clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The 1924 Giro d'Italia - Alfonsina Strada and the Fight Against Revenue Sharing

It may have all been a long time ago, but the 1924 Giro d'Italia was a lot more modern than most realise.

Alfonsina Strada
Alfonsina Strada

NB: This article originally appeared elsewhere in 2012.

It was all such a long time ago. In 1924 the cycling world was still young, though thought itself all grown up. Six Day track racing had been around for just shy of 50 years, place-to-place races had been going five or six years longer than that. Pneumatic tyres, chain-driven bikes, the free-wheel, these were all already old hat back then. Oh how the cyclists of 1924 must have looked at themselves, impressed at all they'd achieved, how far their sport had come. Did any of them then dare to imagine the state their sport would be a century on, that many of the same races they rode then would still be being raced well into the next millennium?

What, can you imagine, would the cyclists of 1924 think of what we've done with their sport? What would they think of a world in which teams bitch and moan about the need for race organisers to pay them more just to turn up and take the start? Of a world in which doping is seen as being an essential aspect of the sport? Of a world in which women are fighting for a fair share of the sport's limelight?

For the riders of the 1924 cycling season, if you could travel back in time and tell them that today, in 2012, these are the issues we talk about when we talk about cycling, those riders from nigh on nine decades ago would laugh at you. Loudly. Rocking back on their feet and almost falling over because of their laughter. And then they'd slap you on the back and pity you for your lack of imagination. For, in, 1924 cycling was confronting the very same issues. The sport then may seem distant to us now. The bikes were a little bit different, for sure. The roads were nowhere near what they are like today, of course. But the riders were the same, and the issues that they faced were – are – timeless.

Trying to turn the clock back and look at the 1924 cycling season isn't as difficult as you might imagine. Okay, yes, this isn't going to be a comprehensive look, we're not going to consider every race and every rider. Rather it's a trawl through what has been written about the 1924 cycling season already, stories told here, stories told there, stories pulled together from different sources to see how they fit together. To see if cycling's history has any lessons to teach us, or is just a source of some entertaining stories.

One of the biggest difficulties in looking at a cycling season so long ago is one of language. Cycling has its own language. We talk of things like the maglia rosa, of races like Ghent-Wevelgem or the Flèche Wallonne, of heroes like Coppi, Merckx, Hinault. In 1924, none of them were a part of cycling's lexicon. That – for me – has always been the hardest thing about looking at old cycling stories: the names mean nothing. For the purpose of economy, let's try this quick introduction to some of the names – the riders, the teams – that cycling fans in 1924 would have been cheering for:

Major Races And Their Winners, 1919-1923

1923

1922

1921

1920

1919

Milan-Sanremo
(1907)
Costante Girardengo
Maino
Italy
Giovanni Brunero
Legnano
Italy
Costante Girardengo
Stucchi
Italy
Gaetano Belloni
Bianchi
Italy
Angelo Gremo
Stucchi
Italy
Ronde van Vlaanderen
(1913)
Henri Suter
Gurtner
Switzerland
Léon Devos
Independent?
Belgium
René Vermandel
Independent?
Belgium
Jules van Hevel
Independent?
Belgium
Henri van Lerberghe
Legnano
Belgium
Paris-Roubaix
(1896)
Henri Suter
Gurtner
Switzerland
Albert Dejonghe
Independent?
Belgium
Henri Pélissier
Automoto
France
Paul Deman
Independent?
Belgium
Octave Lapize
Independent?
France
Paris-Tours
(1896)
Paul Deman
Lapize
Belgium
Henri Pélissier
JB Louvet
France
Francis Pélissier
Automoto
France
Eugène Christophe
Independent?
France
Hector Tiberghien
Independent?
France
Giro d'Italia
(1909)
Costante Girardengo
Maino
Italy
Giovanni Brunero
Legnano
Italy
Giovanni Brunero
Legnano
Italy
Gaetano Belloni
Bianchi
Italy
Costante Girardengo
Stucchi
Italy
Bordeaux-Paris
(1891)
Emile Masson
Alcyon
Belgium
Francis Pélissier
JB Louvet
France
Eugène Christophe
Independent?
France
Eugène Christophe
Independent?
France
Henri Pélissier
La Sportive
France
Tour de France
(1903)
Henri Pélissier
Automoto
France
Firmin Lambot
Peugeot
Belgium
Léon Scieur
La Française
Belgium
Philippe Thys
La Sportive
Belgium
Firmin Lambot
La Sportive
Belgium
Liège-Bastogne-Liège
(1892)
René Vermandel
Alcyon
Belgium
Louis Mottiat
Alcyon
Belgium
Louis Mottiat
Alcyon
Belgium
Léon Scieur
La Sportive
Belgium
Léon Devos
Independent?
Belgium
Giro di Lombardia
(1905)
Giovanni Brunero
Legnano
Italy
Costante Girardengo
Bianchi
Italy
Costante Girardengo
Stucchi
Italy
Henri Pélissier
La Sportive
France
Costante Girardengo
Stucchi
Italy
Source: Memoire du Cyclisme

Teams are going to be important to this story, so some brief comments about them. Back then, teams were quite different. For a start, they were, by and large, all sponsored by people directly involved in the sport, usually a bike manufacturer, with a tyre or component company as co-sponsor. (I've given only the main sponsor above.) For the riders, teams required their presence at certain races – where a directeur sportif and team support would be on hand – but at other races they were on their own.

Cycling was quite regional, almost nationalistic: Italian riders, typically, rode in Italy; French riders in France; Belgian riders in Belgium. There was some mobility, especially among the better riders – and where races were close to national borders – but cycling was still a rather local affair. This wasn't xenophobia, but a matter of economics: what was the point in a Belgian rider travelling all the way to Italy for a race if his winnings would be wiped out by travel expenses? Sponsors were also tied to their market. If they didn't sell in a particular market, then there was little or no point in them underwriting the expense of sending a team to race there. Particularly when it involved crossing borders, riders might get sponsorship from a local team for such events. So while, say, the Pélissiers typically rode for French teams, in Italy they sometimes raced in Bianchi's colours.

While the best riders got contracts to ride for sponsored teams, the rest could still enter the big races, riding as independents, responsible for themselves and riding just for the prize money, or the glory. In the Tour de France, these were the isolés, later the touristes-routiers. In the Giro d'Italia they were the isolati. They were responsible for finding their own lodging, sorting out their own food and looking after their own bikes. In the stage races, with the organised teams, the attending journalists, a smattering of fans and the race organisers all bagging the best hotels, sometimes even the simple task of finding somewhere to sleep for the night could be a major undertaking for an unsponsored rider.

