On the 10th of June 1949, high on the mountain roads between Cuneo and Pinerolo, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali duelled for the 32nd edition of the Giro d’Italia. It was a truly brutal route, dubbed by La Gazzetta dello Sport as “the leg-breaker”, and the weather was wet, cold and miserable.
Newspapers of the time detail how Coppi broke free of the chasing group to ride 190 kilometres solo, climbing the sodden slopes of the Col d’Izoard alone and putting a full 20 minutes into his rival. It was a crushing ride that wrested back the maglia rosa for Coppi and effectively put the result beyond doubt.
Elsewhere in the mountains however, another lone rider was engaged in a duel of his own. Many hours behind Coppi, the very last man on the road strained to climb as slowly and as ponderously as he could. This rider was Luigi Malabrocca, perhaps the worst cyclist in the history of the Giro.
This is the strange and occasionally absurd story of the maglia nera, the ‘black jersey’, which for six editions of the race, between 1946 and 1951, was awarded to the last placed rider of the Giro d’Italia.
The full history of this most surreal of prizes is chronicled best in John Foot’s book Pedalare! Pedalare!, sifted together from various newspaper reports and accounts from fellow riders.
The story that emerges is that – far from being a mark of shame – the maglia nera wearer would enjoy a bizarre adulation from the Italian public. Cash prizes were awarded to the winner (well, the biggest loser), as well as food and drink at the end of each stage. Eventually, the battle for last place became almost as fiercely fought as the race at the front.
Good at being bad
It was in this surreal contest that Malabrocca thrived. That’s not to say Malabrocca was a bad cyclist: he was twice the national cyclo-cross champion, as well as winning the Tours of Croatia and Slovenia. But there was some ineffable quality about Luigi Malabrocca that made him a great loser, even if he was only ever an average winner.
Indeed, his very name lended itself to the competition for the worst rider – ‘mala’ nearly makes the Italian malato, or ‘sick’, while ‘brocca’ echoes the word brocco, used to describe someone who is terrible at something. As Foot puts it, the name “was almost perfect for a cyclist who was trying to be bad”.
He won the maglia nera in 1946 and 1947, attracting a cult following in the process. Fans would stay at the finish hours after the favourites had arrived in order to cheer on their last-placed hero.
A journalist from the Gazzetta noted with some amusement that when roadside fans asked the question “who is in first?”, the second query would inevitably be “who is in last?”
Idly trailing the peloton at the back of the race, Malabrocca would often stop for an espresso in roadside bars. Foot tells us that with no pressures on his time, these stops were liable to turn into long lunches with tifosi that lasted well into the afternoon.
Exploits such as these only helped to greater endear him to the public, who grew fond of Malabrocca’s odd name and comically bad performances. “Long live last place!” they would shout as he trundled leisurely by.
A farcical battle for last place
By the 1949 Giro, though, Malabrocca had serious rivals for the maglia nera. Jealous of his popularity, a rider named Sante Corrolo had set his sights on the jersey.
The duel that followed was nothing short of farcical as the race entered the theatre of the absurd – two rivals going mano a mano as slow as they could manage, wheeling across the Italian countryside to rapturous adulation.
Stories from the time talk of riders hiding in a bush or a barn, trying to trick the other into thinking his rival was up the road.
Foot points to an account from a farmer who, having found Malabrocca hiding in his water tank, asked him what on earth he was doing. “Riding in the Giro,” said Malabrocca. “What, in my tank?” the farmer replied.
This epic contest in procrastination lasted the whole of the three-week Giro, a saga in slapstick equally as compelling as the fight at the other end of the race. Eventually, it would be Carollo who won the black jersey for himself. He finished almost 10 hours behind race winner Coppi and two hours behind closest challenger Malabrocca.
The maglia nera was retired two years after this showdown as riders protested that the contest was making a mockery of their efforts.
It enjoyed something of a revival in the 2008 Giro with the introduction of a black race number, but riders dismissed this as a gimmick.
Yet the story of the maglia nera is far from irrelevant to the state of modern cycling, and the question over we might have lost or gained in its retirement is still worth asking.
Ostensibly, the black jersey signified last place – the antithesis of victory. Indeed, it is the holy cow of winning – winning stages, winning sprints, winning jerseys, winning anything – that has been the bedrock of cycling as we know it.
Winning means sponsors, contracts, fame. Cycling is about winning. Winning is cycling.
In that pursuit of winning, cycling has taken human performance further than any other sport. The races we watch now are something of a garish exaggeration of those from 60 years ago. Modern cycling is cutting edge, over-muscled, supercharged on marginal gains (some more ethical than others).
And yet, for all this progress, pro cycling has never been so sanitised, so safe and so stage managed. Never again will fans find a Grand Tour rider hiding in their water tank or drinking espresso in a bar. And perhaps that is something cycling has lost, not gained.