100 Years of the Giro -
With the centennial Giro d'Italia well and truly underway, we cast a backwards
glance in tribute to a race that has given us ten decades of fantastic bike
By Giles Belbin
“For whereso'er I turn my ravished eyes, Gay gilded scenes and shining prospects
rise; Poetic fields encompass me around, And still I seem to tread on classic
Joseph Addison: Letter from Italy
The Early Years...
Rivalry, Poisoning and Punishing Parcours
The Giro d'Italia was born out of rivalry. In 1908, with Henri Desgrange's Tour
de France 5 years old, increasing in popularity and serving its purpose of
increasing the circulation of Desgrange's paper L'Auto, Italian paper Gazzetta
dello Sport was struggling. Experiencing poor sales the paper had no cash and
was living a day to day existence.
Alongside this a row had broken out at the bike manufacturer Bianchi, prompting
employee Angelo Gatti to leave the company and set up a rival. Gatti then
learned of Bianchi's intention to partner in a bike race around Italy in
conjunction with the newspaper Corriere della Sera, which had already assisted
in the organisation of a series of successful car races.
Gatti, sensing an opportunity, made contact with the editor of the Gazzetta,
Tullo Morgagni, and suggested that the Gazzetta should organise such a race.
Morgagni, concerned that if the Corriere organised the proposed race, it could
prove to be the death of his paper, agreed and telegrammed the paper's cycling
editor, Armando Cougnet, to inform him that it was essential he immediately
announced the inaugural Giro d'Italia.
The paper had already had a history of organizing such events, although not to
the same scale. From its inception in 1896, the Gazzetta had arranged and
sponsored races, proclaiming on the front page of the very first publication the
organization of a race taking in Milan, Monza, Lecce and Erban. But the telegram
still came as something of a shock to Cougnet who was mindful of the finances
required to organise such an event.
Morgagni had also neglected to inform the paper's owner, Emilio Camillo
Costamagna, of his plans. A meeting of all three men was hastily arranged for
the next day where Morgagni was confronted by Costamagna and Cougnet. The
paper's editor launched a passionate and emotional argument in favour of his
plans, pointing out that if they didn't do something, the paper could fold. He
quickly won them over and the next day, the 7th August 1908, the Gazzetta
announced it was going to organise the first Giro d'Italia the following spring.
Overcoming the many financial and organisational difficulties they faced, even
convincing its rival the Corriere to stump up prize money, the Gazzetta proudly
saw off 127 riders from the Piazza Loreto in Milan at 2.53am on the 13th May
1909. The first Giro was an 8 stage affair, totalling a distance of 2,448
kilometres and visiting the cities of Milan, Bologna, Chieti, Naples, Rome,
Florence, Genoa and Turin.
The first Giro d'Italia stage, a 397 kilometre slog from Milan to Bologna, was
won by Dario Beni and took over 14 hours. Luigi Ganna took over the lead in the
General Classification after the second stage and then lost it during stage 3 to
Naples after puncturing on some four separate occasions and losing over an hour
to the stage winner, Giovanni Rossignoli, with Carl Galetti taking the overall
lead. Ganna fought back though, taking the next two stages and recapturing the
overall lead. It was a lead he would keep all the way to Milan, but not without
difficulties. Just 70 kilometres from the end of the final stage, Ganna again
punctured and his rivals attacked and rode away. He was only saved by some sort
of divine justice as his opponents were made to wait at a closed railway
crossing. Ganna caught them and rode into Milan, behind second time stage winner
Dario Beni, as the overall winner of the first ever Giro.
Of the starters, 49 reached the finish. The race was deemed a huge success, with
the Gazzetta waxing lyrically,"Standards flying in the wind on their galloping
mounts, the lancers joined the first finishers for the last kilometres. After
Dario Beni's victory, vehicles of the fire brigade carried the competitors to
The Arena, where the crowd carried Ganna in triumph," before concluding, "A
glorious event has been deeply inscribed in the annals of sport, to be repeated
yearly with growing enthusiasm and love."
The second Giro, held a year later, increased its stages to total ten, with a
distance of a little under 3,000 kilometres. It was the first time that a non
Italian rider was to take a stage victory, with Frenchman Jean-Baptiste
Dortignacq, nick-named the Gazelle, taking the second stage into Bologna. With
Italy fearful that Dortignacq could prove to be a real force in the race, the
Italian riders came together to ride against him. However, he continued to place
high in the classification before becoming ill before the fifth stage, rendering
him unable to start the stage. It was suspected that he had been poisoned and in
fact some twenty riders were disqualified. The race would again finish in Milan,
where Carl Galetti, second in 1909, would win his first of three victories.
This early part of the race's history would also see perhaps its most brutal
route. In 1914 the race reverted back to 8 stages but increased its total
distance to 3,162 kilometres. This meant no less than five of the eight stages
were in excess of 400 kilometres long. This punishing route, along with some
severe weather, meant that of the 81 riders that started the race in Milan, only
8 made it to the end. This was a true a race of attrition and was won by Alfonso
Calzolari in a time of 135 hours, 17 minutes, 56 seconds. He must have been a
seriously tough rider.
