, over 2,000 barbaric metres above sea level on the French border. The average stage length would be a biblical 396 kilometres and all of this on a single-speed bike weighing 15kg. 22

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The race would feature not only the hardest percorso in the history of cycling but also the longest lone escape, the slowest speeds, and some of the most apocalyptic weather conditions. The shortest stage, the fifth from Avellino to Bari, would travel 328 kilometres, while the winner two days later, one Luigi Lucotti, would triumph in a shade under 19 and a half hours. Of the 81 starters, only eight would make it back to Milan. For all that it was an exercise in masochism, the new Giro suited the bike manufacturers perfectly well. A Giro finish had always been concrete evidence of the durability of both man and machine and so six trade teams threw their hats in. Biggest among them was Bianchi, Italy’s favourite, with no less than eight starters. Meanwhile Gatti’s Atala broke the bank in charging Petit-Breton with repeating the trick across the Alps. He would be assisted by their secret weapon, a super-strong young rider from (of all places) Brixton. Freddie Grubb, a teetotal vegetarian who’d won silver at the Stockholm Olympics, signed on as Britain’s first ever grand tour rider. Poor, naive Grubb had not the faintest idea of the chicanery implicit in ‘continental’ racing, nor of the fate which lay in store for him… The isolati, clad here in plain white jerseys, were the professional sport’s underclass. Known as ‘the pariahs of cycling’, they fell broadly into two types. Some were contracted to teams but had failed to earn selection for the Giro, while others were genuine independents, riding for bread, board and glory. The final group making up the pack, the so called aspiranti, was composed of Italy’s great unwashed. While the 35 team riders were supported in much the same way today’s Coffee? Cognac? Strychnine? © Olycom

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riders are, the rest were compelled to fend for themselves. Not only would they repair their own (frequent) punctures and breakdowns, but they were responsible for their own food, massage and sleeping arrangements. Each stage featured a single feed and so the team riders, for whom raw eggs were prized above all else, would gorge themselves and fill up for the long haul home. The isolati and aspiranti weren’t so lucky – their lot was simply to beg, borrow or steal as much sustenance as they could en route, and hope it would get them round. Fraternising with the trade teams was strictly prohibited, and anybody suspected of trading (be it food, tyres, or mechanical assistance) was summarily dismissed from the race. By now, drugs (most typically strychnine and cocaine) were commonplace amongst the riders, an accepted performance aid given the inhuman conditions. No stigma was attached to their usage, though the Gazzetta expressed concern over the riders’ lack of know-how and rigour. Six years earlier at the London Olympics, Italian marathon runner Dorando Pietri had famously suffered a défaillance. Having taken la dinamite prematurely, he’d collapsed so completely that he’d needed ten minutes to complete the final 350 metres, and cyclists were routinely found in similarly purgatorial states. The prospect of eight days’ racing, then, was anything but glamorous, but for 44 of the 81 starters it would prove academic anyway. In arguably the most shocking day’s racing in cycling history, the mythical first stage of the 1914 Giro put paid to the aspirations of more than 60 per cent of the field… Just past midnight on Sunday May 24, they waved them off on the Milanese outskirts. With their destination, Cuneo, the small matter of 420 kilometres to the south west, they would in principle take it easy a while. As per tradition they’d ride as a group until sunrise, whereupon the racing would begin in earnest. Given that the country had virtually no street lighting they rode in almost total darkness until the road, hitherto illuminated only by the primitive headlights of the race convoy, was spectacularly lit up by sheet lightning. All well and good, but no sooner had they reached the city limits than the heavens opened, foretelling a torrential storm which would last 36 hours and which wouldn’t truly abate for the entire length of the Giro. It would transform Italy’s pre-asphalt roads into quagmires, as the most sadistic Giro of all bore its teeth. And next, of course, came the sabotage. Bikes were fashionable but it was horses which drove the economy of agrarian Italy. They carried people and goods, and those who owed them their livelihoods were generally very far from enamoured at Italy’s latest craze. When, therefore, the punctures started at Arona it came as no great surprise. In advance of the race the Gazzetta had offered a 1,000 lire prize to anybody able to provide a tip off, but to no avail. Once more thousands of nails had been strewn across the road; once more the poor racers compelled to repair their punctures, this time under a freezing deluge. Still worse was to follow as the river Dora broke its banks at Biella. As freezing 70kph winds crashed through the Po Valley, anguished contadini sought frantically to tether their livestock. Now the ‘road’ disappeared altogether, replaced by a river of mud, small animals, broken trees and all manner of detritus. Among the flotsam and jetsam was much of the Giro signage. Many of the riders took the wrong roads as the race descended into mayhem. By 7.20am they were caked with white mud, passing ghost-like through deserted Turin. Here the weaker ones, convinced already that they wouldn’t make the time cut, started to abandon. Two hours later the leaders staggered to the control-cum-feed at Susa, base camp for their Homeric 40-kilometre ascent to Sestrière. 24

