Alfonsina Strada: Can Women’s Cycling Ever Jump the Gender Gap?

It’s official. 2014 is a ‘big year’ for women’s cycling. When the Women’s Tour rolls out of Oundle on Wednesday it hopes to leapfrog all contenders to become the biggest stage race in the women’s calendar. And when La Course rolls out to cover its thirteen circuits of the Champs Elysees – that iconic stronghold of the masculine sport – it will offer the single richest prize in women’s cycling: 22,500 euros equivalent to winning a stage in the Tour de France.

The Giro is currently the only Grand Tour that offers a feminised version of itself and it’s a poor reflection of the men’s event – shortened and rebranded, it is forced to compete with the Tour de France in July. But when the flag drops on the Corsa Rosa in Belfast this Friday it marks 90 years since Alfonsina Strada became the only woman to smash through the gender barrier and officially ride a Grand Tour.

Athletic and powerful, crouched low over the handlebars, clad in trademark black wool jersey and black socks, hair fashionably  bobbed Alfonsina Strada is 5′ 2″ of muscular dynamism. The ‘Devil in a Dress’ is determined that gender will not decide how and where and against whom she competes. She has already earned herself an invitation to compete in Russia in the Grand Prix of St Petersburg in 1909 and has been acclaimed ‘the Best Italian Cyclist’. She will ride the Tour of Lombardy in 1917 and 1918 against the likes of Philippe Thys, the three time winner of the Tour de France of whom Desgrange says “France is not unaware that, without the war, the crack rider from Anderlecht would be celebrating not his third Tour, but his fifth or sixth.” But this is wartime and the organisers are happy to be able to field a race at all and the rules do not explicitly state, as they do now, that women cannot ride against men.

Alfonsina asks for – and receives – a racing bike for a wedding present. Born in Northern Italy in 1891 at the height of the bicycle craze when the advent of the ‘freedom machine’ takes women into public spaces and onto a parity with men that was undreamed of, Alfonsina’s family are too poor to own a bicycle. Two wheels may give physical expression to women’s desire for emancipation but it is a solidly middle class desire. Like many male professional cyclists, Alfonsina’s first contact with a bicycle is through a machine used for work not pleasure. When her father, a day labourer, trades 10 chickens for a battered old bike, Alfonsina has her own freedom machine. She teaches herself to ride at 10, at 13 she wins her first race and her first prize, a pig. In 1911 she breaks the women’s speed record set 6 years earlier by Louise Roger. She clocks 37 km/h and she does it on a 44 pound single geared bike – multiple world champion Marianne Vos rides a 17 pound 10 speed carbon frame.  Alfonsina’s record stands for 26 years.

Alfonsina is greedy – she wants to devour public space, to display her strength and muscularity, to eat up the opportunities to race and compete. Her family are desperate for her to settle down, to remain decorously at home stitching and seaming not tearing around the village on her bicycle terrorising the black clad vecchie who cross themselves as she passes. She has her revenge, telling her mother she is off to Mass when she goes to compete on a Sunday.

The backlash against the freedom machine is swift and ferocious. Women who ride are treated like performing monkeys, they’re considered fair game to sexual advances for imposing themselves on the public realm, they’re accused of finding salacious pleasure in the vibration of their saddles. Alfonsina endures the name calling, the accusations of immorality, the Hobson’s choice of women’s work or marriage. Alfonsina got lucky – in Luigi Strada she met a man who not only indulged her passion but encouraged it, gifting her a racing bike and training her on the streets of Milan where the sight of women competing against men had been a popular one in the 1890s until a outraged Unione Velocipedista Italiana banned women from competition in 1894. There was no sense of sisterhood for Alfonsina – the 1923 ‘Almanac for Italian Women’ declared that the purpose of sport was not to “force the body to dangerous excesses and ridiculous exaggerations.” The women who watched Alfonsina competing with the men in 1924 were duly scandalised, believing the tomboyish gamin with the bare legs to be entirely unrepresentative of their sex. In the short lived Grand Boucle Feminin, the Women’s Tour de France, they awarded the  ‘Golden Gloves’ to the most elegant, well turned out rider Plus ca change. That the barriers that existed for Alfonsina – insults masquerading as harmless banter, the threat of physical violation as a means of social control, a strongly gendered sport and the pull of family and responsibility – are still identified as barriers to women’s participation in cycling today is a mark of the limited distance we’ve travelled in the ninety years since Alfonsina stood on the start line in Milan.

