The first bicycle with pedals appeared in Italy in 1868 and the love affair that Italians have had with this mode of transportation has lasted more than a century and a half. Almost immediately, Italian two-wheel vehicles could be seen on the streets in the cities of Milan, Turin, Verona, Padua and Florence. It took almost no time for the next logical step to occur; if two people were the riding the novel invention riding in the same direction, it was inevitable that they would race one another. It took less than a year before organized bicycle races began, a popular sport to this day.
Among the important dates during the 19th century was the new company of Bianchi in 1885. Founded by Edoardo Bianchi in Milan when he was 20 years-old, it went on to become one of the most famous bicycle manufacturers in the world. As an entrepreneur and inventor, Bianchi was to the modern bicycle what Henry Ford was to the automobile. His business and manufacturing innovations coupled uniquely with the technical contributions provided by his company’s racing department have made it the most influential manufacturer in bike racing history and cycling at large.
As the new century dawned, Italy could not get enough of the two-wheeled vehicles. Fabbrica italiana Velocipedi Edoardo Bianchi could not keep up with demand and new factories opened in numerous cities. Umberto Dei began making bicycles in Monza, later to become home of the world-famous racetrack known for its high speeds. But in the years before the Great War, it was known for racing cyclists racing automobiles. Fiat, then a fledgling car manufacturer in Turin joined the ranks. In 1898, Orio & Marchand was founded in Piacenza to build motorcycles, bicycles and cars. The company’s chief technician was Giuseppe Merosi who was hired away by Bianchi in 1904, which ended the innovation period of the company. Milan became the major manufacturing center for bicycles with firms including Frera, Prinetti Stucchi and Officine Türkheimer vying for business in the booming market.
Italy’s first national hero of track cycle racing was Francesco Verri. Already the 1905 national sprint champion, the following year he won three gold medals at the Olympic Games in Athens. He ultimately won the Italian Sprint championship eight times between 1905 and 1921. Later, Verri became a successful cycling coach and one of his pupils was the 1934 sprint world champion Benedetto Pola. Although cycling as a sport reached its peak during the first half of the 20th century, thanks to the remarkable achievements of cyclists as such as Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, it still remains one of the most popular sports in Italy.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were also an important period for advertising in the cycling world. The creativity of the artists and the burgeoning wallets of the manufacturers gave rise to what is known as the “art of cycling period,” where now legendary Italian illustrators such as Umberto Boccioni and Plinio Codognato created ads for names such as Bianchi, Fiat and Pirelli.
In Italy the popularity of the bike has never wavered. Italians love to be on two wheels, including scooters, such as the beloved Vespa and more recently electric bikes. As a nation, it has always understood the value of the bicycle, both as an inexpensive and economical mode of transportation, but also one that allows the rider to fully enjoy the atmosphere and ambiance of the world around them.
Ferrara, in the region of Emilia Romagna is a city of over 130,000. It is known for its beauty and culture as well as its 15th century palaces of the House of Este. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is also the Bicycle Capital of Italy. Here, visitors will find more bikes than cars parked on the outskirts of the local piazza and tourists will quickly learn how to dodge youngsters who are pedaling through the narrow streets with a deftness of biking learned at a very young age. The Ferrara city-center is off-limits to motor traffic and the most amazing collection of bikes imaginable can be found at the train station on the weekends, where commuters leave thousands of bicycles locked up, awaiting their return at the start of the work week. The Ferrara terrain makes it ideal for bicycle touring inside and outside the city limits and during the summer months, the city offers free use to foreigners in hopes that they will experience the city from behind the handlebars of a bicycle.
Padua also has a special place in the hearts of bicycle enthusiasts as the home of Atala, one of Italy’s most famous bike companies, which was started in 1907 by Angelo Gatti. Like many of the iconic cycling brands in Italy, Atala first gained attention through racing. It was on an Atala that Luigi Ganna won the first Giro d’Italia in 1909. The annual race has become one of the most prestigious in the world and is one of the cycling world’s three Grand Tours, races that take place over 21 stages. In the case of the Giro, the race is held in May but sometimes continues into June and always includes a passage through the Alps or Dolomites.
In 1921, Atala was acquired by Cesare Rizzato who began as a bicycle frame maker in Padua. To this day, Padua is one of the loveliest cities for bike riding, with more than 100 bicycle routes throughout the city. During the 1960s, Rizzato introduced the Maino brand and acquired the rights to the historic Umberto Dei. Both of these brands were to become leaders in the world of professional racing. The latter was founded in 1896 and is said to be the first bicycle maker that was obsessed with reducing the weight. Umberto Dei even hung his bicycles from scales at exhibitions to demonstrate how much lighter his bicycles were than the competition. Today, Atala also produces bicycles under the brands Carraro Cicli.
The story of author Andrea Camilleri and his Calogero Montante bicycle is legendary throughout Italy. In 1943, during World War II, the Allied troops had begun to land in Sicily. Then age 17, Camilleri and his mother were forced to evacuate their hometown of Porto Empedolce and had moved to the town of Serradifalco where the Montante bicycle company was founded. Upon hearing of fighting at home, the young man decided to return to Empedolce to find his father; his only transportation was a Montante bicycle. Camilleri later said, “The asphalt had been worn away by the tanks and the ground was littered with metal shards… But the bicycle didn’t fail me once… It was incredibly sturdy and light, elegant and functional.”
Over 75 years later, the Cicli Montante Company remains at the forefront of Italian bicycle manufacturing, producing some models using super lightweight carbon fiber proving that Italy’s love of the bicycle is not a thing of the past. Whether young of old, in the north or the south, Italian passion runs deep for la bicicletta.