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1909 Giro d'Italia

1st edition: May 13 - May 30

Results, stages with running GC, photos and history

1910 Giro | Giro d'Italia Database | 1909 Giro Quick Facts | 1909 Giro Complete Final GC | Stage results with running GC | The Story of the 1909 Giro d'Italia|


1909 Giro Quick Facts:

2448 km raced at an average speed of 26.26 km/hr.

115 starters and 49 classified finishers.

The 1909 Giro, the Giro's first edition was scored using points.

The top riders' elapsed time:

  1. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano) 89hr 48min 14sec
  2. Carlo Galetti (Legnano) @ 23min 34sec
  3. Luigi Ganna (Atala) @ 36min 54sec
  4. Clemente Canepari (Legnano)@ 51min 12sec
  5. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi) @ 1hr 27min 23sec

Best team: Atala

Best independant rider: Ernesto Azzini


1909 Giro d'Italia Complete Final General Classification:

  1. Luigi Ganna (Atala): 25 points
  2. Carlo Galetti (Legnano): 27 points
  3. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano): 40
  4. Clemente Canepari (Legnano): 59
  5. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi): 72
  6. Ernesto Azzini: 77
  7. Dario Beni (Bianchi): 91
  8. Enrico Sala (Bianchi) : 98
  9. Ottorino Celli (Bianchi): 117
  10. Giovanni Marchese (Legnano): 139
  11. Luigi Chiodi (Atala): 141
  12. Alberto Petrino (Peugeot): 141
  13. Piero Lampaggi (Bianchi): 157
  14. Attilio Zavatti (Legnano): 157
  15. Giuseppe Cellerino (Piomagno): 164
  16. Antonio Rontondi: 166
  17. Arnolfo Galoppini: 166
  18. Giuseppe Jacchino: 177
  19. Ezio Corlaita (Felsina): 185
  20. Domenico Milano: 206
  21. Angelo Magagnoli: 208
  22. Alessandro Pazienti: 221
  23. Giovanni Cocchi: 221
  24. Ildebrando Gamberini: 222
  25. Ottorino Sabbaini: 224
  26. Giulio Modesti: 229
  27. Luigi Gatti: 245
  28. Cesare Osnaghi: 245
  29. Romeo Zuliani: 246
  30. Luigi Azzini: 248
  31. Mario Fortuna: 255
  32. Eugenio Caratti: 265
  33. Amleto Belloni: 265
  34. Guido Di Marco: 274
  35. Giuseppe Anzani: 275
  36. Guido Magnini: 281
  37. Giovanni Carena: 282
  38. Mario Secchi: 284
  39. Augusto Rho: 284
  40. Mario Lonati: 284
  41. Pasquale Lissoni: 284
  42. Azeglio Tomarelli: 285
  43. Angelo Moretti: 286
  44. Giuseppe Galbai: 290
  45. Senofonte Castellini: 291
  46. Giovanni Colombo: 292
  47. Emilio Roscio: 292
  48. Luigi Martano: 292
  49. Giuseppe Perna: 297

1909 Giro stage results with running GC:

Stage 1: Thursday, May 13: Milano - Padova - Bologna, 397 km

  1. Dario Beni (Bianchi): 14hr 6min 15sec. (28.090 km/hr)
  2. Mario Pesce (Peugeot) s.t.
  3. Carlo Galetti (Legnano) s.t.
  4. Luigi Ganna (Atala)
  5. Louis Trousselier (Stucchi)
  6. Eberardo Pavesi
  7. Attilio Zavatti
  8. Ernesto Azzini
  9. Giovanni Marchese
  10. Vincenzo Borgarello

GC after Stage 1:

  1. Dario Beni (Bianchi): 1 point
  2. Mario Pesce (Peugeot): 2
  3. Carlo Galetti (Legnano): 3
  4. Luigi Ganna (Atala): 4
  5. Louis Trousselier (Stucchi): 5
  6. Eberardo Pavesi: 6
  7. Attilio Zavatti: 9
  8. Ernesto Azzini: 9
  9. Giovanni Marchese: 9
  10. Vincenzo Borgarello: 9

Stage 2: Sunday, May 16: Bologna - Chieti, 378.5 km

111 starters, 98 finishers

  1. Giovanni Cuniolo (Rudge-Whitworth) 14hr 12min 14sec
  2. Luigi Ganna (Atala) s.t.
  3. Louis Trousselier (Stucchi) s.t.
  4. Ernesto Azzini
  5. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi)
  6. Mario Bruschera
  7. Vincenzo Borgarello
  8. Carlo Galetti (Legnano)
  9. Giovanni Gerbi
  10. André Pottier

GC after Stage 2:

  1. Luigi Ganna (Atala): 6 points
  2. Louis Trousselier (Stucchi): 8
  3. Carlo Galetti (Legnano): 11
  4. Ernesto Azzini: 13
  5. Vincenzo Borgarello: 12
  6. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano): 20
  7. Dario Beni (Bianchi): 22
  8. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi): 23
  9. Alberto Petrino: 27
  10. Clemente Canepari (Legnano): 27

Stage 3: Tuesday, May 18: Chieti - Napoli, 242.8 km.

