Bicycle has often been considered a "suspicious" or even subversive means of transport, and has been for a long time the subject of bans. Indeed, this vehicle, invented in 1817 and, in its current version in 1884, was at the beginning a chic, expensive, and therefore elitist, vehicle reserved for the upper class who used it for leisure.
In Italy, the first velocipedes appeared in 1860, ridden by extravagant nobles and upper class riders who aroused the curiosity and fear of passers-by. (Fontana)
In 1869 the mayor of Milan absolutely banned "the use of velocipedes in the whole area of the city enclosed within the circle of the Navigli" since "the circulation of velocipedes can be dangerous to the people who use them, as to the public". In addition to the security reasons, other mayors explained the prohibitions with the fact that the "machine is frightening, even from a distance". (Pivato, 1992)
The velocipede was not accessible to the lower classes who didn't have time to spend for amusements, not to mention that the purchase price of an Adler, Neumann, Swift, (Italo Svevo's favourite) or Prinetti Stucchi bycicle was equal to one year's wage of a worker, and that there was also a tax to pay for it, to get a seal to be fixed to the frame by a metal ring, the lack of which caused sanctions. (Lombroso) At the beginning the tax was municipal, the amount was 12 liras in Milan, and 6 in Rome; then in 1897 the Chamber of Deputies approved a law that established a tax of 10 liras for one-rider bicycles and 15 lire for two-riders ones, equivalent to the current tax for a medium-sized car.
The government at lenght promised the abolition of this tax. Antonio Vicini, a member of parliament from Modena, who at the time belonged to the extreme left, said to the Chamber of Deputies in the session of December 14, 1907: there is no reason that for an object that costs 90 or 100 liras you have to pay, as in Italy, a tax that represents a real loan-sharking. (Tarantini) In 1909, the Parliament reduced the tax to 6 liras, especially under pressure from the Touring Club, which this way foresaw a greater diffusion of the bicycle. (Pivato, 1992)
Mocking the bike tax, Lorenzo Stecchetti (Olindo Guerrini, 1845-1916) wrote "It will not be long that by the sovereign will you'll have a meter between your knees and a tax disk on your butt." (Pivato, 1992)
The popular and revolutionary
political forces at the beginning were strongly hostile to this
vehicle, and even more to cycling
sport. On June 23rd, 1894, the writer Alfredo
Oriani, author, among other works, of the 1902 book "Bicicletta"
("Bicycle"), inspired on his trip from Romagna
to Tuscany with a fixed-wheel Bremiamburg, and of the work on
the bicycle "Sul pedale" ("On the Pedal",
Italian), took part in Faenza at a demonstration against the
Mayor's ordinance of June 6th, forbidding "velocipedists"
to enter the city by bicycle. The seventy cyclists were welcomed
by Faenza citizens with hostile cries and hisses and were able
to leave the city only late in the night, escorted by light cavalrymen
In Touring clubs, the bicycle became a tool for tourism, which could fulfil the desire of bourgeois and popular classes to take part in leisure (Pivato, 1992). On November 8th, 1894, the Touring Club Ciclistico Italiano was founded in Milan, which since 1900 will be called Touring Club Italiano, born to protect cyclists which were not members of any sports club. Although the club was apolitical, according its statute, it supported nationalist territorial claims, with "patriotic trips" in areas of Italian culture, but belonging to other states, such as Nice, Savoy, Canton Ticino, Trentino, South Tyrol, the Karst and Trieste (Sbetti).
Irredentist cycling circles, claiming to redeem Friuli Venezia Giulia, Trentino, Istria and Dalmatia from the the Austro-Hungarian rule, were widespread in those areas, and organised trips in which they crossed towns, where they were welcomed by the population with patriotic songs, with great concern of the Austro-Hungarian authorities. Also the choice of bicycles had a patriotic motivation, preferring the Italian Bianchi, Gerbi or Panzera to the Austro-German Adler, Pearl or Waffenrad (Pivato, 1992).
Queen Margherita was the first member of the royal house to become a member of Italian Touring Club, and she loved to ride on the avenues of the Royal Villa of Monza on her steel-made Bianchi bicycle. Margherita had learned to ride a bike by Edoardo Bianchi, the founder of the bicycle manufacturing company. The example of the queen involved many aristocratic ladies of her court (Gori).
In Rimini in 1896 a political debate began about the trouble and the accidents caused by the velocipedists, and it was also proposed to establish a license, to be obtained by passing a qualifying examination, before a commission appointed by the mayor "to prevent non-experts from circulating in the streets", then replaced by an affidavit. The administrative council of the province, however, considered the imposition of a road tax to be illegal. (Pivato, 1992).
