"I'll show you if women can't ride a bicycle like men."
Alfonsina Strada is the first and only woman in history to race the Giro d'Italia and is now considered one of the pioneers of gender equality in sports.
The story of Alfonsina, born in 1891 as Alfonsa Rosa Maria Morini, begins in the countryside of Bologna, where she grew up in a poor, large farming family. From an early age, she became passionate about cycling. She pedaled like she had fire in her body and participated in numerous local competitions, attracting gossips and onlookers.
Continually opposed by her family for her passion, she married Luigi Strada, a mild-mannered mechanic and chiseler whose last name sealed Alfonsina's fate and became her primary motivator. Strada understands her deeply and encourages her from the start by giving her a racing bicycle on her wedding day. The following year the two moved to Milan, where Alfonsina began to train in earnest.
Alfonsina and the Tour of Italy
In 1924 she participated, the first woman ever, in the Giro d'Italia: a twelve-stage tour totaling more than 3,600 kilometers on dirt roads, through dust, potholes and bad weather, on very heavy bicycles with no gears.
In the first stages, Alfonsina's performance is far from poor: she ranks in decent positions and proves to everyone that even women can accomplish such a great and strenuous feat. At the arrival of each new stage she is greeted by a crowd that cheers her, celebrates her, and supports her with warmth and participation. "Along the entire route of the Genoa-Florence there was nothing to be heard but to ask: -Is Alfonsina here? Is she coming? Does she pass? Is she coming?" the Gazzetta dello Sport wrote in those days.
The eighth stage is L'Aquila-Perugia. In the 296 grueling kilometers made even harder by the rain and wind, Alfonsina falls, breaks her handlebars, with the help of a spectator manages to repair it in the good way with a broomstick and some string, and arrives in Perugia in the middle of the night, well over the time limit.
By regulation she must be sent home. But the then editor of the Gazzetta, Emilio Colombo, who had allowed Alfonsina's participation in the Giro and understood what curiosity the first Italian cyclist in history aroused in the public, proposes a compromise: Alfonsina will be allowed to continue the race, but she is no longer considered to be in the race. She agrees and continues her challenge.
The Giro ends with the victory of Giuseppe Enrici after a duel with Federico Gay. Of the 90 riders who started, only 30 arrive in Milan. Alfonsina is among them. At the finish line, the spectators give her a welcome full of enthusiasm and warmth, snatching her off the bike and cheering her on like the most esteemed champions: everyone wants to see this exceptional woman who, despite several setbacks, punctures and falls, manages to arrive at the end of the Giro with her head held high.
Alfonsina's extraordinary feat would not be enough to change history: no woman would ever participate in the Pink Race again. In the following years, in fact, Alfonsina was denied the opportunity to enter the Giro. However, she still participates for long stretches, as she had done in her debut, winning the friendship, esteem and admiration of numerous journalists, riders and cycling fans who continue to follow her exploits with curiosity and enthusiasm. She still participated in numerous other competitions until in 1938, in Longchamp, she won the women's record for the hour (35.28 km).
Alfonsina's story reminds us that gender equality in competitive cycling is a race that began a century ago and continues today. "With the bicycle," writes Simona Baldelli in her book dedicated to the heroine on two wheels, "Alfonsina learned disobedience. Hers is a story of rebellion, conquest and freedom. It makes one dream and gives hope. A story from which we can all draw inspiration to carry on our small and big battles of every day.