August 7, 1908
In Italy, a front-page announcement in the Milan-based newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport (The Sports Gazette) formally marked the start of a new chapter in the nation’s bicycling history: the inaugural multi-day bicycle race known as the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) would take the place the following year under the newspaper’s sponsorship.
The origins of the race can be traced to Tullo Marcello, the editor of La Gazzetta. He sent a telegram to both La Gazzetta owner Emilio Costamagna and the newspaper’s cycling editor Armando Cougnet recommending that they launch such a nationwide competition. (A key inspiration for this idea was the Tour de France, which the French newspaper L’Auto had organized and introduced in 1903.)
La Gazzetta’s rival Milan-based newspaper Corriere della Sera (Evening Courier), having recently enjoyed success in organizing an automobile race, was similarly toying with possible plans for a wide-ranging bicycle competition within Italy. Costamagna, who did not wish to be upstaged by a rival newspaper and was encouraged by the favorable public response to a couple of regional bicycle races that La Gazzetta had already created in northern Italy, decided that his newspaper should go ahead with launching the Giro d’Italia.
A tough-to-surmount obstacle initially encountered by Costamagna and the others with La Gazzetta, however, was that the newspaper did not have enough money of its own to make the inaugural Giro d’Italia a full-fledged reality. This obstacle was overcome when Costamagna’s friend Primo Bongrani, who was an accountant at a bank, traveled throughout Italy in search of donations for the race. Bongrani eventually raised sufficient funds to cover operating costs, and a casino in the city and commune of San Remo provided the prize money for the race. Ultimately, even Corriere della Sera contributed money to help finance the event. With funding now in place for all of the necessary expenses, La Gazzetta used its edition of August 7, 1908, to announce the competition.
This first annual Giro d’Italia was held in May 1909, with a total of 127 bicyclists starting the race in front of a large crowd outside La Gazzetta’s headquarters in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. All but five of the participating riders were Italian. Over the course of 17 days, several of these bicyclists managed to pedal as far down south as Naples before making their way back to Milan to finish the race and in the process covering 1,521 miles (2,447.9 kilometers) altogether. There were eight stages in the competition; the starting points for each stage were Milan, Bologna, Chieti, Naples, Rome, Florence, Genoa, and Turin.
In order to reduce opportunities for cheating, the bicyclists were required to sign in at checkpoints during each stage. One surprise checkpoint set up during the stage between Bologna and Chieti proved to be particularly effective. When three bicyclists did not pass through this checkpoint, it was discovered that they had tried to give themselves an unfair advantage by riding on a train instead. All three of them were disqualified.
Many of those competing in the first Giro d’Italia also had to deal with such universal bicycling mishaps as collisions and punctured tires. Only 49 completed the race. The overall winner of the competition was Luigi Ganna, who had been born in the town and commune of Induno Olona in northwestern Italy in 1883. Ganna, before becoming a professional bicyclist, had been a bricklayer and would commute as far as 62 miles (100 kilometers) by bicycle just to get to work.
Since its inception, the Giro d’Italia has been held every year except for the periods during both world wars. The race is now run by RCS MediaGroup, a publishing group that owns La Gazzetta.
For more information on the origins of the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy), please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1909_Giro_d%27Italia.