The First Giro d'Italia

The Giro d'Italia is a multiple-stage bicycle race primarily held in Italy, while also starting in, or passing through, other countries. It is one of the most prestigious races, and together with the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España is included by the Union Cycliste International (UCI) in the professional circuit of the World Tour.

The race has been held annually since its first edition in 1909, except during the two world wars. The months of the Giro are May and June, with only two exceptions: 1946, when the race was held between June and July, and 2020, when, due to COVID-19, the Giro d'Italia will be held in October.
The starting place changes every year, but most of the time the race ends in Milan, city of La Gazzetta Dello Sport, the sports newspaper that organizes the race since its first edition. Since 1931 the jersey of the first cyclist in the ranking is pink, like the pages of the Gazzetta. For this reason, the Giro d'Italia is also known as the "pink race".

Dreaming the Giro

On August 24, 1908, the Gazzetta Dello Sport announced with enthusiasm that Italy too would have its epic cycling race, just as France had the Tour. In reality, the organizers, including Armando Cougnet, administrative director of the Gazzetta Dello Sport, were not sure that their dream would come true. In fact, one dream and a few races organized in the past were not enough. It took money for the Tour. A lot of money.

But luckily, at the time the Italians' love for cycling was much deeper than for soccer.

The bicycles in the country were about six hundred thousand and weighed fifteen kilos. They were almost all made of iron, had a fixed ratio and only one brake, with a buffer, which pressed directly on the front wheel, from above. Not the most comfortable and safe way to race. But this didn't seem important. Everybody wanted the Giro.
Races in velodromes were very popular, and road racing was also becoming increasingly popular. In 1870 there was a Firenze-Pistoia race and in 1876 the first Milano-Torino race.
Also, companies saw the Giro as the perfect opportunity to sell more bicycles, so money began to come in. There were donations from the newspaper Il Corriere Della Sera, which offered 3000 lire for the winner's final prize, and the innovative idea of racing "sponsored" by the municipalities involved with signs was exploited. This was taken care of by the Italian Touring Club which, with its deep knowledge of the route, had to sell signposts to subscribers.

Having found the money, Armando Cougnet - who had already planned the Milano-Sanremo - became the real organizer of the Giro d'Italia.



The right route, the proper regulation

Many cities wanted to be chosen as stages of the Giro, and to apply they boasted long cycling traditions or other sporting successes. But the cities could not be too many and the stages did not have to be too long. To better study the route, Cougnet also asked the rider Felice Nazzaro to do a reconnaissance.

In the end, the route of the Giro was chosen.
2447.9 km. Start and finish in Milan.
8 stages: Bologna, Chieti, Naples, Rome, Florence, Genoa, Turin and Milan.
Although they were much less than those of today (21) they were the same so long that between one and the other, they needed one or two days of rest. The shortest was the Turin-Milan (206 km) but four others exceeded 300 km.

To create a Giro that would go down in history and the hearts of cycling enthusiasts, it was also necessary to define a regulation that would guarantee fairness and safety and also help the judges to follow the riders in the best possible way - which is not easy without all the modern technology. The competitors, for example, were all photographed to make them recognisable and to avoid exchanges in person. Or to expose those who tried to cheat by taking the train, as happened at least on one occasion!
The controls were entrusted to the Italian Touring Club and its representatives scattered throughout the territory. In the end, it was decided to use the same rules as the 1908’s Tour de France with the points classification, because it was simpler. 1 to the winner of each stage, 2 to the second, 3 to the third and so on until half of the riders. Those in the second half would take 50 points. In the end, whoever had the least points won.
No Pink Jersey though. That would have been introduced in 1931.