98 starters, 73 finishers

climbsAscents: Roccaraso, Rionero Sannitico, Macerone

  1. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano) 9hr 28min 4sec
  2. Carlo Galetti (Legnano)s.t.
  3. Clemente Canepari (Legnano) s.t.
  4. Ottorino Celli
  5. Giovanni Gerbi
  6. Louis Trousselier (Stucchi)
  7. Giovanni Micheletto
  8. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi)
  9. Enrico Sala
  10. Piero Lampaggi

GC after Stage 3:

  1. Carlo Galetti (Legnano): 13 points
  2. Louis Trousselier (Stucchi): 14
  3. Luigi Ganna (Atala): 17
  4. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano): 21
  5. Ernesto Azzini: 25
  6. Clemente Canepari (Legnano): 30
  7. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi): 31
  8. Enrico Sala: 46
  9. André Pottier: 48
  10. Dario Beni (Bianchi): 50

Stage 4: Thursday, May 20: Napoli - Ceprano - Roma, 228.1 km

72 starters, 65 finishers

  1. Luigi Ganna (Atala) 8hr 31min 56sec
  2. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi) s.t.
  3. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano) @ 4min 54sec
  4. Clemente Canepari (Legnano)
  5. Carlo Galetti (Legnano)
  6. Vincenzo Borgarello
  7. Mario Fortuna
  8. Louis Trousselier (Stucchi)
  9. Dario Beni (Bianchi)
  10. Giovanni Gerbi

GC after Stage 4:

  1. Luigi Ganna (Atala): 17 points
  2. Carlo Galetti (Legnano): 18
  3. Louis Trousselier (Stucchi): 22
  4. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano): 24
  5. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi): 32
  6. Clemente Canepari (Legnano): 34
  7. Ernesto Azzini: 37
  8. Dario Beni (Bianchi): 58
  9. Vincenzo Borgarello: 60
  10. Enrico Sala: 61

Stage 5: Sunday, May 23: Roma - Todi - Perugia - Arezzo - Firenze, 346.5 km

63 starters, 59 finishers

  1. Luigi Ganna (Atala) 12hr 48min 53sec
  2. Carlo Galetti (Legnano) s.t.
  3. Ezio Corlaita (Felsina) s.t.
  4. Ernesto Azzini
  5. Enrico Sala
  6. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano)
  7. Luigi Chiodi
  8. Clemente Canepari (Legnano)
  9. Luigi Azzini
  10. Piero Lampaggi

GC after Stage 5:

  1. Luigi Ganna (Atala): 18 points
  2. Carlo Galetti (Legnano): 20
  3. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano): 30
  4. Ernesto Azzini: 40
  5. Clemente Canepari (Legnano): 42
  6. Louis Trousselier (Stucchi): 50
  7. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi): 51
  8. Enrico Sala: 66
  9. Dario Beni (Biani): 70
  10. Ottorino Celli: 77

Stage 6: Tuesday, May 25: Firenze - Pistoia - Pisa - Genova, 294.4 km

59 starters, 53 finishers

climbsAscent: Passo Bracco

  1. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano): 10hr 56min 58sec
  2. Carlo Galetti (Legnano) s.t.
  3. Luigi Ganna (Atala) @ 13min 57sec
  4. Ernesto Azzini
  5. Clemente Canepari (Legnano)
  6. Luigi Chiodi
  7. Ottorino Celli
  8. Dario Beni (Bianchi)
  9. Piero Lampaggi
  10. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi)

GC after Stage 6:

  1. Luigi Ganna (Atala): 21 points
  2. Carlo Galetti (Legnano): 22
  3. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano) 31
  4. Ernesto Azzini: 44
  5. Clemente Canepari (Legnano): 47
  6. Carolo Oriani (Stucchi): 61
  7. Dario Beni (Bianchi) & Enrico Sala: 78
  8. Ottorino Celli: 84
  9. Piero Lampaggi: 106
  10. Alberto Petrino: 108

Stage 7: Thursday, May 27: Genova - Torino, 357 km

54 starters, 51 finishers

climbsAscents: San Bartolomeo, Colle di Nava

  1. Luigi Ganna (Atala): 13hr 41min 11sec
  2. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano) @ 4min
  3. Carlo Galetti (Legnano) @ 25min
  4. Clemente Canepari (Legnano)
  5. Luigi Chiodi
  6. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi)
  7. Giovanni Cocchi
  8. Alberto Petrino
  9. Enrico Sala
  10. Ernesto Azzini

GC after Stage 7

  1. Luigi Ganna (Atala): 22 points
  2. Carlo Galetti (Legnano): 25
  3. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano): 33
  4. Clemente Canepari (Legnano): 51
  5. Ernesto Azzini: 54
  6. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi): 67
  7. Enrico Sala: 87
  8. Dario Beni (Bianchi): 90
  9. Ottorino Celli : 97
  10. Alberto Petrino: 116

8th and Final Stage: Sunday, May 30: Torino - Milano, 206 km

53 starters and 50 finishers, but Arnolfo Galoppini was ruled outside the time limit, hence 49 classified finishers.

  1. Dario Beni (Bianchi): 6hr 55min 19sec
  2. Carlo Galetti (Legnano)
  3. Luigi Ganna (Atala)
  4. Carlo oriani (Stucchi)
  5. Luigi Azzini
  6. Luigi Chiodi
  7. Giovanni Rossignoli (Legnano)
  8. Ezio Corlaita
  9. Clemente Canepari (Legnano)
  10. Attilio Zavatti

Final GC after Stage 8:


The Story of the origin of the Giro and the 1909 Giro d'Italia

This excerpt is from The Story of the Giro d'Italia, Volume 1. If you enjoy it we hope you will consider purchasing the book, either print or electronic. The Amazon link here will make either purchase easy.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes” is a wise aphorism attributed to Mark Twain. It’s unlikely that Twain was thinking of the origins of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France when he wrote it, but the insight certainly applies.


