Tomorrow marks the start of the 99th Giro d'Italia, one of three major bicycle races that make up the Grand Tour. The other two races are the Tour de France in July and the Vuelta a Espana in August/September. Women do not compete with and alongside men in these races that are by all standards the toughest, most challenging, and grueling exhibitions of endurance, strength and grit that a sport can demand of an athlete. There is one, and only one exception to this and her name is Alfonsina Strada, the "Devil in the Dress", the woman who cycled the Giro d'Italia.
Born in Northern Italy in 1891 during the bicycle craze when women around the world were using these "freedom machines" as a tool and symbol of their struggle for freedom, Alfonsina was a woman born to her time. Her father bartered chickens in exchange for Alfonsina's first bicycle at the age of 10, which she taught herself to ride. By the age of 13 she was winning girls and boys races.
Not just a girlish passing fancy, as her parents had hoped, Alfonsina desired to make a career of bicycle racing. Standing at a slight 5 feet 2 inches she cast a larger presence when she was on her bike. It is rumored that those she passed would cross themselves and pray for her lost soul. The "Devil in a Dress" would not be derailed simply because she was a woman. She would compete in the Tour of Lombardy, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the Giro d'Italia, and would go on to break the women's speed record, a record she would hold onto for 33 years. And, she did it on a single-geared bicycle that weighed 44lbs, a behemoth by today's standards.
She fell in love with and married a man who not only supported her racing, but as a wedding gift bought her a new bicycle, the bicycle she would ride during her one and only appearance at the Giro d'Italia. It's unclear if she snuck her way into the Giro or if the organizers used her to drum up publicity for a race that was lacking any superstar presence that year. Either way she started the race under a man's name, Alfonsin Strada.
It was a difficult course with 8 of the 12 stages featuring major mountain passes. Then there was the heat, dust, and torrential rain to contend with. At the end of end of one stage she arrived in tears and was carried away by the adoring crowds. When the weather turned to rain and the roads become muddy she fell and her handlebars broke, but still she pressed on. Finishing outside the time limit and thereby disqualified the organizers allowed her to compete anyway as by now she had the adoration of the fans and the media behind her. She completed the 3,613km course and arrived in Milan with cheering fans, and the respect of the media. She was awarded 50,000 lire raised by donations. Though she outlasted some of her male counterparts and finished ahead of a few of them in the race, she would never be allowed to compete in the Giro d'Italia again.
And so here we are facing the same struggle as we did then despite the many women who followed in Alfonsina's footsteps. Where Strada faced harsh criticism from the Catholic church and a society that perceived women as delicate flowers unable to compete in any sport with any ability, today we face another kind of false perception, and one that is much harder to pin down and define. What is that keeps sponsors from throwing their full weight behind a female racer or team? Or, government agencies from providing the same training for their female cycling athletes as they do for the men? We are given crumbs and told that change takes time. We are told that there is no market for women's cycling. We are told to be happy with what we have. Alfonsina Strada, Billie Jean King, and countless other women have been told the same. We hear it all the time in different contexts, but the message has changed very little over time.
One thing is certain any change that takes place is going to happen only when WE demand it. I don't mean the pro women who are out there every day fighting for the opportunity to race. I'm talking about WE, the female recreational cyclist. Our greatest weapon is in numbers and buying power. We control the family purse strings, we make up the fastest growing segment of the cycling market. Yep, we do all that. But, we don't watch women race, we don't show our support by following the teams on social media. We aren't doing enough! And I know, because up until a few years ago I was the same. I watched the men's races on television and rode with conviction and passion. And while I was reveling in the storied history of the sport I never took more than a few minutes to read about and care about women like Alfonsina Strada.
This is my challenge to you. Get to know the sport on and off your bicycle. If this sport is going to survive and flourish it is going to do so because we, the recreational cyclists decided to get involved. Watch a women's race, follow the teams and the racers on your social media. take an active role in your local cycling advocacy group or club, start your own club, get out and teach a young woman or girl how to road cycle. Speak up and let those who make the rules know that we do care, that if you put a race on television we're going to carve out time during our day to watch, to cheer those women on and to remember that a lot of women defied society just for the privilege of riding a bicycle.
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