Who were the teams of the moment in 1924? In France, that would have been Alcyon, Automoto, La Française and Peugeot. Alcyon had guys like Nicolas Frantz (25), Federico Gay (28), Louis Mottiat (35), and René Vermandel (31). Automoto had the likes of Honoré Barthélémy (33), Ottavio Bottecchia (30), Francis Pélissier (30) and Henri Pélissier (35). La Française had Arsène Alancourt (32), Albert Dejonghe (30) and Paul Deman (35). Peugeot could field the likes of Henri Suter (25), Philippe Thys (35) and Hector Tiberghien (34). There were other teams – such as Armor, Ganna, Griffon, JB Louvet, Labor – who could count on one or two riders each, but for the most part, the key French teams were those four.

In Italy the teams of the moment were Maino and Legnano. Maino had riders like Costante Girardengo (31) and Angelo Gremo (37). Legnano had Giovanni Brunero and Gaetano Belloni (32). Neither Atala nor Bianchi were fielding strong squads in 1924 but they were historic names of the sport.

The ages of riders is worth considering: riders were riding through their early-to-mid thirties. There's a couple of factors at play here: the first is the obvious one – a generation had been lost to the Great War. But there's also a sporting factor. If you think about what cycling was back then, this shouldn't seem odd. It was an endurance sport. Epic. How epic it should be was one of the key issues of the day. Particularly in France. Why? Because the Belgians were beating the French senseless.

The Belgians – flahutes to a man – rode like they were powered by Duracell batteries. They just kept going and going and going. Between Odile Defreaye, Philippe Thys, Firmin Lambot, and Léon Scieur Belgium ruled the Tour between 1912 and 1922. It took a rider who had a rocky relationship with Henri Desgrange to tame Flanders' lions and reclaim the Tour for France. That man was Henri Pélissier, winner of the 1923 edition of the Tour.

The difference between French and Belgian riders is evidenced in the ways in which Pélissier was praised. "The swift, noble whippets," l'Auto proclaimed following Pélissier's Tour win, had been provided "victory over the hardy, resistant grafters." Good, clean stuff, whippets and grafters, the hero ennobled and the losers praised. A lot more diplomatic than the headline printed two years earlier, following Pélissier's 1921 Paris-Roubaix victory, when l'Auto had run with: "The thoroughbred triumphs: Victory of the best." It was to that horse-breeding theme that André Reuze turned when he made his assessment of the outcome of the 1923 Tour: "The thoroughbreds have got the better of the workhorses." That was the way many saw Belgian riders: a bunch of dumb cart-horses, no style, no class, just an ability to go on and on and on. And a sport for cart-horses is where many thought cycling was going: super-long distances that were more and more about finding out who could be the last man standing.

* * * * *

Francis and Henri Pélissier, Federico Gay, Honoré Barthélémy, Ottavio Bottecchia, Costante Girardengo, Giovanni Brunero, Gaetano Belloni – those names are going to crop up a lot as the story of the 1924 season is told. But, before moving into the 1924 season itself, there is one other rider who needs an introduction: Alfonsina Strada.

Born Alfonsa Morini in Castlefranco, Emilia, Strada was one of four daughters and six sons born to her peasant parents, the second eldest child. When Strada was four her parents moved to Castenaso, near Bologna. Aged ten she discovered cycling, after her father came home one day with a bike he'd bought for himself, trading a local doctor some chickens for the machine. Strada soon learned to ride it.

When Strada started entering – and winning – bike races, locals began to call her the Devil in a Dress (Giovanni Gerbi, against whom she raced at least once, was known as the Red Devil). In 1907 she defeated Giuseppina Carignano, becoming the Italian champion. Though her parents tried to dissuade her from her cycling aspirations, a rider from her native Emilia by the name of Carlo Messori offered her encouragement and, in 1909, Strada was one of a group of riders who went to Russia to ride the GP St Petersburg, where Tsar Nicholas II presented her with a medal.

Alfonsina Strada

Alfonsina Strada, at the start of a race against Giovanni Gerbi in 1923

Two years later Strada established a new endurance record for women, riding 37.192 kilometres in an hour, beating Louise Roger's 1905 ride. The men's hour record was about to enter the era of the great Marcel Berthet/Oscar Egg rivalry, with five successful attempts on the record over the next three years, stuffing 2,727 metres onto Berthet's 1907 record (41.52 kilometres). But, popular and all as the men's hour record was, the UCI had yet to get around to recognising a women's hour record. It would be 1955 before the women got their own page in the UCI's record books, when Tamara Novikova rode 38.473 kilometres. At that point the men's record stood at 45.848 kilometres, Fausto Coppi's ride from 1942. A seven or eight kilometre difference between the men's record and the women's stayed more or less constant for the next few decades, each new women's record being about that far behind the male version. Looked at in that light, Strada's 1911 ride was more than respectable.

In 1915 she married Luigi Strada. While her family had tried to discourage Strada's passion for cycling her husband actively encouraged her: as a wedding gift he presented her with a new racing bike. Strada was by now somewhat famous, certainly within the sport in Italy, and even abroad: her popularity saw her racing on the track in France, in the heartland of Henri Desgrange's fiefdom, Paris's vélodromes, the Buffalo, the Vél d'Hiv, and the Parc des Princes. In 1917 – by which time she was living in Milan – Strada rode her first Giro di Lombardia, at the invitation of La Gazzetta dello Sport.

Unlike the British, the Italians had no formal rules forbidding women from racing in their events. They did have social conventions and Strada was breaking a taboo by taking the line in such an important race. But, with many of the best male riders of the day away fighting the war, the publicity – and the polemica – generated by Strada's appearance was welcomed by the race director, Armando Cougnet and his newspaper, La Gazzetta.

Thus it was that, on November 4 1917, a little after eight of a crisp autumnal morning, Strada took the line in Milan alongside riders such as Gaetano Belloni (Bianchi), Costante Girardengo (Bianchi), Henri Pélissier and Philippe Thys (Peugeot). Belloni was there by virtue of having been excused war duty because he was digitally challenged, having lost a thumb in an industrial accident when he was a textile worker. Girardengo, who was now 24, was excused conscription because he was, officially, an industrial worker. Thys was running some sort of haulage business up near Brussels. As for Pélissier, a few sources claim he was on leave from the army for this race.

From the gun Pélissier set a cracking pace and soon a group of six riders opened up a gap on the rest: Girardengo, Charles Jusseret, Luigi-Natale Lucotti (Bianchi), Pélissier, Thys and Leopoldo Torricelli (Maino). At Brinzio, heading out toward Varese, Giuseppe Azzini, Belloni and Angelo Gremo (Bianchi) were within sight of the break, which they soon closed in on, leaving a group of nine off the front of the race.