In the nineteenth century, newspapers used a multitude of devices to increase their sales. Much of what both Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas wrote was serialized in newspapers. People breathlessly bought each day’s edition to learn how the Three Musketeers would get out of the fix they were in at the end of the last installment. In the United States, Joseph Pulitzer sent Nellie Bly on a journey around the world in only 72 days, from which she reported details of her remarkable journey to eager readers. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to mention the round-the-world cycling trip taken by Darwin and Hattie McIlrath. The Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper sponsored their journey and printed weekly installments describing their three-year global circumnavigation. Newspapers would often create their own news for which they were the only suppliers in an era before radio and television.

Around 1862 Frenchman Pierre Lallement had the inspiration to connect pedals to a crank and the crank to a wheel, and with that brilliant invention, the bicycle was born. By 1867 Pierre Michaux was manufacturing bicycles in Paris. Almost from that moment newspapers and magazines understood the magical appeal of men crossing great distances on these wonderful new machines, and began promoting bicycle races. In 1869 Le Vélocipède Illustré sponsored the 130-kilometer Paris–Rouen race. It took the winner, James Moore, over ten hours to ride the distance on his primitive bike. Other papers jumped in and soon Europe was covered with races as people along the race routes eagerly bought papers telling the story of the races and listing the results. Both cycle racing and the papers thrived under this symbiosis.


Back then cycle racing’s norm was a city-to-city race of staggering length. Simple brute endurance, not speed, was needed to compete in those days. It took Charles Terront over 71 hours to complete the 1,200 kilometers of the 1891 edition of Paris–Brest–Paris.  While the era’s general preference for cruelly long distances is passé, some of these turn-of-the-century races survive to this day and are among the most prestigious on the racing calendar: Milan–Turin, Paris–Roubaix, Milan–San Remo, Tour of Lombardy and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, to name a few.


In 1902 Henri Desgrange, editor of the French sports newspaper L’Auto-Vélo, was desperately searching for some way to drive competitor Pierre Giffard and his newspaper Le Vélo out of business. Desgrange’s paper was the creation of right-wing industrialists who were upset with both the liberal politics and the high-priced advertising that characterized Giffard’s paper. Indicative of the bad blood between the two, Giffard successfully sued L’Auto-Vélo, claiming that the paper’s name infringed upon his own, forcing Desgrange to shorten his paper’s name to L’Auto.


At the suggestion of one of his writers, Desgrange took the audacious step of promoting a month-long bicycle race around France, a plan much grander than the one-day races that were then the norm. His race would have the competitors ride six separate races, with rest days in between, in a grand tour of France. He would then add up each rider’s accumulated time for each race, or stage, with the winner being the one with the lowest total elapsed time. Today we call this kind of bicycle competition a stage race. The ranking of the riders’ accumulated time (or sometimes their placings, but more about this later) was and is called the General Classification.


The first running of the Tour de France in 1903 was a smashing success. L’Auto’s sales soared, driving Le Vélo out of business the following year. Despite a few missteps, Desgrange and his Tour (and believe me, it was his Tour) went on to become first a French and later an international institution. Of the twelve Tours run before the First World War, foreigners won three.
Desgrange and his staff didn’t invent stage racing. Earlier there had been Milan–Munich and Paris–Milan, international races that took several days to complete. But like the Chinese navigators who are said to have discovered America, these earlier multi-day races led to nothing permanent. By virtue of his iron will, vision, and ability to promote the Tour de France, Desgrange’s systems, rules and nomenclature are still very much the standards and language we use today. We can honestly say that Desgrange was the creator of the sport of bicycle stage racing as we know it. At every turn he was forced to invent new rules to cover the new circumstances that his evolving race presented.


As the fortunes of Desgrange’s Tour and L’Auto waxed, newspapermen south of the Alps saw what promoting a national tour could do for sales. We pick up the story of the birth of the Giro d’Italia on August 5, 1908, with a short telegram sent by Tullo Morgagni, editor of the struggling Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport. It was to his cycling editor Armando Cougnet, who was in Venice on business: “Without delay, necessity obliges Gazzetta to launch an Italian tour. Return to Milan. —Tullo”. The owner of the paper, Emilio Camillo Costamagna, was vacationing in the town of Mondovì when he got the same urgent request from Morgagni.

Emilio Costamagna

Emilio Camillo Costamagna


Morgagni felt the need to move quickly because he had heard from Angelo Gatti, a former employee of the Bianchi bicycle company, of plans to create a Tour of Italy—in Italian, a Giro d’Italia—modeled after Desgrange’s Tour de France.It was to be produced by a partnership between the Bianchi bicycle company, the newspaper Corriere della Sera, and the Touring Club Italiano. The Touring Club’s original connection with cycling ended in 1900 but its promotion of a national automobile rally gave it the ability to handle the race’s logistics.
Gatti, who had formed the Atala bicycle company after leaving Bianchi, carried a huge grudge (Cougnet used the term “crossed daggers” in describing the relationship between Bianchi and Atala) against his former employer and current competitor. We know from Cougnet’s memoirs that Morgagni was informed of the coming Giro by Gatti, who in turn had learned of the plans from Bianchi’s manager Gian Fernando Tomaselli. Gatti proposed to Morgagni that they leapfrog Bianchi and the Corriere, and put on the race themselves. Morgagni was completely sucked into the scheme.


