It was 2:53 in the morning on 13 May 1909 when the first Giro d’Italia set off from what was then called Rondò Loreto in Milan. The 127 competitors had been handed a somewhat epic-sounding card, which began “The hour is at hand. The battle looms. The cycling enthusiasts of all nations admire you and await you” and ended with a de Coubertin-sounding assertion: “your daring beau geste marks the beginning of a victory. There is the soul of a winner in each of you.” Of those 127, only 49 made it to the end.
As in many other races, in motorsports as well as cycling (suffice it to mention the Milan-Sanremo held just two years before), Pirelli was there because many participants fitted Pirelli tyres on their bikes. The presence was anything but secondary and recognition arrived punctually at the end of the event. “Pirelli tyres asserted themselves as the best in the Giro d’Italia race too” declared the postcard with art deco drawings handed out at the arrival.
The idea of a bicycle stage race touching all the main Italian cities was suggested by the owner of Atala Angelo Gatti, who had developed the idea together with Eugenio Costamagna, the founder of Gazzetta dello Sport, and Armando Cougnet, the director of the newspaper that was the de facto organiser of the Giro. The chronicles of the day told of a truly pioneering race, in which many cyclists organised their own accommodation, took themselves to the nearest hospital for treatment in case of falls and made do with roadside streams and ditches if they couldn’t find anyone to give them a drink of water.
There was no Pink Jersey in the first edition (the pages of the Gazzetta were not that colour yet, after all) and the ranking was expressed in points and not time, like the first Tour de France. The winner was the cyclist with the fewest points because the first of each stage earned one point, the second two, the third three and so on down to all those who crossed the finish line in the second half of the group and earned fifty points each. The route counted eight stages to be completed between 13 and 30 May 1909, for a total of no less than 2447 kilometres (over 300 per stage on average). The competitors reached a place and left from there two or three days later. Milan, Bologna, Chieti, Naples, Rome, Florence, Genoa, Turin and back to Milan were the stages of the Giro d’Italia 1909.
The first stage, from the Rondò Loreto to the Zappoli racetrack in Bologna was completed in 14 hours, 6 minutes and 15 seconds by the first classified, Dario Beni, a 22-year-old from Rome, who had pedalled from Rome to Milan to take part in the Giro. Like all the other stages, it was a gruelling one with 397 kilometres of mostly unpaved street scattered with punctures, crashes and other accidents. Some cyclists got lost.
Others were disqualified for cheating during the Giro, like during the Chieti-Naples stage when some participants, to avoid the fatigue of the great Apennine stage, took the train only to find the race judges on board. During that same stage Luigi Ganna punctured four times but despite the setback the 25-year-old bricklayer, who used to commute by bike from Varese to Milan, won three of the next five stages, coming first in the overall final ranking.
Despite the technical, organisational and physical hardships, the Giro was a success, also because cycling was already a very popular sport. There were at least 60 thousand spectators at the arrival in Parco Trotter in Milan according to the accounts of the time. Since that May of 1909, the Giro has evolved into a modern but still fascinating and exciting race, becoming a major event for world cycling and for Italian fans. Pirelli is present as ever in the competition, making the most advanced technology available to some of the teams and cyclists taking part in the Giro today like one hundred and twenty-two years ago.