A century has passed since the feats of Costante Girardengo, Italy’s first cycling champion. It may be hard to believe but in actual fact it was a beautiful song by the great singer-songwriter Francesco De Gregori that made him and his feats known to the new generations. The refrain of the song entitled Il bandito e il campione (“The Bandit and The Champion”) (1993), which pays homage to the legend from Novi Ligure, was inspired by the strange friendship with fellow citizen and outlaw Sante Pollastri (a true story, albeit somewhat romanticised over the decades).
“Vai, Girardengo, vai grande campione / nessuno ti segue su quello stradone! / Vai Girardengo, non si vede più Sante / è sempre più lontano, è sempre più distante!”* has become part of the literature of Italian songs and amusingly recalls one of the characteristics of the Piedmontese cyclist, that is his ability to get away leaving everyone behind that made him become the quintessential king of road racing.
Only Merckx did better
Turning professional at just 19 years of age – he was born in 1893 – Girardengo was short in height (hence his nickname “The Novi Runt”), but huge in talent. The list of successes was impressive: two victories at the Giro d’Italia, six wins at the Milan-Sanremo (a record beaten only 50 years later by the legend Eddy Merckx) and three at the Giro di Lombardia. He was also the Italian road racing champion on nine occasions, another incredible record.
His adventures across national borders were less fortunate and his best result was second place in the first official World cycling championship, where he was beaten by another great Italian champion Alfredo Binda. It is also true that the First World War and the terrible Spanish influenza certainly took away some of his chances.
A terrible mistake
Girardengo crossed paths with Bianchi-Pirelli the year after the team’s début, with two stage victories, in team with Giuseppe Azzini. In 1915, the champion from Novi Ligure was in great shape and prevailed at the Milan-Sanremo, which was to be the last race before the suspension of racing due to WWI, but, incredibly, he was disqualified for not following the route set by the organisers.
This happened in the pioneering era when it could take the leading cyclists 10-11 hours to cover the expected 290 km as opposed to the 7 hours it took during the editions of the last few decades. He redeemed himself, prevailing for the second time in the Milan-Turin, which was a more suitable race for a sprinter like him.
Finally, the victory
That Milan-Sanremo race was stuck in Girardengo’s mind so he went back to regular training and competed in the race again in 1917. He was beaten only by fellow team-mate Tano Belloni but he earned the great satisfaction of beating the Italian speed record touching 41.032 kilometres per hour at the Sempione Velodrome.
The decisive moment came in the spring of 1918. The Classicissima - “Most Classic” - took place on 14th April. Of the 33 starters, only seven cut the finish line to confirm just how hard the race was. It was a battle within the Bianchi-Pirelli team and it was no chance that only men wearing white-sky blue jerseys were on the podium in Sanremo. At last, Costante Girardengo had won the Milan-Sanremo, crossing the finish line a good 13 minutes ahead of his great rival Belloni and with a 59 minute lead on Ugo Agostoni, who came third. This was the real start of the career of one of the legends of cycling.
* “Go, Girardengo, go you great champion / no-one is following you down that street! / Go Girardengo, Sante is nowhere to be seen / he is further and further away, he is at an increasing distance!”