Riding the 1914 Giro d’Italia

Author Tim Moore retraces the route of the most punishing bicycle race in history, lives to write about it.

Gironimo  Tim Moore

On May 24, 1914, eighty-one cyclists departed Milan en route to Cuneo, 420 kilometers distant, the first stage of the now infamous 1914 Tour of Italy, an eight-stage bicycle race that covered 3,170 kilometers, most of those over snow- and rain-slicked roads. Today, the 1914 edition of the Giro is considered by many to be the most brutal bike race in history, as only eight entrants completed the course, hindered (as compared to today’s professional cyclists) by their gearless, wooden-wheeled bicycles and primitive knowledge of sports science.

Fast forward to 2012, when London-based author Tim Moore, then pushing fifty years of age, decided to retrace the route of the 1914 Giro on a period-accurate bike. Moore had a few advantages over his century-earlier brethren, pedaling away over modern roads while guided by a Garmin GPS. On the other hand, Moore was handicapped not only by hundred-year-old technology, but by his hundred-year-old bike, which hardly seemed up to the challenge.

Moore recounts his unique Italian adventure in “Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy” (Pegasus Books), which he admits was an oftentimes humbling experience. “When you’re riding along on an ancient bike you are a heroic figure, but if you get off and push the bike up a large hill you are immediately a hateful, pathetic failure,” he says. In the following Failure Interview, Moore discusses the worst parts of the journey, how his pace compared to that of the 1914 racers, and the even more ambitious odyssey he completed earlier this month, which will no doubt be the subject of his next book.

It’s evident that you abruptly start and stop long-distance cycling projects, going from zero to a hundred-plus kilometers a day, and vice-versa. How do you do that?
I’m not sure, to be honest. I’m fifty-one bloody years old and it seems almost unfair that I am able to do this without dying. 

Did you do any training for this endeavor?
I have a really crappy, super-cheap exercise bike and I started thinking that if I cycled along to the entire 2012 Tour of Italy it would essentially be like doing the whole Tour and that would be great training. I don’t know why it was a revelation to me, but it’s really, really boring riding an exercise bike. I managed a total of about ten hours of cycling on this exercise bike up in my attic and that was it.

What makes the Giro d’Italia the hardest bike race?
The thing that makes it principally hard is that it starts during a time of year when there is still a lot on snow on top of the mountains that Italy has a great many of. That’s why the 1914 edition was so horribly attritional. But by the time I got ready to ride it was August so I had to make do with punishing heat. Also, Italy is relentlessly mountainous—not just hilly—but mountainous, and the people who design the routes of bike races have a grim fascination with getting from A to B via the highest possible hills around. So I had a lot of grindingly slow, agonizing, Sisyphus-type days in the saddle. 

Was there any point that you felt like quitting?
There were moments, which sometimes lasted three weeks, when I thought “I may not be able to make this.” In the first full day [after doing 50 kilometers a day earlier] both my knees seized up. As soon as I got off the bike I couldn’t even walk. Luckily, pedaling wasn’t as bad, though it was still incredibly painful. Then the whole front half of the hundred-year-old saddle literally broke in two. So there was this gigantic rusty bolt poking out between my legs. Yet I managed to cycle the rest of that day—one of the most impressive achievements of my entire life, actually. I sat down on this rusty metal bolt, wedged in my private parts, and got on with it, because there was no possibility of getting a new saddle that particular weekend.

The state of bicycle technology in 1914 wasn’t quite where we are today, huh?
When I first had the idea of doing this hundred-year-old bike race on this hundred-year-old bike, somehow I thought the bike would at least look really old. But superficially it looks quite a lot like a [modern] bike. It looks like something you might see, even today, painted on a bike path warning sign. But when you take a closer look you realize there are no gears, and that it has wooden wheels, and to slow the wooden wheels you have to use cork. You can’t put rubber on wood because it gets really hot and melts. Of course, nobody makes cork brake pads because nobody is riding around on wooden wheels. So I had to make my own out of wine corks, which didn’t melt but also didn’t work. Going up the mountains was bad enough, but going down them was terrifying. I literally had to put my feet on the floor at sixty kilometers per hour in a vain attempt to take some speed off.

What about clothing? What did you wear, and what did cyclists wear during the race in 1914?
The rules were unbelievably draconian back then. Riders had to carry all their own spare parts and clothes. Essentially, riders wore a fisherman’s jersey—a gigantic Merino wool jersey—because the race started at a time of year when you could expect it to be very cold. It wasn’t necessarily the best choice for punishing heat, but it was quite useful [for carrying food] as there was a big pocket in the front and two big pockets in the back. I had to get this replica jersey [custom] made and it was ruinously expensive. Of course, no one seriously expects to ride in one; it’s for collector types to put up on the walls of their office or to go to a vintage bike ride once every two years. I had to wash it every day because it would get filthy and sweaty and repulsive. So I washed it in hotel sinks and bed & breakfast shower basins and it would never dry. Putting on this wet wool in the morning was in some ways the worst thing I had to do.

