As the 100th Giro d’Italia comes to its close, and the riders ready themselves for the finale in Milan, it’s worth considering the race’s origins. The Giro was first held in 1909, after a few cycling savants at the then struggling Gazzetta dello Sport got wind of the news that a rival paper, the Corriere della Sera, was about to launch a race in Italy that would emulate the success of the Tour de France. Knowing how well that race had captured the public’s imagination, and the number of newspapers it had sold, they set about beating their Milanese colleagues to the punch. A headline was spread across the front page of the paper post-haste: “The Gazzetta dello Sport, pursuant with the glory of Italian Cycling, announces that next spring will see the first “Giro d’Italia” one of the biggest, most ambitious races in international cycling.” Ambitious it certainly was.
Over the next months, the men from the Gazzetta had to turn that promise into reality, their ambition into a race with a set route and riders and fans, which would sell papers. They settled on a 2,447-km course comprised of eight stages, starting and finishing in Milan. The best riders in the world were invited, along with a peloton of hopeful isolati, privateers determined to take on the race for the prestige and the challenge, or for the prize money. The whole future of the paper hung in the balance. The Giro had to succeed.
So, after much hype and fanfare, 127 riders set out from in front of the Gazzetta’s offices in Milan at 2:53 in the morning on the 13th of May. They had 397 kilometres to ride, via Bergamo, Brescia, Desenzano del Garda, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Rovigo, Ferrara, and San Giovanni in Persiceto to the finish of the first stage in Bologna. What was it like?
If you believe the newspaper reports, it was glorious. The riders were heroes. They pushed the limits of human strength and endurance, transcended mere being to enter the pantheon the journalists had created. The riders became gods of the new newspaper era, supermen forged in the grandest of theatres—the Italy of sublime landscapes and magnificent cities, charming villages and admirable people, the Italy that had inspired many an Italian journey. Pink papers in hand, massive crowds lined the streets and believed. Celebrities raced past.
What was it really like though? Freek and I set out to understand that for ourselves the best way we know how. On the first day of this year’s race, we rode the first stage of the 1909 Giro.
It was futile. Recreating the past is an impossible task, not just because the world has changed—knowledge and technology and culture have changed—but because the past you’re trying to recreate is imaginary. It exists only in symbols.
But what symbols! Each breathtaking city and winegrowers’ village, each arch and amphitheatre, piazza, statue, and cathedral, all columns and crumbling walls and light reminiscent of remembered paintings and stories, harkens back to an ever-vanishing classical era. In Italy, even the warmth of the sun seems as if it were just the fount of civilisation. Around every corner lie reminders of a more splendid time, when beauty was valued and we knew what was good, before the self-indulgent cheapness of modernity.
It’s easy to forget that bike racing then was a symbol of modernity. In The New Ethical Religion of Speed, the founder of Futurism, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, declared that bicycles were divine. They were not just new devices to be raced. On a bike, man merged with his machine. The sport was entirely dependent on modern industry and media. Fast and fleeting, cycling promised a less staid, more courageous future. For Marinetti, this was already a turnaround. A few years earlier, he’d written the Manifesto of Futurism in a rage, after crashing his car to avoid two bicyclists. He then believed that cycling was obsolete. Bikes had already been surpassed by cars in the race to the future. “A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace,” he wrote. The Futurists thought the old world had to be destroyed, its museums, libraries, and academies, its ideas of beauty and grace, replaced by industrialism, replaced by the future. Speed was all that mattered. Accelerate! “Wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!” he wrote. His words were often heeded.
Milan is now choked with traffic. Stinking scooters tear about the streets, terrorising walkers and making a racket. Vehicles in all sorts of disrepair park on the sidewalks. It takes ages to find a spot. The city is covered in a grey layer of soot. Its grand old buildings are plastered with gaudy ads and graffiti. None of it moves very fast. On our bikes, we could not wait to escape it.
For hours, we rode past lines of shoddy boxes, as they idled from stop light to stop light, wasting the morning. The claustrophobic frustration we’d felt back in Milan, with its maze-like outskirts and endless jams, finally gave way to joy as fresher air filled our lungs and we reached quieter towns. Mountains appeared on the horizon. We turned over the pedals and felt our hearts pulse. We were looking for the Italy of the first Giro.
In the industrial north of the country, with its warehouses and parking lots and billboards made by interns in half an hour in Microsoft Paint, it’s hard to find it.
The melding of man, his environment and machine at speed is a hallmark of Futurism. Jean Metzinger’s Au Vélodrome obliterates the distinction between foreground and background, future and past. The raucous atmosphere of the track seems to pulsate through the cyclist’s body, which is neither here nor there, but here and there at once, due to his velocity, due to the unbalancing of perception that speed induces. Umberto Boccioni’s Dinamismo di un Ciclista takes this to an extreme. The interpenetration of landscape and body that seems to occur when you are going fast is so complete that the one cannot be distinguished from the other. The body is the landscape and the landscape the body. This is the appeal of speed—the feeling that we are connected to the world it imbues us with.