At Binago on the way back from Varese, Girardengo and Belloni lost contact with the break. Coming into Como it was a group of five – Jusseret, Lucotti, Pélissier, Thys and Torricelli – with a two minute lead over Azzini and five minutes over Belloni and Girardengo, who had by now been joined by Alfredo Sivocci (Dei) (Gremo by now must have been stuck in no man's land between the groups). At Cicognolo the two Belgians – Jussaret and Thys – tried to work the other three over and forge an escape, but Pélissier wasn't letting them away with that sort of move. The group of five crested the climb with a lead of three minutes and stayed together to the finish back in Milan.

Entering the track, Jussaret led the group of five. Torricelli tried to go clear on the last bend but the two Belgians nullified his move. Coming onto the finishing straight, Lucotti lost the wheel in front of him and it was looking like a four-up sprint, with Jussaret leading out Thys, a comfortable victory for Belgium. But Pélissier was watching and went with Thys when he made his move a hundred metres out. In the last ten metres the Belgian and the Frenchman were side by side, banging and barging one and other in the rush for the line. It took the blazers a bit of time to decide who got the glory, the Belgian or the Frenchman, in the end giving the win to Thys, much to Pélissier's disgust.

More than three minutes behind them Belloni arrived in a group of four riders, which included Gremo and Sivocchi. Girardengo was 15 minutes down on the day, rolling in alone to take tenth. That was the race at the front: as exciting a Lombardia as you'd find today. Of the 54 riders who took the start – 74 had entered but 20 were no shows – only 31 completed the 204 kilometre course. Strada was not among the abandons: an hour and 34 minutes behind Thys, the light gone and the time getting on for five in the evening, Strada raced into the vélodrome alongside two other riders, Pietro Sigbaldi and Gino Auge. Officially, Strada was 29th and last on the day. (Two riders who finished ahead of her – A Necchi and Davide Chiesi, who were 37 and 47 minutes behind Thys – were disqualified for failing to sign in properly at the finish.)

Giro di Lombardia 1917
(204 kms – 29.28 kph)
Pos Name Country Time
1 Philippe Thys
Peugeot
Belgium 6h58'02"
2 Henri Pélissier France à 00″
3 Leopoldo Torricelli
Maino
Italy à 00″
4 Luigi Natale Lucotti
Bianchi
Italy à 00″
5 Charles Jusseret Belgium à 00″
6 Gaetano Belloni
Bianchi
Italy à 3'25"
7 Angelo Gremo
Bianchi
Italy à 3'25"
8 Romeo Poid Italy à 3'25"
9 Alfredo Sivocci
Dei
Italy à 3'25"
10 Costante Girardengo
Bianchi
Italy à 15'00"
11 Ruggero Ferrario Italy à 19'00"
12 Arturo Ferrario Italy à 19'00"
13 Pietro Bestetti Italy à 19'00"
14 Camillo Bertarelli Italy à 31'00"
15 Pietro Aymo Italy à 31'00"
16 Lauro Birdin Italy à 47'00"
17 Michele Robotti Italy à 47'00"
18 Alessandro Tonani Italy à 47'00"
19 Giuseppe Bottazzi Italy à 47'00"
20 Luigi Cuppi Italy à 47'00"
21 Paolo Restelli Italy à 47'00"
22 Attilio Caldara Italy à 48'00"
23 Virgilio Zinnaro Italy à 48'00"
24 Angelo Tommasini Italy à 48'00"
25 Gino Masseroni Italy à 1h32'00"
26 Luigi Bassi Italy à 1h33'00"
27 Pietro Sigbaldi Italy à 1h34'00"
28 Gino Auge Italy à 1h34'00"
29 Alfonsina Strada Italy à 1h34'00"
Source: Museo Ciclismo

The following year Strada again rode Il Lombardia, run just a week after the war officially ended. The 1918 Lombardia was shorter – only 190 kilometres – and a much more sedate affair than the previous year's edition. This time it was run off under grey skies but again without rain. At 7.45 in the morning, 36 of the 40 registered entrants took the line. Strada was again racing alongside some well-known riders, including Belloni (Bianchi) and Sivocci (Dei) as well as Legnano's Carlo Galetti (the winner of the 1910, 1911 and (unofficially) 1912 Giri d'Italia). Also taking the line was Eberardo Pavesi, who had been part of the Atala squad that won the 1912 corsa rosa and would soon go on to become a famous direttore sportivo.

The gruppo rode lazily until they hit Brinzoni when a group of seven, which included Belloni and Galetti, opened a small lead. Coming back over Brinzoni from Varese fourteen riders were at the front. Belloni tried to get away on his own at Cappelletta but was quickly brought back. At the start of Cicognola the gruppo had grown to twenty strong. By the bottom of the descent that was down to a dozen riders. With 20 kilometres to go these twelve held a lead of four minutes over the chase behind. They stayed clear until the finish.

In the last kilometre Belloni went long, with Sivocci hot on his heels. A dog slipped onto the course. Lucotti went down. Belloni and Sivocci were by now contesting the sprint, ignorant of what was happening behind them. Just 20 metres from the line Belloni went clear and took the victory salute, with Sivocci close behind. Galetti rounded out the podium. Twenty-three minutes down on Belloni's time, a group of seven brought up the rear of the race. This time the Regina della Pedivella, the Queen of the Cranks, finished second last. But at least she had, again, finished.

Giro di Lombardia 1918
(190 kms – 26.636 kph)

Pos

Name

Country

Time

1 Gaetano Belloni
Bianchi
Italy 7h8'00"
2 Alfredo Sivocci
Dei
Italy à 00"
3 Carlo Galetti
Legnano
Italy à 00"
4 Alexis Michiels Belgium à 0"
5 Leopoldo Torricelli
Dei
Italy à 00"
6 Giuseppe Azzini Italy à 00"
7 Clemente Canepari
Stucchi
Italy à 00"
8 Lauro Birdin
Bianchi
Italy à 00"
9 Romeo Poid Italy à 00"
10 Arturo Ferrario Italy à 00"
11 Ruggero Ferrario Italy à 00"
12 Mario Santagostino Italy à 4'00"
13 Giovanni Marchese Italy à 6'00"
14 Pietro Bestetti Italy à 7'00"
15 Eberardo Pavesi Italy à 18'00"
16 Pietro Aymo Italy à 23'00"
17 Francesco Marchese Italy à 23'00"
18 Mario Mosca Italy à 23'00"
19 Vincenzo Accomolli Italy à 23'00"
20 Dario Balboni Italy à 23'00"
21 Alfonsina Strada Italy à 23'00"
22 Carlo Colombo Italy à 23'00"
Source: Museo Ciclismo

Strada's two rides in Lombardia had been because the race organisers welcomed the publicity her presence brought them during two war-ravaged editions of their race. Once the war was over, they no longer needed her: the boys were back from the front. Of the 86 riders who started the 1919 Giro d'Italia, 42 of them were ex-armed forces. Strada was surplus to requirements.

