Who was Al­fon­sina Strada?

The in­cred­i­ble story of Al­fon­sina Strada

Cycling Weekly - - Contents - Giles Bel­bin

En­ter the name Al­fon­sina Strada into a search en­gine and among the re­sults re­turned will be a mu­sic video by the Ital­ian folk-rock group Têtes de Bois. In the video an old lady toils in her dark and cob­webbed bicycle work­shop — weld­ing tub­ing and ad­just­ing han­dle­bars be­fore help­ing a small boy with a slipped chain. While the old lady works, the small boy’s eyes are drawn to the walls of the work­shop where he spies an aged, framed edi­tion of La Gazzetta dello Sport, car­ry­ing the head­line that gives the song its ti­tle: ‘Al­fon­sina e la bici’.

“Al­fon­sina and the bike… one woman among men.” That was the front-page splash the Gazzetta ran on May 14, 1924. Two days pre­vi­ously, Al­fon­sina Strada had fin­ished the sec­ond stage of the Giro d’italia, 308km from Genoa to Florence, in 56th place. It was then the paper re­alised it had a story on its hands that could cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of Italy.

Many of the big names stayed away from the 1924 Giro be­cause of a dis­pute with the or­gan­is­ers over ap­pear­ance fees. That gave the Gazzetta a prob­lem. With so many names ab­sent, how to keep the pub­lic in­ter­ested?

Leg­end has it that Strada conned her way to the start line of the race in Mi­lan by reg­is­ter­ing her name as ‘Al­fon­sin’, there­fore ap­pear­ing on paper to be a man. But she was the best fe­male rider in Italy at the time with a his­tory of rid­ing against men in one-day races, so it is more than plau­si­ble that the Giro or­gan­i­sa­tion knew ex­actly who this rider was when they ac­cepted the ap­pli­ca­tion.

When it be­came ap­par­ent that Strada could more than hold her own, the Gazzetta re­alised its prayers had been an­swered. Strada — a woman in a man’s world, bat­tling the odds, tak­ing on the men and beat­ing them. That was to be their story of the Giro (the fact that Al­fon­sina’s sur­name was the Ital­ian word for ‘road’ didn’t hurt). And so came that fa­mous head­line four days into the race.

“It was quite an event,” says Her­bie Sykes, au­thor of Maglia Rosa. “You have to un­der­stand that the 1924 Giro was highly un­usual in the sense that [Costante] Gi­rar­dengo, [Ot­tavio] Bot­tec­chia and [Gio­vanni] Brunero, the three great cham­pi­ons, were ab­sent. Then [Pi­etro] Li­nari, [Bar­tolomeo] Aymo and [Gae­tano] Bel­loni, the next best things, all aban­doned… the net re­sult was a race con­tested by a group of riders from the Canavese and Turin who weren’t at all well known to the wider pub­lic.

“As re­gards pub­lic in­ter­est, there­fore, it be­came ex­pe­di­ent for the Gazzetta to pro­mote her ex­ploits,” con­tin­ues Sykes. “At the be­gin­ning of the race they had sought to bury it, but ne­ces­sity al­ways was the mother of in­ven­tion. Once they got stuck into telling her story, her courage cap­tured the pub­lic’s imag­i­na­tion — more so given that they por­trayed her as a ma­jor sex sym­bol.”

Strada kept pace with her male ri­vals through­out the early part of the race, of­ten fin­ish­ing well be­hind the stage win­ner but al­ways within the time limit and only once fin­ish­ing last. Then her race fell apart on stage eight.

Fall­ing re­peat­edly on a day of heavy rain, Strada was forced into mak­ing hasty re­pairs to her bike, in­clud­ing hav­ing to use part of a broom to re­pair her han­dle­bars. But still she bat­tled on. Fif­teen hours af­ter she set out from L’aquila, Strada rolled into Peru­gia. She was tired, bat­tered, bruised and, sadly, out­side the time limit.

What were the or­gan­is­ers to do? On the one hand Strada had to be dis­qual­i­fied, on the other the Giro needed the pub­lic­ity she had brought. A com­pro­mise was reached. Strada would con­tinue, in­deed the or­gan­is­ers would fund her to do so, but she would no longer be of­fi­cially clas­si­fied.

No stop­ping Strada

And so Strada rode on. On stage 10, a mam­moth 415km from Bologna to Fi­ume (now Ri­jeka, Croa­tia), Strada suf­fered again. Again she fell and crashed. Again she dropped be­hind the pack. Again she re­fused to buckle. Twenty-one hours it took her to reach the fin­ish where she was lifted from her bike in tears by the crowds who had stayed to cheer her.

Strada made it to the fin­ish in Mi­lan, re­port­edly earn­ing more than the race win­ner for do­ing so. With just 30 clas­si­fied fin­ish­ers from 90 starters, she had shown more grit than many of the men who had started along­side her. Out­side the of­fi­cial clas­si­fi­ca­tion she might have been, but surely no other rider had dis­played such force of will in get­ting to Mi­lan. ‘The Devil in a Dress’ had en­tered Giro his­tory.

