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The fascinating history of the maglia rosa

3 May 2022

Ahead of the 2022 Giro d'Italia we unravel the story of Italy’s most famous jersey – from fascist dictators to superstitious journalists

Words: Giles Belbin Photography: Danny Bird

On Friday 21st May 1971, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera ran a picture of the Salvarani team standing proudly on a staircase in their Brindisi hotel, after the team rode to victory on the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia the previous day.

As team photos go it was typically awkward but unremarkable, yet a second look reveals something strange: instead of Salvarani’s usual baby blue jerseys, all 10 men were wearing pink.

Pinker than ever

Starting in Lecce and finishing 62km later in Brindisi, the first day of racing in 1971 had been a stage with a difference. Vincenzo Torriani, the director of the Giro since the late 1940s, and who would continue in the post until 1992, had hit on an innovative idea.

Rather than a regular prologue or a routine team time-trial, the 1971 race would start with a team relay, with a single rider from each team starting at two-minute intervals.

‘Each rider rode for 6km with a baton,’ the former Salvarani rider Pietro Guerra told author Herbie Sykes for his Giro 100 book. ‘Then he passed the baton to the next guy, and so on and so forth. It was just like an athletics relay, but on bikes, and as a time-trial.’

Salvarani’s effort was led by Felice Gimondi, who took the opening leg over Herman van Springel by three seconds, a margin that each Salvarani rider would preserve to the end.

Thus while the recorded times didn’t count towards the overall classification, the result meant that every Salvarani rider got to wear pink the following day.

So it was that the race’s first stage proper saw no fewer than 10 pink jersey-wearing riders on the road. ‘They are already happy – for a day – not just the “old” champions who have conquered the pink jersey in the past like Gimondi… but also the wingmen who would never have hoped to wear the jersey,’ reported the Corriere della Sera. ‘Their dream came true thanks to the original formula of this time-trial.’

‘I guess it was a nice idea,’ Guerra reflected more than 40 years later. ‘The public seemed to enjoy it.’ Yet Salvarani’s success at the 1971 Giro was short-lived.

Molteni’s Marino Basso took over the maglia rosa the next day, and no Salvarani rider would wear pink again that year, with Sweden’s Gösta Pettersson of Ferretti winning the GC.

Why is the maglia rosa pink?

The pink jersey was introduced for the leader of the race by the Giro organisation in 1931, finally following in the wake of the Tour de France, where leaders had worn yellow since 1919.

However, here was a complication for Armando Cougnet and Emilio Colombo (director of the Giro and the organising newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, respectively), which the Tour didn’t have.

Tour director Henri Desgrange and his sponsoring newspaper, L’Auto, were free to choose for their race, but to instigate a jersey colour change at the Giro, Cougnet and Colombo needed the approval of the State – one Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party.

Despite Mussolini reportedly being unimpressed with the ‘effeminate’ colour of the jersey, La Gazzetta had been printed on pink paper since 1899 so a pink jersey was really the only choice.

Il Duce eventually relented, provided the jersey also carried the symbol of fascism. And so it was that the Giro’s first pink jersey included front-centre an image of the fasces – a bundle of wooden rods bound together around an axe.

The pink curse?

The first rider to wear the jersey was Italy’s national champion, Learco Guerra, who was one of the favourites for the overall win thanks to a suspiciously flat route that played to his strengths. He duly won the opening sprint into Mantua, beating the then four-time champion Alfredo Binda.

Guerra was now obliged to swap his national champion’s jersey for that of the Giro’s, and not everyone was impressed. ‘It is pale pink in colour, like a woman’s garment!’ reported La Stampa. ‘Dressed with the tricolore, Guerra is more masculine: how to say it... more of a flag for Italian cycling.’

But female underwear or not, two days later Guerra lost the jersey to Binda after bonking, and he finished the stage in tears.

At the time Binda was regarded as the best rider in the world, so good that the previous year Giro organisers had paid him to stay away from the race for fear of his dominance, and five stages in those fears seemed well-founded.

But in the sixth Binda crashed heavily, and though he struggled to the line he was later forced to abandon. Guerra won the next two stages and was back in prime position, the Italian fans overjoyed.

Yet that joy would prove catastrophic as a large group celebrated by running alongside the pink jersey-wearing Guerra during the stage to Genoa, only for one to fall and bring down the Italian champion.

Guerra’s race was over. The combined fates of Binda and Guerra, both crashing out of the race while in pink, led to mass speculation that the jersey was cursed.

It was left to relative newcomer Francesco Camusso to save the 1931 race and rescue the jersey from a cloud of superstition. A storming ride over Sestrière and into Turin – including a deftly timed rear sprocket change – saw the 23-year-old outwit his rivals to take the race lead. By Milan, Camusso’s win was being applauded warmly.

‘Camusso has always been among the first on the climbs, among the quickest and most effective in escape attempts and pursuits,’ was the verdict of the Corriere della Sera. ‘Today, with sincere joy, we salute the success of a young man,’ wrote Vittorio Varale in La Stampa.

Today, tales of such remarkable exploits in pursuit of pink are legion. Fausto Coppi embarking on a five mountain-pass masterclass in 1949 to turn a 43-second deficit into a 23-minute lead; Andy Hampsten surviving the freezing Gavia in 1988 to claim the jersey on ‘the day the big men cried’.

Or Chris Froome’s daring dash over the Colle delle Finestre to turn fourth into first in 2018 – the list goes on. But what unites each Giro d’Italia edition, each act of derring-do, is one man’s unrelenting desire to be seen in pink.

The jersey featured here was supplied by Prendas Ciclismo, which offers a range of vintage-style kit.

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