Was she invited or did she truly trick the organisers into letting ‘Alfonsin Strada’ pin on race number 72 that morning? For a race that was missing stars like Botecchia and Girardengo, absent due to a dispute over pay, a performing monkey was a valuable publicity coup and La Gazzetta dello Sport’s editor Emilio Colombo was quick to exploit Alfonsina’s appeal. Ninety riders will accept the Giro’s offer of food, board and massage and the one that will attract most attention is Alfonsina. They come to cheer, to jeer, to ogle: “in only two stages this little lady’s popularity has become greater than all the missing champions put together.”

Alfonsina is determined to parlay this new found popularity into a career. She starts referring to herself as a ‘professional cyclist’. She assumes she’ll be back at the Giro in the future – after all Colombo has done everything in his power to keep Alfonsina in the race, offering her 500 lire to ride on when she is on the brink of retiring through sheer physical exhaustion. Because this race is hard –  it’s over 4,000 kms longer than the 1923 edition and eight of the twelve stages feature major mountain passes.  The shortest stage, that takes the race from Rome to Naples is 250 kms ridden in terrible heat and dust, dimming the ‘radiant’ Alfonsina who arrives on the start line in a “new bright outfit” and earrings; the longest a 415 km monster that brings the riders into Fiume, where Alfonsina arrives in tears, in pain and is carried from her bike by the adoring crowds who have warmed to this courageous woman who is determined to pedal every metre of the roads that link Milan back to itself via the virtually impassable, potholed, rock strewn strada sterrata of the South.

But Alfonsina comes unstuck, finally. As the race heads north through the Abruzzi,  long, hard kilometres along the spine of Italy where the land trembles and amplifies the seismic waves of its frequent volcanic eruptions, the weather turns. Wind driven whips of rain lash the riders as they struggle over the Campannelle and the Forca Canapine. Wet wool clings to sodden skin, hair plasters to scalp, wind battered eyes peer unseeing through the curtains of endless stinging rain. The poor roads worsen. Torrents of mud send riders slipping and sliding into the mire. Frederico Gay will lose any hope of challenging for the race lead as eventual winner Giuseppi Enrici takes the stage and the race lead by 40 minutes. Alfonsina falls, she punctures on roads that are no longer roads, she breaks her handlebars and repairs them with a broom handle. She slips, a wheel slides, she hears the crunch as flesh and bone hit rock. But still she rides, her knee bruised and swollen. Outside the time limit at the finish line, Colombo can no longer legitimately keep his dancing monkey in the race. Recognising her value to his Giro, he personally pays for her bed and board, provides her with a masseur, defends her in the Gazzetta and encourages her to hand out signed photographs along the route. Often alone, often in the dark, Alfonsina continues to ride every single millimetre of the 3,613 km route. She arrives in Milan a heroine of sorts, feted by Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel, the recipient of cups and medals, jerseys and earrings and a 50,000 lire prize raised by donations from a newly sympathetic public.

And now Alfonsina truly considers herself a professional cyclist. She has completed a race that only a third of the ninety strong peloton has seen through to the end and she has outridden several of them. She has proved a woman can survive in a man’s race. But she will never ride the Giro again. By 1925 the disputes are settled, the race no longer needs its performing monkey. Colombo will personally refuse Alfonsina’s request, the same man who has written of her “Alfonsina doesn’t challenge anybody for victory, she just wants to show that even the weak sex can do the same as the strong sex.”

