I have a great friend Luigia Zilli. She is from Italy but know lives in Canada and we talk a lot about cycling and Italy. She helps me with my awful Italian and is always showing me things and talks about cycling stuff which has made her one of my great cycling heroes. Recently she showed me some images of Constante Girardengo, the first Campionissimo before Coppi. What I love about Luigia is she is always willing to share her great knowledge of cycling and never judges my often crude and stumbling ways. She is great and she is also a great painter too so check out her work if you can. Anyway here is some basic information on Constante for anyone who doesn’t know him. I only knew a little bit about him so once again thanks Luigia you also come up with the good stuff.
Costante Girardengo (18 March, 1893 – 9 February, 1978) was an Italian professional road bicycle racer, considered by many to be one of the finest riders in the history of the sport. He was the first rider to be declared a “Campionissimo” or “champion of champions” by the Italian media and fans. At the height of his popularity in the 1920s he was said to be more popular than Mussolini and it was decreed that all express trains should stop in his home town Novi Ligure, an honour only normally awarded to heads of state. His career achievements include two wins in the Giro d’Italia, six wins in Milan-Sanremo, three wins in the Giro di Lombardia, he was also Italian road race champion on nine occasions. His professional career was extensive, lasting from 1912 to 1936 and was interrupted by World War I which robbed Girardengo of some of his best years. He was ranked number one in the World in 1919, 1922, 1923, 1925 and 1926. He raced almost exclusively in his home country as was the custom in those days, as foreign travel was not easy. Girardengo was of only small stature and this earned him the nickname “The Novi Runt”.
Born in Novi Ligure (province of Alessandria, Piedmont), Costante Girardengo turned professional in 1913 at the age of 20 for the Maino-Dunlop team after impressing as an amateur the previous year by finishing runner up in the Tour of Tuscany. He met with immediate success winning a stage in the Giro d’Italia (his first of 30 stage wins in the Giro) and becoming Italian road race champion. He repeated these successes in 1914 and also took his first of his five wins in Milano-Torino. 1914 saw Girardengo win the longest ever stage in the Giro d’Italia, a 430 kilometre leg between Lucca and Rome. Later that same year Girardengo took part in the Tour de France for the only time in his career, riding as a guest for the Automoto team he crashed several times in stages five and six and abandoned the race. 1915 saw him take another win in Milano-Torino but Milan-Sanremo resulted in disappointment when he was disqualified after winning the race for going off course. Much of the professional cycle racing was stopped after 1915 because of the First World War and it was not until 1918 that Girardengo took another win, taking the first of his six victories in Milan-Sanremo, a record which Eddy Merckx eventually eclipsed over 50 years later. He also finished in the first three of the same race every year from 1917 to 1926 and was first over the Turchino Pass on five occasions. His post 1918 form was all the more remarkable as during the First World War Girardengo had contracted Spanish flu and nearly died, his manager believing a survivor of that disease could not race properly refused at one point to renew his licence. Girardengo took the first of his Giro d’Italia wins in 1919 (including seven stage wins), however his form in the Giro was not always good and he abandoned the race in the early stages in 1920, 1921 and 1922 before dominating in 1923. 1923 was undoubtedly Girardengo’s best year with 16 victories, he took his second Giro d’Italia win including eight of the ten stages as well as many of the top Italian one day races. Despite racing in Italy for most of his career, Girardengo had a burning desire to win Paris-Roubaix, he first raced there in 1921 but he was unlucky on several occasions, breaking his bike when well placed and never coming close to winning. In 1924 Girardengo won the GP Wolber in France, then regarded as the unofficial World Championship.
Girardengo finished runner up in the inaugural World Championship road race held on the Nürburgring in Germany in 1927, the four man Italian team also included Alfredo Binda, Gaetano Belloni and Domenico Piemontesi, the Italians worked perfectly as a team with Binda breaking away 20 miles from the finish to win comfortably, the Italians filled the first four places on that rainy day in Germany. He took his sixth win in Milan-Sanremo in 1928 and this was his last big victory on the road although he continued riding until the 1936 season when he retired at the age of 43. After his retirement Girardengo became involved as a coach of the professional Maino team. He also became the head coach of the Italian national squad for a time, advising Gino Bartali when he won the 1938 Tour de France. Later on he gave his name “Girardengo” to a brand of motorbikes manufactured between 1951 and 1954 in the northern Italian city of Alessandria. He died in 1978 at Cassano Spinola, just outside Novi Ligure, at the age of 84.