By Mimi Torchia Boothby
It was 1924, and there was serious doubt that the Giro d'Italia would happen. Most of the major sponsors were holding back because the economy in Italy was depressed. As a result, few riders signed up for the annual race. But one who did was a woman, signed up as Alfonsin Strada. Using her husband's last name and her first name less the "a" on the end, it appeared that she was a man. When they found out, would she be allowed to participate in the ride?
In 1891 Alfonsina Morini, the second of 8 children was born to a family in northern Italy . Alfonsina's family were essentially peasants with the father a day laborer and sharing a hovel with 24 occupants. The children grew up with little structure or advantages. This was during the time that many people from that part of the country were dying from pellagra, a kind of malnutrition. Alfonsina spent most of her time caring for her younger siblings and running errands for her mother who was usually pregnant. One day, when she was ten, her father came home upon a most amazing machine. He had traded some chickens to a local doctor in exchange for an old bicycle. Alfonsina was captivated. She got on it and in a short amount of time was propelling herself up and down the fields, between the beets and the cabbages. She had discovered freedom. Of all the children in her family, she had the greatest ambition to leave her family's poverty and squalor. And she did it on a bike.
If Alfonsina had been born in 1980 and was competing in the Giro d'Italia today, it would be sensational news and in everyone's living room thanks to mass media. But this happened in 1924, when it was still considered scandalous for a woman's ankle to be revealed from beneath her skirts. People believed in those days that excessive exercise was not good for women, and as the weaker sex, it would be preposterous to even consider that a woman could compete against men in any kind of physical competition. Imagine the reception that Alfonsina received as a young woman straddling a bike and pedaling down the road. People teased her and called her names. Men made unwanted advances and others treated her like she was insane. Her family was outraged and tried to prohibit her from riding, so she'd tell her mother that she was going to church, while actually she was going to a neighboring town where there was a bike race.
In the early 1900's there were a few European women who were bicyclists, but their skill was seen as more like a circus act, and people believed that they were possessed by the devil, or considered to be amoral and certainly were not normal wholesome women.
Somehow in her backwater town, Alfonsina had heard about them, and at the age of 13 she declared that she would become a famous bicyclist someday. It wouldn't be enough to be faster than the boys in her town and it didn't matter that everyone said she was crazy, she was going to become world famous.
Her "mania" continued to grow as she began to win prizes. One time she won a live pig. She competed in races against both men and women, and in 1911 broke the women's speed record, previously set in 1905. Her record stood for 26 years at 37 kilometers per hour (23 mph) and she did it on a 44 pound single geared bike. But her fame and prize winnings did not soften her family's stance against this scandalous behavior; they wanted her to settle down and be a seamstress. They were tired of being the laughingstock of the town.
So when a young suitor appeared, they insisted that she marry, settle down and forget all this bicycle nonsense and in 1915, at 24 years of age, Alfonsina married Luigi Strada, a metal plater and inventor. He was an intelligent, modern man who, instead of obstructing the passion of his bride, approved of it and gave her his full backing. To her parents' dismay, her new husband gave her a shiny new bicycle as a wedding present. The following year they moved to Milan and Alfonsina began to train regularly under the guidance of her husband.
The first major race that she competed in was the 1917 Giro di Lombardia. World War I was still raging, and many important riders were soldiers so there were not many entrants. This worked to Alfonsina's advantage, as the organizers were eager to have as many riders as possible to bolster the morale of the people during this terrible war and there were no rules that specifically forbade a woman from participating in the race.
The course was 204 Kilometers, with 74 entrants and 32 finishers, Alfonsina finished 32 nd , 1 hour and 34 minutes after Philippe Thys from Belgium , who finished in 6 hours 58 minutes and 2 seconds.
In 1924 Emilio Colombo , director of the "Gazzetta dello Sport," a newspaper, admitted Alfonsina to the Giro d'Italia. It was a success that Alfonsina gained during the race, not because of how she placed, but because she was able to prove that women were capable of sustaining the intense workout needed to finish a race. Alfonsina, who was less than 5'2" tall, rode on her men's bike, wearing black shorts and matching black socks which showed off her muscular legs. On top of all this she wore a sweater with her name on it. She wore her hair in a fashionable but short bob cut and with a smiling and good natured face she began the Giro, the first to this day, the only female athlete to ever participate in this men's only event.
She completed the first 4 stages, the Milano-Genova, where she arrived one hour after the winner, but ahead of many rivals; the Genova-Firenze, in which she was 50 th of 65 competitors, the Firenze-Roma, only 45 minutes behind the first and ahead of a big group of competitors, and the Roma-Napoli where she really proved that she was worthy of her competition.
The Foggia-L'Aquila - 7th stage was 304 km, which was bad enough because the southern Italian roads at this time were nearly impassible. They were not paved, and were rocky and icy too. The mountain pass was so terrible that the riders could not get their bikes through the mire and mess on their own and almost all of the participants were towed partway by motorcycles and cars. Alfonsina suffered terribly on this stage. She fell on a descent and had to ride many more hours using her bruised, scraped and swollen knee.
