Tomorrow marks the start of the 99th Giro d’Italia, one of the three major Grand Tour races. Women are not allowed to compete in these male events, which are, by all standards, the toughest, most challenging and grueling exhibitions of endurance, strength and grit that our sport can demand of an athlete. There was one, and only one, exception to this and her name was Alfonsina Strada — a.k.a the “devil in the dress” — the woman who cycled the Giro d’Italia.
Born in northern Italy in 1891 during the bicycle craze when women around the world were using these “freedom machines” as a tool and symbol of their struggle for freedom, Alfonsina was a woman born to her time. Her father bartered chickens in exchange for Alfonsina’s first bicycle at the age of 10, which she taught herself to ride. By the age of 13 she was winning races against girls as well as boys.
To her parents’ dismay, cycling was not just a girlish passing fancy, and Alfonsina desired to make a career out of it. Standing at a slight 5 feet 2 inches (1.57m) she cast a larger presence when she was on her bike. It is rumored that those she passed would cross themselves and pray for her lost soul. The newspapers called her the “devil in a dress,” but she would not be derailed simply because she was a woman.
Among other events, Alfonsina competed in the Tour of Lombardy and the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and would go on to break the women’s speed record, a record she would hold onto for 33 years. And, she did it all on a single-speed bicycle that weighed 44lbs (20kg), a behemoth by today’s standards.
Luckily for her, Alfonsina fell in love with and married a man who not only supported her racing, but as a wedding gift bought her a new bike. This is the bike she would ride during her one and only appearance at the Giro d’Italia. It’s unclear if she snuck her way into the Giro or if the organisers secretly used her to drum up publicity for a race that, in 1924, was lacking any superstar presence that year. Either way she started the race under a man’s name, Alfonsin Strada.
It was a difficult course with eight of the 12 stages featuring major mountain passes. Then there was the heat, dust and torrential rain to contend with. At the end of one stage she arrived in tears and was carried away by the adoring crowds.
She came 74th out of 90 on the first day, and continued on, finishing 50th of 65 between Genoa and Florence. She made it as far as Naples, but then the weather turned.
The rain made the roads muddy and treacherous. Alfonsina was among the many who crashed that day, and in the process broke her handlebars. Still, she pressed on. However, she finished outside the time limit that day, and thereby was disqualified by the officials.
But the organisers, giving the spectators and media what they wanted to see, allowed her to continue on, albeit without being able to contest for any prizes. Alfonsina completed the 3,613km course and arrived in Milan where cheering fans and a 50,000 lire award raised by donations awaited her.
While no longer formally in the running, Alfonsina did finish more than 20 hours ahead of Telesforo Benaglia, the lanterne rouge. Yet despite outlasting many male counterparts, she nor any other woman would ever be allowed to compete in the Giro d’Italia again.
There is, however, a women’s Giro d’Italia called the Giro d’Italia Internazionale Femminile or the Giro Rosa,, which is now in its 27th year and will be held during the first 10 days of July.