Alfonsina Strada – riding with the men
The 1924 Giro d’Italia nearly didn’t happen. The multiple-stage race through the mountains and landscapes of Italy had been staged almost every year since its launch in 1909, but a dispute over pay in 1924 led to a boycott by many of its top riders. In a post-war era, staging races was difficult, though vital in restoring morale and boosting the economy, but without a full complement of participants, the race wouldn’t go ahead. The organisers opened up the field to anyone who wanted to enter and Alfonsin Strada signed up.
Alfonsin was in fact Alfonsina, a woman – while the rules didn’t strictly exclude female entrants, it was highly unusual for ladies to compete. Whether the organisers knew she was not a man and allowed her anyway or whether they genuinely didn’t realise until it was too late, she lined up at the start line in her black woollen shorts, black socks and short black bobbed hair.
Growing up as a peasant girl in rural Italy, it had felt like a miraculous day when Alfonsina’s father had returned home from work with a bicycle that he’d traded for some chickens. Alfonsina was entranced and quickly learned how to ride – she had found a way to break free from the poverty of farm life.
However, it was improper for a girl to ride a bike; people teased her, men made unwanted advances and others treated her as if she were insane. In her town she became known as the ‘Devil in a Dress’. Her cycling brought shame upon her family so they forbade her to continue. But Alfonsina was determined not to give up her passion. She would tell her mother she was going to Mass, but instead would ride to the next town to compete in a race.
Her first win came when she was just 13, and her prize was a pig. She proceeded to win nearly all the girls’ races she entered, and often also the boys’. An invite to race the Grand Prix of St Petersburg followed – highly unusual for a woman – and at the age of 18, she twice raced the Giro Lombardia, the second time finishing ahead of many men. Her mother was desperate for her to marry, become a seamstress and leave all this cycling nonsense behind, so she was thrilled when she found a suitor, Luigi Strada – until it transpired that he was also a cycling enthusiast. They married in 1915 and moved to Milan, where Luigi coached her on the velodrome.
The 1924 Giro began with a 300 km stage from Milan to Genoa; after stage two – a 310 km ride to Florence – Alfonsina was in 56th place out of 90 entrants, and she had caught the attention of the press. The organisers realised that her inclusion would boost the popularity of the race; the spectators loved her. One newspaper reported that:
‘In only two stages this little lady’s popularity has become greater than all the missing champions put together.’
By the end of the third stage, one-third of the field had dropped out; Alfonsina had become the race heroine.
In stage 7, a 305 km mountain stage from Foggia to L’Aquila, the weather turned. Roads turned to mud, their stony surfaces slick with the downpour, and riders made the brutal journey through the Sirente–Velino mountains with descents made treacherous by horizontal wind and rain. Alfonsina fell, limping into L’Aquila with bruised bones and swollen joints. The following stage was no easier: more mountain climbs and impassable roads led to many more riders abandoning the race; Alfonsina had several punctures and suffered a terrible crash which broke her handlebars in two. The heroine’s race seemed over. A local farm woman came to her rescue, giving her the handle from her broom to use instead. But it was too late: she had missed the cut-off time for the stage. Alfonsina was disqualified.
Such was the public support for this remarkable woman that the organisers allowed her to continue, though she could no longer officially be part of the race. Emilio Colombo, the editor of La Gazzetta dello Sport, the magazine which sponsored the race, arranged to pay her continued food, board and massage out of his own pocket.
She finished her next stage 25 minutes past the cut-off time, but the spectators had all stayed, waiting to see this exceptional woman. She was flat-out with exhaustion, hungry and in tears, but the crowd lifted her from her bike and carried her through the air, giving her the reception of a champion. It was the boost she needed; her renewed determination took her to Milan, where she finished the race – all 3,613km of it – arriving to a hero’s welcome and a prize of 50,000 lire raised by the public. Only 35 riders of the original 90 completed the race. By reaching Milan, Alfonsina had earned the respect and affection of her fellow competitors and the public.
She continued to race, notching up 36 victories in a long career, but she would never ride in the Giro again. The following year, the pay dispute was over and the champions were back. Her previous benefactors turned their backs; the organisers refused her entry. No female competitors would ever again race in a Grand Tour. Yet Alfonsina had been, and would always be, the woman who rode with the men.
This is an excerpt from my book ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’