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Classic jerseys: No.2 Bianchi

In-depth
16 Oct 2018
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This article was first published in Issue 75 of Cyclist magazine

In May 1911 the third edition of the Giro d’Italia started in Rome.

Bianchi riders had been present in the Giro peloton since the maiden race in 1909, but while Giovanni Rossignoli had picked up a couple of stage wins and third place overall for the outfit in that first race, the best they came away with the following year was three third-place stage finishes and fourth overall.

That came courtesy of Ezio Carlaita, an independent who happened to be riding a Bianchi.

With the cycling scene in Italy booming and lucrative contracts to be won, Bianchi needed to win the Giro to show their worth on a national scale, so for the 1911 season they brought in a proven winner.

Carlo Galetti, a Milanese rider wonderfully nicknamed the ‘Squirrel of the Canals’, had won the Giro in 1910, leading in a 1-2-3 for Bianchi’s rivals Atala. Now he swapped jerseys, bought by Bianchi to bring the win they so coveted.

The 1911 Giro entered the Alps for the first time, climbing to Sestrière in spring snow that reduced many to walking.

Galetti finished second on the stage to take joint leadership of the race with his teammate Rossignoli, before moving ahead the next day.

He held the lead to the finish in Rome, surviving a scare on the penultimate stage en route to Naples when a herd of buffalo charged at the peloton.

Galetti entered history as the first rider to secure back-to-back wins and in so doing gave Bianchi their first major win.

History in the making

The story of the Bianchi team starts in Milan. Born in 1865, Edoardo Bianchi lost his parents early in life. He lived in the Martinitt orphanage and, from the age of eight, worked for a blacksmith.

After moving through different workshops, he established his own business in 1885, making precision tools behind his small bike shop.

Bianchi moved into bike manufacture and was soon at the forefront of bicycle design.

He was one of the first to recognise the benefits of John Boyd Dunlop’s pneumatic tyre and in five years Bianchi twice had to move to larger premises, such was his rate of growth.

He celebrated a decade of being in business with an invitation to the royal villa in Monza to teach Queen Margherita to ride a bike he had designed and made for her.

The result was a royal seal of approval for Bianchi, enhancing the popularity of his machines further still.

Fast forward four years and Bianchi was sponsoring pro riders. In June 1899 Gian Ferdinando Tomaselli rode the Grand Prix de Paris, winning the 2km race in the Vincennes velodrome.

‘The applause and ovations only came to an end when he returned to the riders’ quarters,’ reported the French daily Le Petit Parisien.

Tomaselli returned to Italy 8,000 francs richer while Bianchi celebrated his first professional win as a bike maker.

More wins came courtesy of some of the era’s biggest names, with riders such as the original campionissimo, Costante Girardengo, and Gaetano Belloni picking up major victories in spectacular style.

Girardengo won the 1918 edition of Milan-San Remo by riding away with some 180km still to go, his winning margin over teammate Belloni more than 13 minutes in a display the revered cycling journalist Pierre Chany would later describe as ‘sublime’.

It was particularly sweet for Girardengo, given that he had crossed the line first in the same race three years previously before then being disqualified for not following a diversion through the town of Porto Maurizio, a decision he described as ‘scandalous’.

Best of the best

If Girardengo was the first campionissimo to ride for Bianchi, in the 1940s and 1950s the team would become synonymous with another champion of champions: Fausto Coppi.

In an echo of Girardengo in 1918, Coppi claimed his first major win for Bianchi at the 1946 edition of Milan-San Remo. Just 50km into the race Coppi defied cycling logic by chasing an early break.

By the time he exited the tunnel at the summit of the Turchino Pass he was at the head of the race – alone. More than half the race remained but Coppi was on a mission, increasing his lead with every masterful pedal stroke.

Legend has it that in a cafe crowded with people listening to a radio broadcast of the race a shout went up as Coppi arrived.

Such was his advantage he stopped, grabbed an espresso, paid and went calmly on his way. He won by 14 minutes and the radio commentator had to call for music to be played while he waited for the rest of the riders.

‘He dared and triumphed,’ reported La Stampa the next day. ‘A dazzling victory, which only a great champion, one beyond classification like Coppi, can get.’

Bianchi had developed a reputation for style (Pablo Picasso described his own Bianchi bike as ‘one of the most beautiful and purest sculptures in the history of art’) so Coppi was the perfect figurehead.

He competed with grace and panache and was described by Andre Leducq as riding like ‘a great artist painting a watercolour’.

Coppi claimed four Giro titles, won Milan-San Remo three times, the Tour of Lombardy five times, Paris-Roubaix and the rainbow jersey while with the team.

He also won the Tour de France twice, claiming the Giro/Tour double in 1949 and 1952. His 1949 Giro win came after a famous nine-hour romp over five Alpine passes that destroyed his great rival Gino Bartali.

‘The masterpiece of Coppi’ proclaimed the headlines the next day as the man who became synonymous with Bianchi did his greatest work.

Other great riders to wear the Bianchi jersey include Felice Gimondi, who won the Giro, World Championships, Milan-San Remo and Lombardy with the team.

Marco Pantani, who in 1998 became the last rider to win the Giro/Tour double, did so on a Bianchi.

Today, WorldTour team Lotto-NL Jumbo continue the tradition. The bikes may be very different from the days of Coppi, Gimondi and Pantani, but the famous Celeste colour endures.

• This jersey is part of Paul Van Bommel’s collection of cycling memorabilia, which is on display in the new Bike Experience Centre in Boom, Belgium. For details, visit deschorre.be/develodroom.html

Photography: Danny Bird