The Maglia Nera and the Race for Last Place

Rafael Andriato is probably not a name many of you will be familiar with. At time of writing, however, the young Brazilian rider is languishing in 172nd position in the general classification of the Giro d'Italia. Or, to put it less kindly, with only four days until the final stage ends in Brescia, Andriato is in last place.

Not that Andriato, who rides for the Italian Vini Fantini-Selle Italia team, has anything to be ashamed about. Just completing a Grand Tour is an impressive addition to the palmarès of any pro rider and the 2013 edition of the race has been especially brutal, with weather conditions that have sapped the energy and the health of many riders. When you cast your eye over the list of casualties - defending champion Ryder Hesjedal, David Millar, Taylor Phinney, and not forgetting one Sir Bradley Wiggins - then the Brazilian's achievement looks even more remarkable.

Someone has to bring up the rear end of the peloton and if Andriato can hold off the challenges of the other backmarkers in the four final stages, then he will  'wear' the symbolic black jersey awarded to the last rider in the Giro d'Italia, the maglia nera.

The maglia nera has a short and chequered history. Similar to its more famous French cousin, la lanterne rouge, the jersey was first introduced by the organisers of the Giro in 1946 to provide due  recognition to the achievements of the humble gregarios - those anonymous riders in the peloton who toil selflessly throughout the three weeks in support of their respective team leaders.

Very quickly, however, riders realised that winning the jersey could bring financial rewards in the form of the cash prize offered to the last man and the subsequent lucrative post-race appearances.This was an enticing prospect for the riders, many of whom came from poor backgrounds and were paid little for the daily suffering they had to endure. The maglia nera, it would soon transpire, would also bestow the wearer with notoriety and celebrity too. 

The maglia nera became synonymous with one cyclist in particular; the Italian, Luigi Malabrocca. A good friend of Fausto Coppi and, by all accounts, a natural talent on a bike (he would later win the Italian cyclo-cross championship on two occasions) Malabrocca was the youngest of seven brothers born into poverty in the northern Italian town of Tortona. Seduced by the lure of the cash prize on offer to the winner of the maglia nera, Malabrocca made it his mission to win the black jersey at all costs.

Some of the tales surrounding his antics are possibly apocryphal in nature, but they illustrate the lengths he was prepared to go to win the jersey. Puncturing his own tyres, hiding in barns and easing off in the final kilometres were some of his less brazen tactics.  He won the maglia nera in its inaugural year and again in 1947. On his death in 2006 at the age of eighty-six, La Gazzetta Dello Sport wrote: “Luigi Malabrocca was a unique figure in Italian cycling history, a special man from an era of romance - a different cycling time. Men like Malabrocca die, but they never leave us.”

Now that is a eulogy one would attribute to the likes of Alfredo Binda or Gino Bartali, but not to a cyclist who excelled in the corsa all’ultimo posto (the race for last place). Malabrocca was certainly 'unique',  but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Yet the maglia nera brought Malabrocca  fame and relative wealth that the organisers of the Giro d'Italia had not envisaged when they conceived the award. His achievements are still celebrated today - in Milan there is even a cycle route that bears his name!

Some might call Malabrocca's motives cynical: some might argue he seized an opportunity with the same determination and gusto that riders higher up the GC standings would  expend on chasing down a rival. But as his notoriety increased, his participation in the Giro was celebrated by the Italian public. Villagers would offer him hot meals and comfortable accommodation for the night and he was never one to turn down the offer of a drink in a local bar - particularly as it delayed him just that little bit more!  On one occasion an adoring  fan spontaneously  presented him with a sheep,  which the enterprising Malabrocca promptly sold to the chef of the team hotel the same evening.

On one stage of the Giro a farmer discovered him  hiding in his empty water reservoir. When he asked Malabrocca what he was doing there,  he replied “I'm riding the Giro”, to which the  astonished farmer replied: “In my water tank?”

"You ain't seen me!" Luigi Malabrocca keeps a watchful eye out for the Giro race officials.

At the height of his fame he even enjoyed a small cameo role alongside the hugely popular Italian comedian, Totò, in the film Totò al Giro d'Italia - sharing the limelight  with cycling legends such as Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet and Fiorenzo Magni.

In 1948 the maglia nera competition regained some integrity when it was won by a rider whose performance encapsulated the very reason why the Giro organisers had introduced the jersey in the first place. Despite fracturing his hand in an early stage,  Aldo Bini continued in the race, but such was his discomfort he was forced to push his bike up the mountain climbs. His pugnacious bravado resulted in him losing so much time that he arrived at the finish in Milan a little over 4 hours (overall) behind the winner, Fiorenzo Magni. His nearest rival for the maglia nera, compatriot Valeriano Zannazi, finished only 10 minutes ahead of him, so it was not surprising that Bini was lauded for his heroics.

In 1949, however, Malabrocca returned.