The Futurists understood this. They thought they might connect to a fast-modernising world by going faster, by embracing all that was fast and modern. “Italians, be speedy, and you will be strong, optimistic, invincible, immortal!” Marinetti wrote. All that was old and slow had to be destroyed. They did not understand that speed is nothing in and of itself, that Italians would yearn for the old world once they’d destroyed it. Speed is nothing without slowness.
A green light. We sprinted past the grumbling lorries into an open intersection. For a moment, there was just the exhilaration of our effort, a wavering sea of grass split by the jet-black road, fruit trees bobbing all around us. Then, the lorries spluttered past, their colossal steel bodies heaving and groaning. We were back in the mundane world. Ahead was yet another ad for a brothel.
And yet, looking back, that might be the closest we came to the riders’ experience of the 1909 Giro. We’d come looking for a slower, more civilised form of cycling, a cycling in which every gram and watt wasn’t counted, the freedom and adventure that we loved about the sport wasn’t suppressed in a stultifying quest for speed and efficiency. We’d wanted to challenge ourselves in the fabled Italian landscape, amidst the olive groves, classical ruins, and vineyards. We’d wanted to do something staggeringly hard, but still have time to stop, to eat a decent meal, and have a glass of wine and a coffee before continuing on, to go on a heroic journey like those we’d read about. That’s how we imagined the 1909 Giro. And by all accounts, that’s how it was. But the riders then were not looking to go slow; they craved speed. They wanted to escape towns that stayed much the same for hundreds of years, futures as farmers just like their fathers, oppressive priests, the monotony of working for others. Let’s not romanticise their lot. The new religion of speed appealed to them, and to the public too. They embraced it. They did not know it was a road to nowhere.
For the Giro’s most compelling stages are not industrial-park criteriums, nor out-and-back time trials on highways. It’s images of riders swooshing through the Dolomites that make the race so appealing, and breakneck finales in colourful Renaissance cities, and mountain-top finishes in centuries-old alpine villages, the timeless elation of a sprint victory.
Cycling is mostly drudgery. Riding a bicycle hundreds of kilometres does not make you a hero. It doesn’t now, and it didn’t then. It reduces you to your rawest, most human self, decimates your illusions. Your skin chafes and your muscles ache. Salt cakes your arms and your face, stinging your eyes. Your lips crack. Hunger gnaws at your gut.
And then you drop into Desenzano, avoiding the brakes to feel alive, as you weave recklessly down the hill. And the wooden boats floating in the little harbour are so beautiful. The palm trees and the stately facades, the clink of cutlery and the waiters’ starched white shirts are beautiful. The coffee tastes so good. And the pretty girls in their dresses smile as they frolic by the turquoise water. There are vases of flowers on the tables. The breeze off the lake cools your smouldering skin.
Or you stop at a trattoria and bask in the cool darkness as you dip crusty bread in olive oil and glug bottles of gloriously cold water. The owner arrives with a plate of pasta a pomodoro. You eat, and the strength throbs back into your quads. And then you’re full, but the man comes back out from behind the bar with a crumbly cake topped with powdered sugar and a bottle of sweet, fizzy wine. He pops it open, and a girl arrives with flutes, which he fills, and you all clink glasses to the next 200 kilometres.
For soon you have to push on, and you do, until it’s all just a banal blur of billboards and heat and noise, and you can’t go faster, although you’d love to go faster. You aren’t faster. You take turns in the wind, but it hurts. It always hurts.
Only where the old cities are preserved is the inhuman journey punctuated. You race through them, and they absorb you. You imagine yourself rattling over the same cobbles a century and more ago, throwing yourself into the corners, elbow to elbow with your competitors, and then you look up and around and are your better self once again. The shuffling crowds, jittering to and fro with their baseball hats and selfie sticks and backpacks, can’t fully appreciate it. They aren’t fully absorbed in it. But they are looking for the same peace, the same harmony.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace is a second-century B.C. sculpture of Nike, the goddess of victory. Broken and incomplete and reconstructed from fragments as she is, nothing mankind has made since is more beautiful. No car is so beautiful, though a select few still aspire to be. She sails proudly forward, striding half aloft over the sea. The wind wraps her robes around her, here loose, there tight against the swell of her breast. They reveal a strong, slender leg. They flow back behind her, in the wind all around her. Her feathered marble wings are outstretched. She’s one with the wind.
Nike did not appear when we arrived in Bologna. It was nearly midnight and the city was in the throes of a party. We could not even find our hotel. Amidst the crowds and the rubbish and spilled soda and noise, we sat down on a curb at the Piazza Maggiore and opened a warm bottle of prosecco and six-pack of beer. Still covered in sweat and shivering, we struck our bottles together and in silence tried to make sense of what we’d done.
We’d won nothing, and knew now that the race was just brutal. Still, the images flooded in: Riders soaring over finish lines, arms raised, winglike. Maglia rosas flapping around their lithe bodies. Motion, stillness, power, poise. Human grace.
Words: Keir Plaice