It’s a challenge that still faces the women’s sport, 90 years later. Strada was never seen as a genuine competitor – she was a distraction, her naked legs shocking, her courage to be applauded – but she was only ever a participant, a charming side show, a “schoolboy playing truant.” Ever the performing monkey, bedecked in gaudy baubles – the pet of the race, never a serious athlete. Though she  made a career on the track and broke the women’s speed record at 47 she could never translate her Giro heroics into any more than a narrative to inspire romantic books and comic strips. Alfonsina’s career ends in circuses, riding the rollers. Once more the performing monkey.

Women’s cycling, as it approaches this annus mirabilis, remains a Potemkin village, it’s gorgeous golden surface concealing the fake behind the facade -as Lizzie Armitstead told Rouleur  “There’s no women’s programme. There’s no women’s road academy. There’s no pathway for women.” British Cycling currently has no plans to start a women’s road team even though the costs are a drop in the multimillion dollar ocean of financing a men’s team. Armitstead doesn’t expect any support for the road riders come Rio, either. Where Strada faced the twin hegemonies of the Catholic church – prefectoral laws on women exposing their flesh were reluctantly waved for the little woman in her immoral shorts – and a Fascist regime that would increasingly discriminate against female athletes whose ‘fundamental mission’ was surely maternity – today’s women riders participate in a sport that remains deeply, perhaps irremediably, gendered – unlike tennis or even golf the women’s sport continues to lack high levels of sponsorship and exposure. There is no will to accommodate the women’s sport in a man’s world.

Strada wouldn’t recognise the word ‘sexism’ but she would recognise its effect on her career. It’s there at every level of women’s participation – from the catcalls endured by women commuters to the ‘banter’ on male dominated club rides to the institutionalised sexism faced by a professional sport that attracts just 0.5% of sponsorship and is rendered virtually invisible, where prize money is a joke and the money never seems to trickle down from the lucrative men’s sport, where women’s achievements don’t even merit the security of a minimum wage and anyway, they’re just not as tough as the men and their sport just isn’t as exciting. Try telling that to Vos and Armitstead whose battle on a rain soaked Mall in the London Olympics arguably kickstarted the present interest in women’s cycling, and gained higher TV ratings than the damp squib of a men’s race. Try telling that to Alfonsina Strada – the modern Grand Tours, their length limited to 3,500 kms over 21 stages, look Lilliputian compared to Alfonsina’s Giro. Factor in modern bike and textile technology and superior infrastructure, and it’s Strada with her single speed bike and her woollen jerseys fighting the unmade roads of post war Italy and who would argue that the modern peloton doesn’t have it easy.

And if we look beyond the British golden girls what little safety net there is drops away completely. For a woman engaged in the domestic racing scene who wants to cross the line from participant to competitor, from dancing monkey to giant of the road, there are precious few opportunities beyond the track focussed performance programme – and races like the Women’s Tour and La Course remain as inaccessible as the 1925 Giro was to Alfonsina Strada.

There remains the sense that there is no real appetite at the very top of the sport to affect change and sustain growth – the post of women’s representative for British Cycling is a voluntary one and of the three women representatives on the board of directors, two were appointed in 2014, the other in 2011. There are no women on the senior management team – instead, white male after white male face stares out from the BC website. Of the twenty person US Cycling board,only  four are women. Not a single president of a French regional committee is a woman. The only female member of the European Cycling Union is, unsurprisingly, Dutch – a country where 55% of women cycle regularly. But white men predominate at national and international level and at grassroots too – so much of the women’s sport in the UK is run on an amateur  basis that one way for women to make a profound difference to the gender imbalance may be to get into the sport at ground level, volunteering as marshalls and race organisers. But volunteering requires time and commitment and patience.  Little wonder that, as Emma Pooley points out, so many women abandon administrative roles in the sport disillusioned with the lack of money, with always being seen as second best.