This was an easy proposal to make, but the problem was that the now thrice-weekly Gazzetta, in Cougnet’s blunt words, was broke. It was a shaky, undercapitalized enterprise formed by the 1896 merger of a pair of troubled papers, Il Ciclista and La Tripletta (the latter paper was owned by Costamagna). La Gazzetta had been originally published fortnightly but quickly became a weekly, no doubt helped by the fact that the 1896 Olympic Games began just days after the newspaper’s start. La Gazzetta had originally been printed on yellow paper. Green was tried but found unsatisfactory. In 1898 the owners settled on its now-famous trademark pink paper.


Not having the backing of the wealthy engine and bicycle manufacturers that L’Auto had, La Gazzetta certainly didn’t have the financial resources to put on a major stage race. Yet, in a move that seemed to characterize the audacity of the founders of both the Tour and the Giro, Morgagni went ahead and sent his note to Cougnet.

Armando Cougnet

Undated photo of Armando Cougnet


Signor Cougnet was an experienced cycle writer who had followed and reported on the 1906 and 1907 editions of the Tour de France. He had also organized the first races put on by La Gazzetta, the paper having been involved with race promotion since its inception in 1896. In 1905 it created the Tour of Lombardy and in 1907 launched Milan–San Remo.


These endeavors would provide valuable expertise to these newcomers promoting a national three-week stage race or as we now call it, a “Grand Tour”. Cougnet understood the magnitude of the proposal and what a reach it would be for the struggling paper. He must have thought his editor had been standing a little too long in the hot Milan sun.


The next day Morgagni, Cougnet and Costamagna met in Costamagna’s office in Milan. Morgagni explained the absolute necessity of going forward with the event, feeling that otherwise the rival Corriere would gain too great an advantage. We don’t know if he was aware of Le Vélo’s fate after Desgrange crushed it with his Tour de France promotion, but it seems likely, and he certainly would have preferred to follow Desgrange’s footsteps rather than Giffard’s.

Tullo Morgagni

Tullo Morgagni


Costamagna was sold on the idea. On August 7, in a headline seven columns wide, La Gazzetta dello Sport made its momentous announcement that Italy would have its own national race and that it would be held the following May.
Now the only thing standing between the ambitious gentlemen and sporting immortality was filthy lucre. How to get it when the nearly broke paper sometimes had trouble just making payroll? As Cougnet put it, launching the Giro was easy. The three fathers were happy to have given life to this beautiful creation, but without wealthy parents they had no means to bring it to life with dignity. As he had written about himself in his elementary school essays, Cougnet said the Giro was a child of poor but honest parents. But the deed had been done and the Giro was born, “and like all babies that you hear, it squealed its way to life in the columns of La Gazzetta.”


It was a mutual friend who saved the perhaps too-daring entrepreneurs. Primo Bongrani was an accountant at the bank Cassa di Risparmio, and he suggested that the Giro act just like a bank: the Giro should ask others for the money that they themselves didn’t have. At this crucial juncture Bongrani, who Cougnet said was already acting like the Giro’s concertmaster, took a month’s leave of absence from his job. He became a relentless fundraiser for the Giro, knocking on every door.


He succeeded admirably. In addition to getting money from the Italian Cycling Association, an engineering company and others, he scored the magnificent coup of convincing the Corriere della Sera of the seriousness of Gazzetta’s intentions. The Corriere had lost out when La Gazzetta beat them to the punch. Yet the Corriere still wanted to make the best out of a bad situation and grab a piece of the coming publicity. Bongrani got them to put up the prize money for first place, 3,000 lire.


Our boys now had enough money to cover their operating costs but there was still the problem of the rest of the prizes. This was a professional bike race, after all. Francesco Sghirla found the last of the required money. Sghirla had been involved in an earlier Gazzetta fiasco (it seems they were willing to march into the breach again and again), the running of the Milan–Acqui–San Remo automobile race, which somehow eventually became the famous Milan–San Remo bicycle classic. Sghirla redeemed himself by getting the casino in San Remo to cover the needed balance.


Now the promoters were financially set and off to the races. For the first Giro, 166 riders signed up to participate, both professionals and amateurs. Twenty were foreigners: fifteen Frenchmen, two Germans, and one each from Belgium, Argentina and Trieste—then not part of Italy. Riders who were part of sponsored teams as well as independents were allowed to enter the race. La Gazzetta trumpeted their Giro d’Italia as a “great battle between the giants of the road” that was the “richest race in the world”.


The Giro organizers’ announced intention was to structure the race along the lines of the Tour de France, yet they kept their first edition within intelligent limitations. By 1908 the Tour was a sophisticated 14-stage affair that followed the hexagonal circumference of France for a total of 4,488 kilometers. The average Tour stage, 320 kilometers, was monstrous by modern standards, and the longest one was 415!


Instead of competing on elapsed time, the Giro followed the lead of the Tour and used points to calculate the General Classification, or in Italian, classifica generale. By adding up the placings for each stage, the rider with the lowest number would be the winner. If there were twenty stages and a rider won them all, his point total would be twenty. The Tour had switched to a points system, which was much easier to monitor and calculate, after a cheating scandal in 1904 almost ended the Tour. Moreover, because the Giro promoters were short of money and counting placings was cheaper than clocking the riders, the points system was doubly attractive.


