The 1914 Giro d'Italia: Il Più Duro Di Tutti

Before turning our attention to Tim Moore's Gironimo!, we take a look at the race whose route he sought to recreate.

"In the ideal bicycle race there would be only one finisher."
~ Henri Desgrange,
Tour de France organiser, 1903

"As long as one rider finishes the race, that's enough for me."
~ Armando Cougnet,
Giro d'Italia organiser, 1914

For many people, attrition is the true test of toughness when it comes to bike races. It's a simple equation: the more bodies broken along the way, the tougher the race. Why go around counting kilometres, time taken, metres ascended, temperature, rainfall and other things that make races tough when you can just count the departed and count the survivors? The closer the latter are to Desgrange's (apocryphal) quote (the perpendicular digit), the tougher the race.

By this reckoning the 1919 Tour de France was the toughest edition of the grande boucle, only 10 of its 67 starters listed in the final general classification. That was a Tour made tough by the deprivations of a war only recently ended. There was, though, a Grand Tour that is judged to have been tougher than that Tour. A Grand Tour that took place on the other side of the Great War, a Grand Tour laid waste to not by the effects of war but by those of weather. This was the 1914 Giro d'Italia, il più duro di tutti : the toughest of all.

That 1919 Tour suffered not just from the state of post-War France, but from the fact that many of the riders were only recently demobbed and thus not properly prepared. The 1914 Giro d'Italia, though, can not claim that excuse. On the start line in Milan that Saturday night / Sunday Morning in May when the sixth Giro began were the winners of all five previous Giri (Luigi Ganna, Carlo Galetti and Carlo Oriani) as well as two-time Tour de France winner Lucien Petit-Breton (1907 and 1908). Winners of Milan-Sanremo and the Giro di Lombardia, Milan-Turin, the Giro del Piemonte and the Giro dell'Emilia as well as Paris-Tours and Paris-Brussels were all participating (Ganna, Oriani and Petit-Breton, as well as the likes of Ugo Agostoni, Giuseppe Azzini, Alfonso Calzolari, Clemente Canepari, Luigi Ganna, Giovanni Gerbi, Eberado Pavesi, Giovanni Rossignoli, Giuseppe Santhià and Romolo Verde). You had the whole of the previous Giro's top 10 all again taking the start (Oriani, Pavesi, Azzini, Pierino Albini, Ganna, Girardengo, Leopoldo Torricelli, Giuseppe Contesini, Giovanni Cervi and Rossignoli). You had Camillo Bertarelli, riding as one of the isolati, who had finished a creditable eighth in the 1913 Tour. You had Paul Duboc who finished second in the 1911 Tour (a race he probably would have won but for being handed a Mickey Finn in the Pyrénées). You had, in short, the cream of Italian cycling.

1914giro003_medium
Signing on ahead of the start of the sixth Giro.

Ok, so Petit-Breton aside, it has to be admitted that there wasn't much non-Italian cream. Duboc was the only other French rider. Georges Goffin was the only Belgian to take the start, this at a time when Belgians were taking over the Tour. Only two other non-Italians joined those three. While the best of Italy's one-day races were being won by stranieri (foreigners such as Henri Pélissier in particular as well as Eugène Christophe, Odile Defraye and Gustave Garrigou were all winners in Sanremo and Lombardia), the Giro was very much an Italian race for Italians. Of the 47 stages that had made up the first five Giri only two had not been won by Italians, Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq winning a stage in 1910 and Petit-Breton one the following year. No one from outside of Italy had even completed the Giro, let alone been in with a shout of victory on the final day. Petit-Breton came the closest, taking the race lead on stage nine (of 12) in 1911 only to crash out of the race on the penultimate stage.

There are two factors involved in the lack of non-Italian success at the Giro. First, when French marques like Peugeot and Alcyon took an interest in the race they tended to favour local talent. And the second reason is why they tended to do that: the Italian riders had a habit of ganging up on the stranieri, forming impromptu coalitions in order to defeat a common enemy. (It would take until the 1950s for a foreigner to finally triumph in the Giro.) The Tour was being overrun by Belgians but the Giro was Italian to the core.

So, maybe not a stellar international field, but without doubt still a strong Italian one. So why so few finishers? The weather is the obvious answer. This was a Giro born in a storm - a 36-hour downpour that started early into the first stage - the after effects of which were still being felt even as the race concluded. But the weather alone would not have wreaked the havoc it did on the corsa rosa were it not for one other factor: the race route. This was a Giro with a percorso that actually merited the description given to it by one journalist: "A test for none but the strong - and the desperate."