In those years a tourist
guide by the Italian Touring Club warned cyclists to avoid passing
through Emilia Romagna, and in particular Imola, in the province
of Bologna and Faenza, in the province of Ravenna, not to undergo
hooliganism, being cycling considered as an upper-class activity,
and therefore hostile to the working class. (Fontana). Initially, both Republicans and Anarchists
were against cycling. After the first edition
of Giro d'Italia (the cycling tour of Italy) which was held in
1909 , the Republican newspaper "La Giovane Italia"
called the Giro «a shame that dishonors the people
of Italy», while Republican Arturo Camprini
complained that in scarcely more than half an hour he had seen
selling 500 copies of the "Gazzetta dello Sport",
while in 5 days only 10 copies of "La Giovane Italia"
were sold (Pivato,
1992). A leaflet of the early 1910s,
signed by «the Young Socialists, Mazzinians
and Anarchists», beginning with «Blame the sport!» inveighed
against competitive sport, different from the one that is «nobly
meant for wonderful scientific progress» or is «an instrument of amusement and
pleasure» which could not be blamed «without
succumbing to the charge of being enemies of the progress and
of human improvement.»
The leaflet, on the other hand, condemned «sport, which, with its appeal
to a sudden fame and with the flattering of an immediate gain
due to a misunderstood appraisal of human values, due to the intent
of vulgar speculation, distracts so many precious young energies
from decisively different more truly noble and profitable intentions
and sublime ideals, and draws them on their fatal orbit, enslaves
them shamefully to the shady lucrative and supremacy aims of the
capitalist and bourgeois class of speculators and big industrialists
by throwing them, as a brutal and unconscious advertisement instrument,
in a crazy desperate race, scattered with all sorts of labor,
dangers, deaths», and lamented «the despicable spectacle of recklessness
and waste of energy that all those young cyclists offer at the
Giro d'Italia », defining it as one of the many
«one of the many traps drawn by the current
system of plutocratic and bourgeois government to the unaware
gullibility of the crowd.»
The close of the flyer was «Down with the sport!»
The Italian Socialist Party stood for a long time clinging to the certainty that sport was a miniature reproduction of the mechanisms of capitalist war, which was organic to industrial or nationalist speculations and even harmful to the body. Sport was nationalist and clerical "a violent muscular reaction to the productive inactivity of wealthy classes: so, the revenge of nature against idleness and inactivity." (Petrini) The hostility of the Socialists was primarily directed against competitiveness and the presence of rankings, viewed as opposed to solidarity goals, so that their first competitions did not include rankings, and the first meeting of the Socialist Sports International in Ghent in 1913 discussed the proposal to abolish rankings and awards.
Moreover, sport fuelled nationalism and militarism. The closeness with militarism was confirmed by the fact that often the managers of the gymnastics associations were generals, among them Fiorenzo Bava Beccaris, who led the 1898 massacre in Milan against protests for high prices and Luigi Pelloux, Prime Minister, twice Minister of the interior and three times Minister of the war, responsible for fierce antipopular repressions (Pivato, 1992). This position, which was probably affected by the Socialist Party's agricultural origins, led Benito Mussolini, at that time editor of the 'Avanti!', to declare, on December 1st, 1912, thathe even wanted to scatter nails on the Via Emilia at the passage of the cyclists of the Giro d'Italia (Sbetti). The young socialists defined the participants of the Giro as "third-rate velocipedists" and the socialist leader Giuseppe Zibordi described the cyclist as "bent as a question mark on his criminal buffalo-horn-shaped handlebars, he concentrates all his physical and intellectual faculties in his feet" and added: "It is actually sure that generally the runners are only abnormal, with (very strong) trait of criminals".
of the political use of bicycle
The situation changed when the bicycle became a means of transport accessible to everyone thanks to the price reduction due to its increasing diffusion and to the technological advancement. In 1893 the price of a bicycle was equal to 1655 hours of work, but in 1913 it took only 357. (Pivato, 1992) The price of a Bianchi bicycle lowered from 300 daily wages of a worker at the end of nineteenth century, to 100 wages ten years later. A debate thus started inside the parties and the workers' organizations, for and against the sporting practice. The Socialist Party's local branch of Imola in May 1904 promoted a recreational society deeming that "it is not a privilege of the bourgeois classes to be able to live fraternally the collective life of the circles and lodges". (Ridolfi)
Sport was also promoted as a tool for fighting alcoholism, scourge of working classes. On August 31st, 1910, the journal "Sempre Avanti!" ("Always Forward!") published an article by his editor, Francesco Paoloni, who stressed how alcoholism dehumanises and makes people insensitive to every ideal exhortation, while «any brute less may be tomorrow a militant more in the fighting army of proletariat.» (Giuntini)
Many revolutionaries refused cycling as a sport and bicycle as a leisure tool, but accepted it as a symbol of modernity and as a means of struggle, not only for reaching the workplace but also for keeping links between occupied factories, to alert the workers of the coming of law enforcement squads, to distribute the revolutionary press, to reach and organize workers in the most isolated villages and in the countryside, allowing them to take part in the demonstrations in the cities. This "subversive" character of bicycle also prompted ecclesiastical authorities to look at it with suspicion considering it "real anarchy, comparable to hermaphroditism" and even forbidding the priests to use it, under pain of disciplinary actions even including suspension a divinis. (Izagirre, Pivato, 2011)
In 1910 a parish priest of a village near Ravenna had raised a problem on the parish bulletin: can a parish priest who has to rush urgently to the bedside of a seriously ill person "ride a bicycle despite the higher hierarchical prohibition?" and he gave himself a positive answer. ("He can"). The bishop of Faenza, having a different opinion, ordered the seizure of the bulletin, confirming the absolute prohibition, in every situation, because of the "great dissipation that would have produced" a suspension, even partial, of the ban. (Pivato, 1992)
In the summer of 1894,
the Associazione milanese di ciclisti socialisti (Milanese
Association of Socialist Cyclists) had the purpose of propagating
socialist ideas and participating in cycling races to campaign
in favor of Leonida Bissolati. Again
in Milan, in 1896, the groups Pro Ideale and So-cialisti
in the fifth electoral constituency of Milan campaigned for Filippo Turati. (Senatori, 2011)
In 1898, during the
popular riots of Milan against
hunger, the infamous general Bava Beccaris with a ban
had forbidden the circulation of «bicycles, tricycles and tandem» in
order to prevent them from becoming a valuable means of communication
Other active groups were "Forza e Costanza" ("Strength and Perseverance"), the cycling section of Brescia cooperatives, and "Club Ciclistico Avanti" ("Forward Cycling Club") in Rome (Senatori, 2011). Only thanks to the red cyclists the fourth National Congress of Socialist Party, held in Florence from 11th to-13th July, 1896, put the issue of sport on the agenda (Boschi).
