In honor of International Women’s Day, QB takes a look back at Alfonsina Morini Strada, one of the pioneers of women’s cycling. We wrap up with a review of Alfonsina e la bici, a song and music video dedicated to her memory.
There are people who mark important stages in history without realizing it, breaking the barriers of prejudice. In the history of women’s cycling one of these people was Alfonsina Morini Strada, the only woman ever to have raced in the Giro d’Italia.
Alfonsina was corrageous; she had the courage necessary to face being born into a life of poverty in 1891 near Modena. Alfonsina was tough; she did not care about being called crazy or “the devil in a dress”. Alfonsina was stubborn; no one could push her away from her beloved bike, especially not her family who thought that her passion was unseemly for a girl. (When Alfonsina was 10, her father came home with an old bicycle that he had received in trade for a few chickens). Alfonsina’s family considered her passion nothing more than a fantasy that would certainly pass once she was married and confined to the role of wife such as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. No doubt that would have been her fate if she did not have the good fortune to meet Luigi Strada, her first husband. Intelligent and unprejudiced, he approved of her passion for cycling, and gave her a shiny new racing bike on the day of their wedding.
It was 1924, the year big names of Italian cycling boycotted the Giro d’Italia over a disagreement about compensation. Just three days before the tour was to start, organizer Emilio Colombo, director of the Gazzetta dello Sport, decided to open the race to all who wished to participate. Alfonsina entered using the ambiguously abbreviated name STRADA, Alfonsin. and was assigned number 72. A person named “Alfonsino Strada” was listed in the roster published in pre-race newspaper articles. Among the ninety participants in the first stage her presence was almost unnoticed but stage by stage Alfonsina became increasingly popular, winning admiration and acclaim.
After having successfully completed the initial stages and coming in front of many of her competitors, there was the disastrous stage from L’Aquila to Perugia. Typically bad road conditions worsened in a heavy rain storm. The wind gusted violently. The road turned into a muddy mess. Alfonsina fell and wounded herself a few times, and each time got up and continued riding. She also broke her handlebars, and wasted a lot of time wandering around looking for a replacement. Finally a housewife gave her a broomstick, which she broke in half and used in place of the handlebars. By the end of the day her knee was so wounded that she finished outside the time limit for the stage. Much to the dismay of some judges and many supporters she was ousted from the official race, but organizer Colombo had realized how much interest there was around the story of the first woman admitted to the Giro d’Italia. Colombo decided to allow her to continue to ride, but no longer as an official participant. The same exception was granted to some of the men. So, Alfonsina continued to ride in the tour, observing the same limits and same rules of the competition. Out of the ninety starters, only thirty reached the finish line in Milan, plus three that arrived out of time, including Alfonsina. She had covered 3,613 kilometers in twelve stages.
Alfonsina was no stranger to adversity. Her first husband Luigi suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized in Milan. Alfonsina used the 50,000 lire in prize money from the Giro to pay for his care. Luigi died in 1948. She remarried three years later to a former pro cyclist and they operated a bicycle shop together in Milan. When her second husband passed away, she continued running the shop. Late in her life, when bicycling for transportation became too physically demanding, she purchased a motorcycle. It allowed some semblance of the freedom previously known to her on the bicycle. She died in obscurity in 1959.
Women’s World record for the 1 hour, 1938:
32.58 km, held for 26 years.
Women’s speed record, 1911:
37 km per hour. This was achieved on a heavy single speed bike.
Tour of Lombardy, 1917:
Last of 32 finishers, out of 74 entrants. Not a bad showing for an amateur’s first big race.
36 career victories against male competitors
Alfonsina was truly a pioneer.
Alfonsina is gone but not forgotten. A biography written by Paolo Facchinetti, Gli anni ruggenti di Alfonsina Strada (The Roaring Years of Alfonsina Strada) was published in 2004. A Dutch version Het roerige leven van Alfonsina Strada, was published in 2010. A play about Alfonsina has appeared on stages in Italy and London.
Today we share the music video called “Alfonsina e la bici” dedicated to her memory by the band Têtes de Bois. Enjoy!
Theme by Andrea Satta and Agostino Ferrente. Directed by Agostino Ferrente. Photography by Paolo Scarfo. Special guest appearance by Militant A from the old school rap band Assalti Frontali. In this particular music video Alfonsina is played by Margherita Hack, an internationally renowned astrophysicist and a great lover of the bike herself.
QB gives Alfonsina e la bici an overall rating of 4 out of 5 stars. Here’s the breakdown on the QB scale of 0 out of 10:
Production quality: 9
Costume design: 9
Pop song quality: 7
Theme and execution: 8
Historical accuracy: 7