Traditionally married to the Olympic funding cycle of track success, the tectonic shift towards the road grinds slowly onwards. Cyclocross has pioneered the shift towards equal prize money for women and both the Women’s Tour and La Course will do the same – the prize for the French race, at 22,500 euros is by some margin the richest in the sport. This in a world where Giro Donne winner and World Champion Emma Pooley can earn more by finishing third in a triathlon in the Philippines than she has ever won in a bike race. Women working together can be powerful – where Strada was alone in the male peloton, the Le Tour Entier movement has achieved the seemingly impossible, getting its  feet under the table with ASO, the biggest power player in the sport. The result – a 90km one day race along the length of the Champs Elysees, where the Tour de France will finish as it has done every year since 1975, the cream of women’s world cycling competing on the biggest stage in the sport.

It’s baby steps towards Le Tour Entier’s ultimate goal of a proper women’s Tour de France and a sport where a male dominated UCI no longer legislate what they believe women to be capable of. Marianne Vos, the multi disciplinary multiple world champion believes that the next step should be a fully integrated racing calendar. For Nicole Cooke the key issue remains a minimum wage that makes cycling a viable professional career. For Lizzie Armitstead it’s the lack of World Tour teams, including Sky, supporting a women’s team. But the disconnect between what women want and what men are willing to offer remains – Brian Cookson, head of the UCI, who championed the women’s sport in his pre-election manifesto, makes much of new coverage of the women’s World Cup and an investment in social media. That the coverage is a thirty minute highlight package and the @UCIWomenCycling  twitter account currently has 4,045 followers whilst the UCI President continues to refuse to countenance a minimum wage says a great deal about that disconnect.

And then there are the podium boys. When Alfonsina falls off her bike with exhaustion in Fiume she is greeted by an adoring crowd who have waited hours for her to arrive. Not for her the flowers or the protocol of the podium. But the winner of La Course will be greeted with the full pomp and ceremony of a podium presentation including a kiss from a podium boy, something the Women’s Tour has chosen not to replicate. After all, if women want to race like the men they surely  want the little perks too? Setting aside the enforced heteronormativity of it all, the way that podium boys serve to validate the outmoded presence of the podium girl, we are back to pointing and staring at the performing monkey. Unless of course the podium boys arrive in gilded hotpants and jackboots, serving to highlight the sheer absurdity of it all.

Alfonsina loses one husband to mental illness, marries another – an ex-cyclist – loses him too but carries on running their bicycle shop on the Via Varesina in Milan. She trades in her husband’s old bicycle for a cherry red Moto Guzzi 500, paid for by the sale of her old medals and trophies,  and she rides it one September day in 1959 to the Tre Valli Varesine. No one recognises the old lady on the motorbike. She tells her landlady “I had so much fun, It was really a beautiful day. Now I will push my motorcycle to the store and I will return on a bicycle.” But her disappointment is plain. She is seen pulling angrily at the starter lever of the Moto Guzzi, all the years of frustration and bitterness focused finally into that one action. The machine begins to topple and as it falls Alfonsina is caught in its lethal embrace.

Ninety years ago, Alfonsina Strada rode the Giro because she wanted to have the opportunity to compete at a level that was otherwise unavailable to her. In 1983 Robin Morton became the first woman directeur sportif at the Giro – the race organisers had to vote as to whether she’d be allowed to ride in a team car, her male colleagues gave her the cold shoulder. It’s taken thirty one years for Rachel Heal to repeat the experience, when she took charge of the United Healthcare team at this year’s Milan – San-Remo. She praised her team for not pigeonholing her but even so the other male directeurs did a double take to see a woman driving the team car. And yet the sport has come a long way – attracting sponsorship like never before, the tipping point may yet be reached. When Cookson uses the business analogy of a corporation actively seeking to exclude 50% of its potential customer base he comes closest to making the clear economic case for investment in the women’s sport. And the goodwill for the women’s sport is apparent in the crowds lining the route for the Women’s Tour, the buzz on twitter, the will for this year to finally be the year when women’s cycling jumps the gender gap.

Tectonic plates. Baby steps. Pick your battles. Remember, you have podium boys now! And dance little monkeys, dance – but make sure the tune you dance to is your own.




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