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Heroes of the Giro: Costante Girardengo

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The original Champion of Champions

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Directeur Sportif Costante Girardengo kisses his new protege, Gino Bartali
Directeur Sportif Costante Girardengo kisses his new protege, Gino Bartali
AFP/Getty

As you drive into Novi Ligure, in Piedmont, from Torino, before you reach town you can take a right turn off the 154 onto the Via dei Campionissimi for a stop at the Museo dei Campionissimi for a retelling of the Fausto Coppi story. It's a short pedal from Castellania, where Coppi was born, and an even shorter one to the Villa Carla, where Il Campionissimo shacked up with the Lady in White. Novi Ligure is Coppi Country.

But the Museo dei Campionissimi is in plural for a reason -- the town is home to another star. Had you turned left off the 154 you would have quickly arrived at the Stadio Costante Girardengo, named for a two-time Giro d'Italia champion and the original Campionissimo.

[A quick note: Giro history is littered with people whose name possesses the tricky -gn- sound, like "-ny-", like Giro d'Italia founders Tullo Morgagni and Emilio Costamagna. I've said/written Girardegno -- girardenyo -- a million times. But it's Girardengo -- rhymes with tango. I'm not expert on Italian but this spelling and this sound "en go" is not at all common. So if you get tripped up, don't feel bad. I don't.]

Costante Girardengo

Girardengo is a mere two-time Giro d'Italia winner, but in those two victories he did enough to assure himself of the title Campionissimo, one only lent out by the Italian media on three occasions in history. Indeed, there is a brief legend about the name, given to him by a journalist named Emilio Colombo. [Brief aside: these stories come in part from the 100% essential Story of the Giro d'Italia by Bill and Carol McGann, which you can and should buy here.] Girardengo was known as Gira to some, and "the Novi runt" to a few others, presumably taller riders who didn't like losing to him. Girardengo was sitting at the finish line of stage 8 of the 1919 Giro when Colombo asked him what he would like to be called. In my imagination his answer would be "um, I just rode 261 hilly kms, and don't really have much of an imagination right now." Anyway, he left it to Colombo, who responded "Ti chiamero Campionissimo," I will call you the champion of champions. And so he did.

As to why the nickname stuck, what Girardengo lacked in quantity of Giri titles he more than made up for in quality. In performances that can never be matched, he won his first Giro, the 1919 edition, wire-to-wire, by winning eight of the ten stages and finishing second in the other two -- losing sprints to Gaetano Belloni and the deliciously named Oscar Egg. He won the overall by 51 minutes over Belloni, followed by Marcel Buysse. This was 1919, the first Giro after the Great War. Which is a good place to say, Girardengo was an Italian national champion in 1913 -- the first of nine (!!!) such titles, and he won a Giro stage that year, at age 20. He was primed for instant success, only to see the Giro not raced from 1915-1918, robbing him of years of results.

Still, he was a mere 26 when the race resumed, and dominated accordingly. From there he had a string of withdrawals, including bad crashes in 1920 and 1921, when his rivals Belloni and Giovanni Brunero attacked while il Campionissimo tried to hammer his bike back together. [If you screamed "polemica!" at the TV in the 2010 Tour de France, I urge you to read more historical stuff.] [Also, the rules about having to fix your own bike were so deeply stupid.] The first one, Girardengo was wounded from the start and had no hope of winning, but in '21 he had won the first four stages before dismounting to fix his bike in stage 5 after a crash. When the situation became hopeless he drew a cross in the dirt (of course) and declared "Girardengo stops here."

In '22 he did another thing that seems unbelievable today, pulling out of the race when Brunero got help with his own bike repair, but was not punished. I call this a "petulance of the past," a type of fit you can't get away with anymore but which gave the sport so much of its color early on. But by '23, fate was back in his favor, and Gira delivered another now-unthinkable performance with eight more stage wins and the overall Giro title.

That was it for Giro titles, as he was among those who pulled out of the famous 1924 race (featuring Alfonsina Strada), and he finished second in 1925 to a young fellow, name of Binda. But by 1928 il Campionissimo established a record of six Milano-Sanremo wins, and three more titles at the Giro di Lombardia. His Giro d'Italia stage totals were a whopping 30. And his nine national road titles combined with the above to make him a true legend to the home fans. [He only rode one Tour de France, which he didn't finish.]

Upon retirement he became coach of the Italian national team, and guided Gino Bartali to his legendary 1938 Tour de France victory, among other successes. He lived to his 85th birthday in Novi Ligure.