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Cougnet – informed that 15 per cent of the field had already climbed off and fearful that he’d have no riders left – promptly jettisoned the time limit idea. Next Petit-Breton, the red-hot favourite for overall success, suffered the puncture which would predicate a dramatic psychological meltdown. A Tour de France specialist accustomed to riding the Alps in the blistering heat of July, he climbed off his bike and removed both the affected tubular and his soaking, mud-encrusted jersey. As he struggled in the downpour to get the new tub to stick to the rim, he demanded that the Atala team car proffer a fresh jersey. They’d run out, however, and so, hysterical now, he started kicking seven bells out of his own support vehicle. He then climbed back on the bike and set off on a maniacal, barechested attack. When they caught him, his will collapsed entirely. Once more he climbed off, emotionally unhinged after just 300 Italian kilometres. He walked back to the checkpoint in Susa and resigned from the Giro, as did the rest of his team, poor Freddie Grubb included. By Cesana, still ten kilometres from the summit, the downpour had become a blizzard. The leaders now gave up all pretence of trying to ride up the thing but rather traipsed, assisted by a gaggle of intrepid supporters, towards their calvary. Even Ganna, The King of the Mud, was seen weeping like a baby. He was persuaded to continue by team-mate Giuseppe Santhià, but ultimately to no avail. Santhià himself would later capsize, while Ganna would abandon on stage two, complaining of chronic pains in his kidneys. Left to right: Galetti, Beni, Pavesi, Rossignoli, Oriani, Santhia, Bordin © Olycom

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Stage winner Angelo Gremo broke the tape in Cuneo at 5.30pm, his winning time 17h 13’55”. All told only 40 would make it home, though three were subsequently disqualified for having been towed. The time gaps were vast. Only 24 finished inside the original time limit and the last of the recorded finishers, one Mario Marangoni, would cross the line at 12.15am. He’d been cycling for 24h 07’ (yes, you read correctly, that’s 24 hours and seven minutes). Asked whether he thought the stage too tough, Armando Cougnet offered that for him a single Giro finisher would suffice: “The retirements add prestige to the performances of the survivors, and so to the race itself.” Marangoni would trail in last again on the next three stages, his four days’ cycling totalling almost 86 hours. By now he trailed race leader Alfonso Calzolari by 22h 16’26”. He somehow got round the monstrous fifth stage to Bari, but upon arrival was informed that the jury had given up the ghost at 10.45pm. He spent two hours roaming hither and thither in search of them, but it wasn’t until 9.30am that he managed to register his presence. In deference to his ‘exemplary fortitude’ they let him start the sixth stage, but with nothing left to give he climbed off after 150 kilometres. The third leg from Lucca to Rome, one of five exceeding 400 kilometres, remains the longest in the history of the race. Having set off at midnight, all bar one of the peloton was halted just 15 kilometres into its marathon to allow for a passing freight train. The lone breakaway, 24-year-old Lauro Bordin, had slipped under the gates in the nick of time and was thus condemned to an insane 350-kilometre, 14-hour solo effort. They caught him, the poor exhausted imbecile, 80 kilometres from the finish. The worst stage, number six, took place under a blizzard to L’Aquila in the mountains of the Abruzzi. Some 30 kilometres from the line Giuseppe Azzini, leading the race after having won the third leg by 58 minutes, simply vanished. A farmer located him three days later, stricken by a raging fever, in one of his barns. Meanwhile the stage winner made it home in 19 and a half hours and the tiny Bolognese, Alfonso Calzolari, incurred a three-hour penalty for riding over the Apennines in the boot of a car. So inhuman was the route and so appalling the weather conditions that only eight made it to Milan. Notwithstanding his indiscretion in getting a lift, Calzolari – still to this day the slowest winner in Giro history – staggered home in 135 hours. The madness that was the 1914 Giro had seen the biggest victory margin (a fraction under two hours), the longest stages, the longest breakaway, the most horrific percorso, the worst weather conditions and the highest proportion of abandons. It also produced arguably the most stupendous performance in its history. Umberto Ripamonti, the eighth and last finisher, may have trailed Calzolari by almost a full day but he alone among the aspiranti made it back to Milan. A Herculean achievement by anybody’s standards, still more so when one considers that he was but a teenager. And thus concluded the first era of the Giro d’Italia, the years characterised by epic, heroic performances and by an appalling human sufferance unimaginable in modern-day cycling. They had ridden insane distances on gearless, unstable boneshakers, over unmade white roads and dirt tracks. They’d done so without mechanical or medical assistance and had endured sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, hunger and thirst. A number of them would see their cycling careers replaced by a genuine horror, that of conscription and life in the trenches of north-east Italy. Carlo Oriani, winner of the 1913 Giro, was one of a number of cyclists who would lose his life fighting for his country. Others would die in their 30s, victims of the tuberculosis brought on by life in the trenches and by long, hot summer days spent inhaling dust. All were phenomenal athletes, and extraordinarily tough human beings. 26

