They don’t do bike races like they used to.
Take the Giro d’Italia, one of the world’s longest and most prestigious stage races. Today, the race covers some 2,100 miles in 21 stages. The riders flash by in a brightly colored pack, with helicopters overhead and a long line of cars behind, each full of gesticulating directeurs, guys handing up bottles and food, and mechanics at the ready with fresh wheels and spare bikes.
But in 1924, the Giro covered 2,245 miles in just 12 tooth-rattling stages on unpaved roads and bikes weighing well over 40 pounds. Racers carried spare tires across their shoulders and changed their own flats. Switching gears – most bikes of the day had two – required dismounting and removing the wheel. This was a problem, as eight of the 12 stages crossed high mountain passes.
All this was just how the organizers liked it. They knew cycling’s appeal was built on a kind of sympathetic voyeurism, and that behind the public’s admiration for the riders lurked a bizarre curiosity: just how much can those poor bastards endure?
The answer to that question was revealed each day in the newspapers, which coincidentally organized the races. Italy’s grand tour was the property of La Gazzetta dello Sport, whose editor Emilio Colombo ran the enterprise with flinty acumen. His tight-fisted ways fomented a rider’s revolt in 1924, with two former champions and many of Italy’s best racers refusing to compete. To make up the numbers, Colombo opened the race to all comers.
One of the newcomers was Alfonsina Strada, the only woman ever to compete in a cycling grand tour.
Alfonsina was born in 1891 to a peasant family near Modena, in northern Italy. Some sources say she was the second of eight children, others that she was one of ten. One account describes an extended family of 24 living in a windowless shack. But however bleak Alfonsina’s circumstances, they brightened considerably when her father traded 10 chickens for an old bicycle. Soon Alfonsina was tearing around the countryside on two wheels, earning the nickname “Devil in a Dress” from neighbors, some of who were said to have crossed themselves as she blew past. She won her fist race at 13, earning a live pig. Despite that windfall, her parents did everything they could to discourage her. It didn’t work.
A string of early successes brought an invitation to compete in the Grand Prix of St Petersburg in 1909. (The Tsarina Alexandra was so impressed she urged her husband to award Alfonsina a gold medal, but the Russian monarch declined). In 1911, Alfonsina set a new women’s hour record, riding 37.192 km (23.11 mph) on a 44-pound machine. The record would stand for 26 years.
Marriage was no cure for Alfonsina’s cycling obsession. On the contrary, Luigi Strada gave his new bride a drop-bar racing bicycle as a wedding gift, and became her trainer. Alfonsina won 36 races against men and competed in some of the biggest races of the era, including the classic Il Lombardia in 1917 and 1918. But none of those compares to her history-making ride in the 1924 Giro d’Italia.
How she got in depends on whom you ask. Some say she simply registered as Alfonsin Strada, leaving the gender-defining final vowel off the entry form. Others believe Colombo was in on it from the start. After all, Alfonsina wasn’t exactly incognito; she had been racing and beating men for years. Colombo knew that her presence – a young woman whooshing bare-legged through the countryside – would add a whiff of sex and scandal to the race. Sure enough, of the 90 entrants, Alfonsina attracted the most attention. “They came to cheer, to jeer, to ogle,” Suze Clemitson would write in the Guardian 90 years later.
Colombo’s La Gazzetta was first to blow her cover, with a front-page article proclaiming Alfonsina “a lone woman among the men” of the Giro. In the 300-kilometer opening stage to Genoa she lost time to the leaders but finished ahead of many others. She completed the second stage to Florence ahead of nine men—not to mention the 25 riders who had already thrown in the towel. For seven stages and more than 1,200 miles she rode with the best male racers of the era. “Alfonsina was more or less holding her own in the second most important and perhaps most difficult race in the world,” writes cycling historian Bill McGann.
Then came Stage Eight, a 184-mile ride along the spine of the Apennines from L’Aquila to Perugia. The weather was abysmal, with blustery winds and heavy rain that turned the roads into a rutted, slippery mess. Alfonsina suffered numerous flats and took a hard fall that snapped her handlebar in half. All seemed lost, until a local farmer volunteered a broken broomstick. Alfonsina rammed the scrap of wood into the broken bar and continued on her way.
She reached Perugia late in the evening, well outside the official time limit. A fierce debate erupted among the judges, with some arguing she should be allowed to stay in the race, considering her bad luck and courageous riding. The savvy Colombo found a workaround. While the rules stipulated that Alfonsina must be disqualified from the competition, there was nothing that said she could not ride. The impresario encouraged her to continue, paying her room and board out of his own pocket. Alfonsina rode on.
She crashed badly on the longest stage, a 258-mile monstrosity from Bologna to Fiume, and when she finally reached the finish, bloodied and in tears, an adoring crowd lifted her from her bike. Four days later she rode into Milan, one of only 31 riders who completed the grueling 2,245-mile circuit that year. Writes Clemitson, “She had just completed a race that only a third of the 90-strong peloton has seen through to the end and she had outridden several of them. She had proved that a woman could survive in a man’s race. But she was never to ride the Giro again.” Colombo personally refused her request to ride the Giro in 1925.
Alfonsina continued to race in Italy and throughout Europe, both on the road and the velodrome. She raced exhibitions and even performed in a circus, but when her hour record finally fell after 26 years she went to the velodrome at Longchamps to take it back. She fell just short, covering 35.28 kilometers at the age of 47.
Luigi died in 1946, and in 1950 Alfonsina married Carlo Messori, who had taken numerous laurels on the track. Together they opened a modest bicycle shop in Milan, which Alfonsina ran herself after Carlo’s death in 1957. Every day, Alfonsina would ride her old racing bicycle to the shop, though in her later years she sold some of her trophies and medals to buy a bright red Moto Guzzi motorcycle. She lived alone in two dimly lit rooms, and told people she had a daughter who had married and moved to Bologna. It wasn’t true. She just didn’t want them to think she was alone in the world.
On a Sunday in September 1959, she left home early on her motorbike to attend the Tre Valli Varesine road race. When she returned that evening, she said to the woman at the door, “Oh how I enjoyed myself, signora. Such a beautiful day. Now I’ll take the motorbike to the shop and ride back on my bicycle.” The woman heard Alfonsina struggling to start the Moto Guzzi, and peered out in the street to see her stomping on the kick-starter. Suddenly the motorbike slipped from Alfonsina’s hands and she fell on top of it, dead of a heart attack at 68.
Words by Jeff Moag. Top Photo: Composite by Semana