(Note to RSS/feed subscribers: many of my posts are written as “excerpts,” and as such, some feed aggregators do not display all the text and photos. I would encourage you to link directly to The Virtual Musette for the complete article.)
For those readers who may be joining this group of articles midstream, each one has been written so that it may be read independently of the others. This entire series (…Eras, Parts 1-4) is part of a larger work in progress, The Team Chef’s Top 25 Cyclists of the Modern Era.
Differences between the Heroic Era Tour de France and Giro d’Italia
Up to this point, I have been reviewing the major differences between the two main cycling eras, the Heroic (Pre 1938) and the Modern (1938-present). I’ve attempted to illustrate that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to compare great champions who competed in these different time periods. That said, given the differences between the Tour and Giro during the earlier time period, does it even make sense to compare Heroic Era Grand Tour champions?
Alfredo Binda (photo left and right) was perhaps the greatest champion of the Heroic Era. He won the Giro d’Italia five times (’25, ’27-’29, and ’33), which is record he shares with two other cycling immortals, Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx. En route to these five Giro victories, he captured 41 of its stages - a record which stood for 70 years, finally broken in 2003 when Mario Cipollini won his 42nd Giro stage (his last in the race). Binda was also World Champion three times (a record he shares with Rik van Steenbergen, Merckx, and Oscar Freire), was four times winner of the Tour of Lombardy, and twice winner of Milan-San Remo. Yet, despite these remarkable achievements, he never won the Tour de France. He did enter the race, but only once in 1930. Binda had to pull out of that Tour after falling far out of contention, the victim of crashes on two different stages.
In addition to Binda, other successful Italians from his era did attempt to win the Tour de France. Francesco Camusso, Antonio Pesenti and most notably Learco Guerra (photo left), had all won the Giro d’Italia. They did have some success in the Tour (all of them placed), but none managed to make it to the top step of the podium in France.
Consider the multiple Tour de France winners from Binda’s time: Ottavio Bottechia (’24 and ’25), Nicolas Frantz (’27 and ’28), Andre Leducq (’30 and ’32), and Antonin Magne (’31 and ’34) – none of these two-time Tour winners ever stood on the podium the Giro. In the final analysis, how can we possibly determine the best Grand Tour cyclist of this period? Was it one of the multiple Tour champions, or Binda?
All told, we are left to wonder if the Grand Tours were once so dissimilar that just maybe it was too difficult for one cyclist to win both. Perhaps Binda came to this conclusion after his misfortune at the 1930 Tour. As discussed in Part 1, it was certainly a chore traveling back in those days, but that still doesn’t entirely explain why no one was able to tame both Grand Tours. Whatever the reasons, there can be no doubt that it was much harder to win both the Tour and the Giro during the Heroic Era.
By the end of ’30s the Tour de France organizers were coming under pressure to modernize the race. Many of the onerous rules established by Henri Desgrange were viewed as antiquated, and were finally abolished. Finally, as the two Grand Tours shared more common ground, someone was able to master both. In 1938 Gino Bartali (photo right) made history when he won the Tour de France, having already claimed the Giro d’Italia in 1936 and 1937 (it’s even possible he might have won both races in 1937, had he not crashed while wearing the yellow jersey in his first Tour attempt).
Henri Desgrange died in 1940, and with the passing of the Tour de France’s founding father, the final page had been turned on cycling’s first great era. When the Grand Tours resumed after WWII another 13 14 cyclists would eventually go on to conquer both the Giro and the Tour de France, seven of them even managing to win both races in the same year (most recently accomplished by Marco Pantani in 1998). Many of these Tour/Giro champions will make an appearance on the upcoming Top 25 Cyclists of the Modern Era. Stay tuned…
This series will be concluded with Comparing Cycling’s Great Eras, Part 4