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July 18, 2009

Pro Women Cyclists : Heirs of Alfonsina Strada

In yesterday's blog we talked about the Women's Tour De France and the Women's Giro de Italia. There's a clear lack of emphasis, both in terms of spon$orship and media focus, on the women's events.

Why is it such an uphill climb for the existing women's Tour de France and Giro Italia?

Suppose three corporations that sponsor men's Tour de France teams chose to get together and ALSO sponsor women's teams for a more emphasized Women's Tour. The ASO, the business that owns the Tour de France, would resent the effort to diminish the Tour de France. The corporation's men's teams would not get invited back to next year's men's Tour de France. Such is the power of the ASO.

The corrupt influence of the ASO, born of antisemitism, conveying racism and sexism, closely controls the media coverage of Europe's biggest annual sporting event on the continent. (Soccer's World Cup is bigger, but it happens elsewhere.)

Alfonsina Strada : The Devil in a Dress, in the Giro

Only one woman is known to have raced against men in a Grand Tour event - Alfonsina Strada. From the Wikipedia entry:

Legend has Alfonsina Morini growing up a tomboy, playing with her brothers and their friends and riding her father's bicycle. When she was 10 her father paid for her own bike by exchanging chickens for it. Romantic accounts say that villagers crossed themselves as she rode past, dressed and behaving more like a boy than a girl. They referred to her as "the Devil in a dress".

She rode her first race at age 13, winning a live pig. She won nearly all the girls' races she entered and many of the boys' events. Her reputation brought an invitation to ride the Grand Prix of St Petersburg in Russia in 1909.

In 1911 she went to Moncalier and set an hour record of 37.192km. It appears she set the record for both men and women. Her distance stood for 26 years. She won 36 races against men. She raced at Bologna and Paris and twice rode the Tour of Lombardy at a time when it was open to all.

At 24 in 1915, Alfonsina Morini married Luigi Strada, a metal plater and engraver, who was also a racer. As a wedding present, Luigi gave her a new racing bike with dropped handlebars.

1924 Giro d'Italia

Mrs. Alfonsina Strada's ride in the Giro d'Italia came about through a labor disagreement between the organiser, Emilio Colombo of Gazzetta dello Sport, and the top riders of the day. (Another tour paid for by a newspaper.) The riders refused to participate. Colombo offered per diem and places to whoever wanted to ride. Gazzetta dello Sport promised to pay for their bills, their hotels and their food.

Mrs. Strada entered as "Strada, Alfonsin." The absence of a final "o" or "a" on her first name hid whether she was a man or a woman. She was accepted as number 72 and, assuming her to be a man, journalists began writing of Alfonsino. The truth emerged the day before the start and by then it was too late.

She came 74th on the first day, an hour behind the leader but nothing significant by the time standards of the era. She finished 50th of 65 between Genoa and Florence and survived as far as Naples. Then the weather turned.

A gale blew, rain poured, mud and rocks swept across the road. Strada was among many who crashed. Her handlebars snapped and she stood by the roadside until a peasant snapped a broomstick to jam in the hole. She rode on with one side of her bars of steel and the other of broomstick, and finished outside the time cutoff.

The 7th stage, from Foggia to L'Aquila, was 304km long. The southern Italian roads at this time were nearly impassable. They were unpaved, rocky and icy. The mountain pass was so terrible that the riders could not get their bikes through the mire and mess on their own. Almost all the participants were towed part way by motorcycles and cars. Alfonsina suffered terribly on this stage. She fell on a descent and had to ride many more hours on bruised, scraped and swollen knee.

The referees excluded her because she had taken too long to finish again. The organiser, Colombo, didn't want to lose the big story of his Giro. Spectators were coming to see her and her rides were producing stories for his reporters. Columbo let her ride on as an individual, continuing to pay her bills.

The next day was to Fiume, where a crowd lifted her from her bicycle and carried her in triumph when she finished in tears from pain and exhaustion 25 minutes after the time limit. The public reception motivated her to continue to Milan. Only 38 completed the race and Alfonsina Strada, although no longer formally in the running, finished more than 20 hours ahead of the last man, Telesforo Benaglia, the last man. She won 50,000 lire.

Alfonsina Strada was never allowed to ride the Giro again. She rode exhibition races throughout Italy, Spain, France, Luxembourg and before Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in Saint Petersburg. In 1937, in Paris, she defeated the French champion, Robin. In 1938 she set the female world record for the hour, covering 32.58km at Longchamp, Paris, a record beaten in 1955 by Tamara Novikova of the Soviet Union.

Luigi Strada died in 1946. In 1950 Alfonsina Strada married Carlo Messori, a retired racing cyclist, and they opened a bicycle shop on the Via Varesina in Milan. He started to write her biography but he died in 1957 before it was completed. She closed the bike shop.

She lived alone in Milan for her last years, riding to her shop every day until cycling grew too tiring. She sold some of her medals and trophies and bought a scarlet Moto Guzzi 500cc motorbike. In September 1959 she rode the 'Guzzi' to the Tre Valli Varesine professional race. When she got home, the motorbike fell off its stand. The weight was too much for her and she had a heart attack as she and the Moto Guzzi fell to the ground. She was dead by the time she reached the hospital.

The GrandDaughters / Heirs of Alfonsina Strada

We are reminded of Isaac Newton's bon mot, "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.". Today's women cyclists, the heirs and philosophical granddaughters of Alfonsina Strada, stand today on her trail blazing work.

Laura Van Gilder
Ina-Yoko Teutenberg
Kristin Armstrong
Nicole Cooke
Marianne Vos
Jeannie Longo
Oenone Wood
Trixi Worrack
Judith Arndt
Regina Schleicher
Fabiana Luperini
Giorgia Bronzini

Next- What would an Integrated Tour de France Look Like?
This blog's policy is to offer alternatives. In a few days, we'll offer a proposal for a modified, Integrated Tour de France.


Amanda said...

I watch the TDF every year on Versus and if they would actually follow women's cycling I'd watch it too.

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