What’s your favourite Grand Tour? Is it the glitz, glamour and massive publicity machine of the Tour de France? Perhaps you prefer the more informal Vuelta? For many a fan, and for many a professional rider, it’s the romance of the Maglia Rosa of the Giro d’Italia, not the Maillot Jaune, which gets the heart beating faster and the hairs to prick up on the back of the neck.
The Maglia Rosa: just the sound of it whisks you back to those heroic days of Coppi, Bartali, merino wool jerseys and gravelled roads. Classic, elegant, skinny steel bikes from Bianchi, De Rosa and Pinarello. The beautiful pink jersey named after that classic pink newspaper, La Gazetta dello Sport. Then there’s the Tifosi: those passionate cycling mad fans lining the roads of steep mountain passes, the verges still blanketed in towering drifts of snow as yet unmelted by the warm spring sunshine. Isn’t this the true heart of cycling, THE tour to follow?
This is the Giro’s 99th edition, and what a heritage this classic and beautiful race has! Think of Alfonsina Strada, the “Devil in a Dress”, the only woman to complete the full race against the men back in the 1920’s on a racing bike she received as a wedding present. Merckx, the Cannibal who ate up the opposition mercilessly as he dominated the late 60s and early 70s. Think of Pantani, the pirate, whose brilliance burned so brightly it tragically brought about his downfall.
But of course, we have to come back to the Bartali/Coppi rivalry. Two different characters: the younger Coppi, beset by a marital scandal and impudently challenging the devout Catholic, Bartali. It divided a nation. It was the youngster who was to steal the crown of the ruling giant of his era, that religious “Iron Man of Tuscany”. It was a classic battle of the traditional argarian south against the more wordly, secular values of the industrial north. As the writer, Curzio Malpati once said, “Bartali prays while he is pedalling: the rational, Cartesian and sceptical Coppi is filled with doubts, believes only in his body, his motor." Religion versus doubt, prayer versus grit and determination. Whatever side you lean towards, the battle is a romantic one, one that arouses passions and transcends a sport from mere physical competition. It asks of you: who are you? What do you stand for? What do you really believe in?
My own personal experience of the Giro began in the early 90’s when, working as a runner for a film production company in London, I was sent out to the local Italian Deli for the sandwich order. Arriving at the packed shop in a side street in Soho, I hauled my way to the front of the counter while screaming Italians, eyes burning, throats hoarse, stood transfixed to the TV screen. A football match? No. A bike race! The charged atmosphere, views of a snaking road up a mountain pass and shots of a bald, bobbing head flying up the mountainside rooted me to the spot too. I was late back that day, with the Milanese chicken on ciabatta, the tomato and mozzarella salad, the cappuccinos. I was chastised by my boss, but I didn’t care. I’d just seen Pantani attack the Mortirolo and win a famous stage of the Giro. I was hooked.
Sadly, we have to fast-forward a few decades to the modern reality of a commercial sport that has to make its money by outsourcing stages. This year’s Giro starts with a time trial in the northern climes of Appeldorn in Holland, then a stage from Arnheim, followed by another northern route from Numegen. Breathe a sigh of relief, then, that by Monday the Peloton will be back home where it belongs in the boot of Italy. Hurrah! They’ll start from Catanzaro in the south and make their way northwards up the spine of Italy. That’s when the Giro really starts for me.
The three hot favourites this year are Nibali, Valverde and Landa. But behind them are a dozen or so other riders who could well be in for contention including Majka, Uran, Cheeky Chaves from Colombia and former winner Hesjedal. What’s great about the Giro is that it’s less controlled than the Tour. Chuck in a bit of unpredictable spring weather, some tough climbs, even on the gentler stages, the chaos and passion of Italian racing and you’re left with what can be an unpredictable, exciting, classic race. Yes – even in this modern era of powerful and dominating teams, the romance, grit and passion of a bike race survives!
Watch the Giro this year. Especially when it actually gets to Italy. Watch the riders make their way pedal stroke by pedal stroke up the length of the entire country until they get to those awesome climbs, the cathedrals of cycling, the Dolomites and the Alps. You’ll see heartbreak, grit, determination, passion, audacious and courageous racing. Hopefully you’ll see the heroism of Pantani, Bartali, Coppi and Alfonsina Strada.