Rain fell first, down in the valley, then turned to snow. Tiny ice pellets battered down on the wool-clad back of a boy from Pittsburgh as he rode alone over the day’s second major pass, the 5,000-foot Forca Capanine. He stuffed a newspaper in his jersey and continued onward, down into the storm. By the finish of the Giro d’Italia’s eighth stage, he had 39 minutes over his primary rival. His first leader’s jersey, earned two days prior, was confirmed that wet and cold day in Umbria and won outright seven days later in Milan.
This spring marks 100 editions of the Giro, and we celebrate the race’s rich history. We celebrate 68 Italian wins, seven Belgian, and six French. We celebrate the one American win. Well, maybe one and a half.
The boy from Pittsburgh was not Andy Hampsten, winner of the 1988 Giro. No, the first American-born Giro d’Italia winner was an Italian named Giuseppe Enrici. In 1924 the Giro was only 11 years old. Twenty-six years would pass before another foreign-born rider took pink — Hugo Koblet, from Switzerland, in 1950. It would be 64 years before an American rider won the race —
Hampsten in 1988.
The history of the Giro is a history of Italy. Its schisms and geopolitical eccentricities, its immigrants and emigrants, its dark times and light. This is a nation where dialects from two sides of the same country can be nearly unintelligible to each other; a nation that sent millions abroad to find a better life a hundred years ago, and now takes in tens of thousands seeking the same. The Giro is a grand tour almost entirely dominated by Italians, yet which embraces foreign riders more completely than any other.
Enrici’s story is the first such tale. Long before the young man dropped his rival Federico Gay over the Capanine, Enrici’s parents moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from Piedmont, in the north of Italy. They sought work and the American dream, and found some of it. They had a child, Giuseppe. But Italy beckoned. They returned. Giuseppe Enrici, still a small child, quickly regained Italian citizenship.
Was he the first American winner of the Giro? Not quite. America, unfortunately, can’t quite claim him. Nor should it. The flag next to his name at the start in Milano that year was an Italian one, along with all 30 finishers that year. Hampsten’s position is safe.
It’s probably just as well that Enrici was Italian, back then. In the Giro’s early years, French riders like Antonin Magne and Lucian Petit-Breton were met with derision from the Italian tifosi. More than a bit of spit met them, too. Belgian Joseph Demuysere was almost shoved off the road when he dared come second to Alfredo Binda in 1933. Within the peloton the tactics were clear: Get rid of the foreigners first, then fight it out amongst the Italians.
That sort of reaction dissipated in the post-war era. Cycling is a reflection of the world, and the world was expanding quickly. Fast-forward to Hampsten’s efforts in 1988. The tifosi supported their own riders but appreciated 7-Eleven’s band of upstarts, cheering Hampsten’s grinta in the mountains even as he left Flavio Giupponi and Franco Chioccioli behind. That was echoed in 2012 when Taylor Phinney took pink in the Giro prologue and answered interview questions with language skills picked up from a youth spent in Tuscany. Italian fans fell for the tall young American as if he was one of their own.
The Giro remains more Italian than, for example, the Tour remains French. Cycling’s international expansion hasn’t bypassed the Italian tour, but the Italians refuse to let their grip on the race go. No French rider has won the Tour de France since Bernard Hinault in 1985; in that same time, 18 Italians have won the Giro. Even now, as the Giro enters is 100th edition, its Italian flavor remains. Vincenzo Nibali won the 99th edition. Nibali and countryman Fabio Aru are two of the favorites to win the race this year.
That balance manifests itself in editions like 1988, with the Italians’ embrace of Hampsten the American, and in 1924, with their national claim of Enrici from Pennsylvania. At its best, the Giro delivers drama and excitement. At its best, the Giro mirrors Italy and its embrace of the world.