13 May 2016

The first Giro d'Italia

Tour of Italy cycle race ran from Milan to Naples and back

Photo of Luigi Ganna
An exhausted Luigi Ganna after
his 1909 Giro d'Italia triumph
A field of 127 riders left Milan on this day in 1909 as Italy's famous cycle race, the Giro d'Italia, was staged for the first time.

Those who lasted the course returned to Milan 13 days later having covered a distance of 2,447.9 kilometres (1,521 miles) along a route around Italy that took them through Bologna, Chieti, Naples, Rome, Florence, Genoa and Turin.

The winner was Luigi Ganna, an Italian cyclist from Lombardy who had finished fifth in the Tour de France in 1908 and won the Milan-San Remo race earlier in 1909.  Only 49 riders finished.  Second and third places were also filled by Italian riders, with Carlo Galetti finishing ahead of Giovanni Rossignoli.

The race was run in eight stages with two to three rest days between each stage. It was a challenge to the riders' stamina. The stages were almost twice as long as those that make up the Giro today, with an average distance of more than 300 km (190 miles). The modern Giro covers a greater distance in total at 3,481.8 km (2,163.5 miles).

Thankfully, the route was primarily flat, although it did contain a few major ascents, particularly on the third leg between Chieti in Abruzzo and Naples, which took the race across the Apennines. The sixth stage, from Florence to Genoa, and the seventh, from Genoa to Turin, were also classified as mountainous.

Ganna led the overall standings after the second stage but was behind Galetti when the race reached Naples.  However, after he won the Naples-Rome leg he regained the overall lead and held it for the remainder of the race, winning two more stages.  Rossignoli won two of the three mountain stages.

Picture of map of Giro d'Italia
Map showing the route followed by the first
Giro d'Italia in 1909
Galetti could count himself unlucky not to have finished at the top of the standings.  With a crowd of 30,000 turning out to see the participants return to Milan, an escort of mounted police was organised to clear a path for a sprint finish into the Arena Civica.  Just as the sprint was beginning, a police horse fell, causing several riders to crash and allowing Dario Beni, who had also won the opening stage, to pass Galetti, pushing him back into second place.

Ganna finished third but only after the race directors took pity on him after he suffered two punctured tyres, stopping the race to allow him to catch up.  The final points margin was so small that had Galetti won the final stage and Ganna finished only a couple of places further back, then Galetti would have been champion.

In the event, Galetti won by an 18-point margin in 1910 and defended his crown successfully the following year.

The Giro had been the idea of the sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, who saw an opportunity to boost their sales by giving Italy its own version of the Tour de France, which had proved hugely popular after its launch in 1903.  The paper raised 25,000 lira to stage the event and provide prize money and the starting line was outside its headquarters in Piazzale Loreto, the square that would 26 years later acquire notoriety as the place where the body of the slain dictator Mussolini was put on public display.

The popularity of the race grew rapidly and it has been staged every year since the 1909 contest, with interruptions only because of the world wars.

The controversies that have cast a shadow over cycling's recent past with the use of performance enhancing drugs were unknown in those early days, although cheating reared its ugly head in the very first Giro.  Three riders were disqualified before the start of the third stage when it was discovered they had taken a train for part of the Bologna-Chieti leg, while the French rider, Louis Trousselier, the 1905 Tour de France winner, had his chances scuppered outside Rome when spectators threw tacks into the road just as he was about to pass.

The main grandstand at Milan's historic Arena Civica
Travel tip:

The Arena Civica, which can be found in the Parco Sempione behind the Castello Sforzesco, is one of Milan's main examples of neoclassical architecture, an elliptical amphitheatre commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte soon after he became King of Italy in 1805. At one time the home of the Milan football club Internazionale, it is known nowadays as the Arena Gianni Brera and is a venue for international athletics, also hosting rugby union as well as Milan's third football team, Brera Calcio FC.

Travel tip:

Chieti is amongst the most ancient of Italian cities, reputedly founded in 1181BC by the Homeric Greek hero Achilles and named Theate in honour of his mother, Thetis. The city is notable for the Gothic Cathedral of San Giustino, which has a Romanesque crypt dated at 1069 but is mainly of later construction, having been rebuilt a number of times, usually because of earthquake damage.  The main part of the cathedral is in early 18th century Baroque style.  Situated about 20 kilometres inland from Pescara, the city consists of Chieti Alta, the higher part and the historic centre, and the more modern Chieti Scalo.

More reading:

Italy's first football championship

(Photo of Giro d'Italia map by Cruccone CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Arena Civica by Sergio d'Afflitto CC BY-SA 3.0)


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