Bicycles in Milan

The birth of the Veloce Club of Milan marks the start of the love story between the city and bicycles; a story that in spite of alternating phases of passion and caution is still not over, and even seems to have gained a new lease on life in recent years, due to the need to reduce pollution and to make getting around town easier, cheaper and faster.

On 17 March 1870, at Porta Tenaglia, in spaces connected to a track for training, velocipede enthusiasts begin to hold regular meetings. The new means of transport is actually a rather strange object: a small rear wheel and an enormous front wheel, on which the rider perches on a seat, precariously balanced, gripping the handlebars, feet resting on pedals. At least it is more advanced than the earlier models like the Draisine, a wooden contraption without brakes or pedals moved by means of energetic leg thrusts and brought to a stop with the feet. Or the even older “cavallo di ferro” or “iron horse” whose arrival on city streets back in 1818 prompted the Austrian authorities to ban or restrict its circulation, in decrees that remained in effect in the early years after Italian unification.

The first months of existence of the Veloce Club were devoted to social expeditions, to spread the use of the bicycle, but soon a competition was organized: it was called the “Giro dei Bastioni” of Milan, 11 km in all, announced for 18 December 1870 but postponed due to inclement weather to 8 January of the following year. The winner was Giuseppe Pasta, followed by Giuseppe and Fausto Bagatti Valsecchi, leading members of the Club and among the most avid admirers of the velocipede, always at the forefront of cycling events. As was the case in the year to follow, when at the first speed competition (18 km from Porta Venezia to Porta Tenaglia) Fausto again came in third, this time beating Pasta who finished fifth. They were there again in December, that same year, in the first endurance trial (Milan-Novara, 40 km), won by Giuseppe, followed by Fausto.

The birth of the Touring Club Italiano (1894) with the mission of spreading tourism practices, including those connected with cycling, encouraged the Veloce Club to concentrate on competitions, overlooking pleasure rides. Even so, already in 1899 there were about 11,000 bicycles in circulation in Milan. It was no coincidence that the leading producers on the market in the early 1900s were from Milan, including Rossignoli (1900) and Bianchi (1926). The old reservations regarding health factors (would the velocipede deform your feet? Did it cause damage to the genitals? Or, even worse, would it be the cause of indecent erotic arousal? And might it not expose cyclists to too much dust, or too much stress?) had been cast off, and also thanks to continuous technical improvements the bicycle became a part of everyday life.

Perhaps also for these reasons, after the launch of the Giro di Lombardia (1905, Milan to Milan), a contest that continued to be held without interruptions even during the Great War, it was decided to transform the Milan-Sanremo foot race into a cycling competition. So on 14 April 1907, from the Osteria della Conca Fallata, on the Naviglio Pavese, a bicycle road racing classic began its history. In 1909 the first Giro d’Italia also set forth from Milan, starting precisely at Viale Monza. This activism was undoubtedly aided by the abilities of outstanding organizers, mostly connected with the young Gazzetta dello Sport, but it was also a result of the real popularity of the bicycle.

In the Milan destroyed by bombing in 1943, and impoverished by the long years of the war, on the other hand, the bicycle was no longer a pastime for nobles and the middle class, no longer a feature of festive competitions: it was a necessity. It was relatively inexpensive, durable, easy to repair with economical means, and required no fuel except that of the legs, a type of energy that comes free of charge.