In 1920s Italy, those guys riding machines, often quite complicated to operate and always dirty with dust and oil, were known as 'centauri' or centaurs. These motorcycle pioneers were considered by their fellow citizens as the modern knights of their time.

1920s - Clubs founded across the country

Owning a motorcycle in the 1920s was not cheap, and certainly not for everyone, but it was a great deal less expensive than a car, which at the time was reserved only for the rich.

The motorcycle was then above all a utilitarian means of getting around, mainly to get to work, but on a Sunday, many 'centauri' took advantage of the day off to get on the bikes, minus a helmet but with the ubiquitous handkerchief-over-the-mouth, and escape on the rough tracks and dusty roads of the surrounding countryside.

The 'Club Del Motore Sestrese' from Sestri Ponente, a suburb of Genoa, Liguria, seen here posing at a rally in 1931, was one of the many Italian clubs founded by guys united by a common passion

The shared passion of owning a motorcycle led the 'centauri' of the time to found clubs across the country and of course motorcycling events and competitions followed. These events were organised for the sportiest and most daring amongst them, mainly in the cities and proved to be popular and extremely successful.

1925 - Miro Maffeis, pictured here with his Bianchi 350 during the Milan-Naples event, was one of the most famous 'centauri' competitors of the 1920s. His image as a tough and fearless daredevil brought him tremendous success with women who adored his style

1930s - Birth of the first large gatherings

A decade later, at the beginning of the 1930s, the birth took place of official Italian motorcycle gatherings. These coincidentally emerged during the start of the 'fascist era'. The talk was of patriotism, nationalism, courage and the future of the motherland, and a cult developed for those who died during the Great War.

Motorcycling, even in its touring forms, attracted a large following throughout the country, as evidenced by this photo taken during the 'Rosa d'Inverno' motorcycle rally of 1933. This image made the cover of 'La Domenica Sportiva', the contemporary Italian weekly newspaper covering all sports

Among the most famous of these very popular gatherings at the time, was the legendary winter rally 'Rosa d'Inverno' in Milano, first held in 1930 and organised by the glorious MC Milano, one of the oldest clubs in the country, dating back to 1904. Another was the 'Raduno dei Centauri' held in Rome for the first time in May 1933. This was organised by the Reale Moto Club D'Italia and was attended by an enormous crowd of around 10,000 motorcycling enthusiasts from all over the country.

Raduno dei Centauri 1935 - An Italian club of 'centauri' in uniform of the time pose for a souvenir photo. Two years earlier, for the first edition of this gathering in Rome, around 10,000 motorcyclists took part

The first Pasubio motorcyclist 'alpino-rally', organised on 15 August 1934 by the Moto Club Schio was also 'forged and founded' in the fascist ideology of the time.

The Moto Club Schio

The history of the Pasubio rally begins in January 1934 with the dynamic MC Schio, a club founded in 1923 by a group of 'centauri' and which to this day remains one of the oldest motorcycling associations in the country. In 1934, this club, then composed almost exclusively of young people under the age of thirty, had the idea of organising a summer gathering which had to be sporty but also maintained a patriotic theme.

This event gathered 'centauri' from all over the country in their home town of Schio with the aim of honouring and commemorating the thousands of Italian soldiers who died fighting on the peaks of the nearby Mount Pasubio during the Great War.

Certainly the one and only photo that remains today of the MC Schio members of yesteryear, taken in front of the club's headquarters

On Sunday morning, a real ordeal awaited both riders and their machines. The 'centauri' would be faced with the tough challenge on their rudimentary machines of climbing the many miles of rock strewn, dusty and dirty roads that would eventually take them into the mountains and to the top of Pasubio, some 2000m high.

August 15, 1934 - Participants at the very first rally, seen here ascending the Pasubio mount on their rudimentary machines of the time

Giulio Ultimo Ziliotto - The creator of the rally

Behind every major international rally of the past that has stood the test of time there have been exceptional characters behind the scenes. One such was Giulio Ultimo Ziliotto. It's through his inexhaustible passion for motorcycles, his vision and charisma, energy and dynamism, that not only was the rally created, also brilliantly promoted. He is responsible for the phenomenal success of the Pasubio rally in the five years before the outbreak of war in 1939.

Giulio Ultimo Ziliotto

Ziliotto, an accountant by profession, first held the position of secretary at MC Schio from 1933-1934, and the position of president from 1935 to 1940. Ziliotto was also a skilled author and left to posterity books such as "Centauri Sul Pasubio" written in 1935, in which he describes in detail the conception, development and story of the first meeting of the Pasubio on August 15 1934.