Alfonsina did not finish the next stage, L'Aquila-Perugia, (296km) within the time allowed. Although every day each participant was given ¼ of a roast chicken, 250 grams of meat, 2 prosciutto and butter sandwiches, two jelly sandwiches, 3 raw eggs, 2 bananas, 100 grams of biscuits and 50 grams of chocolate, oranges and apples; she was still suffering from the damaged knee and was visibly thinner and stressed. She was also fighting an inner battle, she just wasn't sure she could do it, and was tired and miserable. That day the weather was terrible. The wind blew and a bitter rain fell. The mantles that the riders wore did little to protect them. At a certain point on the ride, Alfonsina's handlebars broke. She wasted a lot of time looking for something to repair them with. She met a housewife who had a great idea. The woman broke her broomhandle in half, and gave it to Alfonsina, who finished the stage with a wooden handlebar. Arriving out of time, she was put out of the race. There was a heated controversy since some of the judges felt they should show clemency because of her particular circumstances. She had been victim to some falls and several flats. At the end the opposition won out. But Emilio Colombo, who understood how good the publicity would be to sponsor the first woman cyclist in history; decided to let her finish the course (unofficially of course), paying out of his pocket for her room and board and masseuse.
The next stop was Fiume , where Alfonsina arrived 25 minutes late, but not a single spectator left until she arrived, as everyone wanted to see this exceptional woman. That day she had fallen again and was hurt. She arrived crying from pain and exhaustion. The excited crowd tore her from her bike, cheering her as if she had been the winner. Heartened by this reception, she continued on the race up to Milan , observing the same schedule and rules as the rest of the competitors. The ride had 12 stages for a total of 3610 kilometers and concluded with the victory of Giuseppe Enrici after an exciting duel with Federico Gay. When they left Milan , there were 90 participants, and at the end there were only 30 finishers including Alfonsina.
In successive years, she was not allowed to compete in the Giro, but she followed it anyway, winning the friendship and esteem of Cougnet, Giardini, Emilio Colombo, Cattaneo, Lattuarda, Girardengo, as well as of many journalists and competitors. In an attempt to earn money doing what she loved, Alfonsina tried to exploit her abilities, participating in exhibitions riding her bike on rollers and in circles. She went to Spain , France and Luxembourg . In 1937, in Paris , she defeated the French champion, Robin. The following year, in Longchamp, she won the female speed record of 35.28 kph.
Her husband died after a long confinement in 1946. She remarried in 1950 to an retired bicyclist who had won many prizes on the track, the giant Carlo Messori. With his help, she continued with her activities until she finally decided to quit competing but did not stop bicycling. She continued to use her bike as a means of transportation. She remained in the biking world because Carlo opened a bike shop with a repair annex. He died in 1957 and Alfonsina continued to care for the house and the repair shop in Milan on Via Varesina where they lived. Every day, to go to work, she rode her old race bike wearing a long pants dress. When she began to feel the advance of age she bought a 500 cc Moto Guzzi. To buy this red motorcycle, she had to sell some of her medals and trophies.
In her later years, she lived with her Siamese cats in 2 dark rooms, and she told people that she had a married daughter in Bologna . But it wasn't true. She wanted to believe she was not alone in the world. (She still has relatives living at Idice di San Lazzaro di Savena ) She died in 1959 at the age of 68.
The day she died, she had left home very early with her motorcycle to watch the famous "Three Varese Valleys Ride" then returned in the evening. To the concierge of the house she said "I had so much fun, It was really a beautiful day. Now I will push my motorcycle to the store and I will return on a bicycle." And she left. She was actually rather bitter and disappointed that day because no one noticed her. It added to her great feelings of loneliness. After she exited the house, the concierge heard her trying to start the motorcycle unsuccessfully. She looked outside to see Alfonsina pushing angrily on the start pedal. After a bit, the motorcycle slipped out of her hands, and she fell on top of it as if she wanted to hug it. People rushed to her help, putting her into a car and carrying her to the hospital, where upon arrival, she was already dead, her heart had stopped.
After Alfonsina's death in 1959 it was believed that the story of women cyclists was finished. Instead, the times soon changed and since then cycling has become a real alternative for competitive female athletes. Alfonsina Morini would certainly be happy to know about it. On the other hand, to this day women are not allowed to compete in any of the major bicycling events. Upon reading Paolo Facchinetti's book, I discovered that there has been a Tour di France for women since 1984. I was very surprised to hear it and asked some of my bicycle history buffs about it. None of them were aware that such a race existed. We might have made a lot of progress, but there's still a long ways to go.
Elio Antonucci; Una Donna su due ruote, http://www.radiomarconi.com/marconi/alfonsina/index.html
Paolo Facchinetti; Gli Anni Ruggenti di Alfonsina Strada
With especial thanks to Paolo for answering all of my questions.
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