The reason for this tough percorso lay in the Giro's financing. Eighteen years earlier - 1896 - La Gazzetta dello Sport had been born when Emilio Costamagna and Elisa Rivera decided to merge their existing cycling journals, La Tripletta and Il Ciclista, and create from the two a general sports newspaper. Rivera exited the enterprise within a couple of years, leaving Costamagna sole ownership. In 1906 - by which time the Gazzetta had been organising various sporting events for several years, including the Giro di Lombardia, which was launched in 1905 - Costamagna decided to cash in some of his investment in the paper and sold half his shares to Armando Cougnet, the paper's general editor. In 1907 the paper added Milan-Sanremo to the list of events it organised and in 1908, getting wind of Il Corriere della Sera's plans to launch a Tour of Italy, gazumped its rival by announcing they would be organising the Giro d'Italia in 1909. The Giro was a success, of sorts, but by 1911 - with the Italian economy heading south - Costamagna wanted out, so Cougnet bought the remainder of his shares. Within two years he was faced with books that wouldn't balance and was forced to turn to the publishing house Sonzogno Editore to bail him out.

The new owners were full of bright new ideas and decided to keep Cougnet on, tasking him with reinventing the Giro. In the five years since the launch of the corsa rosa the Tour de France had reinvented itself - partly in response to the Giro - by adding the Pyrénées and the Alps. Cougnet was tasked with doing something similar to the Giro. He couldn't do it by simply adding mountains, they had been a feature of the Giro from the get-go. So he had to find a different way of toughening up the race.

The Giro was not going to compete with the Tour on length - the French had a bigger geographic canvas upon which to draw - but it was about to take on the Tour in average distance:

Tour de France

Days

Stages Dist
(km)
Max
(km)
Min
(km)
Avg
(km)

1903

19 6 2,428 471 268 405

1904

23 6 2,428 471 268 405

1905

22 11 2,994 342 171 272

1906

26 13 4,637 421 259 357

1907

28 14 4,488 415 251 321

1908

28 14 4,488 415 254 321

1909

28 14 4,497 415 251 321

1910

29 15 4,734 415 216 316

1911

29 15 5,343 470 289 356

1912

29 15 5,289 470 289 353

1913

29 15 5,287 470 324 353

1914

29 15 5,380 470 323 359

Giro d'Italia

Days Stages Dist
(km)
Max
(km)
Min
(km)
Avg
(km)

1909

18 8 2,245 397 178 281

1910

19 10 2,988 388 192 299

1911

23 12 3,526 394 190 294

1912

17 *8 2,435 399 225 304

1913

17 9 2,839 413 231 315

1914

15 8 3,162 430 328 395

* Originally scheduled to have nine stages but one was cancelled.

1914giro002_medium

At 395 kilometres, the average length of the 1914's Giro stages was brutal, up there with the Tour's first two editions (which, unlike the Giro, were very much flat affairs). Five of its eight stages clocked in at between 420 and 430 kilometres. The shortest stage would be longer than the average stage length in any of the previous five Giri. At eight stages it would be the same length as the first Giro, but with nearly half as much ground for the riders to cover. Maybe in dry conditions more than eight riders would have survived it. But Cougnet forgot to put his statue of the Child of Prague out in the garden overnight and the rain it fell and it fell and it fell.

* * * * *

With such long distances to cover, the Giro's stages - as did the Tour's - all started at silly o'clock, deep in the dark of night. Each of the five 400-plus kilometre stages required starting at midnight. None of the other three stages started later than four o'clock in the morning.

The opening stage took the riders from Milan to Cuneo. If you head straight south-west from Milan, down through Asti (west of the road taken in Milan-Sanremo), that's only about 200 kilometres. The Giro, though, it didn't head straight south-west. It went north-west, up to Lake Maggiore, by way of Gallarate and Sesto Calende, and only then turned towards Cuneo, heading down through Biella and Turin before taking a detour westwards to Susa and then climbing up through Gravare to the summit of Sestrière, 2,035 metres above sea level. From there it was pretty much all downhill to Cuneo, by way of Saluzzo. All these detours north and west, they made the stage twice as long - and more - as the distance a flying crow would have travelled. Longer than any Giro stage before it.