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Giovanni Gerbi, the standard bearer of pre-first world war cycling, would never quite conquer the Giro, though not for the want of trying. He won just about every race in the calendar, many of them run on cart tracks and long since consigned to the dustbin of cycling history, but the biggest prize of all always eluded him. When in 1920 they disqualified him for hiding in (of all things) a sidecar, 100 or so of his rabid supporters besieged the race organiser’s car demanding he be reinstated as reward for his ingenuity. On May 6, 1954 Giovanni Rossignoli, dying in hospital in Pavia, would receive an unexpected and very welcome visitor – Gerbi, the old Red Devil himself, appeared at his bedside. He reminded his old mate of the day they’d cycled together from Milan to Paris to take part in the Tour de France, then wished him luck and took his leave. Driving home that night Gerbi, still addicted to speed, totalled his sports car. Though badly injured, he escaped the wreckage before being confined to a hospital bed of his own. The Devil, though, was having none of it. He hauled himself up, famously proclaiming that: “If I’m to die I’ll do it on my feet.” And then he did. Die. Rossignoli, ever the bridesmaid, finished second again, trailing into the great peloton in the sky some six weeks later. © Olycom

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“E la gente ti guarda. I più anziani con commozione perché, tutto sommato, rappresenti un’epoca, il meglio di un’epoca.” “The public watches you. The oldest do so with the most feeling because, when all’s said and done, you represent an epoch, the best of an epoch.” Gino Bartali

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Costante Girardengo, the ‘Novi Runt’ © Original author

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I

taly had hedged her bets at the outbreak of the conflict. In 1882 she had joined the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria, her traditional enemy, but 20 years later she drew up a non-aggression treaty with France. The rationale for signing was sound enough: it gave her the best chance of reclaiming from Austria the disputed territories of the north east (Trieste, Istria, Dalmatia and Zara) in the event of conflict. However, when the war came Italy angered both sides by simultaneously claiming neutrality and secretly negotiating the best deal in the event of victory. Her politicians continued to vacillate until finally, in April 1915, signing the Treaty of London. The pact stated that all ethnically Italian peoples would be unified and the peninsula would reclaim all of the so-called unredeemed Italy. Trieste, Trentino and the South Tyrol, along with Istria and the Italo-Croat hinterlands of the far north east, would be delivered back to Rome. Militarily and financially the weakest member of the new entente, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915. At Isonzo, the first major theatre of the war, a nihilistic 67-year-old commander in chief named Luigi Cadorna led 60,000 of his countrymen to their deaths. Fifteen catastrophic months later Italians found themselves at war with Germany as Cadorna, a Napoleonic general hopelessly out of his time in the modern battlefield, continued his appalling stewardship of the campaign. Following the disastrous Battle of Caporetto in 1917 (evoked by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms) Cadorna was replaced but by then Italy had lost 650,000 sons, ruinous for a population already haemorrhaged by decades of outward migration. Caporetto is now firmly rooted in the Italian argot. A synonym for disaster, it’s become Italy’s Waterloo. Caporetto, and the war as a whole, marked another important watershed in Italy’s brief, all too dissolute history. None but a small minority of Italians had ever left their provincia, and so they had no concept of, or belief in, nationhood. For all its vicissitudes, life in the trenches brought hundreds of thousands of young Italian males into contact with countrymen they would never otherwise have met, from all corners of the peninsula. Most were astonished to find that, though they spoke different dialects, they were all, fundamentally, the same. They were all in it together, fighting for one country, for their country. Italians the length and breadth, condemned by Rome to fight a war about they knew not what, started in a small way a process of knitting together; one for all and all against the politicians. The war delivered a shared sense of purpose and fidelity to the flag but something more besides. At the outbreak huge numbers of Italians – in the south, a vast majority – had been unable, or unwilling, to read or write. With no alternative means of communication, a huge literacy programme was introduced to a people hitherto denied access to the written word. This, a very real cultural revolution, enabled those at home and at the front to not only to stay in touch with their loved ones but also, via the newspapers, with the war effort as a whole. With less sport to report, the Gazzetta, once more a biweekly, played its part as best it could. From February 1917, 30,000 additional copies were printed and sent, free of charge, to the front. With the Treaty of Versailles Italy failed to secure Dalmatia. Having offered it at the outbreak as an inducement to join the war, Britain and France now determined that their weaker cousin be made to pay for her obfuscation. Italians began to speak, somewhat misguidedly, of a ‘mutilated victory’. They’d failed to secure all of the territories promised but while Germany retained 80 per cent of her economic capacity, Austria-Hungary, the traditional enemy of the Italian state, was no more. In its place a number of smaller nations, none of which represented a military threat, emerged. Italy had paid a massive price emotionally and collaterally but had gained a good deal more than either Britain or France. It would be 60 years before the financial debt was paid in full but arguably the war’s most 30

