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Classic jerseys: No.7 Atala

In-depth
9 Jan 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 80 of Cyclist magazine

Words Giles Belbin Photography Danny Bird

On page two of its 5th April 1909 edition, French sports paper L’Auto published an advert for Dunlop tyres. ‘The 1909 season,’ it read.

‘The first major race, the first major success. Milan-San Remo (289km) First: Ganna. On Dunlop tyres.’

L’Auto had a penchant for talking up French manufacturers, and the following day ran a front-page story under the headline ‘The Lions at Milan-San Remo’ that detailed the ‘courage’ of the Peugeot-riding men who had ‘defended our colours’.

What neither the advert nor the report chose to mention was that Luigi Ganna had crafted his Milan-San Remo win riding a bike made by the Italian company for which he rode: Atala.

Atala had been founded by Angelo Gatti in Milan the previous year. Gatti had been the commercial manager at Bianchi but, when Edoardo Bianchi brought two-time national sprint champion Gian Fernando Tomaselli into a senior position within the company, Gatti left to establish a rival firm, feeling promises made to him by Tomaselli had not been delivered on.

Naming his company after his mother, Gatti immediately formed a team to carry the Atala name onto the roads of Italy, attracting high-calibre riders Carlo Galetti and Eberardo Pavesi to ride alongside Ganna.

While Galetti had won three stages and the overall at the 1908 Giro di Sicilia, Ganna’s 1909 Milan-San Remo title was the team’s first major victory.

Ganna had trained for months with the race specifically in mind. In terrible weather, at the foot of the Turchino pass, he took advantage of a new rule that permitted bike changes and swapped his machine for one with more favourable gearing.

Indeed, in his book The Monuments, Peter Cossins writes that Atala had placed no fewer than 15 spare bikes along the route in case Ganna experienced trouble on roads that were so poor the 1905 Tour de France winner, Louis Trousselier, opted to sit the race out, worried that a crash would affect his chances at Paris-Roubaix later that month.

Even with all his preparation, Ganna undoubtedly benefitted from the ill fortune of French favourite Émile Georget who, according to L’Auto, was at the head of the race with a lead of one minute with 20km to go.

But after suffering three punctures en route to San Remo and losing more time after riding off course, Georget was eventually passed by Ganna, who went on to finish alone in front of a delirious crowd, the first Italian to win La Primavera.

Gatti, Ganna and the Giro

In August 1908, having just founded Atala, Gatti walked into the offices of La Gazzetta dello Sport and told his journalist friend Tullo Morgagni that he believed Bianchi and the newspaper Il Corriere della Sera were working on plans for a national tour of Italy.

Gatti wanted to help La Gazzetta steal a march on its rival, as well as put one over his former bosses.

Two days later, and with precious little in the way of any actual planning, La Gazzetta ran a front page splash that announced that the first Giro d’Italia – ‘one of the biggest, most ambitious races in international cycling’ – would be held the following spring.

Among the teams that lined up in Milan eight months on from that famous front page were Atala, with Ganna fresh from his San Remo win.

His race started poorly as he was brought down before he had even left Milan in a pile-up after a child walked into the road.

Ganna remounted and rolled into Bologna 397km and 14 hours later in fourth place.

With the 1909 Giro run on a points (not time) system the result kept him well placed, and 17 days later he returned to Milan as the winner of the inaugural Giro.

When asked how he felt, Ganna famously replied, ‘My arse is on fire!’

In the first edition of what would become Italy’s most important race, Gatti’s team had triumphed over Bianchi, whose best-placed finisher, Giovanni Rossignoli, came home in third place – although if the race had been run on elapsed time Rossignoli would have won.

Twelve months on and Atala repeated their Giro win, this time securing all three podium positions, with Carlo Galetti on the top step despite colliding with a horse and cart (and being dragged under it) on the final stage.

Galetti eventually got back onto his damaged bike and rode into Milan with his face bandaged.

Atala would take their third and final Giro win two years later when the race was held as a team event, their expensively assembled four-man squad led home by Galetti, who had returned to the team after spending 1911 winning the Giro for arch rivals Bianchi.

Stars in stripes

Atala maintained a sporadic presence in the peloton over the decades that followed, exchanging long periods of sponsorship (1948-1962; 1982-1989) with years of absence (1963-1981).

Notable riders to have won in the jersey of Atala include Gianni Bugno, who turned pro with the team in August 1985 and picked up a number of good wins, including the Giro di Piemonte, before he left for pastures new that saw him claim two rainbow jerseys and a Giro before retiring in 1998.

Another of Atala’s stars was Urs Freuler, a multiple track world champion who spent six seasons on the road, racking up multiple Giro stage wins.

Then there was Vito Taccone, who claimed the 1961 Tour of Lombardy in his debut pro season, surviving the infamous climb of the Muro di Sormano (1.7km at 17% average with 25% spikes) and winning by three seconds in Como’s Sinigaglia velodome.

Atala finally left the pro ranks in 1989. Marco Vitali collected the team’s final win, claiming Stage 2 at the GP Conegliano.