1870: With Plenty of Coffee and a Trumpet Blast, a First-of-a-Kind Cycling Event Commences in Italy

February 2, 1870

As a bicycle craze swept across Europe, the first-ever official race in Italy involving that type of transportation took place. The increased popularity of bicycles owed a lot to two key developments in France during the previous decade — the launch of the first pedal-equipped bicycle; and the Michaux Company’s subsequent mass production of those bicycles. 

This new kind of bicycle was commonly known as a “velocipede” (a term first coined in 1818 and derived from the Latin phrase for “fast foot”) and, due to the often rough and uncomfortable ride it provided, also called a “boneshaker.” This type of bicycle produced by the Michaux Company is depicted in the above photo. That bicycle craze – or “velocipede mania,” as it was likewise labeled – had taken firm root by the time the Italian race was held; the first formal competition involving those vehicles, as a matter of fact, had taken place just 20 months earlier outside Paris.

The race on that cold and rainy Wednesday morning in Italy in 1870 was a 20-mile (32.2-kilometer) run between the cities of Florence and Pistoia in the Tuscany region. This competition was organized by the Florence-based Veloce Club. 

A total of 23 “velocipedists” showed up that morning to compete. They gathered at Porta al Prato, one of Florence’s oldest surviving city gates, to start the race at 9:00 a.m. Hundreds of spectators were on hand for this unique event, and two women scurried around to the participants to give all of them cups of hot coffee before the start of the competition. The race then began with the sounding of a trumpet. 

The winner of the race was a 15-year-old American named Rynier Van Nest, who reached Pistoia at 11:34 that morning. His prizes included a revolver and a gold medal. This race, which occurred more than three decades before the inaugural Tour de France, further strengthened the enthusiasm for bicycling not only in Europe but throughout the world.  

Photo Credit: tetedelacourse (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

For more information on the Florence-Pistoia cycling race in 1870, please check out https://www.bicycling.com/news/a20025182/rynier-van-nest/

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