1909, the first Giro d’Italia. On May 13, 1909, the Giro’s first peloton of 127 riders (41 of the enrollees didn’t show up) met at the Piazzale Loreto in downtown Milan where La Gazzetta’s offices were situated. The eight-stage race went from Milan to Bologna and onward to Chieti, Naples, Rome, Florence, Genoa and Turin, returning to Milan on the 30th. Riders would cover 2,445 kilometers over eight stages, an average stage length of 306 kilometers, not far from the Tour’s average. This was to be the shortest Giro ever. It should be noted that in the early years of bike racing distances were approximate. The various lengths we have for the first Giro, 2408, 2448, and 2445 kilometers—each from a different but respected Italian writer—are all within the expected range of accuracy of the age.


To minimize cheating and confusion, each of the riders was photographed at the start for later comparison by the judges. Just as in the first couple of editions of the Tour, the Giro would allow several days of recovery between each stage. The riders faced roads that could only be described as menacing, especially in economically disadvantaged southern Italy.


Against the wishes of their sponsor Alcyon, several famous French riders, including Maurice Brocco, Émile Georget and Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq, signed up to ride the first Giro. The Alcyon bicycle company wanted them to ride the Tour of Belgium that May, which would give the French manufacturer far more usable publicity. Italy was a far more isolated country and performing well in an Italian race would not create much of a stir, and hence sales, back in France. This was long before the creation of the European Common Market. Back then high import duties between the European nations created isolated national markets. Despite this impediment, the English bike firm Rudge Whitworth sponsored a superb squad with Carlo Galetti, Giovanni Cuniolo and Ernesto Azzini.


The Alcyon riders entered under fanciful names like “Gingdt” and “Caliste”. The Giro organization dutifully reserved numbers for them, but in the end the riders crossed neither their sponsor nor the Alps. While these gents didn’t travel to Italy, two great Tour de France riders did: Lucien Petit-Breton, winner of the 1907 and 1908 Tours, and Louis Trousselier, winner in 1905. The first Giro had just five foreign riders actually start, the aforementioned pair plus Frenchmen André Pottier and Maurice Decaup, and Henry Heller from Trieste.


The two most famous Italian racers at the Piazzale Loreto start were Luigi Ganna, nicknamed “The King of Mud”, and Giovanni Gerbi, “The Red Devil”. Gerbi was the more popular of the two among Italian race fans, or tifosi—a term derived from the delirium of typhus patients. In their devotion to their favorite athletes or teams, the tifosi were and are often fanatical, which is of course the origin of the term “fan”.


Before Ganna became a professional bike racer he’d been a stonemason who had to ride almost 100 kilometers a day to and from work. Just racing a bicycle must have seemed like an easier job. He won the 1907 Milan–Turin, in 1908 he was fifth in the Tour de France and in the spring of 1909 he won the third edition of Milan–San Remo.


Gerbi’s accomplishments were a bit more extensive including victories in the Tour of Lombardy, the Tour of Piedmont and Milan–Turin.


A modern professional bike race has a seemingly endless caravan of cars and trucks following it, some for team support and some for the race management. The first Giro had an eight-car caravan: four cars for the teams, two for the organizers and race judges and two for journalists.


The fundamental situation of many of the riders was profoundly different from today’s professionals. Today a racer has his race bikes maintained by skilled, professional mechanics. After the race is over he is sped to a hotel for a massage and a meal before going to bed. In the 1909 Giro the best riders riding for the comparatively well-financed teams could at least count on a bed in a hotel after a hard day’s racing. But many of the riders were unsponsored independents, receiving no salary and racing only for prizes and completely on their own. Some were merely unemployed, hungry and looking for a way out of poverty. They sometimes slept outside, occasionally on haystacks or in abandoned houses. Theirs was a difficult life without a hint of glamour.
The longest stage was the first, Milan to Bologna. Vittorio Cavenaghi, the president of the Italian Cycling Federation, officially started the first Giro peloton’s race into history at 2:53 AM. A huge crowd sent the intrepid riders off by torchlight on a bottom-numbing 397-kilometer stage that would take the best riders over fourteen hours to complete.

The riders in that first Giro stage headed north out of Milan on the Viale Monza towards Bergamo, continuing eastward to Vicenza and then south to Bologna. The Giro wasn’t even two kilometers old before the first mass crash occurred. No one knows what caused the riders to fall in the dark. Some said a child escaping his parents’ control ran into the middle of the peloton. But all were soon up and riding again except Gerbi. Swearing like a sailor—he was the Red Devil after all—he found that his rear wheel and fork were in bad shape. He turned around and rode to the local Bianchi dealer who had stayed open because of the large crowd of cycling fans filling the streets watching the Giro send-off. The mechanic was awakened and put to work on the damaged bike and Gerbi soon rejoined the peloton.


Tour de France history fans may raise their eyebrows at that last paragraph. While the Giro intended to follow the basic structure of the Tour, it had no intention of being a carbon copy. Desgrange ruled the Tour with an iron-fisted despotism. He created a rulebook that seems sadistic today and was considered as such by many of the early Tour riders. His intention was to make the Tour a race so difficult that it was almost impossible to finish.


One of the early Tour’s most important regulations said that the riders had to perform their own repairs, without any assistance. A Tour rider whose frozen hands prevented his being able to thread a needle so that he could repair a sew-up tire was penalized because a sympathetic woman had done only that, threaded the miserable rider’s needle. This rule, which hugely magnified the consequences of a mechanical problem, in many ways turned the Tour into a race of chance. Several riders lost enough time getting their broken bikes back on the road that it cost them likely victories. Over the ensuing decades this cruel requirement was gradually relaxed.