Unfortunately he died prematurely at the age of 38, killed in the massacre of Schio on July 7, 1945.

Monte Pasubio

Monte Pasubio is a stupendous series of peaks and high plateaux southeast of Rovereto and north of Vicenza. A partly calcareous mountain massif in the upper parts of the Vicentine Prealps, located on the border between the provinces of Vicenza and Trento.

The Pasubio and its valley

The massif slopes are very steep, with characteristic peaks, ravines and gorges, especially on the southern side. The upper part, on the other hand, consists of a small, undulating plateau around 2,000m high, where ridges alternate with large grassy basins, often used as pastures.

The mountain of 10,000 dead

"War does not determine who is right - only who is left." - (Bertrand Russell)

The Pasubio massif, a strategic position on the Italian front was the theatre of bloody battles from June 1916 to November 1918 between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies.

At the start of the Great War, Monte Pasubio had been in Austrian territory, but was quickly occupied by the Italians, following the orders of their generals to occupy the passes and peaks at all costs.

Capturing it would have given the Austrian high command access to the Venetian Plain and the ability to capture much of the Italian Army from behind their own lines.

Several hundred thousand Italian infantry soldiers, ill-equipped and poorly trained, many of whom were seeing the Alps for the first time in their lives, did what they could, commanded as they were by officers who were mostly unskilled in mountain warfare.

In these bloody and hard battles in the Pasubio mountains involving troops from both sides, thousands were killed. This area became something of a 'no-mans' land and has inherited the name 'the corpse mill' or 'the mountain of 10,000 dead'.

Pasubio rally 1962 - As seen here during the 1962 meeting, rallyists continue the tradition, in mid-August each year, gathering at the sacred monument during their climb up the Pasubio.

Today, shrines and mass graves mark out all the battlefields of the Italian mountain front. These places are still the subject of the alpine tourist circuits, celebrated as memorials and museums of the Great War, where the stories and men of the 'white war' are commemorated.

Pasubio rally 2016 - The attendance seems to be less nowadays than in the 60s, but nevertheless the tradition still continues

The 'Road of 52 tunnels'

Now let's talk about the highlight of the Pasubio rally of yesteryear. The legendary picturesque mountain road that our peers, the 'centauri' of the 1930s, had to conquer on their rudimentary and often sluggish machines, their engines heating to extremes under the scorching August sun on their way to the summit.

Pasubio rally 1934 - From the starting point located in the Scarubbi street in downtown Schio, these 4 participants among the 600 who came from all over Italy to take part in the very first rally of 1934, climb the route which will lead them finally and perhaps painfully to the 'Porte del Pasubio'

This mountain mule road is a true masterpiece of military engineering and foresight, given the speed of execution, the harsh conditions they faced, and the era in which it was built. The Italian Army, together with six hundred workers completed it in just 10 months . The work began on February 6, 1917, and was completed in November of that year.

Pasubio rally 1935 - The mule path to reach certain places is not wide but that doesn't stop the bravest of 'centauri' daring to climb it

The road crossed the southern slope of the mountain with its peaks, deep canyons and sheer rock faces, outside of the range of Austro-Hungarian artillery.

Pasubio rally 1936 - It is wise for these friends in the 3rd meeting of 1936 to stop on the mule track overhanging the ravines and the canyons to allow their machines to cool down

Key aspects of the road include year round access, its location outside of enemy artillery range and its accessibility by mule. The minimum width of 2.20 meters (7.2 ft) was originally intended to allow the transit of two mules with their baggage. Building it was of great strategic importance because it allowed communication and transfer of supplies from the base to the summit area of ​​Mt. Pasubio.

Pasubio rally 1937 - A combo between two walls continues its way to the final control point at the 'Porte Pasubio', during the 4th meeting of 1937

This 6,555m (21,506 ft) long road, of which 2,280m (7,480 ft) comprise 52 tunnels excavated through the rock, winds between Bocchetta Campiglia (1,216 m.) and the Porte del Pasubio (1,934 m.)

Pasubio rally 1954 - Twenty years after the first meeting, the rally concept with its Sunday morning climb has remained the same, as evidenced here by the arrival stage at the 'Porte Pasubio' with its large crowd of participants. What has undoubtedly changed is the technology which has evolved hugely in two decades, although the enthusiasm for the event remains the same

In the mid 1930s, maintenance and improvement works on this road were undertaken. An exceptional document filmed at the time shows the magnitude of the work accomplished back in 1917 by the military engineering corp:

Continued ...

- Jean-Francois Helias