“I think what she did was truly in­cred­i­ble, sim­ply be­cause the dis­tances back then were so bi­b­li­cal,” says Sykes. “My un­der­stand­ing is that she crashed on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions, and dis­played ex­cep­tional courage in get­ting round. Bear in mind, though, that she wasn’t the only fe­male rider in Italy, just the best one. There’s a mis­con­cep­tion that she and she alone rode a bike, but in point of fact there were quite a few races, and quite a healthy scene in Pied­mont and Lom­bardy.”

So what is her legacy to­day? How well is her story known and cel­e­brated in Italy? “Like any story of its type, it’s well known among those who are in­ter­ested in the his­tory of the sport,” con­tin­ues Sykes. “It’s not ‘cel­e­brated’ as such, but it’s part of the warp and weft of the race’s his­tory.

“A theatre com­pany wrote a stage play about her; there were ru­mours of a fea­ture film. My guess is that RCS [Giro or­gan­iser] will get stuck into it in 2024. Com­mer­cial im­per­a­tive and all that.”

Italy’s dou­ble world cham­pion, Gior­gia Bronzini, first learned of Strada’s story when she was 18 years old. “My coach told me,” Bronzini says. “At first I didn’t care much about it, but when I did my first [women’s] Giro d’italia I was sur­prised she man­aged to race against the men.

“There is noth­ing that I know of cel­e­brat­ing her at the mo­ment, just some Ital­ian races where she is men­tioned but noth­ing big, maybe like the story de­serves. For sure it is a piece of women’s cy­cling his­tory by her so it means a lot. I’m proud that she was Ital­ian.”

Italy’s Canyon-sram rider Elena Cec­chini says Strada is one of those names that ev­ery Ital­ian knows as a hero­ine and myth­i­cal char­ac­ter. “Since my child­hood I’ve known who she was, Cec­chini says. “What re­ally in­spired me was the fact that she didn’t care at all about pub­lic opin­ion and male thoughts, she just did what she loved, even at the risk of be­ing con­sid­ered ‘weird’ by the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple. Through her pas­sion

“A theatre com­pany wrote a stage play about her. There were ru­mours of a fea­ture film”

[cy­cling] she wanted to show that women are as strong as men and de­serve the same treat­ment and at­ten­tion.”

For Cec­chini’s Ital­ian team-mate, Bar­bara Guar­ischi, Strada’s life story is as much as an in­spi­ra­tion as her Giro ex­ploits. “I ap­pre­ci­ate her a lot,” Guar­ischi says. “She showed de­ter­mi­na­tion in deal­ing with her fam­ily, mar­ry­ing young — forced by her mother — and yet she con­tin­ued her pas­sion, she con­tin­ued to ride a bike and fol­low her dreams. I was, and still am, im­pressed by that.”

“I don’t think out­side Italy her story is re­ally known or brought up as an ex­am­ple,” Cec­chini adds. “Of course it should be cel­e­brated more and be part of our tra­di­tion and knowl­edge.”

As if to il­lus­trate that point, Cec­chini’s and Guar­ischi’s Bri­tish team-mate, Han­nah Barnes, hadn’t heard of Strada un­til con­tacted for this ar­ti­cle, prompt­ing her to find out more. “I have just spent the last 30 min­utes reading about her and I have found it in­spir­ing,” Barnes says. “It proves that women can be just as tough as men and have the same drive and de­ter­mi­na­tion. We just some­times get por­trayed as del­i­cate and weak, which is far from the truth.”

Shar­ing the story

“It sounds like she was brought up in a tough environment,” con­tin­ues Barnes, “which is why she had that fire in her belly and wouldn’t let the weather, crashes or com­mis­saires stop her from achiev­ing what she set out to do.

“Per­se­ver­ance and de­ter­mi­na­tion are char­ac­ter­is­tics you need in cy­cling and also ev­ery­day life. She proved she had both in abun­dance and wasn’t scared to chal­lenge her­self and also the rules.”

So how can Strada’s story be used to help young riders?

“It would be nice if the peo­ple who are at the head of the small young teams started to teach them about the be­gin­ning of women in cy­cling and about Al­fon­sina,” says Guar­ischi. “[So] that they can un­der­stand that de­ter­mi­na­tion in this sport is re­ally im­por­tant.”

“It is re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant [that young cy­clists know of Strada’s story],” con­cludes Cec­chini. “I’m fight­ing ev­ery day through my train­ing, trav­els and racing to be bet­ter, to win and to make my team win. Hav­ing an ex­am­ple like Al­fon­sina in my mind helps me to re­mem­ber that to be suc­cess­ful and make your dreams come true you of­ten have to go through dif­fi­cul­ties and some­times that means choos­ing the hard­est way.

“Women can do the same things men do — with the same strength, de­ter­mi­na­tion, fo­cus and courage.”

There can be no bet­ter proof of that than the story of Al­fon­sina Strada and the 1924 Giro.

Strada’s de­ter­mi­na­tion won her huge sup­port from Italy’s tifosi

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