In 1900 the criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) ended his article with a paragraph on the benefits of cycling for welfare and civilization: «It reduced isolation of small towns, put the countryside a few minutes away from residential areas and capitals, it was an ally in election to the most progressive political parties, who therefore know how to use the most modern means of fight.». Lombroso also praised the benefits of the bicycle for mental health, and concluded with a sentence that today seems definitely optimistic: «the cicloanthropos of twentieth century will suffer less of nerves, his muscles will be more robust than those of the man of the last century.»
In the same article, however, Lombroso warned against «the extraordinary importance of the bicycle, both as a cause and as a tool of crime», and quoted many records of crimes committed to obtain the money needed to buy a bicycle and become cycling champions or to sell it, or to use the bicycle to escape quickly after a robbery.
In the new century the organized political use of bicycle had a strong development in Emilia and Romagna, where Republicans, who at the time and until the second postwar period were a radical and anti-clerical political force, organized on July 26th, 1903 in Cervia their first regional cycling meeting, with the participation of delegates from the Marche, to emphasize the importance of the bicycle for the diffusion of revolutionary ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini. A convention of Republicans from Marche and Romagna was held in the Republic of San Marino in August 1904, having great resonance in the press (Pivato, 1992).
On June 12th, 1905, on the initiative of the Socialists of Reggio Emilia, the first group of Red Cyclists was founded: in front of the Cooperative of Prato di Correggio, the cycling teams of Reggio, Bagnolo, Correggio, Rubiera and San Martino in Rio gathered. The meeting was promoted by the local Chamber of Labor to put at the service of workers "a quick means of conversation for the great battles of workers". The initiative was a great success, and shortly thereafter the Provincial Association of Red Cyclists was established, declaring: "The bicycle that has already become a useful aid to the single worker must also become a powerful aid for collective action in interest of the proletarian masses". (Pivato, 1992)
On April 10th, 1906, in Carpi, in the province of Modena, the Unione Sportiva Socialista (Socialist Sporting Union) was founded, open to members of the Socialist Party having a bicycle, with the aim of «helping the Socialist Party in the electoral struggles to organize propaganda and leisure tours, socialist marches etc.». In May 1906, members of the Union organized a meeting against excessive taxation on bicycles, and on June 3rd, 1907 in Carpi a gathering of nearly five hundred cyclists from Reggio Emilia and Correggio took place. (Giuntini)
In Reggio Emilia the Red Cyclists counted four thousand members, divided into squads for each district of a municipality, and distinguished by a red cap. In 1906 two thousand Red Cyclists took part in the parade of May 1st feast; two days before, on Sunday, April 29th, there was a preparatory meeting, which was also a protest against bicycle traffic tax. The role of cyclists was also to provide a fast-moving team of stewards for demonstrations and parades. In June 1910, the Red Cyclists organised a floral cycling contest. Numerous trips were organized in the province and at the head of the squadrons always marched the fanfare of «Veloce Club» ("Swift Club"). The presence of cyclists at 1st May parade became customary, not only in Reggio Emilia, but also in the cities of the province, as Correggio, Guastalla, Scandiano, Cavriago and Casoni. (Fincardi, 2012b) In Romagna there was a lively competition between the Red Cyclists and the Republican and Catholic cycling teams. (Ridolfi)
Cyclists in the years 1910s
The constitution of a national organization of «Red Cyclists» was supported by Giovanni Germanetto and Mario Montagnana, who later became members of the Communist Party of Italy. On June 16th, 1912, the Regional Socialist Congress at Imola, saw the birth of the «Red Cyclists» («Ciclisti Rossi»), a sporting company that had definitely political goals, rather than sport. That day, seventy cyclists coming from Forlì with a red band on their arm reached the congress welcomed by applause (Giannantoni and Paolucci) preceded by marching band and by their flag (Boschi). The weekly journal "La Lotta", the organ of the Socialist Federation of Imola, in the same day's issue explained: «During the occasional periods of struggle (elections, agitations, strikes, etc.), Red Cyclists will enable our committees to have safe and fast means of communication and correspondence, not only, but they will provide them with an already trained staff and prepared to travel through the Municipality and the electoral constituency, with a sufficient knowledge of places, people, etc. Finally, in the great demonstrations, the squadron of the Red Cyclists - which if the spirit and enthusiasm of all the comrades will help, will always increase by number - will be worthy of completing our parades, effectively assisting their organization and giving them greater order and strength» (Fontana).