As if all of that wasn't tough enough, Cougnet came up with a new rule to make things even tougher: the normally generous cut-off rules were revised and the back-markers could be no more than one hour per 100 kilometres behind the front runners. In other words, anyone reaching Cuneo more than four-and-a-quarter hours later than the stage winner, he was going home. You'd almost think Cougnet wanted to get rid of riders.

There was one other major change in the way the sixth Giro was run and that was in the way the winner was decided. For the first time in the race's history that would be on the basis of elapsed time, the Giro following the Tour in ditching the points system it had originally copied from the Tour for the first five Giri. The 81 hardy souls taking the start in Milan, they were really going to have to race this Giro d'Italia.

At the start in Milan, 1914's crop of girini were cheered on their way into the night by a crowd said to have been 10,000 strong. Barely 15 minutes later the echo of those cheers was replaced by something new: the sound of a storm blowing in, gale-force winds shot-blasting the peloton with rain and turning the dirt-packed roads into rivers of mud. And that storm blew and blew and blew for the next 36 hours. Through the night, all through the day, through the next night, and into the day after that.

Riding through the night, in pouring rain, it's not nice. And when the peloton reached the shores of Lake Maggiore things got even more not nice when the riders rode onto roads strewn with nails. Over in France, when you encountered nails on the road, they were typically put there by rivals, or fans of rivals. Tack attacks were tactics, a trick of the trade, part of le métier. In Italy, though, nails were as likely to the tossed on race routes by locals lacking in the keenness department when it came to races passing their doors, similar to those today who try to sabotage sportives. And these nails really disrupted the Giro, laying waste to support vehicles as well as bikes. All that could be done was to fix the punctures - in the pouring rain - and go on. Or go home.

1914giro006_medium

In our age of asphalt roads and neutral service it's hard to imagine the conditions endured by riders back then. The roads were dirt-packed, and so were awash with mud because of the torrential rain. They were also awash with detritus swept onto them from adjoining fields, causing punctures. With just a single gear the riders didn't have to contend with derailleurs clogging with mud, but they were slipping and sliding and falling off, damaging themselves and their bikes. The woollen jerseys worn by the riders offered no protection from the rain, just soaked it up, weighing them down and chilling them to the bone. Such harsh conditions winnowed the field.

For two-time Tour champion Lucien Petit-Breton Susa - about 300 kilometres into the stage and the start of the 40 kilometre climb to Sestrière - saw the premature end of his third tilt at the Giro. Stopped by a puncture - after already having had to fix several others - Petit-Breton asked his team car for a dry jersey, having already tossed his rain-sodden one aside. When he was told he had already gone through the whole supply the rider they called the Argentine threw a monumental wobbly, riding off into the morning, chest bared and tyre flatted. When his Atala team car caught up with him and tried to calm him down he climbed off and - in a scene echoed throughout cycling history by many a champion - tossed his bike against the car. And then tossed it against the car again. And again. And again. His anger spent he collapsed onto the side of the road. And quit the Giro.

With Petit-Breton went the rest of his Atala team-mates: Paul Duboc, the moral victor of a poisoned Tour; Giuseppe Contesini, Gino Brizzi, Giovanni Rossignoli; and Frederik Henry Grubb. Freddie Grubb, for those who don't know, isn't just the first Briton to start the Giro, he's the first Anglosphere rider to start any of the Grand Tours (the Australians Donald Kirkham and Iddo Munro were hot on his heels, starting that year's Tour having already ridden Milan-Sanremo earlier in the season). Grubb was a good British rider - riding against the clock - who was getting a chance to ride in the bunch. At the 1912 Olympics he'd picked up a couple of silver medals time trialling (again, an age of epic distances, 315 kilometres). Aged 25, turning pro was a big gamble for the Brixton-born Grubb, back then you couldn't revert to being an amateur if things didn't work out. But the Giro was, by all accounts, his first professional outing. And, it is claimed, his last. Meaning his entire pro career lasted all of 11 hours, the time it took him to get from Milan to Susa, at the base of the climb to Sestrière, where his Atala squad - winners of the Giro in 1909, 1910 and 1912 - abandoned en masse.