Then, in 1924, La Gazzetta dello Sport needed Strada one more time. A war – with the teams – was raging, over the issue of appearance fees. Only this time Colombo and Cougnet didn't need Strada to ride the Giro di Lombardia. They wanted her to ride the Giro d'Italia itself.

* * * * *

The reason Emilio Colombo and Armando Cougnet invited Alfonsina Strada to ride the 1924 Giro d'Italia was simple: the big teams were pressing the Giro organisers to pay appearance fees simply for starting the race. The Giro was refusing their request. So the big teams were threatening to boycott the Giro.

Appearance fees were – still are – a part of cycling. If you can't count on the stars to willingly ride your race, sometimes you just have to cross their palms with silver in order to ensure their presence. When Lance Armstrong returned to the peloton in 2009, his palm was greased generously by the organisers of many races, including the Giro d'Italia. But there's a world of difference between paying off a star or two to grace your race with their presence and having to pay off whole teams who should be entering your race as a matter of course. There is also a world of difference between buying in a star now and then and having to fork out for both stars and bit-part actors every single year.

One can presume that, once the teams had won their battle with the Giro d'Italia, they would soon turn their attention to La Gazzetta's other races, particularly Milan-Sanremo and the Giro di Lombardia. Colombo and Cougnet were in no mood to meet these early revenue-sharing demands. La Gazzettawas already paying generous prize money. When it was launched, the race was trumpeted (hyperbolically) as the richest in the world, with a prize fund of 25,000 lire. By the mid-twenties, that was up around 100,000 lire annually between 1923 and 1926. In the same period, the Tour's prize fund had grown from 25,000 French francs in 1909 to 100,000 in 1924. (Exchange rates in 1924: approx 87 French francs to the pound, 19 to the dollar; 102 lire to the pound, 23 to the dollar.) As far as Colombo and Cougnet were concerned, they were already being more than generous when it came to paying people to ride the Giro. In the pages on La Gazzetta dello Sport race director Cougnet accused the teams of "behaving like spoilt theatre actors."

This, of course, wasn't the first time the teams at the Giro could be accused of behaving like spoilt theatre actors, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. Bianchi, in particular, had a reputation for throwing strops at the Giro. In the second race, 1910, the whole Bianchi squad had withdrawn on the second stage, for reasons unknown. In 1914 Atala went home before the end of the first stage when Lucien Petit-Breton threw a wobbly. And 1922 saw one of the best strops in Giro history.

It's a long and somewhat convoluted story, but at its heart is the simple rule that technical assistance was, back then, outside the rules. So Legnano's Giovanni Brunero was clearly breaking the rules when, having flatted, he took a wheel change from teammate Alfredo Sivocci (who then took a wheel change from teammate Pietro Linari, who took a wheel from the next Legnano rider to turn up, Franco Giorgetti, who had to wait for Ruggero Ferraro in order to get a crossbar to the next control station).

Maino, who were expecting Costante Giraradengo to do the business for them, and Bianchi, who were resting their hopes on Gaetano Belloni, both jumped at the chance to get a serious threat like Brunero turfed off the race. They both complained about his illegal wheel change. The commissaires listened to them. Brunero was out. Legnano appealed. Not for nothing was their DS, Eberardo Pavesi, known as l'avvocat. Pending his appeal, Brunero was back in the race. It was like an Italian hokey-kokey.

It took the Italian cycling fed another two stages to decide Brunero's fate: a 25-minute time penalty. With the hills still looming and Brunero a scalatore of some skill, that time penalty was little more than a slap on the wrist. Realising they were about to get their arses kicked again – Brunero had won the previous year – both Maino and Bianchi used the affair as an excuse to pull out of the race, muttering loudly about the unfairness of it all as they left.

With the teams having incidents such as these in their past, and now threatening to not even take the start unless they got what they wanted, you can see why Cougnet was minded to call them spoilt theatre actors.

The teams, of course, couldn’t imagine Colombo and Cougnet not bending to their will. They themselves had been there at the birth of the Giro: Atala got word that Bianchi, along with the Corriere della Sera, intended to launch a Tour of Italy, and took the news to La Gazzetta dello Sport, who then gazumped their rivals by pre-emptively announcing the birth of the Giro d'Italia.

From the outset the Giro had declared itself a race for teams, unlike the Tour de France, where Henri Desgrange was fighting a long and losing battle with the mighty marques. The Giro had even once been run purely for teams, in 1912, when (technically) there was no individual winner. But while that race was won by Atala, it was Carlo Galetti who was the real star and still gets the credit for the victory. La Gazzetta quickly realised that the tifosi cheered for riders, not teams and reverted to individual winners thereafter. Even so, the teams, figured they had the weight of history on their side and stuck to their guns: appearance fees, or else.

Colombo and Cougnet were having none of this and dug their heels in: no appearance fees, no matter how big the stars. The race made the stars, not the other way round, a point many race organisers had proved down through the years, especially Pierre Giffard (at the 1891 Paris-Brest-Paris) and Henri Desgrange and Géo Lefèvre (at the Tour). If the stars of the day didn't want to ride their race, then Colombo and Cougnet would just have to create new stars to replace them.

The teams continued to withhold their stars, figuring Colombo and Cougnet would cave, that they simply had to be faking their moral indignation. They weren't. Thumbing their noses at the teams, Colombo and Cougnet called on Strada. The Queen of the Cranks was in and the stars were definitely out.

That the teams were willing to pass up the biggest publicity opportunity of the season demonstrates that they did at least believe in what they were arguing for, that this wasn't just about petty posturing and silly name-calling. The fact is, cycling was turning into a very expensive sport, and the people who funded it were being bled dry by the demands it was putting on them.

Back at that first Giro in 1909, Atala hadn't just spiked the guns of Bianchi in the birth of the race by taking the news to La Gazzetta. They had also snatched Luigi Ganna from under Bianchi's nose, topping the 200 lire a month Bianchi were paying him with an offer of 250 lire. Ganna signed on the dotted line and then went on to win the inaugural Giro for Atala. (Ganna actually finished the race 37 minutes behind Bianchi's Giovanni Rossignoli – who was still racing in 1924 – but the early Giri were based on points, not time, and the Bianchi rider placed fourth on GC.) The next year it was an Atala lock-out on the podium (Bianchi had thrown a hissy fit and left the race), with Ganna finishing third, behind Eberardo Pavesi and Carlo Galetti. Bianchi had to wait until 1911 before they got their first Grand Tour victory, they having lured Galetti away from Legnano (who had lured him away from Atala) by offering him yet more money. A year later Atala upped the ante and had Galetti back on board. In Italy in those days, the best riders were very mobile and regularly changed teams.

