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The 1909 Giro d’Italia: How the Italian Grand Tour Was Born

By We Love Cycling

The Giro d’Italia, one of the three Grand Tours of professional cycling, has captivated fans and challenged athletes since its inception in 1909. Organized by the Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport, the first edition of the race was a grueling eight-stage competition that covered 2,447 kilometers. The event would go on to become an integral part of cycling history, with Italian cyclist Luigi Ganna earning the title of the first-ever Giro champion.

The origins of the Giro d‘Italia

The editor of La Gazzetta dello Sport Armando Cougnet and his colleague Tullo Morgagni, became “inspired” by the success of the Tour de France, which began in 1903. They sought to create a similar event to boost newspaper sales and promote cycling in Italy. And thus they organized the first Giro d’Italia, which took place between May 13 and May 30, 1909.

The route

The 1909 Giro d’Italia comprised of eight stages, with each stage featuring long and arduous distances that tested the limits of the riders’ endurance. It all started in Milan and took the cyclists through cities like Bologna, Chieti, Naples, Rome, Florence, and Genoa before returning to Milan for the grand finale. The race covered a total distance of 2,447 kilometers, and the riders faced numerous challenges, including unpaved roads, inclement weather, and rudimentary equipment. The longest stage, a staggering 397-kilometer stretch between Lucca and Rome, was particularly demanding and pushed the cyclists to their physical limits.

Luigi Ganna
Luigi Ganna (C), the first ever Giro winner. © Profimedia

The heroes

The inaugural Giro d’Italia attracted 127 cyclists, including both professional and amateur riders. The competitors were divided into two categories: ‘isolati’ (riders without team support) and ‘coppie’ (riders with a teammate). The race featured a mix of Italian riders and a few foreign cyclists from countries such as France, Switzerland, and Germany. The field also included future cycling legends like Carlo Galetti, who would go on to win the Giro in 1910, 1911, and 1912, and Giovanni Gerbi, who had a successful career spanning more than three decades.

The battle for victory

The first Giro d’Italia was a fierce competition, with the lead changing hands multiple times throughout the race. Early favorites, such as Giovanni Rossignoli and Carlo Galetti, showcased their prowess in the initial stages. However, it was Luigi Ganna, a 26-year-old bricklayer-turned-cyclist, who emerged victorious after a strong performance in the final stages. Ganna claimed the title of the first Giro d’Italia champion, winning three stages and finishing with a total time of 94 hours, 33 minutes, and 14 seconds. His victory earned him a cash prize of 5,325 lire, a significant sum at the time.

The impact on Italian society

The inaugural Giro d’Italia captured the imagination of the Italian public and elevated the sport of cycling to new heights in the country. The race was instrumental in fostering a sense of national unity, as people from different regions of Italy came together to support their favorite riders. As the event grew in popularity, it played a crucial role in inspiring the development of a robust cycling culture in Italy. The Giro also provided opportunities for young Italian athletes to pursue professional cycling careers, contributing to the nation’s strong presence in the sport for decades to come.

Media coverage

La Gazzetta dello Sport played a significant role in the success of the inaugural Giro d’Italia, as their extensive coverage helped to generate excitement and interest in the race. The newspaper provided daily updates, race analysis, and engaging stories about the riders, capturing the attention of the Italian public. The coverage went beyond print, as the race was also followed by telegram and telephone updates, ensuring that people across the country could stay informed about the competition.

The coverage by La Gazzetta dello Sport not only boosted the newspaper’s sales but also helped to establish the Giro d’Italia as a premier sporting event in Italy. Over time, the race became an essential part of the newspaper’s identity, and La Gazzetta dello Sport continued to be closely associated with the Giro d’Italia throughout its history.

The legacy of the 1909 Giro d’Italia

The inaugural Giro d’Italia was a resounding success, capturing the imagination of the Italian public and elevating the sport of cycling to new heights in the country. The race laid the foundation for a rich and storied history that continues to captivate fans and inspire cyclists more than a century later. As the Giro d’Italia celebrates its many milestones, the spirit of the 1909 race serves as a reminder of the passion, determination, and drama that has come to define this iconic event.

In the years that followed, the Giro d’Italia would evolve and grow in popularity, attracting more international riders and expanding its reach beyond Italy. The race format and rules have also undergone changes, adapting to the times and the evolving landscape of professional cycling. Yet, the essence of the Giro remains rooted in its inaugural edition, a testament to the enduring appeal and significance of this historic race.