A look at the past winners of the "Race of the Falling leaves" - the Giro di Lombardi. First held in November 1905 (when, I guess, the leaves would have been really falling) it is a race which retains its beauty and is held close to the hearts of European fans...
On November 12 1905 a mud-encrusted Giovanni Gerbi crossed the line in Milan victorious, 230 kilometres after starting, in the inaugural Giro di Lombardia. It was a victory based on minute knowledge of the muddy tracks over which the race was fought. Feigning a crash just before a distinct narrowing in the road, Gerbi's rivals were provoked into attacking, but themselves crashed as they hit the narrow section. Gerbi, meanwhile, picked his way through the mass of bodies to strike out alone and, eventually, win by over 40 minutes!
However other reports suggest that in this first Giro the Italian Tifosi were not all that sporting. A bicycle was thrown into the path of two Frenchmen chasing Gerbi, and while friendly enthusiasts helped to push the Italian over the rough roads and mule tracks, tacks were thrown in front of his chasing rivals wheels. Still Giovanni Gerbi remains famous for his first ever victory as well as his famous triple in the Giro del Piemonte.
Giovanni Gerbi - Palmares
1903 Milan - Turin
1905 Tour of Lombardy
1906 Giro del Piemonte
1907 Giro del Piemonte
1908 Giro del Piemonte
In 1911 Henri Pelissier, gained the first of his three victorys of the race
1911, 1913 and 1920 - the most famous of an illustrious band of three brothers, the only reason Pelissier did not win more editions of the race was due to the First World War. While his eldest Brother lost his life in the terrible conflict, Henri probably is the only winner of the Paris Roubaix to be employed by the Army when he won the race just after the 1st World War.
A true Giant of the road, and with his brothers, riders who stood up for their rights against the race organisers and trade teams monopoly on wages, Henri Pelissier has an influence which today's peloton should be thankful for.
However, as the road surfaces improved, the race became faster and easier. Each Italian team would have its protected rider and a squad of totally devoted gregari; every event between 1921 and 1949 was won by an Italian, and half of those by just four riders - Girardengo, Binda, Bartali and Coppi. Accordingly, more hills were added in the 1920s.
Alfredo Binda, whose famous Giro record of stage victories is now in danger from Super Mario Cipollini - won the race 4 times between 1925 and 1931.
Alfredo Binda However more hills were added to make the race harder. Most notable was the dirt road up to the 2000 foot high Madonna del Ghisallo, a name indelibly intertwined with that of Fausto Coppi. Here is Rene De Latour's (a very apt name for a cycling writer) account of his 1949 triumph in the race:
He took the Tour of Lombardy for the fourth year in succession. On his own, of course. I followed that race, as I had followed his first triumph of the remarkable year Milan- San Remo, a race I shall never forget.
We were at the Cape Berta, the last hill in the race, about three quarters of a mile long, with 18 miles to go. Twelve men together. Good for them, bad for Fausto. Last year at the same spot he had been away on his own, and won by five minutes. Was he going to be an also-ran in this year’s sprint?
How it happened is still clear in my mind. Coppi was working away at the front and working to a purpose, five having already sat up, beaten. Another two bends of the hill remained. Only three on his wheel now, and they straining like grim death to hang on even though Fausto had only one hand on the ‘bars and was searching with the other in his feed bag for a banana. On the top of the Capa he was alone with a 20 yards lead.
Then the real work began, for it is one thing to drop a few men on a climb. To keep away from half a dozen working together on the remaining 17 miles of descent and flat is a different matter.
The valve fully opened, Coppi the Locomotive fairly steamed off towards the terminus at San Remo, the unstoppable Express, while the men behind despite an organised chase, were made to look like a goods train. They came in more than four minutes after Fausto finished.
1949 - a truly remarkable year for Coppi:
Tour de France
KoM, Tour de France
3 stages, Tour de France
KoM, Giro d'Italia
3 stages, Giro d'Italia
Milan - San Remo
Tour of Lombardy
Giro del Veneto
Now the small church Madonna del Ghisallo enjoys world wide fame as the cyclists church.
Nonetheless, in the absence of a talent like Coppi, as the roads improved, the route ceased being hard enough to split the field; most of the winners in the 'fifties came from sprints on the Vigorelli track in Milan. The surfacing of the Ghisallo sounded the death knell of the "old" Lombardia.
In 1960 a new climb was added, the Sormano, with gradients as steep as 1 in 5 (20%), but the big difference came the next year, when the finish was moved from Milan to Como, eliminating 60-odd kilometres of flat road after the mountains. In 1965 the "classic" route was used for the first time, circling Lake Como: the easier sides of the Sormano and Ghisallo in the first couple of hours, with the climbs to Intelvi, Schignano and San Fermo in the last 65 kilomteres. Newly crowned road race World Champion Tommy Simpson won in 1965 - and later in the same year was voted BBC Sports Peronalty of the Year - a true high point of British cycling, which tragically suffered a cruel blow on the slopes of Mount Ventoux two years later from which in some ways the sport in UK never really recovered.
The character of the route is slowly changing. Twenty or more years ago, the three big climbs were still paved with large rose-coloured setts and the linking sections of road along the shore of the lake were all up and down over headlands, with sections still unsurfaced. Today the last of the setts have gone, the lakeside road is fully paved and tunnels have been blasted through many of the headlands. Easier, perhaps, but no race with five long climbs can ever be called easy, and and the lakeside setting makes "The race of the falling leaves" still amongst the most beautiful of classics.
Giro di Lombardia 1921
Lombardia - Race Preview