One Hundred Reasons to Celebrate
The late David Duffield, Eurosport’s British commentator who could fill in hours of television time with entertaining anecdotes about cheese, geology and cycling history, had a profound love for the Giro d’Italia. For Duffield, his appreciation of Italy’s Grand Tour started in Trieste in 1951 when he and an Army friend sneaked off to see a stage finish. There are millions across the world who have an equally deep love for the Giro, but what makes the Giro d’Italia so special?
I think it’s something to do with its status as underdog to the Tour de France. To cyclists it’s a race that feels like it belongs to us, rather than to the world at large. And for those of us in Northern Europe it’s a welcome blast of sunshine. Every year it seems to arrive rather unexpectedly; we’ve immersed ourselves in the grit and grime of the cobbled classics, and then a couple of weeks later we’re shifting our focus to Italy and mountains and sunshine. This in turn makes us think of summer holidays, of strolling through Mediterranean towns with an ice cream, sand between our toes, cool glasses of wine… I’m getting carried away, you get the picture. The Giro can be chaotic and crazy. The route is less formulaic than the Tour de France, and the cliché of the tifosi’s ‘passion’ is, like most clichés, largely true.
This year the Giro turns one hundred. The first edition took place in 1909, but due to breaks for the two World Wars, 2017 will be its hundredth edition. To mark the occasion the organisers have plotted a route that spans as much of Italy as possible. In doing so they are emphasizing the idea that the Giro is a unifying force, its role in Italian life has always been to bring the country together.
In 1909 Italy was still a young nation – it hadn’t yet celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the unification of its various autonomous regions. The north of the country was industrializing at pace, creating wealth and opportunity, while the south was largely poor and rural. Cycling, both as a sport and a means of transport, developed quickly in the northern cities, and became linked to the identity of the nation. Milan’s famous pink newspaper, the Gazzetta Dello Sport, was already involved in cycling through its sponsorship of Milan San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy. The Administrative Director, Armanda Cougnet, had witnessed the success of the early Tours de France, and proposed the concept of a comparable event in Italy. His intention was primarily to sell newspapers, but he also wanted to create a truly national event, something that would endure in the national consciousness. The first edition started and finished in Milan and its eight stages took a clockwise route, going as far south as Naples. Each stage started and finished in a big city, including Bologna, Rome, Florence and Genoa. The winner, after 2448 kilometres, was Italian Luigi Ganna, and the tens of thousands who cheered him back into Milan was testament to the event’s success.
Since then the Giro has written many of the legends that define our sport. Its early winners, such as Costante Girardengo and Alfredo Binda, were national heroes. Its famous rivalries, such as Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, Francesco Moser and Guiseppe Saronni, inflamed the passions of fans. And its multitude of stories of bravery, willpower and raw emotion have inspired generations. This is drama played out on across the stunning physical landscape of Italy, from the white roads of Tuscany to the volcanic splendour of Sicily, the sparkling Adriatic coastline, and the brutal corrugations of the Dolomites.
Because the event is based in Milan, and the decisive climbs are in the same region, the Giro will always have a northern bias. So the organisers are very aware of the political implications of their route selections. At times of division, this sensibility is especially acute. The reunifying 1946 edition is a case in point. Italy emerged from the Second World War in ruins, physically and psychologically. After the Allies landed in the south in 1943, they pushed northwards but the German defense was robust. Every town and landmark was fiercely fought. The Allies heavily bombed the front line, and the Germans destroyed bridges and roads as they retreated. Simultaneously there was another, more secret civil war going on. Mussolini’s Fascists against the Socialist partisans. And while the Allies and Germans laid waste to the country’s infrastructure, this bitter civil war scarred the nation’s conscience.
The country was hardly in a fit state to host a bike race. The roads were bombed and broken, telephone lines out of operation, the economy was decimated, food rationing was stringent, and much of the population were living in temporary housing. And yet a new kind of optimism was finding its feet. In June 1946 the monarchy was abolished and a republic established and just two weeks later seventy riders rolled out of Milan on the first of twenty Giro stages. Before the start, the Pope blessed the race. The route designers tried to incorporate as many regions as possible, making sure that it travelled from north to south in a symbolic reunifying of the nation. Gazzetta Dello Sport dubbed it Il Giro della Rinascita, the Giro of Rebirth, saying: “The Giro has been reborn to serve a higher duty which transcends itself… All Italians part of a single civilization and with one heart and they all see the Giro as a mirror in which they can recognize themselves.”
This year, Vicenzo Nibali and his rivals will race on a route that travels south to north. The route takes in some of the iconic mountains of the Giro’s history, though the organisers have thankfully avoided trying to wedge in every important place from the last hundred years. The Grande Partenza takes place in the sun-drenched (hopefully) island of Sardinia with a trio of road stages that should favour the sprinters but have enough lumps to make them potentially risky for the overall contenders. On day four, after a short ferry crossing to Sicily, the peloton will face the first summit finish of the race, on the tough slopes of Mount Etna. The following day’s stage will finish in Nibali’s home town of Messina; after the Etna test will he be in the maglia rosa?
Once on the mainland, the sixth and seventh stages will pull the race across the most southerly regions of Calabria, Basilicata and into Puglia. With the overall contenders trying to stay safe, these stages will be for the sprinters and the puncheurs looking to score before the mountains start. And on stage nine, the race will hit the Blockhaus in Abruzzo, an intimidating limestone peak in the Apennine range. The Giro hasn’t visited here very often, but its first visit in 1967 saw Eddy Merckx begin his career as a serious stage racer – he took his first mountain-top stage win on the climb.
After a rest day and a 39 kilometres time-trial, the Giro works its way further north with two flat stages. The first is across Emilia Romagna, to the ancient city of Reggio Emilia – home of the famous cheese. Then a stage that follows much of the early part of Milan-San Remo through the Po Valley to Tortona.
Stage fourteen to the hill-top Roman Catholic sanctuary at Oropa Biella is the first of a series of mountainous stages that will decide the race. There are further summit finishes at Canazei, Ortisei and Piancavallo. But the queen stage, from Rovetta to Bormio, could be the most daunting of the entire three weeks. At 227 kilometres, and with the Mortirolo, the Stelvio and the Umbrailpass, plus some highly technical descending, the stage could prove decisive. The final four stages, three of which have summit finishes, loop through the Trentino, Fruili and Veneto regions, all of which have a strong cycling heritage. Those that survive this far will only have to endure a short and gently descending final time-trial from the Monza motor-racing circuit into the centre of Milan.
The one hundredth Giro will be a great bike race, but most importantly it will be a celebration of Italy’s people and culture. The official website has a lot of useful information about the race, particularly some suggestions for the appropriate wine to drink with each stage. So on May 5th, even if you can’t get over to Sardinia, there’s no excuse for not knocking up a bowl of sea urchin spaghetti and pouring a glass of Vermentino. Let’s raise a toast to another hundred years.