The Giro d’Italia takes place for the 100th time. It is hard to grasp that for over 108 years so many riders participated in this race and have ridden the roads in Italy. The first years were only covered in the newspapers, later it was broadcasted on the radio, today we watch the race on television and follow it through social media. There were heavy battles between riders, long sprints, scary descents and tragic moments during all these years. Of course there are some memories that we should never forget and those memories are beautiful stories from 100 years of cycling in the Giro d’Italia.
The Giro started in the year 1909, when the owners of the local newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport thought that it was a good idea to promote their newspaper a bit more by organising a cycling race. In that first year, 115 riders took off for eight stages. Only 49 riders made it to the finish in Milano. The first winner of the Giro d’Italia was Luigi Ganna. Riding a bike was easy for him, because he worked as a bricklayer and to get to and from his job he had to ride almost 100 kilometres every day. The Italian fans called him the ‘the King of Mud’. In that time, Italy was a poor country and the roads were not paved yet. Luigi Ganna proved time after time that he managed to get over these roads fast, no matter how hard it rained or how dirty the roads were. Sadly enough he only won the Giro this one time.
Another more known legend of the Giro d’Italia was Alfredo Binda, who won the Giro five times. He dominated cycling in the twenties and thirties of the last century. Sometimes he was asked not to come to the start of a race. People were afraid that he would win again and that it would take all the excitement away. Alfredo Binda first worked as a plasterer, but he would spent his free time on the bike. Together with his brother they explored the roads around their town on their bikes. Binda started racing in the south of France, but soon returned to Italy. He won the Giro d’Italia for the first time in 1925 and the Italian fans soon called him ‘the Champion of the Champions’. He was an excellent climber, but also showed that he could ride a good time trial and had the power to beat the sprinters. He has won 41 stages in the Giro d’Italia. That is a lot, but he does not hold the record. His second win came in 1927, the third and fourth in 1928 and 1929. His last victory was in 1933. This was also the year that the Giro added a time trial to the race for the first time. Of course, Alfredo Binda won the time trial. He dominated the Giro again, wearing the pink jersey for thirteen out of the seventeen days. He did not manage to win the Giro again after this. Young boys were getting stronger and he was not getting any younger. He quit cycling in the year 1936 and became a cycling manager. He eventually was the manager of two other legends: Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.
Just like Alfredo Binda, Fausto Coppi managed to win the Giro d’Italia five times. Coppi was born in the industrial north and worked as a delivery boy for a butcher. He was the one that delivered the meat to the customers and made a lot of kilometres on the bike. As soon as he started as a professional rider, he became very popular. In that day and age, he was a modern rider. He followed a strict diet and introduced the nowadays well-known training schedules. His first victory of the Giro was in 1940. He was only twenty years old. After this year, the Giro was not held until after the second World War. Some say that Fausto Coppi could have won a lot more races, if the War did not happen. Still, it did happen and after the War was over, Coppi made up for the lost years. He won the race again in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953. He has won 22 stages in the Giro d’Italia. He died tragically in 1960, the reason was an untreated malaria infection. In 1965 there was named a prize after him in the Giro, the ‘Cima Coppi’. It is the highest point of the Giro and the rider who will pass this point first, wins the prize. The prize still exists and is awarded every year. Fausto Coppi is also still the youngest rider to ever win a grand Tour.
His greatest rival during his career was Gino Bartali. It literally split Italy in two. While Fausto Coppi was a modern rider from the north, Gino Bartali was the catholic and conservative rider from the south, eating pasta for breakfast and racing every race he could. He first worked in a cycling shop and so he spent his days around bicycles. He has won the Giro three times, in 1936, 1937 and 1946. He has claimed 17 stage wins during his career in the Giro. Gino Bartali sometimes suffered from mental breakdowns and at those times he sometimes lost a lot of time on the other favorites. But he was a genius at times on the bike as well, leaving all the others behind and finishing solo. The rivalry with Fausto Coppi made him and Coppi better riders. During his career, he never trusted Coppi and even accused Coppi of cheating sometimes. In 1954 he ended his career and strangely enough, became good friends with Fausto Coppi.
We can call the Passo dello Stelvio also a legend. Fourty-eight corners, 2758 metres high, and the first introduction to this mountain in the Giro d’Italia took place on the first of June, 1953. The next day the race would finish in Milano. Hugo Koblet, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali could still win the race and started to climb the Stelvio together. Coppi attacked and neither Koblet or Bartali could follow. Coppi won on the top of the Stelvio and took more than three minutes on Koblet. The next day Coppi claimed his fifth victory of the Giro. This year the Stelvio will be a part again of the Giro d’Italia.
Who would have thought that many years later a Belgium rider would dominate the Giro five times? It is Eddy Merckx. He has won the Giro in 1968, 1970, 1972, 1973 and 1974. Five times. Claiming 18 stage wins. He wore the pink jersey for 78 days in total and that record still stands.
Mario Cipollini is a sprint legend for the Italians. On and off the bike. It was almost impossible to beat him in the sprints. Until 2003, Alfredo Binda held the record for most stage wins in the Giro, but it was Mario Cipollini who took over that record, claiming 42 stages in total.
The Giro d’Italia. Some say it is the hardest race of the year. Some say it is too hard. Some say that they cannot live without it. All this is true, but the Giro is the Grand Tour with passion and excitement. It is the first big race of the year and we are always keen to see the ‘big’ riders work for a good classification, to see riders sprint for the first place and to discover a new talent and watch him grow during the race. The Giro isn’t just ‘good practice’ for the Tour de France. It became clear over the years that it is a unique race with beautiful climbs and fantastic views. No wonder the Italian people are so proud of having this race in their country. They should celebrate and they do this by covering every city and little town in pink and by going out into the streets to cheer the riders on. It shows that the Giro is in the heart of the Italians. And although most of us were not born in Italy, there is a little bit of Giro in our hearts too.