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damaging legacy would emerge rather sooner. Italians, perennially convinced that they were being cheated by their leaders, looked towards a new realpolitik: demanded change in a country turned upside down by four years of carnage. Now a new group, led by an ex-soldier turned radical newspaper editor named Mussolini, began to stoke the fires with a persuasive new political doctrine. In March 1919, the Italian Fascist Party was born. Cycle racing had continued sporadically throughout the conflict. Though the Giro itself had been suspended, the Tours of Lombardy and Piedmont, among the oldest and most prestigious of all bike races, ran on uninterrupted. Many of the smaller one-day events survived, while others came and went as Italians continued their love affair with the sport. Under the astute stewardship of Emilio Colombo, the Gazzetta had endured during the war years; sport an emotional bolthole for a nation battered and bloodied by the conflict. Now it returned definitively to daily publication and would reprise its great race in 1919, albeit with a completely new, much smaller cast list. Returning to the race was the Piedmontese Costante Girardengo, born in 1893 in Novi Ligure. Aged 17 Girardengo, the fifth of seven farmer’s sons, had spotted his great hero Giovanni Cuniolo, a three-time national champion from nearby Tortona, out training. Taking courage, he’d asked Cuniolo if he might be permitted to join him and then, emboldened by his apparent sluggishness, managed to stay with him on the climbs. Girardengo decided he’d become a cyclist and, three years later while on military service at Verona, had another bright idea. He went AWOL, caught a train to Alessandria and borrowed a bicycle. He then proceeded to thump the great and the Girardengo wins in Bologna, 1921 © Original author

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good of Italian racing in the National Championship. Then he snuck back into the barracks with his maglia tricolore secreted about his person. Private Girardengo, the champion cyclist of all of Italy, now found himself with plenty of time to contemplate what he’d achieved – found himself contemplating 30 days in solitary confinement. When a cycling-mad captain gave him leave for the 1913 Giro, Girardengo rewarded his clemency by winning a stage and finishing a very creditable sixth overall. The following year he left a further sign by sprinting to victory on the third day, a 430-kilometre stage into Rome which remains the longest in Giro history. By the time the first post-war Corsa Rosa came around, Girardengo was well on with establishing himself as the country’s greatest ever cyclist. He’d won two National Championships, had twice conquered Milan-Turin, and had prevailed at the 1918 Milan-Sanremo. He’d won there in 1915 as well, before they disqualified him for going off course. Girardengo’s brilliance, all the more remarkable given that he’d almost died of Spanish flu during the war, would reveal itself most tellingly at the 1919 Giro. Of the 86 starters, 42 were ex-military, their bikes donated by the Italian government. Girardengo dominated the first two stages, run symbolically to the ‘new’ territories of Trento and Trieste, and would ultimately take seven of the ten, some by sprinting, some by climbing, some by simply riding away from the others. Most incredible of all though was his overall winning margin, 52 minutes. It would have been a great deal more, many argued, had he not ridden within himself; Costante Girardengo had won the Giro d’Italia at a canter. When Gazzetta editor Emilio Colombo asked what best to write about him, ‘Gira’, somewhat embarrassed and not much of a one for big words, proffered that he hadn’t the faintest idea. Colombo, a great one for words but fast running out of superlatives for Girardengo’s amazing performances, invented a new one. The sobriquet Campionissimo, the Champion of Champions, was born. Runner up in 1919 was the extraordinary, monobrowed Gaetano ‘Tano’ Belloni, a cycling eternal second long before the French appropriated the phrase for Raymond Poulidor, the nearly man of the Tour in the 1960s. The son of a carriage-horse trainer from Cremona, young Belloni had found himself uprooted to Milan when the invention of the safety bicycle and the weird, newfangled motorcar saw demand for carriage horses drop off alarmingly at the turn of the century. He began a promising career in, of all things, Greco-Roman wrestling, one of Europe’s more brutal ‘sports’. The rules, such as they were, involved scoring points by throwing your opponent from the waist up though punching, head butting and the use of caustic gas (it says here) were accepted softening up exercises. Following its exclusion from the 1904 Olympics, the sport introduced drastic new laws outlawing, among other practices, eye gouging and body slamming. Bout times were reduced to make the thing more accessible, though the Olympic semi-final of 1912, a Nordic local derby between a Swede and a Finn, was declared a draw when – after nine gut-wrenching hours – the judges couldn’t separate the protagonists. Tano was a particularly good wrestler, one of the best on the scene. However his day job, as an apprentice machine worker in a textile factory, would prove his undoing. Given to daydreaming, he committed the cardinal sin of the textile worker, which is to say he inserted his right hand into the loom, severing his thumb. Though the incident proved no great impediment to his other great passion, winning fortunes on the billiards table, his wrestling career – and simultaneously his chances of joining the war effort – were somewhat… compromised. Stuck for something to do, he took up cycling and found that he was very, very good at it, a lightning-fast sprinter. He won the 1914 amateur National Championship before, while still riding as an amateur, beating the professionals at the Tour of Lombardy, astonishing the sporting intelligentsia. Compelled to stay at home throughout the war, he won extensively, twice capturing both Sanremo and Lombardy. On Girardengo’s return from the front, however, he settled for a career in his great friend’s 32

