The grin on the face is unusual. Not the fixed, unanimated stare one normally associates with the grainy black and white photographs of cyclists from the ‘heroic era’. This is an entirely different expression. One that exudes self-confidence, even amusement. Is this, one wonders, the smile he gave his rivals before leaving them for dead in the dust?
The cyclist is Costante Girardengo – even his name has a certain swashbuckling swagger – the first real superstar of Italian cycling. A combative, uncompromising and versatile competitor, blessed with devastating closing speed, he enjoyed the adulation of an Italian public eager to return to some sort of normality after the slaughter of the First World War.
Born into rural poverty in 1893 near the town of Novi Ligure in the Piedmont province of Italy – the same hills out of which Fausto Coppi would fly a couple of decades later – Girardengo was the original Il Campionissimo – the ‘Champion of Champions’ and one of the greatest of his generation.
On April 14th 1918, as Europe slowly edged towards peace, Girardengo won the first of his six Milan-San Remo titles. It was a record haul that lasted nearly sixty years and it took the supernatural gifts of Eddy Merckx to topple Girardengo from the top of the podium.
Rarely has a rider been so indelibly linked to a race than Girardengo to Milan –San Remo. His first victory came after a typically audacious 160km breakaway. Total domination that humiliated the rest of the field. He podiumed eleven times in Sanremo and was robbed of almost certain victory not once, but twice. Cruel circumstance dictated that a cannibale from a later era would wear the crown for the most wins in the La Classicissima di Primavera.
Precociously talented, Girardengo’s potential was evident from as early as 1913, the year he won the first of his nine (consecutive) Italian championships and competed in his first Giro d’Italia at the age of 20. The following year he won the longest ever Giro stage – a mere 430km – and a few weeks later he made his one and only appearance at the Tour de France, abandoning during Stage Six.
It is no surprise that La Classicissima is so finely woven into Girardengo’s palmarès. To this day, the race runs southwest from Milan through Piedmont, passing through Girardengo’s hometown of Novi Ligure and over the Passo del Turchino to the relative warmth of the Ligurian coast. In a later edition Girardengo recalled hearing his children cheering him on as he sped through Novi, willing him to win. They were not disappointed.
Girardengo pictured after winning the GP Wolber in 1924, having beaten home favourite, Henri Pélissier of France, into second place. Prior to the introduction of the World Championships in 1927, the GP Wolber was regarded as the unofficial Worlds, contested by a select field of leading European riders. Picture: BnF/Agence Rol
He enjoyed the home advantage, but Girardengo’s other trump card was his association with the celebrated trainer Biagio Cavanna. He would later nurture the career of Coppi from his base in the city, but Cavanna’s first protégé was the young Girardengo, honing his talents and refining his race preparation, training and tactics and guiding him towards a life of notoriety and fame.
Finally, there is the simple fact that the parcours of Milan – San Remo offered the perfect battlefield for Girardengo to unleash his armoury. In a bunch sprint, few could match his speed. Small in stature – he was nicknamed ‘The Novi Runt’ by some – but immensely powerful, yet able to keep in touch with the scalatori in the hills.
His 30 Giro stage wins, nine Italian Championship titles, along with his many Classic triumphs, including victory in three Giro di Lombardias, are testimony that Girardengo could be a danger in any terrain. Yet it was on the cumulative, undulating climbs of Milan – San Remo that he excelled and if any of his rivals could stay with him to the death, it would inevitably be Girardengo’s smiling face that would grace the front pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport.
If his 1918 Milan – San Remo victory propelled Girardengo into the wider public consciousness, then his demolition of the field in the 1919 Giro cemented their adulation. He led after Stage One and never relinquished it, adding another six stage wins in the process. His victory was even more impressive, and unexpected, as Girardengo had almost succumbed to the deadly Spanish flu epidemic that swept across Europe in the latter stages of the war. Some, including his own Bianchi team, doubted whether he could ever recapture the form necessary to compete at the highest level.
Girardengo would only win one further Giro, in 1923. It is likely he would have won more, but the suspension of the race during the war years, coupled with the unforgiving nature of bike racing in this era and disputes over appearance money with the Giro organisers conspired against him. And then, just as Girardengo’s powers began to diminish, Italian cycling witnessed the emergence of Alfredo Binda, the young pretender destined to take on the mantle of Campionissimo.
It was rather poignant that Girardengo’s final Milan – San Remo victory in 1928, when he narrowly outsprinted a complacent Binda in atrocious conditions, was arguably his greatest. It proved to be the final major win of his career and the last telling punch of this seasoned pugilist.
He continued to race into the mid-1930’s and in retirement launched his own bike brand and even a stable of motorcycles bearing his name. He remained a ubiquitous presence on the race scene until his death in 1978, managing domestic squads and, most famously, the Italian team that delivered the emphatic 1938 Tour de France victory of Gino Bartali.
Cycling became an increasingly lucrative sport in the post-war years, with generous purses on offer to the leading riders. Attracted by the prize and appearance money, Girardengo competed in the velodromes of Paris, Germany and even New York. Picture: BnF/ Agence Meurisse
Looking back over his long career, one wonders if he could have matched, or even surpassed the seven Milan – Sanremo wins of Merckx. In 1922, as he contested a sprint finish against Giovanni Brunero, the pair clattered into a spectator and Brunero was the first to remount and cross the line.
Girardengo remained adamant that his disqualification in 1915, after he took the wrong route when well ahead of the chasing pack, was an injustice, arguing that his margin of victory outweighed the time benefit gained by his inadvertent shortcut. “It’s scandalous!” Girardengo would later claim, but even a great Campionissimo must abide by the rules.