By the time the front-runners crested the 2,035 metre pass at Sestrière - the Giro's second crossing of this epic climb- it was fully midday. Back then, Sestrière was just a mountain pass, made famous by Napoléon a century before and Hannibal and his elephants longer still before that. It would still be another decade and a half before the Agnelli family of FIAT fame would start turning it into a ski resort and another two decades after that before Fausto Coppi wrote the chapter on Sestrière in The Big Book of Tour Legends. But already it was writing itself into The Big Books of Giro Legends, the rain at its base turning into sleet and snow as the riders climbed higher. Fewer than half the starters made it over the summit of Sestrière on a day that puts Monte Bondone or the Gavia in the shade.

A little after half-five that afternoon the first of those 40 survivors finally reached Cuneo, more than 17 hours after departing Milan. Angelo Gremo (Ganna) led the way, with Carlo Durando (Maino) and Alfonso Calzolari (Stucchi) 14 minutes behind him. Another half hour passed before Costante Girardengo (Maino) put in an appearance, followed closely by Carlo Galetti (Bianchi). Enrico Sala came in next, the first of the isolati (independent professionals), a little over an hour behind Gremo. Two hours after Gremo's arrival a total of 15 riders had made it to Cuneo. Another six riders appeared over the course of the next hour.

At the end of four hours 24 riders had reached Cuneo. At which point Cougnet's new cut-off rule should have cut in. But even he wasn't willing to cull that many riders this early in the race. Over the next three hours another 16 riders made it home, 40 riders in all. That number was later cut to 37 after three (Ganna's Pietro Fasoli and two of the aspiranti) were thrown off the race having been found to have hitched lifts to get to the top of Sestrière.

The last rider home was 19-year-old Mario Marangoni, one of the isolati, six hours and 54 minutes behind Gremo, aways after midnight. Everyone had given up and gone to bed by the time he arrived. As one of the isolati Marangoni was now responsible for finding his own food and lodgings: after midnight and with the day's storm still raging. Life in the Giro was hard on the road, it was hard off it too.

Of the 15 aspiranti who started - the Giro's cannon fodder, amateurs allowed enter in order to make up numbers - only three were left. Of the 33 isolati - professionals either without sponsors or with sponsors but not selected to ride the Giro - 14 were still in the race. Luigi Ganna was gone, despite having made it to the summit of Sestrière at the head of the race, along with Gremo, Durando and Calzolari. All six of Atala's riders were gone, Petit-Breton down to Grubb. Alcyon and Gerbi were still in with their sole representatives (Ottavio Pratesi and Giovanni Gerbi), Globo were down to two of their three starters, Ganna two of their five (race-leader Gremo one of the two), Stucchi three of their four (including Calzolari, who was just 14 minutes off the pace) and Maino four of their five. Bianchi had it best, seven of their eight starters still in the race, with Carlo Galetti 44 minutes off the lead.

* * * * *

For the 37 survivors of that epic opening stage, Monday was a day of rest, time to wash and dry their clothes, repair punctured tyres, and prepare for stage two. For the organisers, it was time to reflect. Cougnet was asked if he had any regrets, if maybe the percorso had been tougher than it needed to be. His reply borrowed a little from the quote so often attributed to Desgrange: "As long as one rider finishes the race, that's enough for me!" As the next seven stages unfolded, the race got closer and closer to having just that one finisher.

Having rested, the riders were set forth on stage two at the pleasant hour of 3.45 on Tuesday morning (most of the stages in that year's Tour also started around about three o'clock). With the storm having abated the riders had an easier time of it, and they also had an easier percorso, the race route taking them from Cuneo down to Savona on the Ligurian coast and then along by the sea through Sestri Penente, Genoa, Nervi, Chiavari, Sestri Levante, La Spezia and, finally, Lucca, after 340 kilometres of riding.

For Alfonso Calzolari (Stucchi), this was the day he won the 1914 Giro and carved his name in legend. Breaking away with two others he pushed on along the coast and built up a small lead. On the Passo del Bracco he made the decision to drop his two companions and push on alone. And alone he rode into Luca after a solo exploit of 120 kilometres, 23 minutes ahead of the next rider, Giuseppe Azzini (Bianchi), with Costante Girardengo (Maino), Pierino Albini and Rinaldo Spinelli (both Globo) little more than 10 minutes after that. Mario Marangoni again brought up the rear, this time seven hours behind the stage-winner (meaning he rolled into Lucca a little after one o'clock on Wednesday morning and again had to sort out his own food and accommodation as everyone else slept).

