A Brief Fiction of the 719 Ride

An introduction to Ottavio Severo

man standing with a penny farthing bicycle from the 1880s

The bike to ride in the early 1880s

Colombo Ottavio Severo arrived in Colorado Springs in May 1898, one year before Nikola Tesla built his famed Colorado Springs laboratory.

Born in November 1851 during the Risorgimento, the political and social movements that led to Italian unification, Ottavio was the oldest of five children born to Constantino and Elisabetta, poor land owners in the Mezzogiorno (Southern Italy).

Fascinated by bicycles from an early age, 16-year old Ottavio became enlivened by reports about bicycle races being held in France, Britain and Belgium during 1868. Soon afterward, he learned of a city-to-city bicycle race (Paris Rouen) being organized in 1869 by the French newspaper Le Vélocipède Illustré and bicycle manufacturers the Olivier brothers. Overcoming numerous obstacles to get to the start, Ottavio was one of 120 riders to participate in this first-of-its-kind event. He failed to finish the race, managing only 71.9 miles of the required distance in the allowed 24 hours.

A regular and popular participant of Six Day racing in London throughout the 1870s, Ottavio came across the Atlantic to show his skill in Chicago and Boston in 1879. It was in Chicago that he met 20-year old Italian immigrant Maria Candeloro, who would become his wife in 1882 and would die in child birth with her son the following year.

cyclists on high wheel bicycles line up at a racing event

A bicycle race from the 1880s

The development of the "safety bicycle" in 1884, the forerunner of today’s modern bicycle, along with the invention of the pneumatic tire by John Dunlop in 1888 and the advent of mass bicycle production in 1890 contributed to a "bicycle craze" that saw cycling become the dominant athletic event of the time.

Two of today’s Monuments of Cycling began during this "Golden Age of Bicycling" — Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1892 and Paris-Roubaix in 1896.

In a similar vein and at the same time, the discovery of gold on the western slope of Pikes Peak turned Colorado Springs into "a city of millionaires." Against this backdrop Ottavio arrived in Colorado Springs with the idea of organizing a bicycle race to the top of Pikes Peak.

Early in 1900 Ottavio met Spencer Penrose and shared his vision for La Corsa verso l’Alto (The Race to the Top). Pikes Peak had a crude road leading up to its summit since 1887, but Penrose felt the commercial success of a bicycle race depended on better infrastructure for the racers and spectators, specifically improved access to the peak’s summit.

three bike riders stand next to their high wheel ordinarys

High wheel bicyclists in Manitou Springs circa 1884

As the years passed Ottavio, whom Penrose took to calling Cos because of Ottavio’s cosmopolitan character and fluency in French, English and Italian, lived fearing his race would never occur. He could only watch as the French newspaper L’Auto set up the first Tour de France in 1903, and then La Gazzetta dello Sport organized the Giro d’Italia six years later.

As interest in cycling dropped off in the first decade of the 20th century Ottavio implored Penrose to act on his behalf — "Build the road for the race you said, 'I must see occur.'" Now in his sixties, a distressed Ottavio suggested to Penrose that if he didn’t act to improve the road he could miss an opportunity to take advantage of the growing number of automobiles and tour buses wanting to summit the mountain.

In 1915, Penrose received permission from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to refine, complete and maintain what is now Pikes Peak Highway. In exchange he received a 20-year license to charge a $2 toll for access to the road.

The following year Penrose sponsored an auto and motorcycle race up the mountain. The new automotive technology left the bicycle behind. The birth of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb meant La Corsa wouldn’t happen.

Announcing the end of La Corsa

Announcing the end of La Corsa

On July 19, 1923 at the age of 71 years and nine months, Ottavio mounted a bicycle for the first time since the highway opened. It had been seven years, one month and nine days since he last rode.

Bitter with feelings of betrayal, Ottavio set off to summit Zebulon’s mountain on Spencer’s road. He died later that day, at 7:19 p.m., after being forced off the mountainside by a Hudson Essex racing to the summit.

Since 1988 when new area codes were needed to accommodate the growing number of telephone numbers in Colorado, the 719 designation assigned to Colorado Springs and Southern Colorado has acted as a call to remember Ottavio.

In 2010, nearly 90 years after Ottavio’s death, The Broadmoor Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb came to be. But it’s the 719 Ride, a loop course alive with a heartbeat elevation profile, that seeks to honor Ottavio.

The standard course, I Cinque Giri (The Five Rounds), has a distance of 71.9 miles and more than 7,190' of elevation gain...substantially more. Held annually on July 19 and beginning at 7:19 a.m, all the 719 Ride courses recognize Ottavio "Cos" Severo, a little-known Colorado Springs resident and bicycle racing pioneer.

If you are only going to do one bike event this year,

Then I urge you to participate in the 719 Ride on the west side of Colorado Springs. It has miles and miles of climbing the same loop over and over again. A total brain meltdown is required to go the distance. The experience is absolutely stunning, and I recommend it 100%.

- Ottavio Severo