The early Giri were far fairer. While damaged bicycles could not be replaced, the rider could receive mechanical assistance. The riders had enough to contend with between the era’s primitive metallurgy and the race’s staggeringly long stages over contemptible road surfaces. As with the Tour, the complex book of rules changed over the years as the race organizers tried to make the Giro as exciting, difficult, compelling and fair as possible. For a few years Giro rules also required the riders to make their own repairs. Stage racing was a new sport and the race organizers were learning on the fly. Tracking these seemingly arbitrary changes challenges the cycle historian who finds inexplicable time or point penalties assessed in these early races.


In Bergamo the riders had to sign in at a checkpoint. Racing during the pioneer era was rife with creative cheating and checkpoints were an attempt to minimize racer-authorized shortcuts and trips on trains. Chaos often ruled at the checkpoints of the first Giro.


Before the Giro’s first real climb, an ascent near Lake Garda, two riders crashed. First Galetti went down and then Petit-Breton. Petit-Breton was eating a piece of chicken when he lost control of his bike and fell on his head, receiving a blow so severe he lost consciousness for a few minutes. Upon recovering and remounting, he thought he might have dislocated his shoulder, yet he pressed on. These were iron men on wooden rims. Though the Frenchman was in agony from his injured shoulder, he raced after the others at a reported 35 kilometers per hour. Catching the lead group of probably 27 riders, he then attacked several times, but to no avail.


Seventy kilometers from the end of the stage, Ganna flatted. The current sportsmanlike unwritten rule about the race’s leader or major contender not being attacked while he is suffering a mechanical problem was not part of the racing ethos of the era. The others gleefully took off. But they were in turn stopped by a train crossing, allowing Ganna to rejoin the leaders.


With 35 kilometers to go they reached the city of Cento where the lead group was down to twelve riders, but Petit-Breton was not among them. The race finished on Bologna’s Zappoli race course in torrential rain. After fourteen hours of racing Dario Beni won the first Giro stage at five in the afternoon. A sudden cloudburst combined with the huge, uncontrolled crowd looking anywhere for shelter made the rest of the place-judging an exercise in probability. Galetti was credited with third and Ganna fourth. Petit-Breton soldiered in a heroic 27th.

A Giro stage finish

The finish of a stage in the 1909 Giro


Three days later the riders took off for Chieti, a 381-kilometer trek that, for the most part, followed the Adriatic coastline. Too injured from his crash, Petit-Breton couldn’t start and went home. Ganna came in second to Giovanni Cuniolo (nicknamed “The Fist”) in the day’s uphill finish, giving the Red Devil the overall lead. Gerbi found the stage so difficult that at one point he stopped at a farmhouse and asked for a bed in order to rest for a while.


Stage three was the first Giro mountain stage, taking the race from Chieti over the Apennines to Naples. Before the leg began three riders were removed from the classification list: Vincenzo Granata, Guglielmo Lodesani and Andrea Provinciali. They took the train in stage two at Ancona and were caught by an unexpected checkpoint. Provinciali went home but Granata and Lodesani were allowed to continue racing with the rest.


The previous stage had ended in the upper part of Chieti. The planned start had a steep descent that was considered too dangerous given the state of the era’s brakes, so the peloton left from the lower part of town. The riders quickly encountered rolling terrain which they handled on their single-speed bikes with little trouble, but when they arrived at the foot of the Cinquemiglia ascent, several called an end to their Giro. Next came the climb to Macerone. This was too much for the excellent Cuniolo, who injured a tendon on the ascent.
The crowds that lined the roads during the southern stages were passionate, perhaps too much so. Cougnet had tried yelling at the tifosi, trying to get them to stay clear of the speeding riders and finally had to resort to using a whip on the ardent fans. Times have changed.


After the day’s climbing was done, Galetti was off the front with Giovanni Rossignoli chasing. Near the finish Rossignoli was able to catch and pass Galetti, earning him the stage win, but Galetti was still the leader.


After three stages the General Classification stood thus:
1. Carlo Galetti: 13 points
2. Louis Trousselier: 14
3. Luigi Ganna: 17
4. Giovanni Rossignoli: 21


The Tour had suffered from sabotage by racing partisans who put nails on the road to slow less-favored riders and now this same problem surfaced in the Giro’s hilly fourth stage to Rome. Trousselier, a foreigner, seemed to be particularly unfortunate that day and his competitors were happy to take advantage of the situation, attacking as the tormented Frenchman swore a blue streak.


Luigi Ganna and Carlo Oriani managed to detach themselves from the leaders and Ganna took the prestigious stage in front of 20,000 spectators. He now led Galetti by a single point.


Stage five was every bit as difficult as stage four, going from Rome through Todi and Perugia (Umbrian hill towns), past Lake Trasimene and then into Tuscany for a finish in Florence. Misfortune still dogged poor Trousselier. Troubled by a series of flat tires, shortly after passing through Arezzo (where he also had a flat), his rear wheel’s hub disintegrated.


Ganna had suffered his own inopportune puncture ten kilometers from the finish in the city’s velodrome. He chased, caught the lead group and crossed the finish alone for the first of two laps. The crowds in Florence were unmanageable. They rushed onto the track making the planned second circuit for a special trophy out of the question. Galetti arrived a close second and Rossignoli a more distant sixth, making the 1909 Giro a two-man race.


