Alfonsina Morini Strada
The Woman Who Rode the 1924 Giro
Alfonsina Strada might very well be the greatest athlete you never heard of. Here's her remarkable story from the year 1924 chapter from my upcoming history of the Giro d'Italia:
At the line in Milan for the start of the Giro’s 1924 edition were several very well regarded riders, including Bartolomeo Aymo, Federico Gay and Giuseppe Enrici. But the quality in 1924 of the field was a bit attenuated. Some of the best riders like Costante Girardengo, Ottavio Bottecchia, Gaetano Belloni and Giovanni Brunero were on bad terms (it was about money, of course) with the Giro organizers and teams. The top riders demanded money from their teams to race the Giro and the teams, in turn, demanded start money for the Giro. The Giro, wanting to strangle this baby in its crib, firmly said no to the demand for start money and so the riders refused to ride.
To get the peloton they needed, the Giro, as the Tour had done when it needed riders, offered openings to individuals who wanted to compete. Moreover, the offer came with the added inducement of room and board for the 90 riders they would accept. The food offered included 600 chickens, 720 eggs, 4,800 bananas, 2,000 bottles of mineral water, 750 kilograms of meat plus jams, cookies, apples, and oranges. What racer could turn down an offer to race when the dinner table was heaped so high?
The 1924 edition showed the organizers were feeling ambitious and confident. The race went to 12 stages, which hadn’t been tried since 1911 and went all the way down to Taranto, in the arch of the Italian boot. The race was a monster at 3,613 kilometers, yielding an average stage length of 301 kilometers.
Among the applicants who were accepted was a starter who was given racing number 72. This rider, who registered under the name Alfonsin Strada, was more remarkable than any of the other gentlemen who planned to ride. Number 72 was actually Alfonsina Morini Strada. Yes, that’s right, Alfonsina, Signora Strada.
Strada was born on a farm in Castelfranco in Emilia. At an early age she developed a deep love for the bicycle and competition. Her nickname among the locals where she tore around the dirt roads on bikes was the "Devil in a Dress." Although her parents did all they could to discourage her bike racing, she was a strong-willed woman as well as a very fine athlete.
Getting married didn’t dull her love of cycling as her family had hoped. Her husband became her trainer and gave her a new racing bike with dropped bars as a wedding present. She was very successful, racing all over Europe, even finishing thirty-second (last place) in the 1917 Tour of Lombardy and twenty-first in the 1918 edition.
A 1923 photo of Strada. The rider on the left is Giovanni Gerbi (nicknamed "The Red Devil"), the greatest Italian rider never to have won the Giro.
Given that she had registered under the sexually ambiguous name of Alfonsin, it seems no one knew that a woman was going to ride the Giro. Once it became clear that they did have a rider without a "Y" chromosome La Gazzetta’s director Emilio Colombo decided to keep her in the race. Her presence, not without a touch of scandal in those days, had a great deal of promotional value. At first she did well. In the 300-kilometer Stage 1 to Genoa won by Bartolomeo Aymo, she lost a lot of time but finished well ahead of many others. Aymo’s win was substantial, having beating Federico Gay by almost 10 minutes.
She came in fifty-sixth out of 65 finishers in the second stage that finished in Florence, 2 hours 6 minutes behind stage winner Federico Gay. Aymo retained the lead. And when the race went to Rome in the third stage, she finished 2 hours, 33 minutes behind the stage winner and new leader, Federico Gay.
After the third stage the standings stood thus:
1. Federico Gay
2. Giuseppe Enrici @ 14 minutes 23 seconds
3. Enea Dal Fiume @ 32 minutes 53 seconds
Alfonsina also did well enough in the fourth stage into Naples, coming in fifty-sixth, 2 hours 21 minutes behind Adriano Zanaga, the stage winner. Gay still had a healthy 16-minute lead over Giuseppe Enrici.
On stage 7, considered the pivotal stage of the race, things tightened up considerably. As the Giro moved north from Foggia, Gay lost 12 minutes on the 304-kilometer stage that finished in L'Aquila. Gay, more of a passista (a man who can roll a big gear on the flats), attacked on the climb to Macerone and when he ran out of gas, was overhauled by the climbers. He lost 17 minutes, 25 seconds that say.
The General Classification now stood thus:
1. Giuseppe Enrici
2. Federico Gay @ 1 minute 8 seconds
3. Angioli Gabrielli @ 1 hour 13 minutes 25 seconds
4. Secondo Martinetto @ 1 hour 16 minutes 47 seconds
It was in stage 8, from L'Aquila to Perugia that both Strada’s and Gay’s fortunes shifted. Before the stage, Enrici and Gay were nearly tied. The day’s weather was horrific. Hard rain and powerful winds lashed the riders. Gay lost 40 minutes and the stage winner and race leader Giuseppe Enrici assumed an ironclad grip on the lead.
Strada suffered numerous falls and flat tires. Remember, Italian pre-war roads in Southern Italy were almost impassable when it rained. She arrived well after the cutoff time in Perugia after completing 296- kilometer stage. The judges had a fierce argument as to whether she should be allowed to continue, considering her bad luck and courageous riding. She had broken her handlebars in one crash and had used a piece of broken broomstick to make the repair. The disqualifiers won out and Strada was no longer an official classified rider in the 1924 Giro.
But Columbo, still very conscious of the publicity Strada gave the race, let her continue riding, even going so far as to pay for her room and board. I can’t see Henri Desgrange ever considering letting a non-competitive rider complete the Tour after being disqualified. Desgrange wanted his Tour de France pure and nearly impossible to complete.
When Strada came into Fiume at the end of the tenth stage, she was hurt and crying after a bad crash. The cheering crowds lifted her from her bike. Enrici added almost 9 minutes to his lead over Gay.
Enrici’s foot now became infected, causing him terrible suffering. He could ride, but he could not walk on the sore foot. Yet, he maintained his lead to the end, winning his only Giro.
Strada ended up making it all the way to Milan, riding all 3,610 kilometers. She finished 38 hours behind Enrici, not bad when the last classified finisher, Telesforo Benaglia was thirty-eighth, over 20 hours behind. Strada was never allowed to ride the Giro again although she continued to compete all over Europe. In her time, she must have been quite the celebrity. The famous Italian writer Dino Buzzoti wrote that when he was a boy riding in a park in Milan, he saw Alfonsina riding and managed to stay with her for 2 laps before "exploding". He said that after that she shot off down the path like an arrow.
Let's raise a glass to Alfonsina, a courageous and fine athlete who only wanted to ride and race her bike. She rode in an era of single-speed bikes where competing in races of staggering length in a country with often abominable roads was the standard for all. It's a shame she was born 60 years too soon.
It's also a shame that the 1924 Giro didn’t have Belloni and Girardengo racing against obviously in-form riders Enrici and Gay.
1924 Giro d’Italia final General Classification
1. Giuseppe Enrici 143 hours 43 minutes 37 seconds
2. Federico Gay @ 58 minutes 21 seconds
3. Angiolo Gabrielli @ 1 hour 56 minutes 53 seconds
4. Secondo Martinetto @ 2 hours 13 minutes 51 seconds
5. Enea Dal Fiume @ 2 hours 19 minutes
Alfonsina Morini Strada @ 38 hours
It should be noted in passing that winner Enrici was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his family at some point moved back to Piemonte in northern Italy. This must have earned him American citizenship. Is Enrici really the first American racer to win a Grand Tour?