Women in the Cycling Community: The Greatest Female Athlete You've Never Heard Of
6 April 2023
By Benjamin Rawsthorne
If you search for any list of the greatest female sportswomen, one name is guaranteed to be absent. Many dedicated fans of her own sport still don’t know her name. The name of a woman who remains, still to this day, the only woman to ever compete in the biggest sporting event in Italy: the Giro d'Italia. This is the story of Alfonsina Strada, her grit and determination in the face of adversity and her contribution to the sport of cycling.
Strada was born into an incredibly poor family in Northern Italy in 1891. As such, Strada’s first encounter with a bicycle came not for exercise or leisure but rather work. The bike was purchased by her father through the trading of a few chickens. Not only was Strada enthralled, she was also incredibly naturally talented. Undeterred by her poor background and cheap bike, Strada taught herself how to ride at the age of 10, before starting to compete in - and win - junior races at 13 years old, defeating fields of all men. At the age of 20, she would break the women’s cycling hour record, setting a distance which would stand for over 20 years.
However, by cycling Strada was defying the expectations and will of her parents. Both of her parents objected to her cycling. This forced Strada to secretly spend time on her bike, sneaking out on Sundays using the lie that she was attending Sunday mass. More significantly, not only was Strada challenging the expectations of her parents but of wider society too. Sport at the time was still a heavily masculine sphere with exercise being seen as ‘unfeminine’. Female participation in professional cycling was completely unheard of.
Despite this, after marrying in 1915, her passion for cycling only intensified. Rather surprisingly, Strada’s husband, Luigi Strada, supported her hobby by buying her a new bicycle and personally training her. Strada began competing nationally against men, partaking in the prestigious Italian cycling race, the Giro di Lombardia in 1917 finishing 32nd. Although Strada was the last finisher, considering the fact that 74 cyclists started the race, the fact that she she even finished was a highly respectable result. She beat the 42 men who failed to even finish. After this relative success, Strada set her sights on not just the biggest bike race but one of the most significant sporting events in Italy: The Giro d’Italia.
Everyone knows the Tour de France. Seen by many as one of the most physically demanding sporting efforts possible, it's 21 consecutive days of cycling over a mixture of gruelling and undulating terrain. Now imagine that but more hectic, unpredictable and difficult. That effectively sums up the Giro D'Italia, the younger, more energetic and charismatic brother of the Tour de France. Making use of the natural landscapes of Italy, the Giro d’Italia is a battle of attrition over some of the most steep and rough terrain the Italian countryside and mountains have to offer. This immense challenge was the obvious next step for Strada, a challenge which up until this point had only ever been attempted by men.
Here the historical narrative becomes slightly unclear. Some reports allege that Strada signed up to the 1924 edition of the race under a male alias, ‘Alfonsin Strada’, sneaking in by pretending to be a man. Other accounts suggest that the organisers of the race actively encouraged Strada’s participation, believing that the publicity she would create would help to stir up a media storm. Regardless of these inconsistencies in the historiography, Strada’s immediate legacy in the race is indisputable. Strada became an instant fan favourite. Immediately recognisable by her black shorts and bobbed hair, fans across Italy turned out to watch this new superstar, giving her the nickname the ‘Devil in the Dress’.
Strada unfortunately wouldn’t officially finish the Giro. Crashes and bicycle mechanicals hampered her progress in the race and despite soldiering on, she was disqualified from the race after failing to finish within the time limit on stage 7. Undeterred by this, Strada carried on ‘unofficially’, reaching the streets of Milan after 3 weeks of intense racing, showcasing an immense display of grit and determination. Despite no longer officially being a participant in the race, Strada received an immense reception from fans upon her arrival in Milan. Strada had become an instant legend in the Italian cycling community.
Sadly, despite this success, stricter gender regulations would mean that Strada would never be allowed to compete in the Giro D’Italia again. Despite this setback she remained active in cycling, following men's races and continuing to ride all the way up to her death in 1959, another example of the determination of this woman in the face of adversity. Still to this day Strada remains the only woman to ever race the Giro. This means that Strada’s (largely untold) legacy in cycling history should forever see her cemented as a trailblazing, non-conforming icon.
So now, next time you read lists and stories of the ‘greatest female sportspeople’, remember this name. Remember the story of how the ‘Devil in the Dress’ broke family and societal expectations to become a trailblazer in the sport of cycling, pushing on despite adversity throughout her entire life and becoming a beloved fan favourite along the way. Remember Alfonsina Strada.
As the story of Alfonsina Strada is largely untold, even more so within the English media, there is not a lot of wider reading. If the story interested you, below are some great biographies. The work from journalists Suzie Clemitson, Robyn Davidson and Paolo Facchinetti respectively all helped to inform my research and are very interesting! For anyone proficient in Italian, there is a wider breadth of Italian literature available through ‘Google Scholar', just search Alfonsina Strada.
Paolo Facchinetti, ‘Gli Anni Ruggenti di Alfonsina Strada’, in La Voca Della Dante, March 2007, https://danteseattle.org/pdf/mar2007.pdf.
Suze Clemitson, ‘Celebrating Alfonsina Strada, the woman who cycle the Giro d’Italia’, The Guardian Online, May 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/100-tours-100-tales/2014/may/12/alfonsina-strada-giro-italia-woman-grand-tour.
Robyn Davidson, ‘An ode to Alfonsina Strada: The only woman to race the Giro d’Italia, Cyclist, May 2022, https://www.cyclist.co.uk/news/an-ode-to-alfonsina-strada-the-only-woman-to-race-the-giro-d-italia.