The General Classification after the fifth stage:
1. Luigi Ganna: 18 points
2. Carlo Galetti 20
3. Giovanni Rossignoli: 30
6. Louis Trousselier: 50

Luigi Ganna

Luigi Ganna before the start of a stage.


Trousselier came in 28th in stage five, taking him out of the running. Bowing to the unsmiling math of the classification standings, he abandoned. The two proven Tour winners were now both eliminated through misfortune.


Stage six finished with a downhill run into Genoa. Rossignoli and Galetti were able to break away from the lead group with Rossignoli winning the stage, but Galetti’s second place had narrowed the standings. Ganna was a distant third, arriving in Genoa several minutes after Rossignoli; he now led Galetti by a single point.


The penultimate stage presented a serious challenge to the organizers. Their “baby” was turning out to be far more successful than they could ever have imagined. The crowds in Genoa had been enormous. Despite the early-morning stage starts, the mobs of tifosi were making the send-offs increasingly difficult.
The organizers were then given the frightening news that there could be as many as 50,000 delirious fans waiting for the peloton in Turin where the stage was scheduled to end. To make the crowd management problem worse, advance men for the organizers said there were picket lines to deal with because the bakers of the city were on strike.


Cougnet’s solution for the first problem was elegant. He had a ceremonial start where the first kilometers were neutralized. Then, free of the crowds, he had an official start where the racing really began. To this day that’s how Giro and Tour stages are run.


To solve the difficulties in Turin the finish line was secretly moved 6 kilometers closer to the start, in Beinasco.


The start went off beautifully but the finish was a disaster. There were fans everywhere but there were no race officials. It turned out that while Cougnet had told the city authorities about the planned change, he had failed to alert his own staff in Turin! It also turned out that the bakers’ strike was a figment of the organizers’ imagination as a way to justify the finish line change.
Near the end of the stage the riders were hit by a hailstorm so intense Cougnet’s follow car was damaged enough to require a mechanic’s attention. While following the Giro his Milan-made Züst came to grief several times.
There were two groups of three riders racing at the front towards Turin. Ganna, Rossignoli and Carlo Oriani were chased by Galetti, Clemente Canepari and Luigi Chiodi. Oriani was dropped while Ganna beat Rossignoli for the stage win. Galetti’s group went right by Oriani and Galetti took third. With only the final stage from Turin to Milan left, Ganna now had a three-point advantage over Galetti.


With the expectation that the roads at the finish in Milan would be packed with enthusiastic but ungovernable fans, Cougnet decided to again move the finish line closer to the start. But this time he decided to make the decision on the fly as to where the stage would officially end. When the riders took off no one knew exactly where the finish was going to be.


As the race drew closer to Milan a couple of racers loyal to Ganna who had abandoned days earlier tried to infiltrate the peloton and help their captain. They were found out and removed from the race.


Seventy kilometers from the finish Ganna flatted. It took a while for the pack to realize that the race leader wasn’t among them. But once that piece of important news did dawn on them they took off like startled deer, causing even the leaders to form separate chasing groups. When Ganna finally had the pack in sight, he flatted again. This would have been the end of Ganna’s chances, especially since the escaping riders chose to pass through a closed level railroad crossing outside of Milan. But at a second set of closed barriers the peloton was stopped by officials, allowing Ganna to catch up.


At the new, hastily selected finish line, police on horseback were able to control the tifosi. Things looked to be in good order until a horse fell, causing a bike crash and turning the finish into a mass of confusion. The sprint, won by Dario Beni, was eventually sorted out with Galetti second and Ganna third. Ganna knew that to keep his lead, he had to finish right behind Galetti, and after latching onto his wheel at the second level crossing, he stuck to Galetti like a limpet, even in the crash. Ganna was the winner of the first Giro d’Italia.
A great crowd awaited the racers at the Arena stadium in Milan where it was clear that the Giro d’Italia was a fabulous success.


Immediately after the Milan stage ended Cougnet asked Ganna for his first impression of being the winner of the Giro d’Italia. He thought about it for a moment and gave an answer that any rider would understand, “Me brüsa tanto el cü!” (My butt is on fire!).


Ganna turned pro in 1904. In 1905 he came in third in the Tour of Lombardy, behind Gerbi and Rossignoli. That was good enough for Bianchi to sign him up at the princely salary of 200 lire a month. In 1909 Atala offered Ganna 250 lire a month to ride for the new company. This timely signing must have been a source of enormous satisfaction to Gatti. Moreover, his Atala squad also won the team competition.


Luigi Ganna won the 5,325 lire first prize put up by the Corriere. While it’s almost impossible to convert this sum into modern currency, a bookkeeper of the era made about 1,700 lire a year, an engineer made 3,900 and an Italian civil servant could expect to make 2,000. Ganna’s 1909 season made him a very well-off man with earnings that totaled 34,000 lire. In 1912 he opened a bicycle factory with seven employees who were capable of turning out three bikes a day.


Ganna made good use of the points system employed in the early Giri. His elapsed time was 37 minutes slower (this number seems to vary from account to account) than Giovanni Rossignoli’s, who would have won if the classification had been determined by elapsed time. In the 1912 Tour de France, Eugène Christophe would also ride a faster overall race and still lose on points.


All of the 49 finishers were Italian, covering the 2,448 kilometers at an average speed of 27.26 kilometers per hour.