The riders

Of the 127 participants, only 49 completed the race. Six teams signed up under the names of their sponsors: Bianchi-Dunlop, Labor-Chauvin, Stucchi-Persen, Atala-Dunlop, Rudge Whitworth-Pirelli, Dei-Michelin. But they weren't like today's teams. The riders didn't have the uniform and didn't help each other much. Then there were the riders without a team, the isolated riders, who had to take care of everything themselves - expense, food and where to sleep. Most of the riders competed as isolated riders, but the strongest, as you can imagine, ran for the teams. But they all had one thing in common: they had to ride 15 kg bikes without gear, with two canteens on the handlebars (one filled with water and one with wine) and all the tools to repair the bike.
Some of these heroes:

Eberardo Pavesi, 27 years old. Nicknamed "the Lawyer" for his eloquent speech. In 1905 he had won Roma-Napoli-Roma. For him, the races were an adventure.

Giovanni Rossignoli, 28 years old. Not very elegant, but very determined.

Luigi Ganna, 25 years old. Fifth at the Tour de France in 1908 and won Milano-Sanremo in 1909.

Romolo Buni, 38 years old. He had retired five years earlier but was still strong and famous when he was invited by Cognet to the Giro.

Lucien Petit-Breton, 28, French. In 1907 and 1908 he won the Tour de France and was the favourite for the Giro d'Italia.

Giovanni Cuniolo, 26 years old. He was nicknamed "Manina" (little hand) because it seems that sometimes he won by pushing the other cyclists.

Giovanni Gerbi, 25 years old. Nicknamed "The Red Devil" because he always wore a red jersey. It was said that to win, he even used friends disguised as policemen to show the other riders the wrong way. In 1903 he won the Milano-Torino race.

Di Carlo Galetti, 28 years old. He wasn't very popular with the public because he preferred strategy to spectacular breakaways and always studied the other riders. But he was good, and his method often worked.



The eight stages (13 - 30 May 1909)

First stage: Milan-Bologna (13 May - 397 km)

The Giro started at 2:53 AM in Milan. Starting at night, the cyclists could finish the race before sunset the next day, and so they would also avoid the crowd of fans. After a few kilometres, due to the darkness and the crowd, many fell. During this stage, Petit-Breton and Pavesi also fell. Ganna was the first to enter the Zappoli Racecourse in Bologna, he fell but managed to recover and finished fourth. About fifteen riders retired during that stage.

Second stage: Bologna-Chieti (16 May - 379.5 km)

Petit-Breton did not recover from the fall on the previous stage and decided to retire, and so did Pavesi. Cuniolo won the stage.

Third stage: Chieti-Naples (18 May - 242.8km)

A short stage, but there were the climbs of the Apennines (up to 1200 meters). 98 started the stage and 73 arrived in Naples. Some even tried to cheat by taking a train but was discovered. Ganna got four punctures, but at the end of the stage, he was still third. Rossignoli won the stage.

Fourth stage: Naples-Rome (20 May - 228.1 km)

Ganna won the stage without encountering excessive resistance.




Fifth stage: Rome-Florence (23 May - 346.5 km)

Ganna also won this stage.

Sixth stage: Florence-Genoa (25 May - 294.1 km)

After arriving among the last, Gerbi withdraws. The stage was won by Rossignoli ahead of Galetti and Ganna.

Seventh stage: Genoa-Turin (27 May - 354.9 km)

The fans were too many and for this reason, the arrival of the stage was moved a few kilometres earlier. Ganna won the stage.

Eighth stage: Turin-Milan (30 May - 206 km)

Ganna punctured a tire, changed it and punctured it again, but he managed to recover thanks to a level crossing that blocked the other racers. And before the end of the Tour, there was another accident. One of the 200 horses of the lancers went up and knocked Rossignoli down, who eventually finished seventh.
If the classification had been timed, Rossignoli would have triumphed: he took 89 hours and 19 minutes to do the first Giro d'Italia, 25 minutes less than Galetti and 50 minutes less than Ganna. But it was instead Ganna who won, in the Trotter Park in Milan, where that day, they say, there were at least 60,000 people, enthusiastic, excited about that incredible race.

And after all, it was the fans, the lovers of this wonderful sport who won that day, because thanks to their passion a new race that would go down in the history of cycling was born.




(1) La Gazzetta Dello Sport
(2) The stages of the first Giro
(3) Lucien Petit-Breton
(4) Luigi Ganna
(5) Rossignoli wins the third stage

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