Throughout the sport, salaries had spiralled before the war as teams, awash with cash from a booming bicycle trade, outbid one and other for the stars of the moment. The world was rich and the riders reaped the reward. The war brought all that crashing down. Coming out of the war, the main French marques – Alcyon, Automoto, La Française, Labor and Peugeot – banded together under the title La Sportive, which was ruled over by the man they called the Marshal, Aphonse Baugé. No longer capable individually of financing strong teams, collectively they were able to exert a stranglehold on French cycling and keep the lesser lights of the French bicycle industry in their proper place. Most riders signed to La Sportive rode for expenses, only a select few receiving a salary. Even for those who were paid monthly, what they received was tiny compared with what was being paid before the war. Henri Pélissier, for instance, was earning 3,000 francs a month before the war at Peugeot. After the war La Sportive were paying him just 300 francs a month.

La Sportive lasted for three years, before being broken up in 1922. Or partly broken up: the member marques created a cartel, setting salary and budget caps. For a cartel to work, though, two things need to happen: the members need to abide by the rules; and the cartel has to be strong enough to strangle non-members before they can become a threat. In France, La Sportive's members failed first at the latter, the Pélissiers helping JB Louvet rise to power, and then at the former, when Automoto broke ranks – and the salary cap – and outbid Louvet for the services of the Pélissiers. By 1924, the French cartel had more or less crumbled.

In Italy at this time Bianchi and Atala were relatively weak on the road, their best riders having been lured away from them. But they still carried political clout. The real teams of the moment were Maino and Legnano. The argument with the Giro organisers over appearance fees was being led by Bianchi and Atala and was supported by Maino. Legnano … well Legnano managed to hedge their bets by both supporting and not supporting the boycott.

The man behind the Legnano marque was Emilio Bozzi. He had bought the Legnano marque from Vittorio Rossi shortly after the end of the war. In 1924 he was one of the rising men of Italian cycling. And with Pavesi as his DS he was writing the name of Legnano into Italian cycling's history books. In 1924, Bozzi and Pavesi were fielding a team of champions: in their pay at this time were the winners of the 1920-22 Giri – Gaetano Belloni (1920) and Giovanni Brunero (1921 and 1922) – as well as Pietro Linari, who was Italy's sprinter par excellence. They also had Giuseppe Enrici, an American-born Italian who, in his first season just two years earlier, had finished on the bottom step of the Giro's podium.

Bozzi and Pavesi withheld Brunero, a two-time winner, from the Giro. Were they supporting the boycott? Obviously that position could be argued. But the reality is that Brunero was being saved for a serious tilt at the Tour de France, which so far no Italian rider had been able to win (the best Italian riders typically having ridden the Giro before the Tour). A large number of Bozzi's riders did turn up for the Corsa Rosa, including Belloni, Enrici, Bartolomeo Aymo, Arturo Ferrario, Alfredo Sivocci, Ermano Vallazza, and Adriano Zanaga. Belloni wouldn't figure in the race after the opening stage but Aymo, Enrici, Ferrario, Sivocci, and Zanaga would all feature prominently.

Also absent was one of the stars of the 1923 Giro, Ottavio Bottecchia, who was riding for the French Automoto squad. Automoto had signed the Italian the previous year partly because they were making a move on the Italian market, and having a native rider in their ranks would help them get column inches in the Italian press. But they were still a French team at heart: the Tour was their race, not the Giro.

In the absence of the major stars – Girardengo, Brunero, Bottecchia – La Gazzetta sought to encourage individuals to enter the race. Technically, all the riders in the 1924 Giro were isolati, riding without the support of a team network, but many riders – including the lads from Legnano – were still sponsored and the sponsor would still get a boost from whatever success they could achieve in the race. But, without the major riders from the mighty marques, the Giro organisers still needed to find a way to entice the lesser lights of the sport to enter their race. Other race organisers before them had already faced similar problems in cycling's short history.

Back in the nineteenth century, Véloce Sport organised the first Bordeaux-Paris race, a 575 kilometre jaunt for the two-wheeled stars of the day. The real stars of the day happened to be British, and they managed to nobble the opposition early by insisting they wouldn't race against professionals. The British sense of fair play, the fabled Corinthian Spirit and all that what, what, what? Hardly. The British just knew the power they held over Véloce Sport: if they demanded that the race exclude pros, Véloce Sport would bow to their will. They also knew that their real opposition – the French riders – all rode as pros. Defeating them before the race even got underway was far, far easier than defeating them on the road. And once the French riders were barred from riding their own race, the British were able to sign them up and set them to work on pacing duty (most early races featured some form of pacing: the first Tour allowed pacing on selected stages, Paris-Roubaix was still being paced as late as 1909, and – of course – pacing was a feature of Bordeaux-Paris right through to its demise in the 1980s).

When Pierre Giffard at Le Petit Journal saw the success of Bordeaux-Paris, he decided to launch his own race: Paris-Brest-Paris, a mere 1,200 kilometres of pedalling. But Giffard had seen the way the British riders had bent Véloce Sport to their will and he decided he wasn't going to let the teams and the riders hold him over a barrel. Giffard figured he actually held the upper hand: he was a media man who didn't just believe in the power of the pen, he knew full well the power of the printing press. He appealed to one of his readers' most base instincts: patriotism. Paris-Brest-Paris would be a French race for French riders. Giffard then proceeded to talk up the fact that rank amateurs would probably outride the stars of the day. Not only did this ensure that the stars of the day would have a point to prove, but it also encouraged a lot of amateurs to suffer delusions of grandeur. Paris-Brest-Paris' entrants topped 600, with 200 of them actually turning up for the start. And at the end of it Charles Terront – one of the French pros the Brits had sought to nobble in Bordeaux-Paris – won the race. As he steamed over the Porte Maillot, 10,000 people cheered his progress. Giffard had played a blinder: the public loved his race and a real star had won it.

Skip the story forward a couple of decades. When Géo Lefèvre hit upon the bright idea of the Tour de France, L'Auto Vélo had to face up to the fact that their race might be too tough for the stars of the day, most of whom rode short distances on the track. Not a problem, they decided, they would make the men who did ride it into stars. But they still had to entice enough men to get on their bikes for such a crazy endeavour as a race around France. In the end, the only way they could do this was by lowering the entrance fee, shortening the race, and raising the per diem that was being paid to all participants.

History, then, was affording Colombo and Cougnet at least two examples for dealing with their problem: patriotism and filthy lucre. Neither was really a runner in 1920s Italy, so they found a third way: they figured that the quickest way to a man's heart was through his stomach. As part of their lure they published details of how much food they were providing for participants: chickens (600), other meat (750 kilograms), eggs (7,200), bananas (4,800), bottles of mineral water (2,000), and butter (50 kilograms) along with assorted bread, jams, biscuits, chocolate, apples, and oranges.

