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THE UNTOLD STORY.

Alfonsina Strada is the only woman to compete in the Giro d’Italia. Her tale is part legend, part intrigue, part defiance. One of the great anecdotal tales of the Corsa Rosa – books and theatre pieces have been dedicated – but it is relatively untold outside of Italy. Dutch photographer Ilona Kamps made a pledge to Alfonsina when she visited her grave for the first time in 2012. Inspired by Alfonsina’s resilience and courage, Kamps has dedicated the last five years to fulfilling her promise.

“I faced Alfonsina’s grave and promised I would tell her story to as many people as possible.”

1924 was a turbulent year for the Giro d’Italia. The build up to the 12th edition of the race was dominated by a backdrop of strikes forcing La Gazzetta dello Sport as organisers to open the field to independent riders. One of these ‘rookies’ was 33-year-old female rider Alfonsina Strada.

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Many of questions related to Alfonsina are directed at how she managed to enter the Giro. The popular myth, and one that suits the accepted narrative, is that she concealed her gender by registering under the male name ‘Alfonsin’. It could as easily have been a typo. The chances are the organisers turned a blind eye to her registration. Alfonsina was already a known figure in the cycling world thanks to her exploits on the track and the Tour of Lombardy where she had competed against, and defeated, men. The more realistic answer is that the Giro was in a corner and the organisers saw the commercial advantages of the presence of a female rider.

From 90 starters, only 30 riders finished the 1924 Giro. This was still the age of ridiculously long tappe (3,613km over 12 stages) on largely unpaved roads and without any kind of rider support. Racing with the 72 dossard Alfonsina was removed from GC after stage 7 when she failed to finish within the cut-off time. For the second time though the organisers found flexibility in the rules. Eager to take advantage of the buzz generated by Alfonsina’s presence, they let her finish the Giro. She more than held her own. Not at the front of the race but neither was she in what would become maglia nera (last place) contention. She was resourceful too. One mountain stage she replaced her broken handlebar with a snapped broomstick.

One particular line from Kamps’s illustrated novel provides an insight into Alfonsina’s character: “She had the innate grit and determination to keep going in the face of obstacles and opposition. She was fuelled by the proud faith that she could achieve the goal she had set herself. In short, she was driven essentially by passion.” There was no agenda. Just the desire to demonstrate her undoubted ability. During that Giro she won over skeptics while dealing with spiteful comments and insults from fellow riders. There was a prevailing spirit that women should not even ride a bicycle never mind compete in a race. The following year, when the strike was resolved, women were banned. Alfonsina would remain the only woman to ride the Giro. Ever.

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GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.

Ahead of the 100th Giro, Black Sheep caught up with Kamps to discuss Alfonsina and to help her share this wonderful, inspirational story.

When did you first hear about Alfonsina Strada?

I was at Madonna del Ghisallo (the chapel on Lake Como which houses a cycling museum) where Alfonsina’s bike is. When I discovered her story I thought to myself ‘wow’. After that I read Paolo Facchinetti’s book on Alfonsina and I found the story resonated with me. It was more than about cycling, there were many sides to it.

How easy was it for you to reconstruct her story?

I went to all of the places she spent time in. I took pictures and thought ‘what would this have been like in the 1920s?’ I built the story from there.

Where did her passion for cycling come from?

She came from a poor, rural family. Her father managed to buy a bike by selling chickens. When her father was not on the bike, Alfonsina was on it. First simply racing through her village. At the age of 13 she was already competing in races around the Bologna area. At the age of 16 she went to Turin and started competing in the club scene. It was there she learnt to race and in a few months became the best. She broke the world record for 500m, and later the hour record.

How was she treated by the other riders during the Giro?

In the beginning they didn’t like it at all. It was hard for her. Journalists made a caricature of her. Nobody was very positive about it. Later when she stayed in and men dropped out of the race, she got more attention and a positive reaction. She became quite famous out of the Giro and made good money from it.

What happened to Alfonsina after the Giro?

She continued racing on the track and had a lot of success, becoming almost unbeatable. She went around Europe including to Paris where she spent months at a time racing.

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When did she finish her riding career?

She never finished her riding career! She was riding until she was 65 (she died at 68 in 1959) and had a small bike shop in Milan with her second husband and a race school for younger racers, for them to train both as bike mechanics and as riders.

What sort of woman have you discovered in Alfonsina?

An independent woman, somebody who made autonomous decisions. She was able to escape from her environment. She was a resolute person and followed her own path. She had a sense of adventure and feeling of freedom.

What are you hopes for this project?

I made a promise when I faced Alfonsina’s grave: ‘I will tell this story to everyone so it gets a bigger public’. This is what keeps me going. It is not for myself. I like making things, not exposing myself. It’s about Alfonsina.

ILONA KAMPS IS CURRENTLY WORKING ON RAISING FUNDS TO RUN AN ALFONSINA STRADA EXHIBITION IN MILAN IN 2018. FOR FURTHER DETAILS AND TO BUY HER ILLUSTRATED NOVEL ALFONSINA STRADA ‘CYCLING IS MY LIFE’: ALFONSINASTRADA.COM

 

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