What about food?
I cut a few corners on the diet, because in 1914 their main choice of sustenance was raw eggs. They would put raw eggs in the big pocket in the front of their jersey and crack them on the handlebars and ingest the contents and then chuck the shells over their shoulder. And they had two bottles, at least one of which was filled with red wine. They were fixated on drinking wine and thought it was an unalienable right to them.

What reaction did you get from people along the route?
Well, they really do like their old bikes in Italy. Even when I was trying to impress people in London with my ancient bike they would say, “It just seems like a bike.” But in Italy old men would leap up from their table at cafes in little villages and instantly spot the bike. I suppose it was also that I was in very conspicuous garb, with the most alarming bit of my outfit being this ridiculous white cap with these blue John Lennon specs that had these really scary steampunk leather side shields. They looked like something a Victorian welder might wear. But these guys would leap off their chairs and go, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” And then they would recite their cycling heroes from their youth. That was very cheering.

At the same time, because I did look really creepy and a bit scary young mothers would gather their children and clutch them as I went through town. And people would often come up to me and—without having heard a word [from me]—would say, in English, “Oh, so you are crazy Englishman.” I realized afterwards I looked like an archetypally eccentric English twat doing something stupid that no one else would have done. I’m not quite sure why I was so archetypally English, but nonetheless they were right.

People must have seen you struggling on the hills.
There are only so many times you can pretend that you just got off the bike. Because people in passing cars will jeer out the window, and say, “Get on your bike you Nancy!” For hours I would pretend I just stopped to check something, but you can’t do that all the time, so you just have to put up with it and soak up the abuse. There was a lot of it in the Alps, I have to say.

How long did it take you to complete the ride, as compared to the 1914 winner?
My GPS device—which I had because getting lost is not that funny after the first ten times—had a feature that allowed you to race against a virtual competitor, so I put in the average overall speed of the winner, Alfonso Calzolari. When I checked at the end of my first full day he was already something like 120 miles in front of me. So I stopped looking at that screen.

But as I was reading through the history of the race I noticed there was one guy who always came in last. And not just a bit last, but massively last—at least an hour and a half behind everyone else. Clearly, he was my man. It was actually frustrating because he retired on the penultimate stage, but the average speed he had before he retired was 17.76 kilometers per hour. I was determined to beat his overall speed and just managed to do it over the last day. Had I been riding in the actual race I would have finished last, and I would have been a full week behind the winner.

Tell me about Calzolari. What was he like?
In cycling, then as now, there is a team leader who is the best rider on the team and the entire team is based around supporting him. None of the other riders have any personal hope of achieving anything. Their entire job is to take the leader and lead him up the hills. Calzolari was one of those water carriers—a domestique—a complete no-hoper. He had only won one race in his entire career [the 1913 Tour of Emilia], which was an inconsequential local race in rural Italy. But by good fortune and unbelievable determination he plowed on and beat all of his fabled rivals. It was a lovely story, but he never won again. Yet he lived to be ninety-five, a really good advertisement for riding up gigantic hills on red wine and raw eggs and strychnine. I probably failed to mention that the performance enhancing drug they had then was rat poison. Somehow a very bold experimentalist worked out that if you had just the right amount it had a very crude but effective amphetamine-style effect.

How does today’s version of the Giro compare to the one back in 1914?
Well, it’s still the hardest one. Most of the professionals seem to be in agreement about that. Lance Armstrong, even at his drug-fueled peak, never had much interest in it because it was just too hard. I think he entered the Giro only once. And Bradley Wiggins, who won the Tour de France [in 2012] and has been a gold medalist has said that the Giro is just brutal and that it’s the toughest racing he’s ever done. It’s also the one race where, sadly, people still die. In 2011 [Wouter Weylandt, Belgium] looked over his shoulder going down a hill and ran into a wall and died.

What’s next for you in terms of your cycling adventures?
I just came back from this gigantic ride. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I started at the top of Norway in what was the worst period of the Scandinavian winter on this ridiculous tiny-wheeled East German bike and somehow managed to drag me and this bike [almost six-thousand miles] all the way to Turkey. If I had been doing it on an ordinary bike people would have been impressed. But because I was doing it on a really, really stupid little bike—almost like a kid’s bike—when I would see cyclists and wave at them they wouldn’t even acknowledge me, as if I was an embarrassment to the cycling fraternity.

Every time I do one of these rides I say, “That’s it, never again.” But then somehow I can’t suddenly say I am going to do something less ambitious. So I may actually die [at some point]. At several moments on the [Norway to Turkey] ride I was actually scared that I would freeze to death.

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