On a daily basis, each rider was getting 250 grams of meat, a quarter of a roasted chicken, two sandwiches of prosciutto and butter, two jam sandwiches, a hundred grams of biscuits, 50 grams of chocolate, three eggs, two bananas, and a litre of mineral water. Today, you might question whether you'd be willing to ride to the shops for such fare, but in 1924 Italy, that was a veritable feast for the cycling classes. The Giro got its desired number of entrants. Ninety riders, all officially riding as isolati, would leave Milan on May 10th, with Alfonsina Strada among them.

* * * * *

In the 1920s, cycling had but two Grand Tours. The Spanish were only slowing getting into gear, in 1924 launching a tour of the Basque Country. A Tour of Spain itself was still a long, long way off. For the two Grand Tours that did exist, the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia, a comfortable formula had established itself: racing days alternating with rest days.

The racing days themselves were mammoth affairs, the shortest about the length of the longest stage in modern Grand Tours, the longest more than 400 kilometres. Riders would start in the dead of night, racing over roads that were little more than rock-strewn dirt tracks, to finish in the mid-afternoon, often in crowd-filled vélodromes, hopefully in time for the journalists covering the event to get their stories off so fans could spend the next morning reading about what had happened the day before. And fans did have to wait until the next morning to find out what happened, it was the 1930s before the Giro and the Tour went multimedia, with the arrival of radio.

The percorso of the 1924 Giro went like this:

1924 Giro d'Italia
(3,613kms in 12 stages over 23 days – max 415kms, min 230kms, avg 301kms)
Day Date Partenza Arrivo Dist Time KPH
Saturday 10-May Milan Genoa 300kms

11h02'03"

27.19

Sunday 11-May Giorno di Riposo
Monday 12-May Genoa Florence 307kms

11h52'36"

25.85

Tuesday 13-May Giorno di Riposo
Wednesday 14-May Florence Rome 284kms

10h56'06"

25.97

Thursday 15-May Giorno di Riposo
Friday 16-May Rome Naples 249kms

9h46'14"

25.48

Saturday 17-May Giorno di Riposo
Sunday 18-May Potenza Taranto 265kms

9h47'18"

27.07

Monday 19-May Giorno di Riposo
Tuesday 20-May Taranto Foggia 230kms

9h05'18"

25.31

Wednesday 21-May Giorno di Riposo
Thursday 22-May Foggia L'Aquila 304kms

12h47'27"

23.77

Friday 23-May Giorno di Riposo
Saturday 24-May L'Aquila Perugia 296kms

11h12'18"

26.42

Sunday 25-May Giorno di Riposo
Monday 26-May Perugia Bologna 280kms

10h47'26"

25.95

Tuesday 27-May Giorno di Riposo
Wednesday 28-May Bologna Fiume 415kms

17h29'12"

23.73

Thursday 29-May Giorno di Riposo
Friday 30-May Fiume Verona 366kms

18h15'54"

20.04

Saturday 31-May Giorno di Riposo
Sunday 1-Jun Verona Milan 313kms

12h51'21"

24.35

Source: Memoire du Cyclisme

Alfonsina Strada, legend has it, was officially entered in the Giro under the name Alfonsin Strada, with the big reveal – He's a she! – coming after the race had set off. Legends have a way of supplanting the truth and the truth here is everyone knew who Strada was when she entered the race. After all, she'd been invited to take part. The Italians, they love their polemica and they really know how to stir it and the column inches Strada generated for La Gazzetta easily helped make up for the lack of big-name riders.

Strada also helped to sell lots of newspapers. Here was a point that the teams and their stars had overlooked with their attempt to extort more money from the race organisers: La Gazzetta was faced with a new rival, the Corriere dello Sport, and circulation was down. And, consequently, so too was profit. Not only could La Gazzetta not afford the extra costs the teams wanted to impose upon them but they also desperately needed a circulation boost. The scandals – a lack of stars and the Devil in a Skirt – gave them just that.

In both her Giri di Lombardia Strada had finished at the back of the field. Little more of her was expected in the corsa rosa. Even La Gazzetta acknowledged, from the start, that this would be the case, saying:

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?"

La Gazzetta could present her as an icon of feminism, but the truth was they were using Strada to create a spectacle, to give the tifosi something to get excited about in the absence of the likes of Costante Girardengo (Maino), Giovanni Brunero (Legnano), and Ottavio Bottecchia (Automoto). And a spectacle is exactly what Strada gave the Giro. La Gazzetta, describing Strada and the crowd that cheered her passing, had this to say of the woman "with a short baby haircut and even shorter shorts from which the hems of her jumper in particular protruded:"

"She pedalled with self-confidence and cheer, like a schoolboy playing truant. The public that lined the streets in the passing villages immediately noted her with exclamations of wonder, the women in particular perhaps scandalised to see her like this […] hardly representing their sex."

But, for Strada, the Giro was not just about spectacle. Every day – well, every other day – she still had to get from A to B. At the end of the first stage, 300 kilometres from Milan down to Genoa on the Ligurian coast, Strada was an hour off Bartolomeo Aymo's stage-winning pace (eleven hours two minutes and three seconds, nearly ten minutes faster than second placed Federico Gay, of Alcyon). In the last three Giri, Aymo had finished third, second, and third (the first two with Legnano, the last with Atala) and already looked set to secure another podium finish as a minimum. Rolling home in fourth on the day, 18'39" down on Aymo, was the winner of the 1920 Giro, Gaetano Belloni, accompanied by his Legnano team-mate Giuesppe Enrici. That was the best Belloni could do in the 1924 Giro. As for Enrici, who'd stood on the bottom step of the podium in 1922, his first proper season in the pro peloton, well he was down, well down, on the day. But far from out.

For the Pittsburgh -born Enrici, the second stage was about pulling back some of that time lost on that first day. At the end of the second stage – 307 kilometres from Genoa to Florence – Gay had taken the stage, just ahead of Enrici, with Aymo ceding seven minutes and finishing down in fifth. The gruppo itself was already whittled down to just sixty-five riders, thirty-five riders already no longer part of the race. Strada, a real stayer, wasn't among the thirty-five, she was still riding on when others had fallen by the wayside. Slowly riding on, yes, but still riding and not always the last one home: arriving into Florence she was fifty-sixth and just over two hours behind Gay. The time differential hardly seemed of consequence to the tifosi. Of that day's racing La Gazzetta noted:

"In only two stages, this little lady's popularity has become greater than all the missing champions put together."