Intent on securing a hat-rick of maglia nera victoires, he came armed with the necessary cunning and experience to see off his rivals. But there was one fatal flaw to Malabrocca's carefully laid plan: he had not accounted for the participation of a cyclist bereft of any innate talent; step forward, Sante Carollo.

A builder by profession, Carollo had neither the skill  nor the tenacity to compete at this level of cycling. Somewhat ironically, he had been drafted into the Wilier-Triestina squadra to replace the defending champion, Magni, who had been stricken by food poisoning.  What Carollo lacked in ability,  he ably made up for in his capacity to seize an opportunity when it arose. The lucrative cash prize awarded to the winner of the  maglia nera was one that Carollo was prepared to fight for and when he rolled up to the start of the Giro in Palermo he did so with all the requisite skills to do battle with the master of the game, Malabrocca.

As Bartali and Coppi fought for the maglia rosa at the head of the field, Malabrocca and Carollo engaged in a no less savage duel in their slipstream, albeit at a slightly lower tempo. Whether hiding from race officials, enjoying protracted lunches or making ponderous mechanical stops, the two would always ensure they stayed ahead of the broom wagon and reach the finish of each stage just before the time cut off.

On the final day, however, events conspired against Malabrocca's hopes of winning the jersey for a third time. At first, his tactics for the 267km stage from Torino to Monza went according to plan. As Fausto Coppi converged on the finish to claim his third Giro title, Malabrocca was enjoying the company of some locals in the bar of a rural town, even visiting the house of one of the patrons to admire his fishing gear.  He  eventually arrived at the finish over two hours later than the stage winner, only to find that the race officials had packed up and left. Fed up with his cynical delaying tactics,  they awarded Malabrocca the same finishing time as the main bunch. In doing so, Malabrocca's overall finishing time catapulted him ahead of the hopeless Carollo. 

Out of 102 starters, Malabrocca finished in 64th position, 7 hours and 47 minutes behind Coppi. Carollo, meanwhile, jubilantly claimed the maglia nera - his final time an impressive 10 hours slower than that of Il Campionissimo! Disgusted, and no doubt peeved that the Giro organisers had denied him of some lucrative post-race appearances, Malabrocca quit the sport and would never compete in another Giro d'Italia again.

1951 was the final year the maglia nera was awarded. Reacting to complaints from the riders themselves that the black jersey, far from celebrating the toil and pain of the riders in the peloton, was actually detracting from their achievements, the Giro organisers withdrew the prize. Incidentally, the 1951 maglia nera was won by a certain Giovanni Pinarello.  Using some of  the prize money awarded to him, and having retired from the sport,  the famous Pinarello brand was born, though it's worth noting that the company's website glosses over their founder's achievement.  

Giovanni Pinarello, resplendent in the maglia nera in 1951, surrounded by admirers.

The maglia nera enjoyed a brief existence, but it remains celebrated even today and firmly rooted in cycling lore. Earlier in the year Rapha and Sir Paul Smith colluded to produce a special edition jersey 'inspired by the maglia nera' including a dossard bearing the number 81, the race number of Malabrocca. Likewise the Italian clothing company, Pella, have just issued a stylish black vintage style merino wool jersey, emblazoned with the team Malabrocca  rode for in 1948, Edelweiss, which is available exclusively through their UK stockist, Rosa Sport.

Rapha and Sir Paul Smith's Special Edition take on the maglia nera - an instant hit.

In 2008, however, the organisers of the Giro resurrected the maglia nera award, though due to a UCI ruling that the Grand Tours can only award four jerseys, which the Giro already has, the 'jersey' is presented in the form of the riders race number in white on a black background. Explaining the decision to reintroduce the prize, the Director of the Giro at the time, Angelo Zomegnan,  echoed the sentiments of his predecessors: "We wanted to offer recognition to those who fight and struggle at the back of the classification."  It is, however, a symbolic award, with no prize money on offer - which suggests that  Zomegnan was wary of the historical precedent.

Whether Rafael Andriato will be the last man into Brescia on Sunday afternoon remains to be seen, but one thing we mere mortals should not do is make light of his standing in the general classification standings. Three weeks of racing, a total of 3,454 km ridden and only two rest days to recuperate and convalesce. Snowstorms, freezing temperatures and torrential rainfall have all conspired to make conditions brutal and treacherous. One thing is for sure, whoever 'wears' the maglia nera should be applauded with the same enthusiasm and respect with which we applaud the winner of the Giro d'Italia.

Text: © Wheelsuckers

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Comment by Wheelsuckers on May 29, 2013 at 14:07

Rafael Andriato did not win the maglia nera, but ended the race in 165th position, four places above the last man to cross the line, Italian rider Davide Appollonio of the Ag2R-La Mondiale team, Appollonio's overall time is recorded at 89 hours, 22 minutes and 4 seconds - a little under four and a half hours behind the winner, Vincenzo Nibali. 

To read more about the ups and downs of the Giro, about the winners and the losers, then click here

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