The socialist journal "L'Avanguardia" of September 8th, 1912 supported the thesis of using Red Cyclists to carry out propaganda against sport among young people, rather than making obstructionism to sports. (Pivato, 1992)
On Sunday, September 22nd, 1912, again in Imola, together with the Socialist National Youth Congress, which took place in Bologna from Friday 20th, the 1st National Red Cyclist Congress was held (Zanelli), attended by 700 Red Cyclists from various regions, mainly from northern Italy, while Arturo Vella, Amedeo Bordiga and Anselmo Marabini delivered a speech. (Fincardi, 2012b) The participants came from Bologna with a special train, they made a stop at Piratello to pay homage to the tomb of Andrea Costa. Born in Imola, 1851, Andrea Costa was one of the founders of socialism in Italy and the first Italian socialist deputy, and had died at Imola a few years earlier, on January 19th, 1910. The participants at the congress then gathered at Carducci schools, paraded through the streets of Imola, were taken to the town hall, and visited the workers' and socialist institutions of the city. According to the spirit of the gathering: "The red bicycles want to serve our ideal, to support, to connect, to keep alive our movement, our people in every district." (Zanelli) An anonymous editor on "La lotta" expressed opposition to the passion for the bicycle: "We have not since yesterday raised a vigorous protest against the sports obsession, which for some time has invaded our working youth, distracting them from their mind activities and from the daily struggle against privilege" and again "ours is above all a spiritual civilization. Physical education should not be detrimental to intellectual education." (Zanelli)
The bourgeos newspaper Corriere della Sera gave a negative interpretation of the conference, seen as an antimilitarist demonstration, resulting in a "serious brawl in front of a tavern frequented by nationalists." (Boschi)
In Reggio Emilia on May 1st, 1913, the Red Cyclists, after parading through the city in the morning, went in the afternoon to Cavriago to perform the boycott of the celebration of Catholic associations. The same happened on 1st May of the following year, at Quattro Castella (Fincardi, 2012b).
In the same year, 1913, the Lugo magazine «La Fiamma Socialista» («The Socialist Flame») on the occasion of the celebration of May 1st, wrote: «All the Red Cyclists from Lavezzola, Conselice, San Patrizio, Massalombarda, Giovecca, San Bernardino, Santa Maria in Fabriago and San Lorenzo will go to Sant'Agata sul Santerno where the red cyclists of Villa San Martino and those of Lugo will meet them to go all together at first at the red organizers' house in Lugo, then to Andrea Costa monument, to deliver the flowers of memory and promise.»
The third parade was organised on June 22nd, 1913, as second National meeting of the Socialist cyclists' groups. Due to pouring rain, several delegations of cyclists, including those of Turin, Venice, Reggio and Lugo, had to renounce to the ride, while the delegations from Imola and the other who managed to get there sloshing in the mud, were anyway able to dictate the rules of their organizational circuit.
Imola saw, on August 10th,
1913, the foundation of the National Federation of Red Cyclists,
with more than a thousand members and seat in via
Appia, 7. On August 17th, 1913, the fourth meeting, presented
as the First National Meeting, that officially founded the Red
Cyclists Federation, being the Romagna town covered from wall
to wall with posters and banners and red flags waving. The Red
Cyclists Federation advised to wear a red shirt with the social
badge and, lacking the shirt, a red band arm with a black writing
"red cyclists team of ..." (Pivato, 1992).mA thousand cyclists, with delegations
from several towns in Romagna and Emilia took part in it. The
local socialist weekly journal described the meeting as «magnificent,
imposing and enthusiastic». The journal of FIGS (Youth
Socialist Federation) «L'Avanguardia» was by
then able to present the class-struggle riding on two wheels:
«Red Cyclists are and will be the forerunners of our
propaganda and of our movement, the fast channels by which our
people from each district and each country will always be entrusted
and connected, both in peace and in times of war.»
When the National Federation was founded, the Red Cyclists were mainly spread in Emilia, in Romagna, in Milan and Turin, but relevant groups existed in Pesaro, Florence, Sesto Fiorentino, Terni, Portici, Castellamare di Stabia and Sparanise, in addition to Città di Castello (see link, in Italian), Reggio Emilia, Imola and Cesena, where squadrons already existed since some years. (Fincardi, 2012b)
Again Imola, on August 24th, 1913, hosted the first Red Cyclists National Congress, which approved a statute according to which, in special periods (elections, agitations, strikes), Red Cyclists were to ensure rapid communication and correspondence. The statute continued by defining Red Cyclists as the avant-garde of socialist propaganda and movement, and the means by which affiliates of all districts could keep in touch, both in peace and in war. The bicycle was defined as a "vehicle of the people" at the service of the class struggle, and agonistic cycling was blamed, defining sport as a serious problem that diverted the attention of workers and particularly of young people, distracting them from studying social problems and keeping them away from political associations. All the young people who were more anxious to read the sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport rather than the socialist newspaper "Avanti!" were also blamed, since they took care only to make love and ride bicycle. (Izagirre)
At Imola, the Camera del Lavoro (Trade Union's local office) provided services for red cyclists, publishing on her weekly journal "La Lotta" advertisement like this: «Comrades! Do you need bicycle tyres and inner tubes and do you want to spend little money? Refer to the Camera del Lavoro at via Gamberini. Standard goods at unbeatable prices.»