Final 1909 Giro d’Italia General Classification:
1. Luigi Ganna (Atala): 25 points
2. Carlo Galetti (Rudge-Whitworth): 27
3. Giovanni Rossignoli (Bianchi): 40
4. Clemente Canepari (Bianchi): 59
5. Carlo Oriani (Stucchi): 72

The top four tiders at the end of the 1909 Giro

Left to right: Ganna, winner of the 1909 Giro with second-place Carlo Galetti, third-place Giovanni Rossignoli and Dario Beni, winner of the first and last stages.


Cougnet’s memoir of the Giro’s origin is a lighthearted story written after he had participated in one of the great successes not only in sports, but also in business history. La Gazzetta eventually grew into a giant media conglomerate. But for all of Cougnet’s backward-looking humor, the promoters were taking part in a deadly serious game. It wasn’t until later in 1909, presumably after the Giro’s success had sent the paper’s circulation skyrocketing, that the editors were even able to draw a regular salary. They had to know that if they weren’t able to pull off the grand coup of running the Italian national tour they would be completely ruined.

It would be useful to pause here and take a look at the Italy of 1909. Italy was a new country, not having achieved territorial unification until 1870. During most of its post-Roman Empire history it was made up of city-states and regions that warred constantly with their neighbors, some of which were territories owned by the great northern European powers. In other words, Tuscany, Lombardy and Venice were separate and often sovereign nations. The Italian peninsula was so completely fractured that historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that there were more independent states in Italy in the 1300s than in the entire world in 1934.


Southern Italy had the misfortune to be ruled by Spain and later by a branch of the Spanish ruling dynasty, the Bourbons. To this day the south pays the price of the rule by an exploitative Spanish government that empowered the aristocracy and utilized the Church to keep the peasantry in abject poverty. Long after the Italians gained the right to govern themselves, the wealthy landowners of the south kept the peasantry in near feudal subjugation.
Even in the wealthier north, farming was primitive compared to other western countries. The industrial revolution almost completely bypassed nineteenth century Italy. Perhaps it would make Italy’s situation clear to note that when Giuseppe Garibaldi sailed to Sicily in 1860 to begin his campaign to unify the Italian peninsula, Italy had only 2,404 kilometers of railways. Germany had 11,000, Great Britain 14,000 and France had laid 9,100 kilometers of tracks.
An Italian of the mid- to late-1800s considered himself a Tuscan or Lombard or Piedmontese and that’s where his primary loyalty lay. This was not unlike many Americans of the time, especially in the South. A Virginian often considered himself first a Virginian and secondarily an American, but therein lies another tragedy.


The language of modern Italy is the dialect of Tuscany, fixed as the parlance of the educated Italian largely as a result of the work of two men. In the fourteenth century Dante wrote his epic Divine Comedy in Tuscan rather than Latin and in the 1500s Venetian scholar Pietro Bembo was tireless in his efforts to make Tuscan the language of educated Italians. Despite this, by 1860, only 2.5 percent of Italians could speak and understand Tuscan. The rest spoke their regional dialects.


When Giuseppe Garibaldi got word of an uprising against the King of Sicily in 1859, he sailed to the island, landing at Marsala with a rag-tag army of 1,000 students, and liberated the island. Then he crossed to the mainland and in a brilliant campaign, moved north, defeating the Bourbon government’s armies.
From the North, the wily prime minister of Piedmont, Camillo Cavour, took his army south. At Teano, north of Naples, Garibaldi met Victor Emmanuel II, the king of Piedmont, and with a historic handshake turned over the areas he had conquered to the king. This made all of Italy—except the areas still ruled by the Catholic Church in central Italy—a Piedmontese realm, with Victor Emmanuel the King of Italy, and Cavour its prime minister. The country they ruled was so poor that in 1871 nearly a quarter of the children born died in their first year and an Italian’s average life expectancy was not much above 30.


A collapse of the Italian economy in the late nineteenth century generated great waves of emigration, much of it to the United States. The trans-Atlantic steamship lines had become so efficient and the business of transporting immigrants so competitive, a ticket to the U.S. was cheaper than one to Paris.
In turn, these waves of emigration helped the Italian economy grow at the turn of the century as the government began to pass some economically enlightened legislation. Money sent back to Italian families by members living abroad helped pay for the machinery Italy needed to industrialize. Because Italy had no oil or coal, she began to harness hydroelectric power in the 1890s.
When Luigi Ganna won the first Giro, he raced around a country that was in transition. It was still an agrarian economy (60 percent of the population depended upon agriculture), but a significant percentage of the population lived in cities. Industrialization was just beginning in the North, but the South was imprisoned in a jail of terrible poverty.


The idea of Italy as a nation was starting to take hold, but regional loyalties and differences were (and in no small way remain) still acute. These differences were noticeable in the Giro, compared to other important races of the same era in other countries, because the Giro’s peloton was almost entirely Italian. To the Giro’s fans and competitors, Gerbi was from Asti, Ganna from Induno Olona. 1920s Giro winner Costante Girardengo was and still is the man from Novi Ligure while Alfredo Binda was always referred to as being from Cittiglio. Despite this, Italians would often work together across regional and trade team boundaries to deny a foreigner victory in their Giro.


Importantly for our story, the Italian roads were mostly dirt and, especially in the south, almost impassable when it rained. Italy was also troubled and divided by competing socialist and nationalist forces that would eventually bear bad fruit. While it was a country far behind northern Europe, it had shaken off the doldrums and was modernizing fast.