Giro d'Italia

Book Excerpt: The Human Locomotive from Maglia Rosa

Maglia Rosa, by Herbie Sykes Editor’s note: “Maglia Rosa – Triumph and tragedy at the Giro d’Italia,” is a new book by Herbie Sykes, an Englishman living in Turin, Italy. Sykes, an occasional contributor to VeloNews, has generously allowed VeloNews to present this excerpt. The book can…

Maglia Rosa, by Herbie Sykes
Maglia Rosa, by Herbie Sykes

Editor’s note: “Maglia Rosa – Triumph and tragedy at the Giro d’Italia,” is a new book by Herbie Sykes, an Englishman living in Turin, Italy. Sykes, an occasional contributor to VeloNews, has generously allowed VeloNews to present this excerpt. The book can be purchased at Rouleur.cc

Ninth overall and winner of two stages at the 1930 Giro had been a new star, the extraordinary Learco Guerra. Hailing from Mantua, Guerra would become the first pin-up boy of Italian sports, a working class hero adored by the great unwashed. His popularity would transcend cycling, and would ultimately be exploited by the Fascists.

The secret of his stamina lay in his unusual training regime. His dad was a bricklayer and, like most everybody else, a big cycling fan. Learco’s first job was pretty heavy duty stuff. He would set off pedalling, alone, an old tandem to the Builders merchants. Here he would fill two huge saddle bags with sand, deliver them to site in Mantua, then repeat the process ad infinitum. In 1924 a local philanthropist had a dirt track built around the football pitch in the village, the idea to organise track meets for local cyclists. Learco would conscript his pals to assist him in hurtling the tandem round the thing. A local frame builder spotted his talent and made him a bike.

Now 22-year-old Learco Guerra started his very own cycling club, the estimable ‘Gruppo Sportivo Aurora’, of which he was simultaneously president, chairman, DS and the only… actual… member. By 1927 he was winning so prolifically that word got back to no lesser figure than Girardengo. He turned up incognito at a meeting and, taken aback by what he saw, urged Guerra to try his hand on the professional road circuit. Girardengo wanted nothing more than to see Binda knocked off his perch, and even deployed his own masseur, the former pro’ Biagio Cavanna, to help with Learco’s preparation. So convinced was Gira’ that he’d discovered the anti-Binda that he persuaded Maino, the bike manufacturer, to add the young warrior to their roster for the 1928 Giro. Maino told him that if he wanted to ride for them he’d have to join the Fascist party and Learco, not remotely interested in politics but desperate to be a cyclist, thought nothing of it. His Dad, a staunch communist, was livid.

Maglia Rosa excerpt: Guerra steaming in. Courtesy photo.
Maglia Rosa excerpt: Guerra steaming in. Courtesy photo.

Having accepted the Gazzetta’s ‘invitation’ to absent himself from the Giro, Binda set off for the Tour with a handpicked team at his disposal. Among them was Guerra, who assumed the yellow jersey of the race leader with a great solo effort on the second stage. Guerra steamed on, his team captain more than happy to give temporary best. On stage seven disaster struck as the Campionissimo fell and conceded an hour while they made good his bike. With his chances of overall success having evaporated, Binda demonstrated his manifest superiority by winning the next two stages in the Pyrenees whilst Guerra, his limitations as a climber emphatically exposed, ceded the jersey to the Frenchman, Leducq. The next stage, another Pyrenean marathon, saw Binda once more race ahead on the first climb, the Portet d’Aspet. However at the summit he simply climbed off his bicycle and abandoned the race…

The UVI, dumfounded that their great champion had quit without apparent good cause, issued a statement. Binda had packed, it read, in order to tailor his training towards the World Championship, to be held in August in Liege. As an exercise in PR damage limitation it was futile; Binda had done the unthinkable, the unforgivable. He’d abandoned the course – and with it his team, his country and his countrymen – at the Tour de France. Guerra, left now to his own devices, battled on manfully, carrying the fight to the mighty French on their own turf, winning two further stages and finishing a splendid second to Leducq. In the process he became the new darling of Italian cycling. With his permanent, goofy smile, warm nature and thick, raspy Veneto accent, Guerra captured the hearts and minds of Italians, most notably of all those of Mussolini’s kids. Whilst Binda was all smooth, effortless class, Guerra was a throwback to bygone days, a blood and thunder cycling warrior with an eponymous surname. Now he, a generous, unpretentious bike rider from Mantua, became an unwitting mascot for Il Duce, and for the Fascist hordes. Not only was he very, very fast, but also hugely likeable, a new God for the anti-Binda lobby. Mussolini had a national subscription fund set up for him, and Italians gleefully chucked in. The Gazzetta started calling him the ‘Human Locomotive’, and the name stuck.

Maglia Rosa excerpt: Guerra reading paper. Courtesy photo.
Maglia Rosa excerpt: Guerra reading paper. Courtesy photo.

Binda, crucified by the press for his shameful antics at the Tour, duly won the Worlds, but the victory served only to put further distance between him and the masses. His mistake was winning at the expense of second placed Learco Guerra, the people’s choice. Years later the truth of Binda’s Tour de France departure would emerge; He hadn’t left his post to prepare for the Mondiale at all. Rather he’d abandoned, as a matter of principle, in direct protest – Colombo hadn’t stumped up the 22,500 lire promised for not riding the Giro.

