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Il Diavolo Rosso
Italy was, after France, the second nation to truly embrace cycle racing and in doing so, help define the sport throughout the 20th century. In fact, according to some, the sport’s first true professional was a racer from the northern Italian town of Asti. And it was this man, Giovanni Gerbi, who won the first ever edition of the Tour of Lombardy, in 1905. Originally named Milan-Milan and run over a distance of 230km, in its formative years it became known as the ‘World Championship of Autumn’.
“Fifty-five took part as Gerbi triumphed following a 199km lone breakaway. His average speed, a shade under 25kph, left Italians awestruck…”
– From Maglia Rosa by Herbie Sykes
Gerbi was certainly the stuff of legend. A notoriously explosive character, he rode to numerous victories at dynamite pace and wearing his trademark blood-red jersey, reminiscent of the vino rosso for which his native Piedmont region was famed. In 1903, he won Milan-Turin by more than half an hour and in 1904 became the first Italian to race at the newly established Tour de France.
As a child Gerbi was expelled from school for pugilistic tendencies. His father bestowed upon him the gift of a bicycle, which proved the perfect way to channel the young brute’s aggression. He was dubbed Il Diavolo Rosso, the Red Devil, in part due to the colour of his jerseys, but also thanks to the devilish streak he displayed throughout his professional career.
Folklore has it that, in 1906, he tied up a signalman at a level crossing after he broke away on the second edition of the by now renamed Giro di Lombardia. With his rivals forced to take a detour, the Red Devil cruised to victory, allegedly rubbing his hands with glee like a silent-movie nasty.
When his misdemeanour was uncovered he was banned for two years. His fans became enraged. Gerbi’s huge appeal had contributed to a surge in sales of the Gazzetta dello Sport which, spreading like Gerbi's evil grin, topped 100,000 copies at the peak of his popularity. Aware of his great publicity value the race organizers duly reduced his ban. If the incident produced cycling's first supervillain, it also helped establish the Giro di Lombardia as one of the sport’s legendary one-day races.
The 106th Giro di Lombardia takes place tomorrow, Saturday 29th September.
Rapha's special edition Lombardia Jersey is still available in some sizes »
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