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    By the summer of 1918 the war had all but run its course. Now a wave of triumphalism enveloped the peninsula as Italians looked forward, more than ever, to the 20 September commemoration.

    Rapha Mondial: Carlo Galetti and The Taking of Rome

    Why Milano-Roma? The luminary Herbie Sykes takes us for a ride through history, deftly rendering an extraordinary race both long-lost and short-lived.

    By the summer of 1918 the war had all but run its course. Now a wave of triumphalism enveloped the peninsula as Italians looked forward, more than ever, to the 20 September commemoration.

    On the same day in 1870 their forces had finally taken Rome from the Papal States, completing the great risorgimento. Italy – all of it – had finally been unified, and the Eternal City became its capital. Milan, however, remained the country’s economic powerhouse. It was also its sporting command post, and organised sporting events were more popular than ever. A group of English expats had introduced “Foot-ball” to Liguria, Piedmont and Lombardy, but nothing was nothing faster or more exhilarating than bicycle racing. The track version, inherently better as a spectator sport, had initially been the more popular. Then, however, road race organisers began to introduce mind-boggling distances, and the burgeoning newspaper industry gleefully reported the details.

    "Many of Italy’s cyclists had been conscripted to the Bersaglieri, the cycling regiments. They’d ridden folding bikes which, fully loaded, had weighed in at 30 kilograms, but many hadn’t come home from the front."

    The north had higher literacy rates, but also more money and better roads on which to cycle. As such events like Milan-Sanremo and the Tours of Lombardy and Piedmont started to wrench the public’s attention, and as bike ownership boomed, more people identified with the racers. The Giro d’Italia in particular made heroes of its constituents, and the bosses of the Gazzetta dello Sport were resolved to reprise it the following spring. For now though, they hatched a plan for a truly delicious antipasto.

    Many of Italy’s cyclists had been conscripted to the Bersaglieri, the cycling regiments. They’d ridden folding bikes which, fully loaded, had weighed in at 30 kilograms, but many hadn’t come home from the front. One such was 29-year-old Carlo Oriani, winner of the 1913 Giro. It was reported he’d contracted pneumonia in attempting to rescue a stricken comrade from Tagliamento River during the retreat from Caporetto, though as likely as not he’d been gassed. There was no propaganda value in that, however, and nobody needed to know the horrific details. Italy had need of glorious martyrs, for dulce et decorum est

    The Bersaglieri who had survived the bloodletting would reconvene in Milan before, pregnant with victorious metaphor, undertaking a victory march of their own. It would take the form of a two-stage race, from Milan to urbane, scholarly Bologna, and on to Rome. First they’d head east across Emilia’s fertile plains, then thunder to a bunch sprint before a huge Romagnolo crowd at the hippodrome. They’d rest a while there, before departing on a biblical 453 kilometre south-westerly hike over the spine of the Bel Paese. By light of the moon they’d traverse the mighty Apennine Ridge over the giant passes Futa and Raticosa, then barrel south through Tuscany’s majestic sweep. The leaders would gorge themselves in Florence around midnight, and then charge through verdant, dreamy Umbria. Next to the arid late-summer heat of Lazio, their odyssey all but complete. Finally, gloriously and symbolically, they’d gallop into the Capital’s great stadium. There they’d abandon themselves to a rapturous public, and to the biggest party in years.

    A literal and figurative homecoming then, and the 51 starters constituted a stellar cast. There was Lauro Bordin, he of the insane (and ultimately futile) 380 kilometre lone breakaway at the last pre-war Giro. The little Bolognese Alfonso Calzolari, winner of that very Giro, would be tooth-and-nail with his sworn enemy. Considered opinion had it that Ezio Corlaita had paid a mystic to curse Calzolari, but it hadn’t worked. Notwithstanding Corlaita’s dark arts, Calzolari had averaged just shy of 16 hours per stage to complete his masterpiece.

    "As endurance athletes they imbibed all manner of performance enhancing eccitanti, including calf’s blood and industrial quantities of strychnine."

    A Torinese newcomer named Bartolomeo Aimo was also there. He’d been a driver during the war, and one of his passengers had been an American journalist, a bike racing enthusiast named Ernest Hemingway. Aimo couldn’t have known it, but ten years later he’d be immortalized in “A Farewell to Arms”. The group mascot was 17-year-old Maurizo Garrino, the novelty Alfonsina Strada, a Bolognese housewife with the constitution of a rhino’. The favourite was the truculent, preening national champion, Costante Girardengo.

    The biggest cheer, however, was reserved for a prodigal son of Italian cycling. Carlo “The Squirrel” Galetti, winner of the 1910, ’11 and ’12 Giri, had been a ferocious bike rider and a natural-born scrapper. The Press had much preferred his rival, Luigi “The King of the Mud” Ganna, and had liked to portray Galetti as a wheel-sucker. The Squirrel, however, wasn’t about to be pushed around by a bunch of feckless pen-pushers. Rather he took his winnings, bought some printing presses of his own and set about setting the record straight. He published Italy’s first ever sports “biography”, its subject the great cyclist Carlo Galetti. That taken care of, he retired to the equanimity and sanity of life in the Milanese business community.

    Galetti was 36 now, but he’d never quite managed to scratch the itch. Thus, when he’d heard about Milan-Rome, he’d resolved to take up the cudgels once more. Necessity being the mother of virtue, the press reinvented his persona. Galetti, they gushed, was the perfect metaphor. Twas ever thus.

    The solitary straniero, the Frenchman Marcel Godivier, outsprinted Girardengo to win in Bologna. Gira’ told anyone who’d listen he’d have his pound of flesh, because Godivier couldn’t and wouldn’t survive for 450 kilometres, and 20 up-hill-and-down-dale hours. Girardengo was already a master tactician and, like all the best bike riders, a competent pharmacist. As endurance athletes they imbibed all manner of performance enhancing eccitanti, including calf’s blood and industrial quantities of strychnine.

    The most popular, the absolute nectar, was cognac. Its judicious deployment was a major determinant in the outcome of the races, but here Godivier in particular made a mess of it. He was a long way from Rome when he gulped down his last drop in readiness for the fearsome climb at Otricoli. Coming over not a little queasy, he began a spectacular zigzag before collapsing, theatrically and definitively, on the side of the road. Au revoir Godivier… No such trouble for the mighty Carlo Galetti. Rolling back the years, he pulverized the field into the dry dust of the strade bianche. When the last of them buckled some 75 kilometres from the finish, he began his victory march in earnest.

    The rest is history, the stuff cycling dreams were made of in 1918, and in truth still are 100 years on. Just before 4 o’clock this warm September afternoon, a returning hero barreled into Rome amidst scenes of utter pandemonium. The war was over, and the mother of all parties had its start.

    Carlo Galetti – what a guy. What a guy, and what a bike race.

    The Milano-Roma Collection

    You’ve read the story, now celebrate the best bike race you'd never heard of with our beautiful special collection, inspired by the race itself and the prevailing art movements of the time – futurism and cubism.

    Milano-Roma Jersey with Arm Warmers

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    Milano-Roma Merino Wool Track Top

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    Milano-Roma Merino Wool Roll Neck

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    Milano- Roma Embroidered Merino T-Shirt

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    MILANO-ROMA SILK SCARF

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    MILANO-ROMA ESSENTIALS CASE

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    MILANO- ROMA PRINTED MERINO T-SHIRT

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    MILANO-ROMA CLASSIC CAP

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