Carlton’s Olympic cyclist

Carlton’s Olympic cyclist
Jeff Atkinson

Carlton’s Olympic cyclist

On the corner of Lygon and Grattan streets in Carlton is a building with a distinctive neon sign featuring a man on a racing cycle.

Above the neon sign are the words “Borsari’s Corner”. The business that the building houses is called Ristorante Borsari. But who was Borsari?

Nino Borsari was a lad from a poor background in Italy, who at age 21 became a gold medal-winning cyclist for Italy at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, winning a gold medal in the 4000-metre team pursuit race. Two years later, in 1934, he was invited to Australia to compete in a thousand-mile cycle road race that was part of the celebrations marking the centenary of the founding of Melbourne. Nino delighted the Australian crowds with his happy disposition and won the alpine stage of the race from Mt Buffalo to Omeo.

In March 1940 he was back in Australia racing. But when Mussolini’s Italy entered the war in June that year, he found himself caught here and unable to return home.

As an Italian citizen he was officially an “enemy alien” and was lucky not to be interned. But he was however forbidden from racing.

Instead, he opened a bicycle store on the corner of Lygon and Grattan streets. Later that year he married Fanny Cester, an Italian-born opera student who had migrated to Melbourne in 1939.

When the war ended, he and Fanny had grown so used to life in Melbourne that they did not go home to Italy. Instead, in 1946, they both became naturalised Australian citizens. Sometime in the late 1940s the prominent neon sign featuring Nino on a racing bike was placed on the bicycle shop, and the location became known as Borsari’s Corner.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the shop on the corner expanded to become Borsari’s Emporium, selling a variety of goods to the newly arrived Italian migrants who were then coming to Carlton in large numbers – household items, giftware, jewellery, and Italian magazines and newspapers.

By 1961 the business had expanded sufficiently for them to establish a separate bicycle and sports store in the building next door.

Nino Borsari became a prominent businessman and citizen in Melbourne. In 1962 he received an Italian knighthood for his support of new immigrants in Melbourne. He was a founding member of Juventus Football Club and president of the Australian Boxing Federation. In 1988 his wife Fanny died, and eight years later he himself passed away. But his name lives on in Carlton, on the landmark corner with its distinctive neon sign. •

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