For all that the Gazzetta’s behaviour had mortally offended him, Binda accepted an invitation to return to the pink race in 1931. Borrowing an idea from the Tour, the paper announced, on 9 May 1931, that a pink leaders’ jersey was to be introduced for the race leader. Mussolini, bigger on motor sports than cycling, acquiesced, though he made it known he thought the colour ‘effeminate’, entirely inappropriate for the hard men of the road. First to don the ‘maglia rosa’ was the nation’s new favourite, Learco Guerra. He won the opening stage into Mantua, his home town, though there was something rather incongruous in seeing Guerra (war by name, war by nature) dressed in pink. The Locomotive then won a flat stage to Ravenna, before a merciless Binda smashed five minutes into him the next day, in the green hills of Marche. Two days later, however, Binda crashed in the sprint for the line, prematurely ending his great comeback. When, horror of horrors, Guerra was hospitalised by an overly eager fan walking into his path on stage seven, they began to talk of the ‘curse of the maglia rosa’. Whatever; two young Piedmontese were left to fight for victory. Conversely the absence of the two biggest draws in sport gave rise to a really good Giro, reputedly the best ever. Giacobbe, Guerra’s Maino gregario di lusso, was the archetypal ‘passista’, strong on the flat, explosive in a sprint, able to hang with the very best in the mountains. Francesco Camusso, nicknamed the ‘Chamois of Cumania’ (the town, 30km west of Turin, from whence he came), was an outstanding climber who would later come within an ace of winning the Tour de France.

Maglia Rosa excerpt: Camusso at the Milan arena. Courtesy photo
Maglia Rosa excerpt: Camusso at the Milan arena. Courtesy photo

On the penultimate stage, a mountainous Piedmontese odyssey from Cuneo to the Turin Velodrome, Camusso prevailed with a masterstroke of cycling intelligence. Racing bikes still had no gear-change (that wouldn’t be ready for a further five years) and as such the riders effectively had two choices. On the flat and on the descents they would ride their ‘standard’ gear. Then, when confronted with a climb, they’d remove and turn round the back wheel, which would be fitted with a bigger sprocket on the reverse side, ergo an easier gear. At Pragelato, in the foothills of the Alps, Camusso faked a puncture and fitted his climbing gear in readiness for the massive ascent to Sestriere. As Giacobbe’s lead group belted towards the mountain Camusso spun for all he worth, held on as best he could. Then, when they dismounted to reverse their wheels, he went full gas. At the top he had a two minute advantage, a lead he’d augment over 140 extraordinary kilometres, into a headwind all the way to Turin. He barrelled down to a hero’s welcome at a packed Velodrome, winning the stage by 3’10”. When they tagged on the two minute bonus for having won alone by over 20 seconds, the Giro had a worthy, if totally unforeseen, victor.

Binda and Guerra would continue their slugfest. The latter, three months younger but much fresher having started riding professionally later, was gaining strength, road craft and confidence. Following his amazing rearguard at the Tour he’d delighted his countryman in deposing Binda the previously unbeatable as Italian champion. In so doing he brought down the curtain on a four year sovereignty, and simultaneously commenced his own five year reign as maglia tricolore. He further enervated his fans by conquering the World Championship, run off for the first and last time as a time trial, 170km in Copenhagen. Guerra, then, was the new megastar, but Binda wasn’t quite done. In foul weather conditions he signed off for the season by claiming his fourth Tour of Lombardy, demolishing the best of the rest with an epic 96km lone breakaway. When he broke the tape at Milan’s San Siro stadium he’d an 18 minute advantage, reminding the Guerra legions that he was still very much in business.

For the first time a full team of foreigners, comprised of French, Belgian and even German riders, turned up at the 1932 Giro. One of them, the German Büse, would wear pink for five days whilst the Flemish Demuysere finished runner-up. Guerra again failed in the mountains, and Binda would once more rue his misfortune as another crash compelled him to work as a gregario for the surprise winner, Antonio Pesenti. The final stage saw the race visited for the first time by another truly astonishing novelty, something called ‘radio transmissions’. The basic concept, as best as enlightened Italians could understand it, was that a human being could stand near the finish line and watch the race and speak, apparently quite normally, into something called a ‘microphone’. Then, via a complex series of valves, wires, filters and miscellaneous electronic gadgetry, his voice could somehow be heard somewhere else, by lots of other people in their living rooms! All they needed was one of those mega expensive, battery powered wooden boxes they were selling in the posh shops in the big cities. Thus they could listen the bloke talking about the race in their armchairs! And he wasn’t even shouting! What about that? Can you imagine? Good God whatever next?

Maglia Rosa excerpt: Guerra watching Camusso. Courtesy photo
Maglia Rosa excerpt: Guerra watching Camusso. Courtesy photo

Binda would add a fifth Giro the next year as the race, crazy now for innovation, introduced not only time trials but also the regally named ‘Gran Premio della Montagna’. This, a prize for the best climber, was decided over the four most challenging hills of the race. The biggest of them by some distance was the Passo Tonale as the race stretched out, for the first time, into the Dolomites. Of course it made no difference; Binda, rolling back the years, won the time trial, all four climbs, six stages and, by a huge margin, the overall classification.

Guerra finally got to wear the maglia rosa in Milan in 1934. The percorso, extended now to 17 stages, was the flattest, and the longest, ever – a perfect fit for the Human Locomotive. He won nine stages (amongst them two juicy time trials) and with them nine decisive minutes of time bonuses. All of Italy wanted a Guerra victory and the bonuses saw to it that he was able, finally, to deliver. Camusso, much his better in the hills, was defeated by just 59 seconds. He would later lament that Guerra, dropped in the Apennines, had been taxied back on by the race organizers, but Italy turned a deaf ear, continued its Learco Guerra love-in. Firmly in the Fascists’ pockets, Guerra was by now handing over his trophies directly to the ‘homeland’, his fabulous sporting achievements hijacked by the party. Under Mussolini nothing, least of all sport, wasn’t politicized…