When, in 1893, the first track in beaten earth was built at Cascine’s velodrome, cycling as a sport had existed in Florence for at least 20 years.
This had been since the moment in which, in an unforgettable February morning of 1870, cyclists on very high and heavy bicycles headed towards Pistoia.
They were an undefined number of members of the “Veloce Club” (The Fast Club), many of which were foreigners such as its president, the Belgian, Gustave Langlade.
It was the first real cycling race, for 33 km. An American boy, Rynner Van Hest, won it. According to some he was a noble person, he ran at approximately 13km per hour, which is understandable given the weight of the cycle. The first place prizes for this boy were a golden medal and a revolver – who knows if he ever made use of them. The “Veloce Club” was founded only two weeks before the race, around 15th January.
It probably was the first Italian cycling club with its own charter, amongst the ones that were part of the Italian Velocipede Union. Everything was useful to introducing people with the new instrument of modernity that could have been much more affordable than a car and had the advantage that could make people really passionate about it.
It was still the time of the velocipede, the “machine” with a big wheel in the front and a smaller one in the back. Young people were fascinated by it and everybody loved spending time at the Cascine.
The Florence-Prato-Pistoia race was the first act of long history belonging to this sport. The Club took the more Italian name of Florentine Velocipede Club (Club Velocipedistico fiorentino) in 1884. The company of enthusiasts continued with its challenges and their point of reference was naturally the Cascine, Florence’s great park that had been made available to the public for decades.
It was the best place for sports lovers, those practicing gymnastics, Pallone a bracciale (a typical Italian team game where balls are struck back and forth with a wooden cylinder), horseback riding, football, and, of course, cycling. The velodrome was built so that people could cycle without harming anyone else and so that the fans could be more concentrated. According to some, the first track in beaten hearth was done in 1884. A proper concrete track was built five years later.
Amongst the great cyclists that ran in the races organized by the Veloce Club, there was also a world champion as Arthur Zimmermann, the first gold medalist of all times, in 1893 in Chicago. Veloce Club was not the only sporting association interested in this sport.
There was at least another one, Club Sportivo Ardire. It was with the fusion of the two associations that, in 1903, Club Sportivo Firenze, was founded. This association wanted the velodrome and it pushed for it to be built, even if in a provisional manner.
According to a 1907 magazine, “Ars et Labor”, the Florentine Velocipede Club, with a track and an appropriate building, had increased its interests from cycling to also to motorcycling, gymnastics, fencing, football, palla vibrata (a team game where a heavy leather ball is placed at the center of it), tamburello ( a very ancient team sport which takes its name by the object used to hit the ball, which looks like a tambourine), skating, walking etc.
Since then, Cascine’s velodrome has seen the greatest Italian and international champions ride through it. Most especially, it has seen those champions who brought Florence and Tuscany onto the world scenes. Some of them were Pietro Linari, Enzo Sacchi, Gino Bartali, Alfredo Martini and many others up to Franco Ballerini.
When Bartali won the Tuscan tour (Giro di Toscana) on June 24th 1953, he was 39 years old. The velodrome was his witness with a huge crowd piled inside and outside of it. Newspapers reported that “Florence was all on fire for its old champion”.
One chronicle stated that “only a few spinsters, unknowingly, were in San Giovanni, in front of the cathedral”. Most of all, the great ring of the Cascine had been the kingdom of Enzo Sacchi, Olympics winner and of two amateur world championship between 1951 and 1952. He was a real product of the velodrome. In 2003, after it had been closed for many years, the Velodrome returned to shine with Alfredo Martini’s pedaling. He was the great coach of the Italian national team, who had also raced with some of the greatest champions.
History continued and the velodrome continued being one of the Cascine park’s pearls. Where the park is still Florence’s green lung. Florence has the duty of keeping it always polished, for itself and for all those cycling friends who may still see it as a temple.