Part 1: The Birth of the Maglia Rosa
On the eve the 100th Giro d’Italia, Herbie Sykes takes us back in time to five decisive moments in the Giro’s rich history.
Mantua, 10 May 1931
The leader of the Tour had been wearing a special jersey to denote his primacy for over a decade. They had their maglia gialla, and now the Giro, poor relation or otherwise, would follow suit. That wasn’t an issue per se, and objectively it made perfect sense. The problem, in red-blooded, fascist Italy, was the colour. Pink. Hmmm…
Il Duce didn’t care for it one iota. He said it was “feminine”, “incomprehensible” and “not at all virile”. Most agreed he had a point, but there was nothing to be done about it. Pink was the colour of the Gazzetta, and the Gazzetta was the Giro d’Italia. Mussolini was a populist and, whether he liked it or not, for his constituents the race was the highlight of the sporting year. Thus, for all that he was at the apogee of his power, those great, sweaty, meaty hands of his were tied.
His issue with cycling was its “plebian” nature. He reckoned its practitioners were a bunch of illiterate, half-bred proles, and he was right. Unfortunately for him so were the overwhelming majority of Italians, and the humble bicycle was an intrinsic part to their collective identity. That was problematical because as he saw it this new Italy – the one he was fashioning in his own magnificent, corpulent image – should aspire to more. It should aspire to fascism, and fascism was progress, evolution, intellectual and technological advancement. As such, the great motor racing drivers Ascari and Nuvolari, not the cycling meatheads Binda and Girardengo, were promoted as fascism’s sporting emissaries.
Nobody denied that the motorcar was the icon of modernity. Problem was that only a tiny minority stood a snowball’s chance in hell of even sitting in one, let alone owning one. Italy was a poor country, the great unwashed rode bikes and, notwithstanding the fact that Mussolini didn’t like them, they couldn’t get enough of bike races. For all that there was nothing “enlightened” (to wit; fascist) about them, the blackshirts realized that meddling with the people’s sport would be counterproductive. Besides, Italy had the best riders in the world, and their excellence could be exploited for propaganda purposes.
With that in mind Learco Guerra, a blood and soil, card-carrying fascist from Mantua, was chosen as the party’s cycling poster boy. Mussolini’s sons, Vittorio and Bruno, liked him a very great deal, and so too did 41 million Italian subjects. He was immensely strong but not terribly bright, Guerra by name and, in these bellicose times, guerra by nature. Neither he nor his tifosi had the savvy to realise that they were being appropriated as political blunt instruments, and that suited Mussolini to a tee.
When, therefore, the Gazzetta announced that it was minded to introduce the pink jersey, Il Duce issued a few caveats. He insisted that:
a) Given that pink was actually for girls, they needn’t go making a song and dance about it.
b) It need carry the fascio littorio, the fasces, on its chest.
c) Learco Guerra need win it.
They didn’t, it did and, when Guerra steamed into his hometown as per the script, he did.
So on 10 May 1931, the pink jersey of the Giro was born, albeit with zero fanfare. The ‘Human Locomotive’ looked not a little sheepish in it, and not a little incongruous. Worse still, both he and arch-rival Binda later crashed out, as did another incumbent, Michele Mara. By then most were convinced that it was cursed, and that the Gazzetta ought to do the decent thing and confine it to the dustbin of history. That they didn’t is largely explained by their antipathy to Mussolini, and the irony of what happened next was lost on nobody. At Pino Torinese, just outside of Turin, Francesco Camusso sealed an unlikely win. The irony of that was lost on nobody because Camusso, splendidly nicknamed ‘The Chamois of Cumiana’, had distinct and thinly veiled socialist leanings.
Back to the drawing board…
The twelve stages of the fabled 1931 Giro saw the lead change hands six times. That explains the legendary “curse of the maglia rosa”, but that sort of drama wasn’t unusual back then. Many Giro experts maintain that, as regards drama, intrigue and pure sporting pantomime, the 1930s were the very best of times.
Guerra dipped out again the following year. He suffered the mother of all hunger flats as Antonio Pesenti claimed an unlikely win, before Binda won his fifth Giro in 1933. However, in 1934 Guerra – and by extension the regime – finally had his day in the sun…
It was particularly flat that year, with a second time trial introduced specifically to favour him. He prevailed by just 51 seconds, but runner-up Camusso always claimed the race was rigged. Guerra, he stated, had actually abandoned on a Tuscan climb. However, the race organizers, under extreme pressure from the blackshirts, had flung him into the boot of a car and carted him back up to the main group.
The truth, as ever with the Giro, is out there somewhere…
Read part 2: Fausto Coppi here