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Campionissimo

long shadow. Though he actually won quite often, his career was notable not so much for the races he won as for those he didn’t. By the time he’d finished cycling he reckoned he’d finished second no less than 100 times. On 26 separate occasions he trailed the Campionissimo home but their double act – Gira’s dazzling speed allied to his good humour – went down a storm with the Italian public. Belloni, a hilarious, self-deprecating raconteur, was immensely popular and, simply for being himself, immensely well paid. His crowning glory came in the horrific 1920 Giro, run off over eight stages with an average distance of 330 kilometres; little wonder that only ten made it back to Milan. When Girardengo suffered a mechanical on the opening stage, then retired in a huff having been sanctioned for an illegal wheel change, Tano took flight. In the absence of Italy’s most decorated sportsman he won three stages (Bianchi won them all) and dominated the overall classification, a Giro winner at last. He would famously win Lombardy again in 1928, aged 36, but he always claimed his greatest achievement was teaching himself English. He headed off to America, where he earned fortunes dominating the burgeoning Six-Day racing scene. When he fell and fractured his arm at the Madison Square Garden Six, the great Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli, first sent a private limousine to deliver him to hospital, then interrupted a performance to visit his stricken friend. Most astounding of all, he earned a standing ovation for abandoning his post, so popular was Belloni among New Yorkers. By the time Tano retired from the track aged 42, he’d crossed the Atlantic no less than 40 times, competed there successfully, and taught himself French and German. All the world, it seemed, loved the eternal second. ’Tano Belloni, a working-class hero © Original author

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“La montagna è li e tu devi affrontarla da solo.” “The mountain is there and you have to confront it alone.” Gino Bartali

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Published by Rouleur Books An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square London WC1B 3DP www.bloomsbury.com First edition 2011 Second edition 2013 Copyright © 2013 Herbie Sykes ISBN 978-1-4081-9001-2 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means – graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or information storage and retrieval systems – without the prior permission in writing of the publishers. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that the content of this book is as technically accurate and as sound as possible, neither the author nor the publishers can accept responsibility for any injury or loss sustained as a result of the use of this material. Herbie Sykes asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Editor Guy Andrews Sub editor Claire Read Designer Jonathan Briggs All photography © as indexed Made from wood grown in managed, sustainable forests. It is natural, renewable and recyclable. The logging and manufacturing processes conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin. Printed and bound in China by C&C Offset Ltd Photography: Publifoto/Olycom and Olympia/Olycom (unless otherwise stated) Special thanks go to: Taz Darling, Jennie Condell and Nick Ascroft Rouleur Limited 1 Luke Street London EC2A 4PX www.rouleur.cc Rouleur magazine is published eight times a year ISSN 1752-962X

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TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY AT THE GIRO D’ITALIA

www.bloomsbury.com


Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro D'Italia  

Read a few sample pages from Herbie Sykes new book Maglia Rosa, the definitive history of the Giro d'Italia.

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