The 1920s and 30s...
The era of Brunero, Binda, Bartali & the first Maglia Rosa
After an interruption because of World War I, the race started up again in 1919.
The 1920s and 30s would see the race gradually extend the its number of stages –
by 1939 the race was up to 17 stages. Italian riders would continue their early
dominance in the race and three of them would become inextricably linked with
The first of these was Givanni Brunero. Winner of his first Giro in 1921 after a
solo breakaway on stage 7 from Rome to Livorno gave him a race lead he would not
relinquish, Brunero went on to win the race again in 1922, when he also won
Milan-San Remo, and in 1926. Perhaps the most impressive of Brunero's victory
was in 1922. He won the first stage comfortably but was docked 25 minutes from
his winning time. He spent the remainder of the race trying to make up the
deficit with a series of successful solo breakaways. He would win the race by
over 12 minutes.
Alfredo Binda took the first of his five victories in 1925, when he held the
lead for some eight stages, winning by a margin over just under 5 minutes. Binda
was perhaps the first megastar of Italian cycling. He would narrowly lose the
1926 race to Brunero, despite remarkably winning five of the last seven stages,
before taking three victories in a row – 1927, 1928 and 1929. His final victory
came in 1933 when he won by over 12 minutes and also took the inaugural
mountains classification. In the course of his Giro career, Binda would win an
amazing 41 stages. A record that would remain in place until the new millenium.
Italian darling, Gino Bartali would also take the first two of his three wins (a
tally he surely would have increased without the interruption of World War II)
during this period, winning in 1936 and 1937. Bartali who, towards the end of
his career, famously enjoyed a fierce rivalry with Fausto Coppi, was a fantastic
climber, winning the mountains classification in 1935 before taking his first
Giro win in 1936. That year Bartali held on to the lead for the final 12 stages,
a fantastic feat he would better the next year, when he held it for the last 14
stages of the race.
This period of the race's history is also notable for the introduction of the
iconic leader jersey, the Maglia Rosa. The Maglia Rosa, so coloured because the
Gazzetta was (and still is) printed on pink paper, was first awarded in 1931 and
Learco Guerra was the man who would go down in history as the first to wear it.
The 1940s and 50s...Koblet, Coppi
The greatest giro stage ever (probably)
Into the 1940s and another interruption for war. When the race returned in 1946,
for Bartali's final victory, the world was a very different place, scarred by
the horrors of World War II.
This period in the race would be notable for a number of reasons - the three
victories of Fiorenzo Magni in 1948, 1951 and 1955 and the two wins of Charly
Gaul in 1956 and 1959 among them but of more importance for the race's history
was 1950, which would go down in history as the year that the Giro got its first
foreign victor, Swiss rider Hugo Koblet.
Koblet, born in Zurich in 1925, enjoyed the best phase of his career in the
early 1950s when as well as winning the Giro he would win the Tour de France
(1951). His 1950 victory in the Giro came after victories in stages 6 and 8. He
took over the maglia rosa after the ninth stage, a 272km ride from Vicenza to
Bolzano, and would hold on to it all the way to the finale in Rome, nine stages
However, the history of the Giro during the 1940s and 50s is really dominated by
one man, nicknamed 'Il Campionissimo' or the Champion of Champions, it is the
era of Fausto Coppi.
Coppi, born in 1919 would grow into one of the most fabled riders in history.
His style, charisma and, often tragic, life-story have made him a true hero of
the sport. His rivalry with Gino Bartali divided the Italian nation and could
fill a book on its own. Suffice to say here that Coppi won the Giro five times -
1940, 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953 and, like Bartali, would clearly have won more
without the interruption of World War II. He claimed the first ever Giro/Tour
double in 1949, a feat that until achieved by Coppi was considered as virtually
impossible. Perhaps his most impressive victory would come in the 1949 Giro,
when on stage 17 he rewrote the history books and gave perhaps the greatest
performance the Giro has ever seen.
Going into Stage 17 of the 1949 Giro, the leader of the race was Adolfo Leoni,
who had held the lead for eight stages. Stage 17 was the final mountain stage of
the race, a 254km ride in dreadful weather, from Cuneo, over the border into
France, across five mountains and back into Italy, to Pinerolo.