Of the 37 riders still left in the race at the end of the first stage, 27 were still there at the end of stage two. Among the non-finishers was the man who had led the race after that epic first stage, Angelo Gremo (Ganna), who was forced to exit the race after his one remaining team-mate quit and his team-boss abandoned him, saying there was no point in pressing on. When all the times were totted up, Calzolari was found to be leading the Giro, a whole hour clear of his nearest challenger (Girardengo, who had ceded half an hour to him on both stages).

With an hour's lead and knowing the final outcome you might now be tempted to think that Calzorlari's victory was assured, an easy thing. But in a race like the 1914 Giro an hour was no time at all, not with just two of the race's eight stages run. Apart from a couple of good performances the previous season - a win in the Giro dell'Emilia in the autumn and fifth place in Milan-Sanremo at the other end of the season - Calzolari's was not a name that had often appeared in La Gazzetta. And neither his previous record at the Giro, nor that of his Stucchi team, suggested he would still be there when the race returned to Milan. For Calzolari, taking the lead was the easy part, defending it was going to be hard, very hard.

Calzolari's defence of his lead on the road was a tough enough ask on its own, but quickly he realised he would have to defend it off the road too. On the rest day the commissaires slapped him with a 10-minute time penalty for some minor infraction of the rules to do with feeding (there was but one official feedzone on each stage, and Stucchi had provided him foot outside of that). For the commissaires to do that, someone had had to bring the infraction to their attention: Calzolari was going to be watched like a hawk by his rivals and if they couldn't beat him on the bike then by god they would put him under pressure with the commissaires, with every petty infraction complained about. In an age when rules were more like guidelines it was an easy enough way to pull back time.

Through the Wednesday the survivors rested. And prepared themselves for the longest ever stage in the Giro's history: 430 kilometres, a record that has never been bettered at the corsa rosa. Once again they were set on their way at midnight. And barely 15 kilometres into the stage came one of the greatest acts of madness in the history of the Giro, the suicide attack to beat all suicide attacks. The riders had been stopped at a level crossing but, for Bianchi's Lauro Bordin, there was to be no stopping. He slipped across the train tracks in the dark without being seen and pressed on for Rome alone.

When the peloton resumed riding, no one noticed the absence of Bordin, or those who did made no mention of it. It was only when they reached the control at Fucecchio, 15 kilometres later, that they learned about Bordin's bid for glory. With 400 kilometres of road still to ride the peloton decided to let him be. Passing through Florence at two in the morning Bordin's lead was up to 25 minutes. Dawn came around San Quirico, still 194 kilometres from the capital, the 23-year-old Bordin still out there on his own. Around about Narni, after enduring 350 kilometres and 13 hours of the loneliness of the long distance rider and with 65 kilometres still to be raced, Bordin's escape was ended. Four riders working together powered past him. They were joined by another four and the sixth Giro saw its first bunch sprint, eight riders barrelling for the line in Rome and Costante Girardengo taking the glory, his second stage victory in his Giro career. Bordin, he rolled in a quarter of an hour later, the tenth man home (the Bianchi rider did go on to win the Giro di Lombardia later in the season, which I suppose is some consolation). Remarkably, 26 of the 27 riders who'd finished the second stage were still in the race at the end of the third: the Giro's longest day had been far easier than many of its shorter ones. Even for the lanterne rouge, the day had been less difficult than its length suggests it should have been: Mario Marangoni was again the last man home, this time only four hours behind the stage winner, reaching Rome before ten o'clock that night.

1914giro004_medium
Following the 1914 Giro

After another rest day the fourth stage took the riders from Rome to Avellino, 365 kilometres of up and down roads requiring the riders be on the road at half past two in the morning. Girardengo - the star of the previous day's sprint and the closest challenger to Calzolari's crown, still 55 minutes off the race lead at the stage start - cracked on the climb at Monte Bove, the 21-year-old champion of Italy (not yet the champion of champions he would become in 1919) - losing nearly three hours on the stage and falling down the GC.

Calzolari, he lost three-quarters of an hour on the stage having suffered from sabotage by rivals: one wheel somehow suffered a puncture as he and several other riders shouldered their bikes to pass an obstacle blocking the road, another flatted while he signed in at the control in Avezzano. Who were the saboteurs? Well suspicion would have to fall on the power-house Bianchi squad, who just happened to have Giuseppe Azzini up the road, breaking away to victory. He started the day an hour and three quarters off the race lead but ended it just over an hour behind Calzolari. The Giro was halfway run - four stages down, 1,600 kilometres to go - and it was turning into a race again.