of the Red Cyclists
In the founding document of the new popular sports movement, written by the Red Cyclists ideologist, Antonio Lorenzini, reported in an unpublished typewritten document "Storia del ciclismo UISP" ("History of UISP cycling", UISP is the National Union of Popular Sports) by Sergio Giuntini, reads: "The Red Cyclists are those who, knowing how and being able to ride a bicycle, never make of this exercise, or maybe of this kind of passion, a goal or an ideal. The goal of the Red Cyclists is propaganda: their means is bicycle sport, if you like to call it so, contained within human and dignified limits! Our cyclists do not mean and do not want physical education to be detrimental to the intellectual and moral education of their own or of others.
Yet, of bicycle sports - and maybe tomorrow of other sports - they purely and simply make a hygienic habit, a pastime, and an appropriate and proportionate means for defending and propagating everywhere their civil, moral, and political ideals. The Red Cyclists occasionally organize a trip to this or that place in the municipality, in the electoral constituency, in the Province, or maybe beyond the borders of the same Province, in the Region, bringing there brochures, newspapers and the echo of the first discussions of detailed propaganda.
During the extraordinary periods of struggle (agitations, elections, strikes, conferences, meetings, etc.), the Red Cyclists will give way to executive or organizing committees to have safe and fast means of communication and correspondence, not only, but they will provide them a staff already prepared and ready to travel through the municipality, the electoral constituency or the Province with sufficient training and knowledge of places, people, and addresses.
In the most important events, the Red Cyclists' team will be able to complete worthly our parades, effectively assisting their organization, and giving them with no worries about propaganda - greater order and importance. These are the aims and the objectives that made the Red Cyclists organisations appear, which instead of serving the interest of companies and business societies, expressing from their womb the panting heros of bicycle, mean, with gymnastics and the education of their body, to serve an idea that is worth more than all the Cups and all the Grand Prix of the great patriarchs and benefactors of the sport of ... making money. The red bicycles - if the zealous defenders of muscle training for the glory and the greater power of the capitalist stock exchanges allow us - are and will be the forerunners of our propaganda and our movement: the fast relays by which our people from every hamlet and every village will always be close-knit and connected, both in time of peace and in time of war.» (Senatori, 2014)
of the Red Cyclists
Even in 1914, on the occasion of the "Red Week" riot, between June 7th and 14th, the bicycle showed its usefulness for gathering and circulation of news, seen the isolation due to the sabotage of telephone and telegraph cables and railways. On the occasion, the fascist writer from Forlì Antonio Beltramelli saw in the use of bicycle to organise the workers' occupation of the city a new means of the siege laid by the "countryside" to the "city" (Baroncini). The Socialist Youth congress, scheduled for September 1914 in Reggio Emilia, was postponed due to the outbreak of war.
The socialist journals published the advertising of «Carlo Marx» tyres, presented as the «tyre of Italian Socialists» and of «Ciclo Avanti! », whose trademark was registered on September 18th, 1913 by Alcyon Officine, of brothers Cesarani of Caravaggio (province of Bergamo), who probably were the same to publish, in the same year, the book of Antonio Lorenzini. An advertisement on the "Avanti!" on summer of 1913 declared, "No bicycle can, by elegance, by resistance, by fluidity, and by cheapness, be compared to the "Ciclo Avanti". A bicycle bound to spread rapidly throughout Italy, especially among workers". (Boschi)
To strengthen the spirit of belonging and to gather sympathizers, the FNCR organized in Imola a series of cycling propaganda tours: the first was held on April 8th, 1917, the Easter day, departing at 1:00 PM from the Ponte Santo (Holy Bridge), a bridge on Santerno river, at that time called by the Socialists of Imola "Ponte Rosso" (Red Bridge). A footage of this tour (see photograms 1, 2 and 3), was released in 2010 on DVD by Bacchilega of Imola, directed by Fausto Pullano with music by Roberto Bartoli. It includes the restored version with soundtrack of two footages of 1910 and 1913, kept in Imola by CIDRA (Centro Imolese di Documentazione sulla Resistenza Antifascista e storia contemporanea - Imola Center for Documentation on Anti-Fascist Resistance and Contemporary History).