Before the start of the stage Coppi and Bartali were living up to their rivalry,
Bartali claiming that whilst he knew Coppi would attack on the first climb, he
would reel him in as the stage progressed, Coppi replied telling Bartali to take
a good look at this back wheel at the start “because that's the only time he'll
The stage's first climb was the Col de Varche. On the ascent of the Varche,
Coppi set off, chasing a lone breakaway rider. There was nearly 195kms to go and
so Bartali let him go. Coppi continued his charge, riding further and further
away. Over the climbs of the Vars, Izoard and Montgenevre, Coppi increased his
lead, riding by himself in the wind and the rain. On the final climb to
Sestriere, the Italian fans were delirious with joy, cheering their hero on
during his heroic escapade before his daring descent into Pinerolo. Coppi would
win the stage by nearly 12 minutes, securing the maglia rosa and his third Giro
Coppi's exploits that day have justly gone down in cycling lore. It was an
incredible demonstration of a racer defying the laws of gravity and is the sort
of tale that gives cycling its proud history. It was perhaps the greatest Giro
stage of all and was perhaps the greatest of Coppi's wins, a commentator that
day famously summed it up saying, "a man alone ahead... his jersey is white and
sky...his name is Fausto Coppi.”
The 1960s and 70s...
Anquetil, Merckx and a Swede
With Koblet's victory in 1950 the Giro had become a slightly more cosmopolitan
affair, with Luxembourger, Charly Gaul becoming the first multiple foreign
winner, but it was still dominated by Italian riders. That all changed in the
1960s and 70s, with two of the sports greatest ever riders taking multiple
victories in the race - Frenchman Jacques Anquetil and Belgian Eddy Merckx.
Anquetil's first victory came in 1960 when he dominated the stage 14 time trial,
taking the maglia rosa, never to relinquish it. He would win by 28 seconds over
Italian Gastone Nenceni. Anquetil would go on to take his second win in 1964.
The most successful rider of all time, Eddy Merckx, began his domination of the
Giro in 1968 when he took the first of his five victories (along with Binda and
Coppi completing the list of five-time champions). Gaining the lead after a
tough 12th Stage, Merckx held it until the race's finish to claim his first of
an incredible 11 Grand Tour wins.
Remarkably, low-lying Belgium would claim a total of seven victories in the Giro
between 1968 and 1978, the five by Merckx complemented by wins for Michel
Pollentier and Johan de Muynck. The race's new international feel was cemented
in 1971 when Swedish rider, Gosta Pettersson took the biggest race victory of
The 1980s, 90s and 2000s...the modern era
The 1980s and the early part of the 1990s just served to illustrate how much the
Giro had changed. From 1980 to 1996, 11 of the 17 winners came from outside
Italy. Countries boasting Giro winners included France, Spain, Ireland, Russia,
Switzerland and the USA.
Legends of the sport, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain, both five-time Tour
de France champions, took three and two victories respectively, Hinault claiming
the Giro/Tour double in 1982 and 1985 and Indurain, even more remarkably,
repeating the feat in back to back years - 1992 and 1993, becoming the first
Spaniard to win the Giro in the process.
In 1988, Andy Hampsten became the first and, to date, only American champion,
claiming the maglia rosa, with an historic ride on the infamous Gavia pass.
It was a stage hit by atrocious weather. It was snowing and bitterly cold. The
riders faced a short climb and descent followed by a 15km haul up the Gavia and
a drop back down to the stage finish in Bormio.
The peloton was shivering in the dreadful conditions. Hampsten attacked on the
Gavia as the gradient ramped up to 16%.and the chasing group splintered.
Hampsten continued alone, fighting through the arctic conditions. Riders were
being fed hot tea and were handed woollen hats and gloves by their teams, gears
iced up, lumps of ice formed in rider's hair. It was carnage. And that was the
climb. The riders has over 20kms of descent to look forward once they made it
over the top.
Hampsten was finally caught on the drop down into Bormio by Erik Breukink who
went on to claim the stage victory, but Hampsten's heroics put him in the maglia
rosa and secured the first Giro champion for the USA.
From the late 1990s onwards the Italians have fought back, claiming victory in
every edition apart from 2008, when Alberto Contador finally broke their 11 year
grip on the pink jersey. The list of winners since 1997 reads like a who's who
of modern Italian cycling. Marco Pantani won in 1998, the last man to secure the
Giro/Tour double, and he is joined by such Italian heroes as Ivan Gotti,
Gilberto Simoni and Danilo Di Luca. The final word on Italian domination should
though belong to Mario Cippollini. Super Mario claimed a record 42 stage
victories and has a record 3 points competitions wins. A man truly at one with
his national tour.
2009 and beyond...
Who knows what the next 100 years has in store for the Giro. Ownership of the
race has passed from the Gazzetta dello Sport to its parent company RCS but the
race remains true to its traditions. The 2009 route has paid homage to the
race's rich history, visiting the eight cities on the original route and
recreating the Stage of Coppi's 1949 heroics (although this has had to be
altered slightly due to conditions in the Alps).
However, the race's organisers are commonly regarded as the most innovative of
the three Grand Tours. This year features a short but brutal mountain stage, a
city centre circuit race and a final stage time-trial in Rome. They frequently
produce the most interesting and dynamic of routes. We can be sure that the
future of this great race and cultural event will simply add to the legend that
is the Giro d'Italia.
Coppi: The Legend by Fabio
More Cycling History on the
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