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In Italy in the early 1900 bicycle use was hampered by many. According to anthropologist Cesare Lombroso in his essay “cycling in the Crime”, the bike would have favored the delinquency, the Curia forbids priests to ride, in Rome and Milan was forbidden to ride a bicycle after the sunset.
With a woman riding a bicycle scandal was guaranteed.
Alfonsina Morini borns in 1891 in Castelfranco Emilia, a rural village in the province of Bologna. Italy is united for thirty years. Second of nine children. Illiterate parents. After a few years, the family moved to Fossamarcia, near Castenaso. In 1901 her father Carlo gets an old bicycle donated by the doctor of the country. In those days only a few could have a bicycle. For Alfonsina was the only entertainment.
Italy wasn’t like France, where the bicycle had become a symbol of women’s emancipation. In 1896 in Ostend, Belgium, the first women’s cycling world championship took place (won by Belgian Hélène Dutrieux). By us, instead, the women on bicycles were seen literally as a manifestation of the devil by the Church.
Despite this, in Bologna, there were 7,000 bicycles on the 100,000 of the nation. It is in this context that Alfonsina, on Sunday, tells her parents she’s going to church, participate in the bicycle races in neighboring countries instead, often winning against males. Once she won a pig, that given the financial constraints of the family, was not too bad. But despite this in the country and in the family was called “crazy.” That was a shame to have a daughter like that.
Despite those early openings, public opinion, fueled by the press, kept a bad opinion that fully reflected the chauvinist mentality of the time. In 1910 “La Stampa Sportiva” wrote, ” we don’t have any sympathy for the virago, the woman who makes 200 km cycling, who rows as a professional. This exercise is not suitable for the potential and health of women. They are feminine acrobatics stuff that we have to hit severely. ”
Meanwhile, in 1911, Alfonsina sets the women’s world Hour Record, with 37.192 kilometers per hour, 300 meters more than french Louise Roger eight years before.
In 1915, she legalizes her marriage with Luigi Strada, thus changing the name Alfonsina Strada.
In 1917, a few days after the defeat of Caporetto, due to the lack of participants, Alfonsina’s application to Giro di Lombardia was accepted, she then could ride with champions like Girardengo and Pellissier, Thys and Belloni.
But the chance of a lifetime comes in 1924, a special year for the Giro d’Italia, born in 1909. For economic issues the most prestigious houses decided to boycott the race, not registering the subscription of the most famous champions of the time like Girardengo and Brunero.
La Gazzetta dello Sport, the race’s organizer, was forced to include amateurs together with professionals. Courgnet and Colombo, leaders of the pink newspaper, cling to each grip to compensate for the setback. In this perspective should be considered the Alfonsina’s participation. It was just a publicity stunt.
Many went to see the Giro passing just to see this strange woman who rides a bicycle. She could wash only after all the male cyclists. She starts from Milan between the criticisms. The “Guerin Sportivo” dedicated a song, The Girina:
Alfonsina don’t despair,
if you get a flat we are a thousand,
ready to fill your hole
Moreover, the Giro is hell. 3618 km. The roads in many parts of the country are little more than strips of mud. You fall, you flat, you will lose hours. The 304 km between Foggia and L’Aquila, the Giro reach the sharp peaks of the Abruzzi, with the dreadful Macerone.
After a disastrous fall, Alfonsina replaced her broken handlebar with a broomstick borrowed from a housewife. Towards Perugia, the surprising flood. She arrives out of regular time. But the jury allows her to continue the race. She is now an attraction.
In Rijeka, at the end of the longest stage of the Giro, 415 km from Bologna to Istria, Alfonsina pours out with the press, that finally stops defining her a frivolous “devil in a skirt”, appreciating the courage of the woman: “But what could I do? The whore? I have a husband to the asylum that I have to help, I have a child in college that costs me 10 Lire per day.
I have good legs, the fans in Italy (especially women and mothers) treat me with enthusiasm. I’ve had some disappointments, some mocked me, but I’m satisfied and I know I did well.”
In subsequent years, the opportunity to enroll the Giro was denied to Alfonsina. But she participates anyway for long stretches, as she had done on her debut period, winning the friendship, esteem, and admiration of many journalists, riders and cycling enthusiasts who continue to follow her exploits with curiosity.
Left widow by Luigi Strada, Alfonsina remarried in Milan, December 9, 1950, with an ex-cyclist, Carlo Messori, with the help of whom she continues her sports activity until she decides to quit competitions. But her passion for cycling is not blown over. She opens, in fact, in Milan, in Via Varesina, a bicycle shop with a small workshop for repairs. Widow again in 1957, she keeps running the store by herself.
She rides her last race in 1956, sixty-five years old, a veteran, who won.
She died in 1957, left alone with her cats, falling on the ground while trying to start her Guzzi 500 motorcycle.
The women’s Giro d’Italia borns in 1988, in France there is no female Tour de France yet.
For more complete documentation about Alfonsina check out the book “Het roerige leven van Alfonsina Strada: de enige vrouw die ooit de Giro reed” by Paolo Facchinetti. This book is only available in Italian and dutch.