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Heroes of the Giro: Alfonsina Strada

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A new series... starts with a bang.

As we careen toward the start of the Giro d'Italia in less than two weeks, we will be looking at some of the less famous but amazing characters from this colorful race. Thus begins our Heroes of the Giro mini-series, and we start with one of the most remarkable of them all.

In the 1924 Giro d'Italia, some 90 participants set off from Milan for the twelfth edition of the race, a collection of 12 stages over 24 days covering just over 3600km. Thanks to a dispute between some of the top riders and the race organization, stars like Costante Girardegno -- the original Campionissimo -- and Ottavio Bottecchia were absent from the race. That left the startlist a little thin, so the Giro accepted some lesser characters, even offered to pay board for anyone else who wanted to ride. So some rather random characters signed up to ride, including a person listed as Alfonsin Strada.

Except this was a pseudonym for a woman named Alfonsina Strada -- the "strada" meaning street being her actual married name, having wedded a cyclist named Luigi Strada. But yeah, a woman. Started and raced a grand tour. Strada was given number 72, and only managed to conceal her gender until the day before stage 1, but upon discovery of her secret the race decided to allow her to proceed.

Backing up, this was no random trespasser on the race. Alfonsina Morini, a peasant girl from Emilia, had been racing since the age of 13, including against boys -- successfully. And at age 20 she set the hour record -- which one is uncertain, because she was disqualified for riding in an unladylike manner, suggesting it was the men's record she broke. Anyway, her distance was reported as 37.192km. She twice rode the Giro di Lombardia, then open to men and women, and finished 21st in her second attempt. She rode a pretty long list of races on the road and track. This was not someone who didn't belong in a bike race.

However, in 1924 Alfonsina was in her early 30s. All the more remarkable, then, that she would start off her Giro d'Italia placing 74th on the opening stage, and 50th and 64th on two more stages, well ahead of several men. By now, much of Italy -- deprived of seeing il Campionissimo -- were excited to read about a woman in the Giro.

Alfonsina Strada newspaper

On stage 7, however, her luck ran out, as she crashed in horrific weather, suffering minor bruises and a swollen knee. On either this stage or the next one (internet details are sketchy), to Perugia, Strada finished outside the time limit, thanks to more bad luck in the form of broken handlebars, which had to be replaced with a broom handle. The race referee applied the rules and excluded her from taking the start the next day.

This was devastating to the race organization, whose owners La Gazzetta dello Sport were selling a lot of newspapers like the one above thanks to Alfonsina. So the race accepted her official disqualification, but invited Strada to continue riding anyway. Following stage 10 to Fiume, when she again finished outside the limit by 25 minutes, thanks to her bruised condition and who knows why else, the tifosi nonetheless waited for her to arrive and carried her off her bike in triumph. This propelled her to try to make it all the way to Milan, time limits be damned, which she did. Her final time was 28 hours behind the winner, Giuseppe Enrici. But it was 20 hours faster than the official maglia nera, Telesforo Benaglia. However much she suffered, Alfonsina rode a very respectable race.

Strada remains the only woman to take part in one of cycling's three grand tours. She died at age 69, remarried and owning a bike shop in Milan, when a parked moto fell on her and sent her into cardiac arrest. (Damn motos...) She has a bicycle hanging in the Madonna del Ghisallo shrine to cycling. Hopefully with a broomstick for handlebars.