On the 284 kilometre run from Florence to Rome Strada was two and a half hours off the pace set by Gay, who again won the stage. Aymo was forced to abandon the Giro early, leaving Gay to take the lead, with a fourteen minute advantage over Enrici. The Giro would now be a straight fight between an Alcyon rider (Gay) and a Legnano rider (Enrici).

On the 249 kilometre sprint from Rome to Naples Strada was again more than two hours behind the stage winner, Zanaga. Gay put another couple of minutes into Enrici, extending his overall lead out to sixteen minutes. La Gazzetta, in its reporting of that day, noted how much attention Strada had received during the Giro's stay in Rome:

"There was the usual hullabaloo around Alfonsina who arrived at the checkpoint in a new bright outfit. This woman is becoming famous. Yesterday some receptions were held in her honour. The good Romans gave her flowers, a new jersey and even a pair of ear rings. She is radiant."

Back in those days Grand Tour stages typically started where the previous stage ended. In the 1924 Giro this was true, with the exception of the fourth and fifth stages: on the rest day between the two the riders had to travel south from Naples to Potenza, about 150 kilometres as the crow flies, by-passing along the way Mt Veseuvius.

Nothing much changed on the last of the southward bound stages, the run down to Taranto from Potenza. Ditto could be said – or not said – of the ride north up to Foggia. But the next two stages – into the heart of the Apennines, Foggia to L'Aquilla and L'Aquilla to Perugia – were where the 1924 Giro was won and lost.

On the first day in the Apennines Enrici put more than seventeen minutes into Gay, overturning his deficit and taking the overall lead with a margin of just one minute. The next day Enrici again won the stage and this time Gay ceded more than thirty-nine minutes to his rival.

As for Alfonsina Strada, well her Giro officially ended on that second day in the Apennines, 296 kilometres of racing that would have made a Flandrian weep: shitty roads and shittier weather. Strada crashed and thrashed her handlebars. A broom handle was used to effect emergency repairs (broom handles were often used in those days to effect emergency fork repairs – early cyclists were a resourceful crowd). But by the time Strada reached Perugia – four hours behind Enrici – the control was closed. Strada had been caught by the cut off. Colombo really wanted Strada to get to the finish in Milan – she was selling newspapers – but he was overruled by the men in blazers, the commissaires declaring that rules is rules. Strada was off the 1924 Giro d'Italia.

The Apennines behind them, the remaining riders then faced a gentle sub-300 kilometre haul up to Bologna, followed by the mammoth 415 kilometre leg taking them eastward to Fiume on the Dalmatian coast, now in present-day Croatia but then still a part of the Kingdom of Italy. Into Bologna Enrici finished second, behind his Legnano team-mate Arturo Ferraro, with Gay ceding another eight minutes on the day. The fight-back was not on. Into Fium it was Romolo Lazzeretti (Jenis) who took the stage, beating Legnano's Ferraro and Alfredo Sivicci in a straight sprint. Gay tossed away another nine minutes.

From Fiume it was westward-ho and home to Milan via Verona, staying clear of the Dolomites, for a finish in the Vélodrome Semplone. Into Verona, Ferraro again took the stage win with Gay second on the day in a bunch sprint. And then it was Milan again, the end of the road, the Vélodrome Semplone. In a hotly-contested sprint, Giovanni Bassi – one of the proper isolati in the race, a man used to riding without team support – edged out Gay, only for both riders to be demoted for an irregular sprint, the victory then going to Legnano's Sivocci, the seventh stage won by a Legnano rider. Enrici – born in Pittsburg but Piedmontese to the bone – took the title. A third place in his first season, a win in his third, boy but did that guy have a bright future ahead of him.

Half an hour after Bassi and Gay had battled for the final stage win, the Vélodrome Semplone again erupted in applause: Alfonsina Strada had just raced in, battling on despite her exclusion from the race. Following Strada's disqualification in Perugia, Colombo had had a quiet word with her. There was business to discuss. She was helping him sell newspapers. Yes, here she was, battered and bruised, beaten by the race. But it didn't have to end there. She could ride on, shadow riding the Giro, apart from the race but still a part of it. And for this service she would be paid, handsomely. While Colombo had refused to meet the teams' demands for appearance fees, he was more than willing to pay Strada to just stay on her bike and keep the punters happy. There's principles and then there's commerce: commerce usually trumps principles.

So Strada rode out the remaining four stages, alongside two other riders who'd also been turfed off the race (in early Tours Desgrange had also allowed riders officially out of the competition to continue racing, on a daily basis). It's claimed that Strada was the highest-earning rider in that year's Giro, pocketing 50,000 lire for her efforts (remember, the overall prize fund was 100,000 lire).

That Strada was a draw for the fans is evident in the fact that, even when she was finishing way down on the leaders, the tifosi still awaited her arrival at the end of each stage, cheering her home. At Fiume, the race's tenth stage, that mammoth 415-kilometre haul down the Dalmatian coast, by which time Strada was officially off the Giro but still shadow riding it alongside the gruppo, the crowd waited for her to arrive before they left. Strada's luck hadn't improved: as in the Apennines she'd again crashed and arrived at the finish in a bad state and well down on the front runners. The tifosi didn't care and showed their appreciation of her effort by lifting her off her bike: proving, if proof were needed, that sport isn't just about winning. The next day, Fiume to Verona, a 366-kilometre haul that the gruppo tackled at a sedate twenty kilometres an hour, Strada was just seven minutes down on the main bunch.

Strada's popularity during the race was such that she spent a lot of time handing out photographs and signing autographs. The King, Victor Emmanuel III, sent her an official communication, congratulating her. Even Il Duce, Mussolini, wanted to muscle in on the act, declaring that he wanted to meet the Queen of the Cranks.

The following year the Darling of the Giro attempted to enter the corsa rosa again but – as with the post-War Giri di Lombardia – Colombo and Cougnet didn't need her and the big teams and their star riders didn't want her: to be upstaged by second-string riders was one thing, but to be upstaged by a woman was something entirely different. The Giro was still in dispute with the teams – Bianchi and Maino were still shunning the race – but the Queen of the Cranks had been usurped by Colombo and Cougnet's new saviour: Emilio Bozzi.

As well as his Legnano squad, Bozzi – and his direttore sportivo, Eberardo Pavesi – now had the Wolsit outfit (after the second world war he would add Frejus to his portfolio of bike brands). The Wolsit and Legnano teams of 1925 were really just one team, with one team car to support them both. And what a team they were: Bozzi and Pavesi lost Enrici to Armor and Aymo to Alcyon but gained Costante Giradengo – the first campionissimo – from Maino. And they also gained a rider from La Française, a kid called Alfredo Binda.

