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Tales from the peloton, May 12, 2009
Alfredo Binda: The Giro's first superstar
Alfredo Binda was the first multiple Giro d'Italia champion, securing five victories between 1925 and 1933 that redefined the way stage races were ridden. As the Giro celebrates its centenary edition Cyclingnews' Les Clarke takes a look at Binda's impressive record of overall triumphs that wasn't broken for 20 years.
Handsome, rugged and talented, Alfredo Binda was undoubtedly the first superstar of the Giro d'Italia. A popular rider, Binda essentially became the archetypal modern stage racer way before his time. The legacy he left cycling with was his ability to combine the strength of a one-day Classics rider with an incredible climbing prowess.
Three road world championship titles, five Giro wins, two Milan-Sanremo crowns and four Giro di Lombardia victories all indicate the immense capabilities Binda possessed. His record of overall Giro titles wasn't beaten until another legendary Italian rider, Fausto Coppi, took his fifth title in 1953.
It was Binda's climbing ability that netted him 41 Giro stage wins, a record eclipsed only by Mario Cipollini in Montecatini during the 2003 edition of the Giro. It was ironic that a sprinter achieved that feat, although Cipo's joy in breaking the record is testament to the esteem in which all of Italy's generations of professional cyclists hold Binda.
"I never thought I could break (Binda's) record. I'm a champion in the sprint and I can't be compared with champions like Merckx and Binda... but at 36 years old I tried to do my best," said an emotional Cipollini on May 19, 2003. It's apt that 'Super Mario' was the man to break the mark - both men were mercurial professionals, able to charm the Italian public both on and off the bike.
Binda was born in Cittiglio, Varese, seven years before the first Giro d'Italia was held. Just 23 years later he would become the race's 13th champion; the 1925 Giro was the first of his five titles over a 12-year period. The dominant nature of his career gave rise to an interesting anecdote that was as unprecedented as his amazing 1927 Giro victory.
Directors of Gazetta Dello Sport, in their capacity as Giro d'Italia organisers, offered him money not to race the 1930 edition. His commanding performances had led to a drop in the public's interest, and with Italy's Grand Tour still a relatively new event, its immediate future may have been at stake.
A cash payment of 22,000 lira - a very princely sum in those days - ensured that Binda stayed away from the 1930 edition of the Giro. Can you imagine Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) telling Lance Armstrong not to ride the Tour de France after he had won his fourth title? It's another chapter in what was an amazing story for one of Italy's favourite cycling sons.
He was back to his finest in the 1933 race, taking his fifth and final Giro title. The benchmark has only been equalled by two other riders - Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi - two of the all-time greats that sit with Binda in the highest branches of the cycling tree.
Binda died on July 19, 1986 and the Cittiglio native is still revered amongst Italian cycling fans. He has a high-profile race, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, held in his hometown, a distinct sign of respect for riders who have made a significant impact on the sport in Italy.
1925 - Numero uno
Given the limited technological developments in the sport, and the nature of the parcours, the 1925 Giro d'Italia was a race of attrition like few others. With 126 riders making the start in Milan and only 39 finishing in the same city on June 7, just surviving the 12-stage, 3,613km journey was an achievement.
Binda managed it in 137 hours 31 minutes and 13 seconds. The gap of 4:58 to runner up Costante Girardengo was relatively small considering the race circumstances, although there was in excess of two-and-a-half hours separating first and 10th place.
1927 - The biggest
Having finished second in 1926, Binda's 1927 Giro performance can be summarised in two words: utterly dominant. He made it to the finish in Milan with an advantage of 27:24 after 3,758km of racing. After taking out the opening 288km stage from Milan to Turin, Binda led the race from start to finish in a display that was unprecedented.
His feat that year has never been repeated since. It's unlikely that it ever will.
With the shortest stage measuring 153km and the average stage length a whopping 250km it was another incredibly tough race. Of the 266 starters, 80 finished on June 6 for an even greater attrition rate than the 1925 edition. The 1926 winner Giovanni Brunero finished as runner up to Binda, although it was nearing the end of Brunero's peak and Binda was rapidly becoming the nation's finest rider. His Giro performance exemplified this perfectly.
1928 - Equalling the best
Binda's main rival until the 1928 Giro, Giovanni Brunero, had secured his third Giro d'Italia crown in 1926. Just two years later Binda had equalled the achievement in a style not seen by cycling fans before.
In a manner similar to his 1927 victory, Binda took the race lead on the fourth of 12 stages and held it to the finish in Milan. In the process he managed to secure seven stage victories and rode in the commanding style fans were becoming accustomed to seeing from the 26-year-old.
A new rival emerged for Binda during the 1928 Giro - Domenico Piemontesi. He took the first maglia rosa and five stages, but didn't make it into the top 10 when the race finished. Much in the style of the Merckx-Poulidor battles that took place several decades later, Binda overshadowed Piemontesi's immense talent and he never shone as brightly in another Giro as he did in the 1928 edition.
1929 - Time for a new record
Again it was a Binda - Piemontesi showdown, and this time the underdog came close to upsetting the favourite and three-time champion. A gap of only 3:44 overall when the race finished in Milan displayed Piemontesi's improved consistency, despite only winning one stage in Parma.
Like the great champions he would inspire to success in the years to come, Binda managed to overcome the challenge offered by his closest rival to win eight stages and again hold onto the maglia rosa from stage four in Potenza to Milan on June 9.
With his victory came Binda's place amongst the immortals of the sport, something that has endured until the present day. He wasn't finished yet, however, although backroom deals done with Giro organisers (see above) meant he didn't return to defend his title the following year.
1933 - Bellissimo
A seventh place in the 1932 edition of the Giro was no way for Binda to end his participations in Italy's grandest race. He was back to the pointy end of proceedings in 1933 and up against Domenico Piemontesi once more.
Proving how irrepressible his talent was and what an insurmountable task it was to beat him, Binda overcame Belgian Joseph Demuysere by 12:34 in Milan. Piemontesi took another podium back in third.
Although the stage lengths began to look more like those of modern Grand Tours, eight of the 17 days in the saddle lasted longer than 200km. Binda took the final monster stage of 284km from Bolzano to Milan, adding that to his wins in the second, eighth, ninth, 10th and 13th stages.
It was another amazing performance from a man who dominated the Giro nearly every time he rode it. Binda would be considered in his prime by modern standards when he retired at the age of 31, although with his status as a legend of the sport confirmed he could end his career on a definite high.
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Images by AFP Photo