Though halfway run, the Giro had not yet reached its turning point, that would come during the fifth stage, on the road to Bari on the ankle of Italy's boot, the race's southernmost stop. Giuseppe Azzini again went on the attack, Bianchi seizing their moment and pulling back half an hour by Potenza. By the time he reached Bari and made it back-to-back stage victories his lead had doubled and Calzolari's advantage was wiped out. After nearly 1,900 kilometres of racing across five stages just six seconds separated the man who was now leading the Giro from the man who had been.

1914giro008_mediumHaving taken the lead - albeit by the narrowest of margins - it was now up to Bianchi to extend it, to put Calzolari to the sword and bring Azzini back to Milan as the race winner. And with four team-mates to assist him - compared to the one left for Calzolari - Bianchi should have been able to get Azzini home. But on another epic stage in the Giro's history they blew it. Rain, snow and sleet again blighted the riders as they toiled from Bari up to L'Aquila. Of the 21 riders who'd survived to the end of the fifth stage, just 12 were still in the race at the end of the sixth, a stage that took the winner, Maino's Luigi Lucotti, more than 19 hours to complete (that's two hours more than Angelo Gremo took in the opening stage, which was only eight kilometres shorter).

Among the fallen was the man who had brought up the rear on each of the first five stages, the 19-year-old Mario Marangoni. He had finished the fourth stage two hours behind the next-to-last rider. On the fifth stage he was one of four riders to arrive after the time-keepers had shut up shop and gone to bed. He abandoned during the sixth stage, ceding last place to one of the two surviving isolati, Maggiore Albani.

Also gone was Bianchi's race leader Giuseppe Azzini, star of the fourth and fifth stages. Somewhere in the closing 20 or 30 kilometres of the stage Azzini simply disappeared. Search parties were sent out for him and it was late into the next day before he was found, asleep in a barn, forlorn and defeated having suffered an epic défaillance. But before he was found the Giro descended into a farce that would see the race's final outcome not being decided until the following year.

At the end of the fifth stage Azzini had been leading Calzolari by six seconds. Behind them, Clemente Canepari - who had stated the race as Calzolari's Stucchi team leader but was now riding as domestique to the man who had usurped him - was two and three quarter hours in arrears. Globo's Pierino Albini was in fourth, three hours and 20 minutes behind Azzini, with Maino's Carlo Durando a minute behind him.

At Popoli, about 50 kilometres shy of the stage end in L'Aquila, Calzolari was 10 or 15 minutes up on Azzini, once again the leader on the road, with Luigi Lucotti half an hour up the road and gunning for the stage win. The riders had already been up and down hill all day, climbing through rain that turned to sleet and snow the higher they went. Now they were approaching the Svolte di Popoli, seven kilometres of switchbacks. Calzolari was accompanied by Canepari and Durando when, on the climb of the Svolte, they decided to take a tow from a passing car. Or so said the complaints lodged with the race commissaires by officials from the Bianchi team of Azzini and the Globo squad of Albini. These complaints carried some weight, a race official having witnessed the events and Canepari confessing to his crime. Calzolari, he denied it. (Canepari, who was third overall at the stage start (and thus second at its end, with Azzini gone AWOL), actually claimed that the car was being driven by a friend of Calzorlai's - even his own team-mates were taking their opportunities to dethrone him.)

Had the commissaires been consistent in the manner in which they meted out justice all three riders would have been thrown off the race. Three riders had been disqualified after the first stage for a similar infraction on the climb to Sestrière. But, then and now, the only thing consistent about the decisions of commissaires is their inconsistency. Instead of disqualifying Calzolari, Canepari and Durando, they decided to relegate them to last on the stage, given the same time as the last rider home. Plus another minute, just to show that the commissaires really meant business. That last rider home was the Benjamin of the Giro, the 19-year-old Umberto Ripamonti (he had entered the last year of his teens a month before the race started). He was the last surviving aspiranto and nearly three and a half hours down on the day.

A three hour time penalty should surely have ended Calzolari's hopes of victories. Except that the men closest to him on GC were being handed the same penalty, with the exception of Globbo's Albini, who started the day three hours twenty down, lost another hour and a lot during the stage and - even with the benefit of Calzolari's time penalty - still finished it nearly two hours off the race lead, still held by Calzolari. But Albini was now in second overall, the man most likely to profit from anything that took Calzolari out of the equation.