The second ride took place three Sundays later, on April 29th, departing at 1:00 PM from the same bridge, arriving after about 20 km at San Patrizio, a hamlet of the town of Conselice, in the province of Ravenna, where a public meeting was held, ended by a final vote of an agenda. On May 13th, the Imola Red Cyclists, together with those of Lugo, gathered in Mordano, in the province of Bologna, for the first meeting between two electoral constituency, and on May 20th organized a propaganda trip to Sesto Imolese. The last propaganda ride of 1917 was Sunday, August 19th at Osteriola, where the Red Cyclists also gathered on July 21st, 1918 for an electoral constituency meeting.
The last survivor of Imola Red Cyclists was Ottavio Zanelli (link), born in Ravenna on September 26th, 1904, and dead on April 6th, 2006 at the age of 101 years, after a long political activity, from the Leghorn Congress of 1921 that saw the foundation of the Communist Party of Italy, to the detention for his opposition to the fascist regime, to the Resistenza, until his post-war political activity. (Giannantoni and Paolucci)
Cyclists in the 1920s
The role of Red cyclists in the 1920s was important in the workers fight of the first afterwar, for employment and against fascism. During the strikes, the Red Cyclists helped to quickly form picket lines against the scabs, indeed during the August 1920 agrarian strike, the prefect of Reggio Emilia forbade the use of bicycles throughout the province. In 1921 a team of Reggio Emilia Red Cyclists escorted from Reggio to Cavriago the bodies of two workers killed by the fascists on 1st May (Fincardi, 2012b), and in Piombino (province of Leghorn) on August 3rd, 1921, a squadron of cyclists Arditi del Popolo (People's Arditi, the Arditi were an elite corps) opened the funeral procession accompanying the body of the worker Giuseppe Morelli, a member of the Arditi del Popolo killed by law enforcement officers. The communist newspaper L'Ordine Nuovo of July 24th, 1921 reported the facts of Cingia de' Botti (province of Cremona), where on 17th of July six hundred Red Cyclists paraded through the city streets, lined up as soldiers, in order to reach the local branch of fascist party to force them to hand over the pennant. (Francescangeli) In the province of Venice, at Cavarzere, a large group of Arditi del Popolo, about two hundred, spread among the various hamlets of the municipality, keeping in touch among them by means of cyclist dispatch riders. At Trieste the Red Arditi, established before the People's Arditi, were organized in twelve teams, including a female and a cyclist squadron. The Red Cyclists were widespread in Polesine, Cremona province and Julian March. (Francescangeli) In Rome, the Cyclists Arditi took care of the connections between the central and peripheral units of the Arditi del Popolo and were particularly active in the defense of San Lorenzo and other popular neighborhoods from the aggression of fascist, who had reached Rome in order to take part in the fascist party's foundation congress, from 7th to November 11th, 1921. The Arditi cyclists also succeeded in quickly moving men from one neighborhood to another, depending on the needs created by the fascist attacks. (Gentili)
The cycling champion Ottavio Bottecchia, winner of two Tour de France, in one of which he wore the yellow jersey from the first to the last stage, put in place anti-fascist activity and was therefore assassinated in 1927.
not) Cyclist women
The bicycle also became a tool for female emancipation, thanks in particular to some pioneers who defied the contempt and the insults of the conformists. The president of the feminist meeting in Paris in 1896 proposed a toast to the "egalitarian and leveling" bicycle. The catholic movements found the use of bicycles, and therefore of pants, inappropriate by women (Boschi). As Blom wrote: «The moralists were scandalized by the effect these anarchic vehicles would have on public morals, most especially on women, who pedalled along gleefully, having discarded their corsets and put on more practical clothing, including trousers. Meanwhile scientists gravely warned that the sheer rush, as well as their position - boldly astride the saddle - would stimulate women beyond endurance and reduce them to infertility, hysteria or worse, wanton creatures without any restraint.» (Blom)
A decisive incentive was
given by the first velocipedist women which were seen in Milan
in 1891, and in 1893 first participated in rides and competitions
(in 1894 in Genoa the first women's cycling race in Italy was
held) and took part in the parade at the cycling meeting organized
in Ferrara in 1902 by the Touring Club Italiano. Among the best-known
agonist cyclist women we find the Milanese florist Adelina Vigo,
the future opera singer and actress Lina
Cavalieri, winner of the stage race Rome-Turin, at the end
of the nineteenth century, who challenged each other in 1893 in
Milan, Alessandrina Maffi, Italian champion from 1893 to 1897,
who often defeated male cyclists, as happened in the Audax Speed
Award of 1898, that she won riding for 180 km in less than 18
hours, Maria Forzani, winner of the Milan-Varese in 1896, Hélène Dutrieu from
Belgium (1877-1961) and Vittorina
Sambri from Ferrara (1891-1965), which soon became a motorcycle
Gori). The best known
cyclist woman was however Alfonsina
Morini Strada (1891-1959)
from Modena, awarded
by Tsar Nicholas II in person for her participation in the 1909
Grand Prix of Petersburg. Morini took part in the Giro di Lombardia,
in 1917 and 1918, reaching the finish line, while half of the
competitors who had started did not finish. Morini took part in
1924 in the Giro d'Italia, with 90 male competitors, where she
finished outside the time limit in one of the last stages, L'Aquila-Perugia,
also because of the very frequent stops to sign autographs along
the way, but was allowed to participate until the end, even though
her time was not taken. Alfonsina Morini also took part in other
editions of the Giro d'Italia and won 36 races, defeating also
male competitors. (Izagirre)
After the Second World War, bicycles played a key role in the labourers' fights, so that the special police squads of Minister of the Interior Mario Scelba frequently seized or destroyed them. Thousands of bicycles followed in 1949 the funeral of Maria Margotti, a labourer from Filo d'Argenta, near Ferrara, killed by a policeman (Caracciolo).
