Cycling creates many heroes, even just to finish a Grand Tour is a feet itself making the stars of the road seem super human but who would have thought that coming last would make you a star, but that is just what happened to the few that were proud to wear the Maglia Nera or black jersey.

In 1926, Giuseppe de Cozelli would go on to ride his first and last edition of il Giro d’Italia completing only three stages. His contribution led to the birth of an enigmatic cycling hero, and a colour shirt that was anything but pink.

Italy’s post war government was championing a new way forward “Italy is built on work” and this philosophy spread across the nation sweeping up cycling and capturing the nations spirit. Hard work paid dividends and if you were successful all the better.

Bartoli and Coppi were the nations favourite sons – families were split with who supported who, these were the winners but soon a new hero would be born Luigi Malabrocca. In 1946 Luigi rode his first Giro, a talented rider in his own right, he worked hard and embodied the new spirit of the nation...he was coming last.

He came in 4 hours after that year’s race winner Gino Bartoli and the organisers that year chose to award the first Maglia Nera since Cozelli in 1926...a hero was born. Coming last had its advantages – villagers would not only give prize money but free food and drink as well as a bed for the night and when he returned to the Giro the following year he had even developed a van base. People on the streets would hold banners with “long live last place” and as well as asking who was first would quickly follow with who was last !!

He finished last for the second year coming in more than 6 hours after his friend and training partner Fausto Coppi.

Everyone has a nemesis; even the guy in last place and Malabrocca had his...Sante Carolo

The 1949 edition of the Giro may be best remembered for the famous mountain victory by Fausto Coppi at the Cuneo-Pinerolo stage, but for the Giro fans at the time, tongues would wag about the rivalry between Malabrocca and Carolo, each determined to finish last. Sante Carolo was a builder by profession, a cyclist by passion. In a last minute call, he was asked to replace Fiorenzo Magni who had gone down with a stomach infection and couldn’t compete. As fate would have it though, Carolo was not a good cyclist, if anything, his lack of skill and speed was due to being a poor athlete. However, knowing this, Carolo realised that he couldn’t compete with the other riders and instead focused his attention on winning the prestigious Maglia Nera.

Stories of cycling procrastination would be hard to match if you could try. Stopping for leisurely lunches and hiding was a common tactic used by both riders; Malabrocca taking it to levels like no other. On one stage he decided to hide in a farmer’s water tank, when questioned on what he was doing, Malabrocca replied “riding the giro”, the farmer, astonished, remarked “in my water tank?”The rivalry had intensified as the winner of the black jersey was changing hands frequently. Everything was playing into the hands of Malabrocca, whose tricks had given him a huge advantage leading into the final stage, la Maglia Nera would be his for the third time.

To the amazement of many, Malabrocca started the final day quickly. He claimed a cash prize for coming first in one of the four chronometer events, after which he literally disappeared. The race continued, Malabrocca was still nowhere to be seen. His detour landed him in a bar, where he was treated to food and drink, a local villager offering to show him his fishing gear, which Malabrocca duly obliged to view, he wasn’t in a rush. The Giro would be won by Fausto Coppi, Bartali a close second. However, it would be Sante Carolo, and not Malabrocca who would claim the coveted Maglia Nera. In a twist of cruel fate, Malabrocca did nothing wrong. The tactic to delay his finish within the regulations had worked; arriving over two and half hours after the stage winner, Malabrocca naturally thought he had done enough to secure his hat trick of last places in the Giro. The course judges however had enough. Fed up of all the drama, and theatrics, they packed up and left. They would give Malabrocca the peloton race time, making his overall average race classification penultimate place.

Luigi Malabrocca would leave road cycling after the 1949 giro. In his own right he would become a world cyclo-cross champion, twice. La Maglia Nera, however, would be abolished in 1951. Protests came from other riders, feeling that their achievements were being ridiculed, whilst fans became less interested and patient as well. But Malabrocca had a left a lasting legacy, the Giro needed a cult hero, and Malabrocca was the man to fill those shoes.

The last man to “win” the Maglia Nera may come as a bit of a surprise. A name that is synonymous with bike racing a man whose name is top of the game in bike building, Giovanni Pinarello. 

All is not lost with the Maglia Nera the last rider to finish the Giro each year is still awarded not the jersey but a number in black, a small gesture to mark the hero that finished in last place.......