In 1924, Alfonsina Strada became the first and only woman to ever ride a ‘Grand Tour’ when she completed the Giro d’Italia. An article on bikeraceinfo.com claims that she, ‘might well be the very greatest athlete you never heard of.’ She is a worthy role model for any women for her sheer grit and determination.
Alfonsina was born in 1891 to a peasant family near Modena in the north of Italy. As she grew famous, much of her early years were romanticised by reporters, making it hard to distinguish fact from fiction. However, it seems likely that she came from a large family – she was said to have had three sisters and six brothers. Her father was a labourer and the family were poor.
The 1890’s were the height of the craze which saw the bicycle dubbed ‘the freedom machine’. In cycling, some women were discovering the kind of liberation they had not previously enjoyed. After teaching herself to ride on her father’s bike (which he had traded ten chickens for) Alfonsina won her first bike race at age thirteen. The prize was a pig. She went on to win nearly all the girls’ races she entered, and many of the boys’ events too.
Alfonsina’s family did not especially approve of her passion for cycling. They were appalled to discover that she had not been attending mass as she claimed, but diverting to a nearby town to compete in bike races. She became known locally as ‘the Devil in a Skirt’. Alfonsina’s family wanted her to follow the conventions of the day and marry. This she dutifully did, marrying Luigi Strada in 1915. In addition to being a metal plater and engraver, Luigi was a bike racer. He bought his new wife a racing bike, and when the couple moved to Milan, he not only encouraged her to race, he became her coach.
In 1911, Alfonsina set a new women’s hour record of 37.192 km. Her record stood for twenty-six years, when she herself beat it at the age of forty-seven. However, you will not find Alfonsina’s name in the record books for this achievement; the UCI did not recognise the women’s hour record until 1955 (the men’s record dates back to 1893).
Before riding the Giro d’Italia, Alfonsina twice completed the one-day Giro di Lombardia. At the time, the race was theoretically open to all as the rules did not explicitly state that women were prohibited from entering.
Today, the Giro d’Italia is billed as a three-week, multi stage bike race. As the name suggests, the stages are primarily in Italy, although it does occasionally visit other countries. Much like its Grand Tour Cousins, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana, the modern Giro is a spectacle of skinny, lycra-clad men with eye-wateringly expensive bikes. They are accompanied by team buses, sponsorship vans and something of a fan- and media-frenzy.
In 1924, the Giro was very different. The race was first run in 1909 and one of the aims of the race organisers all along was to increase sales of the newspaper, La Gazetta dello Sport. The race covered huge distances over far fewer days than the modern race. The roads were often appalling and the bikes were heavy and had no gears.
The 1924 Giro was to cover a phenomenal 3,613 km over 12 stages, with an average stage length of 301km (that’s 187 miles each day for 12 days). However, there was a disagreement over money between the race organisers and the riders. The top riders wanted more money, and the organisers refused to pay. The riders reacted by refusing to race, leaving the organisers facing the prospect of no race. Emilio Colombo of La Gazetta dello Sport therefore offered ninety places to anyone who wanted to ride. The offer included paying the riders’ hotels and supplying food, but there would be no managers, masseurs, mechanics or team cars.
Alfonsina entered the race, as Alfonsin Strada. Some suggest that removing the ‘a’ from her name effectively hid her gender and, assuming that she was a man, the organisers granted her a place. However, it seems more likely that she was invited to enter, having already gained notoriety as a cyclist. Colombo’s main aim was to sell newspapers and he would have recognised that a scandal – such as a woman competing – would more than make up for the absence of cycling superstars in the race.
La Gazetta wrote of her, ‘Alfonsina doesn’t challenge anybody for victory, she just wants to show that even the weak sex can do the same as strong men. Might she be a vanguard for feminism that demonstrates its stronger capacity in order to demand the rights to vote in local or national elections?’. The paper presented her as an icon of feminism, although it seems that they were actually using her for publicity.
On the first day of the race, Alfonsina finished 74th, an hour behind the leaders. Such time gaps were common at the time and she more than held her own for the first few days. By the end of the third stage, more than a third of the field had dropped out, yet Alfonsina carried on.
Stage eight was disastrous for her, as it was for many of the riders. It was an appallingly wet and windy day and the Alfonsina repeatedly crashed and punctured. The pre-war roads of Southern Italy notorious for being almost impassable when it rained. She battled on, at one point fixing her broken handlebars with a broomstick. The stage took her twenty-one hours but she finished it; alone, in the dark and outside the time limit. The race referees excluded her from the rest of the race.
However, Colombo saw how Alfonsina’s fame had grown and he knew that his readers wanted continued stories about her. He offered to pay her bills to allow her to ride on as an individual. This was her opportunity to complete what she had set out to do, albeit excluded from the General Classification of the race. Alfonsina grabbed the opportunity.
The following day, Alfonsina crossed the finish line of the ninth stage in tears of pain and exhaustion, just twenty-five minutes outside the time cut-off. The crowd lifted her from her bike and carried her in triumph, and this motivated her to carry on.
Alfonsina was one of thirty-eight riders to complete the 1924 Giro d’Italia – the rest of the ninety starters had withdrawn or crashed out along the way. She was thirty-eight hours behind the winner of the race. However, she was twenty hours ahead of the official Lanterne Rouge (the last placed competitor).
Although excluded from the main competition, Alfonsina was presented with a 50,000 lire prize, raised by public donations. She was widely admired by the public, and known to her fans as La Regina della Pedivella (the Queen of the Cranks).
In 1925, Alfonsina applied to enter the race again. She was turned down. The dispute between the organisers and the (male) cycling stars of the time had been resolved. The organisers no longer needed a scandal to sell their newspapers and they saw no other reason why a woman should be allowed to ride. It was Colombo who personally turned her down.
Despite this disappointment, Alfonsina continued to race throughout Italy, Spain, France and Luxembourg for many years, as well as beating her own hour record.
In 1946, Alfonsina’s husband Luigi died, having spent the final years of his life confined to a mental institute. Apparently the 50,000 lire prize money was spent largely on his care. In 1950 she married Carlo Messori, a retired racing cyclist, and the couple opened a bike shop in Milan. Carlo began writing his wife’s biography but died before completing it.
Alfonsina followed bike racing for the rest of her life. She died in 1959, at the age of 68, of a heart attack as she leaned her motorbike against a wall when she returned from a bike race.
Alfonsina Strada may well be ‘the greatest athlete you never heard of’, but her name lives on for some dedicated fans. Her bike is one of a collection at the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel, close to Lake Como. Italian cycling historian, Paolo Facchinetti published a book about her in 2004. The book has been translated into Dutch, but never English. In 2010, Italian band, Tetes de bois, produced a song dedicated to her, ‘Alfonsina e la bici‘. Her story has also been put on the stage in Italy and a fictional account of her life, ‘Piu Veloce del Vento’ (Faster Than the Wind) was published in Italian in 2016.
‘It wasn’t the easiest of routes but I felt my strength, my limitations, my loves. I didn’t allow myself to become a prisoner of other people’s opinions or expectations. This was my life! And you know, in my dreams I continue to cycle, in my dreams my legs are young and the wind dances along with me singing: “Alfonsina, Alfonsina”.’