Proletarian sports organizations also existed in other European countries, in the last decade of the century groups of socialist cyclists were formed in Austria and Switzerland. In Germany, in 1893 in Leipzig the Workers' Cycling Solidarity Club was created, later prohibited by anti-socialist laws, alongside similar associations of gymnasts, swimmers, yachtsmen and track and field athletes. In February 1894 at Birmingham, in England the Socialists' Cycling Club was founded, which later took the name of Clarion Cycling Club, from the socialist weekly journal The Clarion. In 1895 the British Workers' Cycling Club was established. (Wheeler)
In 1896, at Offenbach am Main, in Germany, the Red Cyclists Association (ARS: Arbeiter-Radfahrerbund Solidarität Cyclist Workers Association) currently Rad- und Kraftfahrerbund Solidarität, was established, which in 1912 had 150,000 members. The newspaper Arbeiter-Radfahrer in 1913 declared 168 thousand copies. In 1929 the association had 320,000 members, and was the largest world cycling organization, it also run a bicycle cooperative factory, and organized promotional sports events. At the time of the First World War, the proletarian sports associations had more than 350,000 members.
On June 23rd, 1921, in Moscow, the Red Sports International was founded with representatives of Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and the Netherlands, representing the revolutionary wing of sport movement, opposed to the Socialist Workers' Sport International (Lucerne Sport International), founded in 1920 in Lucerne, Switzerland, with a reformist inspiration. (Gounot)
in the Resistenza
During the Resistenza, as anticipated, the bicycle was used as a means of connecting the partisan bands, but also to carry out war actions, to escape the police after the extemporary flash speeches in the cities, and to deliver weapons, food and propaganda material. This involved many Partisan women who risked (and often lost) their lives to deliver by bicycle messages, food, and weapons to the rebel bands sheltered in the mountains (see photos in the row above, click to enlarge them).
The partisan Renato Romagnoli ("Italiano") in his book of 1974 «Gappista. Dodici mesi nella Settima Gap "Gianni"» («"Gappista". Twelve months in the Seventh Gap "Gianni"»), published by Vangelista, quoted by Giannantoni and Paolucci (2008), tells: «Very soon every bicycle became a nightmare for the nazis and fascists, in every cyclist they saw a rebel ready to shoot at the occupying troops, to hit their servants wearing black shirts; the chronicles of time are full of proclamations and announcements on the permitted uses and on the banned ones of the popular means of locomotion, no fascist or German, except those in a group, had the courage to stop a man on a bicycle (and when enemies do group they are visible from a considerable distance so it becomes easy to manage to dodge them). Announcements and proclamations remained ineffective.»
Consequently, fascists in various places banned the use of bicycles (see the announcements of Carpi and Bologna).The same book of "Italiano" mentions some passages of an announcement published in Bologna on April 26th, 1944: «From April 26th, 1944, it is absolutely forbidden to circulate with bicycles, even dismounting and walking them, within the perimeter of the city of Bologna bordered by the avenues ( ) Those who live within the above described perimeter and who, for work reasons, have to move by bicycle from the interdicted area to the suburbs and then go back to the city centre must have a special statement of their employer, endorsed by the Bologna central police station, but for the entire interdicted perimeter and roads they will have to dismount and walk alongside their bicycle, deflating the tires of their wheels or disconnecting the chain from the sprockets and the chainring.»
A similar ban, with a threat of summary execution in case of violation, is mentioned by "Italiano" referred to Ravenna. In Milan and Turin the same announcement didn't last long, since the bicycle was the only means by which workers could reach the factories, which were fundamental to supporting the nazi-fascist war effort.
In Milan, the bicycle
was fundamental to the implementation of many partisan warfare
actions, and in particular Giovanni
Pesce stood out, with battle names "Ivaldi"
and "Visone", who scored many attacks against
the fascists thanks to this vehicle. Pesce explained «It
was like the air I breathed, an indispensable means to move quickly
in every moment. Without the bicycle, it would not have been possible
to carry out the actions I performed.». On April 24th,
1945, the general insurgency order was delivered by cyclist dispatch
In Rome, during the nine months of the nazi occupation, the bicycle was used to carry at least two major attacks on December 18th, 1943 by Rosario Bentivegna in front of the Barberini movie theatre, in the square of the same name, to hit the attendants to a movie show dedicated to nazi soldiers, and December 26th, 1943 in front of the Regina Coeli jail gatehouse, by Mario Fiorentini. (Portelli) The attacks provoked the ban on cycling in the city, which was bypassed adding a third wheel to the vehicle, turning the byke into a tricycle.