Thereafter, the sixth Giro was contested on two fronts: on the road, over the final two stages; and in smoke-filled rooms over the months to come. Those two final stages were relatively uneventful, both ending in sprints, with Albini coming out top in both. Another four riders abandoned on the sixth stage and so only eight riders made it back to Milan, one tenth the number who had left there a fortnight earlier (a sort of inverse decimation, I suppose). Some of the fallen came out to welcome the riders home in the Velodromo Sempione, where Calzolari was officially declared the winner of the sixth Giro.

And the came the legal challenges. The Italian cycling federation ruled that Calzolari should have been thrown off the race in L'Aquila and awarded the victory to Globo's Pierino Albini. A decade earlier Henri Desgrange had had to accept the judgement of the French cycling federation when they decided to strip Maurice Garin of his win in the 1904 Tour de France. Armando Cougnet, though, he was not willing to give in to anyone else's authority as easily as Desgrange had and he and his colleagues in La Gazzetta dello Sport refused to alter the Giro's result. The matter went to court. In February the following year La Gazzetta won and the Giro victory stayed with Calzolari. The Italian federation appealed and in July that same year La Gazzetta again won: Calzolari's Giro victory was finally fully assured, 14 months after the race had commenced. And the Gazzetta didn't just secure Calzolari's victory: the president of the Italian federation was deposed and Cougnet and his colleagues were able to install a regime more supportive of La Gazzetta and its races. The 1914 Giro, it wasn't just a big win for Alfonso Calzolari, it was an equally large victory for its organisers.

Stage-by-stage results for the 1914 Giro d'Italia Stage GC
Stage 1
Sunday
24 May
00h01
Milano (Lombardia) to Cuneo (Piemonte)
81 starters - 37 finishers
420 km
17h13'55"
24.37 kph
Angelo Gremo (Ita)
Ganna
Angelo Gremo (Ita)
Ganna
Major climbs: Sestrière (2,035m)
Monday
25 May
Rest day
Stage 2
Tuesday
26 May
03h45
Cuneo (Piemonte) to Lucca (Toscana)
27 finishers
340.5 km
14h26'15"
23.58 kph
Alfonso Calzolari (Ita)
Stucchi
Alfonso Calzolari (Ita)
Stucchi
Major climbs: Passo la Bocchetta (723m), Passo del Bracco (615m)
Wednesday
27 May
Rest day
Stage 3
Thursday
28 May
00h01
Lucca (Toscana) to Roma (Lazio)
26 finishers
430 km
17h28'55"
24.60 kph
Costante Girardengo (Ita)
Maino
Alfonso Calzolari (Ita)
Stucchi
Major climbs: Perugia (493m), Montebiccio (840m)
Friday
29 May
Rest day
Stage 4
Saturday
30 May
02h24
Roma (Lazio) to Avellino (Campania)
23 finishers
365.4 km
13h18'23"
27.46 kph
Giuseppe Azzini (Ita)
Bianchi
Alfonso Calzolari (Ita)
Stucchi
Major climbs: Monte Bove (2,169m), Avellino (350m)
Sunday31 May Rest day
Stage 5
Monday
01 June
04h00
Avellino (Campania) to Bari (Puglia)
21 finishers
328.7 km
12h50'27"
25.60 kph
Giuseppe Azzini (Ita)
Bianchi
Giuseppe Azzini (Ita)
Bianchi
Major climbs: Pietrastretta (575m), Matera (401m)
Tuesday
02 June
Rest day
Stage 6
Wednesday
03 June
00h01
Bari (Puglia) to L'Aquila (Abruzzo)
12 finishers
428 km
19h20'47"
22.12 kph
Luigi Lucotti (Ita)
Maino
Alfonso Calzolari (Ita)
Stucchi
Major climbs: Valico del Macerone (684m), Motta Montecorvino (662m), Vinchiaturo (629m), Passo del Rionero Sannitico (1,052m), Roccaraso (1,256m), Svolte di Popoli (750m), Cinquemiglia (278m), Poggio Picenze (756m)
Thursday
04 June
Rest day
Stage 7
Friday
05 June
00h01
L'Aquila (Abruzzo) to Lugo (Emilia-Romagna)
8 finishers
429.1 km
17h45'47"
24.16 kph
Pierino Albini (Ita)
Globo
Alfonso Calzolari (Ita)
Stucchi
Major climbs: Montrealle (950m)
Saturday
06 June
Rest day
Stage 8
Sunday
07 June
00h01
Lugo (Emilia-Romagna) to Milano (Lombardia)
8 finishers
420.3 km
17h03'29"
24.64 kph
Pierino Albini (Ita)
Globo
Alfonso Calzolari (Ita)
Stucchi
Major climbs: Clusone (647m)
Prize fund: (winner 3,000 lire)
Final Classification
Place Rider Team Time Age
1 Alfonso Calzolari (Ita) Stucchi 3,162 km
135h17'56"
23.37 kph
27
2 Pierino Albini (Ita) Globo + 01h57'26" 28
3 Luigi Lucotti (Ita) Maino + 02h04'23" 20
4 Clemente Canepari (Ita) Stucchi + 03h01'12" 27
5 Enrico Sala (Ita) Isolati + 03h59'45" 22
6 Carlo Durando (Ita) Maino + 05h12'12" 27
7 Ottavio Pratesi (Ita) Alcyon + 17h21'08" 25
8 Umberto Ripamonti (Ita) Aspiranti + 17h21'08" 19
Maglia Nera
8 Umberto Ripamonti (Ita) Aspiranti + 17h21'08" 19
Isolati
Enrico Sala (Ita) Isolati 22
Aspiranti
Umberto Ripamonti (Ita) Aspiranti 19
Team
Stucchi