Alfonsina Strada was the story of the 1924 Giro, a publicity coup for the race organisers in their fight against the revenue-sharing demands of the teams and the competition they faced from rival publishers. Enrici was a worthy winner of the race, a solid rider, but Strada's fame has lasted far longer than his. Elsewhere in the 1924 cycling season – at the Tour de France, to be precise – it was to be the reporting of a French journalist, Albert Londres, that would last longest in public memory. But before turning to them let's take a look at Strada herself, and what happened to the revenue sharing demanded faced by the Giro organisers.

* * * * *

Alfonsina Strada, the woman who had helped save the 1924 Giro d'Italia, was buried in 1959. Ottavia Bottecchia, Henri Pélissier and Albert Londres – the other three names most remembered from the 1924 cycling season – were already in their graves. There are some races you're happy to finish behind others in. Strada was sixty-eight when she died. Not a bad innings for someone born in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Cycling was Strada's escape from a peasant's existence. While many of her male contemporaries appreciated and applauded her, cycling was then very much a male-dominated sport. It still is, I suppose, but more and more people are beginning to wake up to the existence of the distaff peloton and who knows, maybe within our own lifetime the publicity scales may even balance out and it will receive the media attention it deserves. But the way it is today is far, far better than it was in Strada's time. The women who rode bikes in those days were too often seen as little more than vaudeville acts, not treated as athletes. Cycling itself, though, was – to some extent – a vaudeville act. Men like Henri Pélissier wanted to turn it into a sport about athleticism, men like Henri Desgrange wanted it to be about who could endure the most suffering and still ride into his punter-packed vélodrome.

From the age of ten, when she first rode her father's newly-acquired bike, to her dying day, Strada was a cyclist. The fame her cycling exploits earned her enabled Strada to travel - to Russia, to Spain, to France, to Luxembourg - and earned her a better income than her parents had known, and more too than she would have earned had she followed their advice and become a seamstress. As late as 1937 and 1938 Strada was still racing, and still winning.

Cycling may have enabled her to escape poverty, but nothing could save her from a hard life. Her husband, Luigi Strada, the man who gave her a racing bicycle as a wedding present, suffered a mental collapse and was institutionalised. The 50,000 lire Strada won at the 1924 Giro went to the Milanese mental institution to which he had been confined. He died in 1946.

Four years later Strada remarried. Her second husband was Carlo Messori, the cyclist from her native Emilia who had encouraged a teenaged Strada – then still Alfonsina Molini – to continue with this cycling lark. He himself had by then retired from cycling and was running a bike shop in Milan. During their marriage Messori tried to put together a biography of his wife's life and cycling career, but no publishers showed an interest in her story.

Messori died in 1957 and Strada was widowed for a second time. She continued to run the bike shop herself and continued to support the sport she loved, even though she herself was increasingly being forgotten by a sport which each year churns out new heroes for us to get excited about. In September 1959 Strada returned from a day at the bike races, the Tre Valli Varesine, where Dino Bruni had won. She told the porter at her apartment house that she'd had a wonderful day. She then suffered a fatal heart-attack. Another page of cycling history had been turned.

Alfonsina Strada

Alfonsina Strada

Strada's story though was too good to be forgotten for long. In 2004 Paolo Facchinetti was able to publish his Gli Anni Ruggenti di Alfonsina Strada (The Roaring Years of Alfonsina Strada) and when the Giro started from Amsterdam in 2010, a publisher in the Netherlands published a Dutch version of it, Het Roerige Leven van Alfonsina Strada. An English-language publisher has yet to show an interest in the book. Strada's story has been put on the stage in Italy and featured in an album of cycling tracks by the band Tete de Bois. And, if you visit the chapel of the Madonna on the Ghisallo, you can see one of Strada's bikes among the other relics of cycling's glorious past.

But does Strada's story matter today? I think it does. First, and foremost, it's a good story, a story that deserves to be told and retold. But cycling is full of good stories that deserve to be told and retold. And Strada's is, at least, told: there are many names in the forgotten history of our sport who have yet to have their stories told.

And of course, yes, the cycling of those days is now anachronistic; we can't even imagine bikes that weighed twenty kilograms and didn't have gears, let alone get our heads around the condition of the roads over which the riders of the day raced. But that's just detail: look at the big picture and see that what was happening in 1924 is still happening in 2012. The big teams are still pleading with the Giro and other race organisers for a bigger slice of the pie.

And why should we bother with the retelling of a story from the past when – for female cyclists especially – the story of the present is only barely being told in the mainstream media and even in the main cycling journals? Would we not be better just forgetting all about Alfonsina Strada and telling the stories of the women racing today? If it was simply a choice between one and the other, than yes, forget the past, talk only about the present.

But can't we do both at the same time? Cycling's past is, after all, what makes its present seem so alive. The riders of today are not just racing against one and other, they are racing against the legends of the past. This is one of the areas where women's cycling still needs help: its past is being forgotten and, without its past, its present doesn't shine as brightly as it should. Connect the stars of today with the stars of yesterday and both will shine brighter. Maria Canins, Beryl Burton, Connie Carpenter, Keetie van Oosten-Hage, Yvonne Reynders, Petra de Bruin, Ingrid Haringa, Elsy Jacobs, Hélène Dutrieux, Oenone Wood, Louise Armaindo, Anna Millward, Leontien van Moorsel, Yvonne McGregor, Jeannie Longo – all of those names should be as recognisable as any of the giants of the road from Coppi to Anquetil, Merckx to Hinault, Kelly to Cavendish. How many of them are?

Help people understand who they are, what they did, and you do actually help the current peloton, by providing a yardstick against which it can be measured. And that's why Alfonsina Strada's story still matters. It's not just about the past. It's also about today.

* * * * *

Sources: If your Italian is up to snuff and you'd like to learn more about Strada, seek out Paolo Facchinetti's Gli Anni Ruggenti di Alfonsina Strada (The Roaring Years of Alfonsina Strada), which has also been translated in the Netherlands as Het Roerige Leven van Alfonsina Strada.

Strada's story is also touched upon in the three Giro-related books to land in 2011: Bill and Carol McGann's The Story of the Giro d'Italia – A Year by Year History of the Tour of Italy, Volume I, 1909-1970 (McGann Publishing), which is a valuable source of year-by-year race data; John Foot's Pedalare! Pedalare! – A History of Italian Cycling, which succeeds in its attempt to try and see Italian cycling of the campionissimi era in a wider cultural context; and Herbie Sykes' Maglia Rosa – Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d'Italia, which is filled with wonderfully told stories of the men whose legends were made by the Giro and who have in turn forged the legend of a race that is often far more fascinating than its over-exposed French cousin. Additional information on Strada was drawn from the Italian Cycling Journal and Radio Marconi blogs. The Giro di Lombardia stories can be found on Museo Ciclismo.

Those three books, along with Benjo Maso's Sweat of the Gods: Myths and Legends of Bicycle Racing (Mousehold Press), are the principle sources for the above.