Giro di Lombardia: The Greatest Rivalry

By 1909 France’s cyclists had been infected by what the Gazzetta termed “Napoleon Syndrome”. They’d pick and choose the wealthiest of the Italian races, then cross the Alps en masse to lord it over Italy’s finest.

At Sanremo, however, Luigi Ganna had finally broken the spell. The roads that day had been so appalling that Atala, his sponsor, had stationed no less than 15 spare bikes along the route. Ganna, the “King of the Mud”, had needed only three of them, and had triumphed once more at the inaugural Giro. When, at the conclusion, a journalist had asked him how he felt, he’d replied: “My overriding impression is that my arse is on fire.” Fair enough…

Ganna was one extraordinary athlete but, as regards pure sporting pantomime, there was only one show in town. By the eve of the Tour of Lombardy the antipathy between Giovanni “Manina” Cuniolo and Giovanni “The Red Devil” Gerbi had descended into outright contempt.

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Like all great cycling rivalries theirs was rooted in parochialism. Cuniolo was from Tortona, amidst the vineyards of the Gavi, his nemesis Gerbi from Asti, 60km west in the Langhe. They had started out riding for the same team, CV Alessandria, but beyond that they were as different as night and day.

Gerbi’s “Red Devil” sobriquet was a reflection of his trademark crimson jersey, but also his unparalleled proclivity to cheat. He was totally unscrupulous, enjoying nothing more than a mid-race punch-up, and routinely sabotaged his opponents. He had “won” a second Lombardy in 1907 but had subsequently been disqualified. His supporters, the jury confirmed, had detained the French contingent at a level crossing. He was freakishly strong but the poverty of his finish compelled him to attack from a long way out. As a rule he would either win by huge distances – 40 minutes at the first Tour of Lombardy – or else collapse completely.

By contrast, “Little Hand” Cuniolo was by all accounts a thoroughly decent human being. A devout Catholic, he would help out at church in his spare time and counted the local priest, Don Orione, amongst his biggest fans. Though no great lover of the Herculean, 600-km Fondo events favoured by Gerbi, he was without equal as a sprinter. Gerbi had him down as a wheel-sucker but knew full well that if he towed Cuniolo to the finish he was done for.

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Gerbi’s antics had stolen the headlines again the previous year. He had launched his trademark do-or-die attack but had been caught by François Faber and Cuniolo. Then, Gerbi being Gerbi, he did a deal with Faber to split the winnings and promptly shoved Cuniolo off his bike. Faber took flight for the win but Cuniolo appealed to the jury at the race’s conclusion. The problem was that they had caused a riot in stripping Gerbi the previous year and didn’t much fancy a repeat. They dismissed Cuniolo’s complaint out of hand, leaving him incandescent. He vowed never to speak to Gerbi again, a tall order given that the Devil baited him relentlessly. (In the event he would resist for 31 creditworthy years. They would make up at a dinner celebrating Fausto Coppi’s first Giro win.)

As ever the weather would be a significant factor. Lombardy had been conceived as an authentic “Criterium of Autumn”, a genuine test of the riders’ resolve. That’s why it took place on the first Sunday in November and why non-sprinters like Gerbi prayed for rain. Wet weather brought with it mud and mud favoured hard men over fast ones. This time the forecast was good and good weather meant dust. Gerbi, beaten before he started, caused a scandal by abandoning at the last minute. He cited ’flu, though Cuniolo claimed to have seen him riding the course on the Friday afternoon. For the beleaguered jury his absence was something of a godsend, but the prospect of a bunch sprint didn’t bear thinking about. They would have nought but the naked eye and the riders’ integrity to separate the pack and, as we have discovered, integrity was an extremely scarce commodity in Italian cycling.

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Like all the great races Lombardy was effectively a giant randonée. Only by having the riders sign on could they stop shortcuts being taken, so they would have their cards marked at Varese (61km), Como (88km), Lecco (121km), Bergamo (159km) and Trezzo d’Adda (178km). The race headed out of Milan’s Parco Sempione at 7:15am and, to cut an extraordinary story short, 27 of them approached the traguardo together, eyes down for the sprint.

Amidst scenes of utter pandemonium – the Gazzetta, in hyperbolic overdrive, would later claim there were 200,000 on the finishing straight – Cuniolo eclipsed the French sprinters Beaugendre and Trousselier. As usual, those vanquished appealed the result (it would be 48 hours before the first five places were officially confirmed) and fifth-placed Fiaschi was relegated in favour of Tibiletti. Beyond that the dust helped render the whole thing indecipherable. The jury gave up in the end, so the bean-counters totted up the aggregate winnings for those placed sixth to 27th. They divided them by 21 and awarded each a gold medal. Then they classified them in alphabetical order and sent them on their way.

At first glance the speed of the thing had seemed extraordinary but closer inspection revealed the Gazzetta had miscalculated the length of the percorso. They had ridden 193km at 31kph, not 210 at 36, but no matter. Over six spellbinding hours Giovanni “Little Hand” Cuniolo, the velocista supreme, had confirmed his greatness once and for all.