Alfonsina Strada: a life on two wheels

Milan, via Varesina, 13 September 1959. It's Sunday evening and Alfonsina Strada, the first woman to participate in male cycling races such as the Giro di Lombardia and the Giro d'Italia, has just returned from a long day. She followed the Tre Valli Varesine, which was won, with her great satisfaction, by an Emilian like her, Dino Bruni.

She is tired, and after a chat with the porter she decides to bring her big red Guzzi bike into the bicycle repair shop that she manages for about twenty years. But the bike doesn't want to start and Alfonsina vehemently insists on the starter pedal, before collapsing due to a heart attack. Rescued immediately, she is taken to the hospital, but it’s too late. Alfonsina dies this way, at the age of 68 and embraced by a handlebar. As she has always lived.

The life-long passion of Alfonsina Strada

The corridora (as Gianni Celati calls her in a story dedicated to her, published in 1985 in Narratori delle pianure) is the daughter of Carlo Morini and Virginia Marchesini, a couple of illiterate labourers who work in the Emilian countryside, and was born in Riolo di Castelfranco Emilia, in the province of Modena, on March 16, 1891. The father involuntarily ignites in her the passion of a lifetime when in 1901 she comes into possession of an old bicycle. She begins to pedal and participates secretly in her first races, telling her parents that she is going to Sunday Mass instead.
The mother, however, discovers the truth, and gives her an ultimatum: if Alfonsina wants to continue to ride the bike, she must get married and leave home. That said, done, and in 1905, at just 14 years old, Alfonsina marries the chiseller and mechanic Luigi Strada (whose surname she adopts and which she keeps until her death). The husband, showing a great open-mindedness for the time, not only doesn't hinder the passion of his wife but, on the contrary, encourages her, buying them as a wedding gift a racing bike.

The two newlyweds then move to Milan, where Alfonsina begins to train regularly under the guidance of her husband and achieves her first successes.

In Turin she earns the title of best Italian cyclist and in 1911, in Moncalieri, sets the world speed record for women, reaching 37.192 kilometers per hour. In the same period her fame extends beyond the national borders, first at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 1909, and then at several speed races on track in Paris between 1912 and 1914.

But the beauty is yet to come. Three years later, in the middle of the Great War, Alfonsina presented herself to the editorial staff of the Gazzetta dello Sport and asked to participate in the Tour of Lombardy. No rules prevented her from doing so and so the patron of the race was forced to accept the registration: it was the first time that the young athlete found herself challenging male opponents.

A woman for the Giro d'Italia

On November 4th she leaves Milan together with 43 other cyclists for a circuit of over 200 kilometers that touches the cities of Varese, Como, Lecco and Monza, to end always in Milan, at the Trotter Park. Alfonsina is the last of the twenty riders left in the race to cross the finish line, arriving an hour and a half behind the winner. She wins the esteem and admiration of Costantino Girardengo who will become the first "champion" Italian. Alfonsina is however satisfied, so much so that she decides to repeat the experience also the following year, when she arrives twenty-first, now just 23 minutes behind the winner, beating in a sprint the Como Carlo Colombo, who comes last.

The objective of Alfonsina is however another: the Giro d'Italia.

A dream came true in 1924 when Emilio Colombo and Armando Cougnet, respectively director and administrator of La Gazzetta dello Sport allowed her, among a thousand controversies, to register in the most important national cycling race, which that year includes 12 stages, for a total of over 3500 kilometers.

Alfonsina regularly completes the first four, but collapses to the fifth, the L'Aquila-Perugia, where rain and wind fall on a path already fraught with enormous difficulties due to the impracticability of the roads. Alfonsina arrives out of time and is put out of the race, but the public, now, is fond of this exceptional woman who, therefore, is readmitted to the race, and is among the 30 runners (of the 90 parties) to bring it to a conclusion.

By now she is famous also outside Italy. Alfonsina decides to take advantage of the magic moment: having seen herself denied the possibility of enrolling again in the Giro, she participates in several races in Spain, France and Luxembourg. In 1937 she beats in Paris the French champion Robin and the following year, in Longchamp, she conquers, at 47 years old, the female record (35,280 km), before retiring with an honours list of 36 victories in races against male colleagues. She didn’t leave the world of cycling just yet, however, and in 1950, when she was widowed, she married Carlo Messori, an early-century cyclist with whom she opened a bicycle repair shop in Milan, also following, until the end of her days, the Sunday races in which her protected participate. Like that last Tre Valli Varesine of September 13rd in 1959.

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