Objectively, the 1914 Giro d'Italia was tougher than any other. The figure of 90% for riders abandoning is unequalled. Never have so few finished, never has the average stage length been so long, never has a stage been longer in distance than the 430 kilometres between Lucca and Rome. Never has a stage taken longer than the 19 and a half hours it took Luigi Lucotti to win the stage to L'Aquila. Never has there been a two hour gap between the first and second riders. Never has there been a solo break to equal the 350 kilometres Lauro Bordin endured on the road to Rome. Objectively, the 1914 Giro deserves to be called the toughest ever.

Subjectively, you might want to dismiss the 1914 Giro because of the lack of entries on Calzolari's palmarès, judge him an unworthy winner and this, by extension, an unworthy race. But here you have to realise that Calzolari's career was only taking off in 1914. The year before had been his first season as a full time professional cyclist, before that he had mixed riding and working in a factory making beds. In that first full year he finished fifth in Milan-Sanremo and won the Giro dell'Emilia. In between those two races he broke his collarbone, partly accounting for him making no impact in the 1913 Giro. In 1914, ahead of the Giro, he had finished tenth in Milan-Sanremo. He was tenth again in la Primavera the year after winning the Giro. And then came the war.

Three weeks after that 1914 Giro ended it was time for the Tour to start, on the same day that Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. The opening shot in the Great War was fired. Italy joined the war the following May, causing the Giro to go on hiatus until 1919. At least two of the riders who started the 1914 Giro didn't survive the war: Tour champion Lucien Petit-Breton and Giro champion Carlo Oriani. Calzolari, he survived, his war service having been in the catering corps. When he returned to the Giro in 1919 he was 32: the prime years of his cycling career were gone. But he was still fighting, despite that. In 1918 he had been third in the Giro dell'Emilia. On the opening two stages of the 1919 Giro he finished second, both times behind his new Stucchi team leader Costante Girardengo, who was about to become the first campionissimo.

You could say that Calzolari was unlucky to have been the age he was when the war began. But maybe you could equally say he was lucky: had he been younger he may have had a different war, one he wouldn't have come out of unscathed. What you can't do is dismiss him, rank him as an undeserving Giro winner, he earned that win, on and off the road.

* * * * *

1914giro009_mediumYears later, when Alfonso Calzolari was an old man and the 1914 Giro had long passed into forgotten history, when the slaughter of its opening stages had been pushed into the shadows by a bigger slaughter, years later when the height of epic on the Giro was judged by Monte Bondone, the historian Paolo Facchinetti went in search of the man who had become the Giro's Roger Walkowiak. He found him in an old people's home in Ceriale, on the Ligurian coast near Genoa, still riding his bike. The two talked and Calzolari told Facchinetti the story of his life and how he had won a Giro that deserves to be called epic. Facchinetti told that story in a book and Calzolari was once again fêted as an Italian hero. In 1975 he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. Aged 96, Calzolari died in 1983. Of the 81 riders who started that 1914 Giro, I have been able to find the dates of death of 48, including all eight who finished the race. Fittingly, given the manner in which he won his Giro, Calzolari was the last to fall, outlasting his peers even at the end of his life.

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