The year is 1924, and Emilio Colombo, the chief organiser of the Giro d’Italia, is compiling the start list of riders who will compete in his epic bicycle race – a 12-stage, 3,613 kilometre-long Grand Tour of the young country, starting and finishing in Milan.
To Colombo’s delight, Giuseppe Enrici, Bartolomeo Aymo and Federico Gay – some of ciclissimo’s biggest stars – are present on the 90-strong list and, with a final-hour organisational crisis meaning that some of the places had been filled by an open invitation to the public, it was initially without a second thought that he glanced over number 72, Alfonsin Strada.
Little did Colombo know that it would be this entrant who would become one of the 1924 Giro’s most celebrated stars, and by nature of that an early pioneer for the emancipation of women in cycling. Little did Colombo know that Alfonsina Strada had chosen to drop the ‘a’ from her name upon application – presumably to increase her chances of admission – and was in fact a woman.
Born in 1891, just outside of Modena in Italy’s industrial north, Strada’s young life is one that rings with familiarity when put in the context of cycling as a working class sport – as it very much was until recently. Her mother was a nurse and her father a labourer, and most accounts of her upbringing, despite likely being embellished by the media throughout her rise to fame, paint a fairly unprivileged picture. One can empathise with the journalists of the time though, and imagine a portly, tomboy-ish Alfonsina playing with her brothers in the sooty backstreets of Modena, stealing rides on bikes that her own family couldn’t afford to buy.
Strada’s first bike came when she was 10, after her father exchanged it for some chickens, and by 13 she was entering and winning races. Her successes gained her an invitation to the Grand Prix of Saint Petersburg in 1909, where her efforts were commended by the emperor’s wife herself, and in 1911 she set a women’s hour record of 37.192km, which would stand for 26 years.
But being a 20-something girl in 20th century Italy, a passion for cycling was also a weight to bare. Strada’s family’s expectations – where Alfonsina would find a husband, settle down and make a Lira or two as a seamstress – were nonetheless shelved. The public’s expectations, however – where women didn’t ride bicycles because of the independence and lewdness it represented – were bravely ignored.
Her marriage to Luigi Strada only cemented her ambition as a racing cyclist. Luigi bought her a new racing bike as a wedding present and, as a racer himself, began coaching Alfonsina. In 1917 she rode the Giro di Lombardia – one of cycling’s five iconic Monument races – and again in 1918, finishing 21st.
Then, in 1924, Strada got her start at the Giro d’Italia, the darling race of the tifosi, the passionate Italian fans, and the pinnacle of competition – greater even than the Tour de France – for Italian racing cyclists since its 1909 inception. Thanks to her crafty application, Strada’s female identity went unnoticed until the eve of the start of the race, by which point race director Colombo had recognised the added interest and exposure that a female competitor could bring to his race.
Strada made it through the first seven stages, but was one of many beset by the foul conditions on stage 8 which traced a challenging 304km course from L’Aquila to Perugia. ‘The pass was so terrible that the riders could not get their bikes through the mire and mess on their own,’ read a radio report at the time. ‘Almost all the participants were towed part way by motorcycles and cars. Alfonsina suffered terribly. She fell on a descent and had to ride for hours with a bruised, scraped and swollen knee.’
Strada had also been forced to substitute a broom handle for her handlebars, broken from crashing, but despite finishing the stage, she was disqualified from the race proper after finishing outside of the allotted time limit. Regardless, on Emilio Colombo’s request she continued on all the way to Milan, and finished (unofficially) 20 hours in front of the last classified finisher.
Alfonsina Strada died in 1959, aged 68, after riding her Moto Guzzi motorbike to the race Tre Valli Varesine, and suffering from a heart attack when returning it to her garage at home. Her memory, and contributions to women’s sport, are commemorated at the famous chapel at the top of the Passo di Ghisallo by Lake Como, where her bike can be found alongside that of Fausto Coppi’s and amid a nest of other cycling memorabilia – a shrine to cycling legends, where Alfonsina Strada truly belongs.