The great cycling champion Gino Bartali (1914-2000), from Florence, exploiting his popularity as a sports champion, used his bicycle to hide fake documents in the frame tubes, in the handlebar and in the saddle, that he delivered to Jewish citizens, hiding in a convent of Oblates Friars in Lucca (about 90 km, 56 Mi from Florence) and Assisi (160 km, 100 Mi from Florence, where he went 40 times), allowing them to show to be "aryans", thus saving 4,000 of them from extermination. (Sbetti; Stevenson). Bartali disguised his deliveries as training to keep fit, despite the suspension of sport activity (the Giro d'Italia was suspended since 1941), and when he was stopped for checks, he asked not to touch the bike because it was carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed (Stevenson). Bartali also concealed the Jewish Goldenberg family in a cellar of his home in Florence until the liberation of the city in August 1944 (Coen; Stevenson). For this reason, after his death, Bartali was awarded by Italy the posthumous gold medal for civil merit, and by Israel the honorific of "Righteous Among the Nations" and his name was engraved in Yad Vashem garden. Bartali's activity was known only by his family and by those who collaborated with him, and it was made known only after his death, since Gino didn't consider it was appropriate to take credit for it: he had told his son Andrea, "One does these things and then that's that."
The cycling champion from Varese Luigi Ganna, the winner of the first Giro d'Italia in 1909, had become a bicycle manufacturer, and in 1944 donated ten of his bicycles to the 121st Brigade Garibaldi "Walter Marcobi". (Giannantoni and Paolucci) Also Alfredo Martini (1921-2014) cyclist rider and then for 22 years team manager of the Italian national cycling team, Luciano Pezzi, cyclist rider and then technical director of many champions, among them Felice Gimondi, and many other professional athletes were partisans.
In more recent years, the bicycle resumed its role as a workers' dispatch rider between factories fighting against layoffs or closing of factories. In 2009, on the occasion of the Giro d'Italia, workers from Veneto and Tuscany with temporary employments or receiving unemployment benefits made a parallel tour between factories occupied by workers. (Satta, 2009) In 2013, Romagna Socialists organised a commemoration of Red Cyclists, on the occasion of the centenary of the establishment of the movement.
On 25th April, 2015, in order to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of Liberation and the role of Women's Defense Groups in the Resistenza, the UDI (Unione Donne in Italia, Women's Union in Italy) of Modena, together with FIAB (Federazione Italiana Amici della Bicicletta, Italian Federation of Bycicle's Friends), organised a bicycle trip in the more significant places of the city for the political history of the age.
ZeroLire Edition at Forlì publishes on-line several works on bicycle and on its social life.
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BOSCHI Massimiliano (2003) 1913, allarme a Imola. Arrivano i "ciclisti rossi". Il Venerdì di Repubblica, n. 784 (March 28, 2003), pag. 51-52.
CAGNOLATI Antonella (editor) (2011) Donne e bicicletta : una relazione pericolosa? Aracne, Roma.
CARACCIOLO Carlos Hector (2011) Donne, uomini e biciclette. Appunti per una storia italiana. In Cagnolati, pag. 37-61.
CARNERO Roberto (2003) Anno 1900: Oriani e l'arte della bici. L'Unità, 22 aprile 2003, pag. 16.
CAVALLARO Claudia (2017) Tra discriminazioni e dilettantismo: le cicliste che hanno fatto la storia in Italia. Soft Revolution, May, 24 2017 link
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GORI Gigliola (2011) Muliebris birota velocissima. Il ciclismo femminile in Italia fra XIX e XX secolo. In Cagnolati, pag. 63-88.
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PORTELLI Alessandro (2012) L'ordine è già stato eseguito. Feltrinelli, Milano.
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SENATORI Luciano (2014) Sport moderno e sport popolare. UISP Lega Pallavolo Nazionale - Corso per Formatori Giudici di Gara e Allenatori - Firenze 15 - 16 November 2014. link
STEVENSON John (2013) Gino Bartali awarded Israel's Righteous Among The Nations for wartime activities. http://road.cc/, September 28 2013 link
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TARANTINI Domenico (1975) La maniera forte : elogio della polizia : storia del potere politico in Italia, 1860-1975. Bertani, Verona. pag. 177.
WHEELER F. Robert (1978) Organized Sport and Organized Labour: The Worker's Sport Movment. Journal of Contemporary History, 13 (2): 191-210. link.
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ZIBORDI Giovanni (1909) Sport, ginnastica e proletariato. Alla vigilia della discussione del disegno di legge per l'educazione fisica. In "Avanti!" 18 November, 1909. In Pivato, 1992 255-261.
ANPI Mirano link
Ciclo Imprese Estreme - Romagna - Bicicletta & Politica, 2 Maynd 2014 link
Comune di Imola, Biblioteca Comunale di Imola. Pedalata dei ciclisti rossi a favore della propaganda socialista. link
Federazione Giovanile Comunisti Italiani - Sezione "John Reed" Imola link
Formazioni di difesa proletaria, Wikipedia link
I ciclisti rossi link
Museum der Arbeit - Das Fahrrad link
Partito Socialista Italiano di Ravenna e della Romagna link
Storia e Memoria di Bologna - Ottavio Zanelli link
UDI - Io vado ... come una staffetta link