The 1920 Giro d’Italia and the success for the Eternal Second, Tano Belloni

The 1920 Giro d'Italia started with an unexpected twist: the favourite and defending champion Costante Girardengo decided to retire during the second stage after a dramatic first day of the Corsa Rosa. It was a historic moment because the race was on the Monte Ceneri, entering a foreign country for the first time: Switzerland. The rival riders from Bianchi-Pirelli impressed with a high pace and sank Girardengo, who had also suffered mechanicals and had been sanctioned for an alleged irregularity on the  first stage, crossing the finish line in Turin almost 12 minutes after the winner, Giuseppe Olivieri. The fight for the General Classification, that seemed already written before the race even started, suddenly granted a second chance to all the outsiders.

Only three teams took part on the “punzonatura” of the second Giro d’Italia after WWI: Bianchi-Pirelli, Legnano-Pirelli and Stucchi-Pirelli, plus several independent riders for a total of 49 brave athletes, most of them Italians. The start list included the expert Carlo Galetti, consecutive three-time winner of the Giro (1910, 1911 and 1912), the Frenchman Jean Alavoine, who showed his talent in the previous editions of the Tour de France, the highly competitive Belgian Marcel Buysse and several ambitious Italian riders including Angelo Gremo, Giovanni Gerbi and Giovanni Rossignoli.

And then there was Gaetano ‘Tano’ Belloni, a 28-year-old rider from Bianchi-Pirelli, who had a brilliant amateur career, in part because he missed wartime military service having lost the thumb and forefinger of his right hand when he was working in textile manufacture before becoming a rider. Belloni won the amateur Italian Championship, the ‘Small’ Giro di Lombardia and the Coppa del Re. He also, surprisingly, won the Giro di Lombardia in 1915 and 1918 and Milano-Sanremo in 1917 and in 1920. He was good friends with Girardengo, yet he had to fight to find the sun spots under the dark shadow of the champion, who was even one year younger than him.

No wonder his nickname was “L’eterno secondo”, the "Eternal second". And it was in second position that he had finished the previous year, 1919, when Girardengo had been like a tyrant since victory on the inaugural day of Giro from Milan to Trento, never relinquishing the leadership until the last day of race, winning the first two and the last five stages. But Tano succeeded in winning the fifth stage and it was a turning point in his Grand Tour career. Legend also has it that he was rewarded with a painting, signed by a certain Pablo Picasso, which, unaware of its value, he sold immediately… for the grand sum of two lire!

The first day of the 1920 Giro d’Italia was shocking: Girardengo was out of the game and Giovanni Gerbi was disqualified for taking a tow from a car, only to be readmitted following the protest of a group of fans. Belloni started to cherish the idea of taking his big chance. After the second stage from Turin to Lucca in Tuscany, Tano had three reasons to be optimistic: he had won the stage, beating Giovanni Brunero (Legnano), he was in the lead of the General Classification, and his his friend-cum-rival had retired from the race.

Belloni repeated his feat on the 3rd stage, celebrating another win in Rome in front of his team-mate Angelo Gremo after 386km that included the Appennini climbs. In the tough 4th stage from Rome to Chieti, the Frenchman Jean Alavoine put on an exciting show. He attacked solo and crossed the line with more than 31 minutes from the Belgian Marcel Buysse and Belloni himself.

Due to exceptionally bad weather and the still very poor condition of roads after the Great War, the Giro d’Italia 1920 saw other impressive breakaways. They included Stage 5 with the Italian Leopoldo Torricelli (Legnano) who arrived solo in Macerata with, again, more than 31 minutes on the group. But Belloni’s leadership was secure.

Alavoine, Belloni and Buysse, all from Bianchi, dominated the next stage to Bologna. Then Belloni decided it was time to once again write his name in the history of that edition, and won the 7th stage with a 2-minute gap; its finish was in Trieste, a city symbolic of the end of the Great War in Italy.

The Giro d'Italia finished in very unusual circumstances on 6 June after a very long day from Trieste to Milan (421.3km): while the leading group was preparing for the final sprint in the Trotter of Turro Park the excited public invaded the road and the jury decided to suspend the race for safety reasons. The victory was assigned to all nine riders in the front group. Only 10 athletes were able to finish all the stages of the Giro, five from Bianchi and five independents. Among the independents, the best was Emilio Petiva, finishing a little more than 3 hours from Belloni who won ahead of his team-mates Angelo Gemo at 32' 24'' and Jean Alavoine at 1h 01' 14''.

Gaetano Belloni was never to win the Giro d'Italia again. He arrived second in 1921 behind Giovanni Brunero (with a deficit of just 41 seconds); he had to retire in 1922 when he was leader; and finished fourth in 1925. He won another Giro di Lombardia in 1928 and the first stage of the 1929 Giro (when he was 37), the last important victory among his 43 as a professional, including 12 stages at the Corsa Rosa.

But thanks to his massive physical structure (he was a Greco-Roman wrestler when young) he was also a very good track racer, being able to win the Six Days of New York twice and the Six Days of Chicago. He became very well known in America: for instance when he fell in Madison Square Garden and broke his arm, the famous Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli offered his limousine to transport the rider to hospital and interrupted show rehearsals to go to visit him. Tano retired when he was 40 years old and he was hired as the Director of the Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan. He died at 87 years old.

Originally scheduled to take place in 2020 from 9 to 31 May, the Giro d’Italia has been postponed to 3-25 October in the revised 2020 UCI  WorldTour Calendar revealed this week by the UCI in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.